Suzanne Fields
BERLIN -- The Germans play "gotcha" with a decidedly Teutonic skill and attitude. The latest victim is Annette Schavan, Chancellor Merkel's education minister, who resigned her position in a gathering storm of accusations that she plagiarized the doctoral dissertation she wrote 32 years ago. The title sounds particularly apt: "Person and Conscience."

She held on for a week, fighting back. She insists she will sue to regain her title of "doctor," revoked by Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf.

In the age of the Internet, obscure dissertations once relegated to the memory hole, out of mind, unread or assigned to a remote dusty shelf in a library illuminated in the dull glow of computer screens, live again to trap the unwary. A modern militia of aggressive bloggers, as resolute as Inspector Javert in getting their man (or woman), keep their search engines fired up in anonymous pursuit of fraud, hypocrisy and sometimes revenge. Politicians make particularly satisfying targets.

"I just think that many Germans have a police gene in their genetic makeup," Volker Rieble, a law professor at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, told the International Herald Tribune, which then splashed the scandal across the front page. "In other countries, people aren't as vain about their titles. With this obsession for titles, of course, comes the title envy."

Such a malady may be peculiar to Germans, who originated the doctorate of philosophy in the liberal arts at Humboldt University in the 19th century, where it was considered a prestigious credential for identifying a learned man. You now hear the title of "doctor" used across a spectrum of professions. More than 25,000 Germans earn their Ph.D. every year.

This gives rise to "title envy," or "title arousal," as it's also called, and seems to emerge from the German love-hate relationship with academic accomplishment. A strong populist streak toward teachers also runs in the German temperament, as the world witnessed when Adolf Hitler found a sympathetic following in anti-intellectual attitudes.

Der Fuhrer ridiculed the academic "gentry," with their degrees and diplomas and "pedagogical airs." Goethe's Faust, one of history's great literary characters, remains a Teutonic warning about striving too hard to know too much beyond traditional learning.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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