Mar 182012

Events in North Rhine-Westphalia are quickly becoming the stuff of legends. The end of the red-green minority government on Wednesday has triggered a series of reshuffles that would make Machiavelli dizzy.

First, Christian Lindner is back. In December, he stepped down from his job as secretary-general of the FPD for no apparent reason, declaring that he would rather dabble in local and state politics. Using latest remote-sensing techniques, political witchdoctors of all persuasions agreed that the prospect of showing up daily at FDP HQ for the foreseeable future (4-6 months) had become too depressing. Now, in one feel swoop, he replaced state party chair Daniel Bahr (who has a daytime job as federal minister for health) and sidelined the listless chair of the state parliamentary group (who is widely held responsible for the political disaster) to become the party’s frontrunner in the upcoming election. And yes, the three men took great care to let the public see that they had bypassed federal party chair Philipp Rösler.

Second, Norbert Röttgen, the reasonably popular federal minister for the environment (CDU) – yes, I combined these last three attributes in a rather unusual way – who was elected chair of the state CDU in November 2010 after winning a ballot amongst party members by the barest of majorities, decided to lead his party’s campaign. He could not have done anything else, but this move puts him and the federal government in a bit of a pickle, as everyone wonders whether he will take up his seat in the state parliament if he cannot become minister president. Not making a credible commitment at the outset will hurt his campaign before it has begun in earnest, so most probably he will have to give up a job he seems to like, and Merkel will lose a minister who was instrumental in selling her U-turn on nuclear energy. Bummer.

Third, Hannelore Kraft has overnight become a possible contender for the chancellor job. That, of course, was floated by her opponents to weaken her campaign, but the idea has gained such momentum over the weekend that she had to explicitly deny any ambitions to stand for chancellorship “before 2017”. Cometh the hour, cometh the woman.

Meanwhile in a rare turn of events, a (very implicit) prediction of mine is coming true. The centre-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports that some law professors who specialise in constitutional law have called into question the legal advice on which the budget plan was declared failed in the second reading. Now, if the FPD had deemed it possible to delay the proceedings for further negotiations, the minority government would most certainly still be in office. In politics, just as in criminology, the most relevant question is usually “cui bono”.

Feb 182011

The story has now been picked up by just about every news outlet on the planet: A German law professor was supposed to review a monograph on European constitutional law for a learned journal. He soon discovered that various pages were not properly referenced, to says the least. The twist: This monograph is based on Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg’s PhD thesis. And that man happens to be the German defence minister. The review has not yet been published, but the proofs have been leaked. From what you can read there, you would think that the minister cannot have been in his right mind.

While this is a scientific debate, the internet has of course exploded. I’m not sure how far we can trust the wisdom of the crowd, but it would seem that even the introduction bears an uncanny resemblance with some old editorials and even an essay by an anonymous student, all readily available online. That looks very bad.

But do normal people care? How can you explain that copying text verbatim is very bad while copying text verbatim and adding a name, a year and a page is absolutely ok? How can you explain that rephrasing someone else’s ideas and adding a name, year and page is even better?

Another, not totally unrelated question: If the rules of academia are so opaque to normal people, why is so much social status attached to a doctorate? Why should people who have no ambition to do research (inside or outside academia) strive for a higher degree?

At any rate, zu Guttenberg has done a lot of harm to German science: too many of us have already wasted too much of our time, er, researching the affair on facebook and twitter instead of producing stuff that could at least potentially be plagiarised.

May 022008

In a recent post, I have commented on a (now scrapped) law from the 1930s that made it technically illegal for “foreign” PhDs to use their titles in Germany. A superficially similar case concerns the German citizenship law that was first enacted in 1913 (the Empire happily existed without a concept of federal citizenship for more than four decades) and remained in force with minor amendments until 2000. At the core of this law was the idea that one cannot become German. Rather, one is German by virtue of the bloodline, i.e. by having German forefathers (the original sexist bias of the law was ameliorated in the 1970s). This is the infamous ius sanguinis. However, while the PhD regulations were half-forgotten and rarely enforced (though they provided an income for dubious lawyers), the continuity of the citizenship law after the war was clearly the result of political intent and was even enshrined in article 116 of the constitution.

While the ius sanguinis is archaic, the West German elites had two good reasons for not modernising the law. First, given that Bonn did not accept East Germany’s claim to sovereignty, meddling with the concept of citizenship was obviously dodgy. Second, West Germany considered itself a safe haven for millions of ethnic Germans who were still living in Central and Eastern Europe. Sticking with the traditional concept of citizenship kept the door wide open for these people: like in the case of refugees from East Germany, there was no need to apply for citizenship, because they were already German. Moreover, German citizenship was not exactly in high demand after the war.

One unforeseen consequence of the citizenship law was, however, that children born in Germany by foreigners remained themselves foreigners. By the 1990s, Germany had a sizeable and growing population of several million second (and third) generation foreigners, but thanks to the phenomenal inertia of Germany’s political system and their political persuasions, the Kohl-led governments of the 1980s and 1990s made only token attempts to remedy this situation. The (then new) SPD/Green government, however, came up with some rather radical reform ideas soon after it was elected in 1998. Howard’s article tells the complex and heroic tale of these reforms and the immense political backlash they created. It’s highly recommend for anyone who wants to understand the intricacies of the political battle of citizenship and immigration.

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