Frederik Trettin Leads Protest Against Plagiarism - German Minister of Defense Resigns

April 10, 2011 | community organizing

Senior Fellow Frederik Trettin (Berlin, 2008) was part of the small group of German students who led the campaign to oust former German Minister of Defense Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.

After journalists discovered evidence of plagiarism in Guttenberg’s doctoral thesis, the students drafted a letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel, calling for action against Guttenberg’s denial of these charges on February 23, 2011.

As a result, Guttenberg stepped down on March 1, 2011. Frederik sat down with Senior Fellow Elizabeth Krasner (Berlin, 2009) to talk about his own role in the campaign, the surprising power of academic outrage, and his continued fight for recognition of academic integrity.

Interview with Frederik Tritten

Elizabeth Krasner: How did you become involved in what turned out to be a very public debate about plagiarism?

Frederik Trettin: The whole story became public when the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) revealed that Guttenberg had plagiarized his PhD thesis, a comparison of the evolution of EU and US constitutions. Prior to this, Andreas Fischer-Lescano, a law professor from the University of Bremen, had discovered some apparently plagiarized pages in Guttenberg’s thesis while writing a review for a journal and reported this finding to the SZ and Guttenberg’s supervisors.

Guttenberg again publicly denied any wrongdoing in the German Bundestag on 23 February and when there weren’t any clear statements from the representatives of the big research organizations, my friend Tobias Bunde wrote a public letter to the chancellor. Some colleagues and friends edited the letter, and the campaign was created as a small team of students.

EK: How did a plagiarized thesis, written several years ago, become such a huge political issue?

FT: Obviously he was a dishonest academic who cheated for many years. The idea that a person which plagiarized almost systematically to such a massive extend would be an honest person in other areas is questionable. Again, the campaign was not about the minister and it was explicitly non-political and only issue-driven.

We were absolutely surprised how big an issue this became. Once the main news picked up this story, the attention from the media was massive. Everyone thought that the German citizens wouldn’t care about this affair, but the feedback we received proved them wrong. Our campaign came at exactly the right moment in the public debate.

EK: In the letter to Angela Merkel you describe Guttenberg’s actions as “massive, systematic deception.” The parallel in the letter to Angela Merkel is that a student would get thrown out of their institution (the university) for such actions, so Guttenberg should therefore be thrown out of his institution (the government). Is this why you wrote an open letter to Angela Merkel, and not Guttenberg himself?

FT: The whole initiative was not about the very popular minister, it was more the way Angela Merkel and other officials handled the affair that outraged so many scientist and academics. The idea behind the open letter was to protest the way Merkel and other politicians had dismissed the issue of plagiarism as a trivial offense and, in doing so, disparaged academic integrity. Merkel said she “hadn’t appointed a scientific assistant” in order to justify why she would not dismiss Guttenberg. From our point of view, this was a clear mockery of students and academics who work very hard and honestly endeavor to contribute to the advancement of science.

EK: The letter (available in German and in English) received a lot of attention. Did you get a response?

FT: Until today we haven’t received a response from Ms Merkel. Nevertheless, we have received many supporting responses from academics all over Germany and even other parts of the world.

EK: Are you still working on this issue – fighting for recognition of the values of the academic community and seeking resignations from public officials who have plagiarized in the past – or now that Guttenberg has stepped down, is the fight over?

FT: Yes, we are still working on this issue, because the campaign was not about the minister himself. Merkel has still not addressed the main concern of the open letter; she proclaims Germany to be the so-called “federal republic of education” but she still hasn’t expressed a clear position on academic integrity or the importance of science or the protection of intellectual property.

It is commendable that in Germany, an outraged academia can force even a very popular minister to resign. But the whole incident raised some awkward questions for academia itself; namely, why was it up to a small group of students to start this campaign while some of the research organizations remained silent? Why was it up to the students to condemn the way the government handled these charges? Furthermore, how could Guttenberg’s thesis have received a summa cum laude, and why didn’t his supervisors realize that almost the entire thesis was plagiarized? Our team is still working on these issues and we hope that we can contribute to an interesting debate.

Frederik Trettin received his Master’s from Rutgers in 2009, was a visiting researcher at Princeton and is currently a research associate at the University of Konstanz, working on issues related to peacekeeping and the United Nations.

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