A Very Different German Plagiarism Scandal

Yesterday, Austrian plagiarism expert Doz. Stefan Weber posted an entry on his blog calling attention to alleged plagiarisms by the co-leader and Chancellor candidate of Germany’s Green Party, Annalena Baerbock.

According to Weber, some five passages in Baerbock’s new book were taken verbatim from other sources and not cited. None of the passages were longer than a few sentences.

On the surface, this sounds like a familiar story. Prominent German politicians have faced many different plagiarism accusations and several of them have been forced to resign. In fact, it was just in May that the then-Minster for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, Franziska Giffey, resigned and had her degree rescinded following accusations of plagiarism in her dissertation.

However, Baerbock’s story is not the typical German plagiarism scandal. The most immediate distinction being that Baerbock and her party are fighting back against the allegations. They’ve hired a prominent libel lawyer and are calling the allegations “character assassination”.

The scandal comes at a very sensitive time. The country is holding federal elections in September and, until recently, the Green’s had begun polling very well, briefly surpassing the leading Christian Democrats. However, this story is proving to be another obstacle for the Greens as they attempt to regain footing in the polls.

That said, this is a very different story than the others we’ve tracked in the country, and it remains to be seen what, if any, impact it will have long term. To understand why this is such a unique story, we first have to compare it with the ones that came before.

Not Your Typical German Plagiarism Scandal

Pretty much anyone who follows plagiarism-related news has likely heard more than their fair share about German politicians. Over the past decade, there have been at least four major plagiarism scandals involving high-ranking German officials, three of which ultimately resigned.

However, it’s difficult to compare this case to those. The reason being that there are several major differences we have to consider. Those include:

  1. It’s Not Baerbock’s Dissertation: In the earlier stories, the work at issue was the politician’s dissertation or thesis that they submitted to receive their doctorate. However, this involves a non-fiction book that is intended for the mass market. Though it outlines her political positions, it is not an academic work and her degree is not at stake.
  2. The Book was Ghostwritten: According to The Guardian, the book was ghostwritten by an unnamed journalist. Though Baerbock ultimately has responsibility for the book that carries her name, she did not write it.
  3. The Source: Most of the previous plagiarism scandals have involved the work of the VroniPlag group, a German Wiki that specializes in checking dissertations and theses. This story was from a lone Austrian expert. Though he strongly contends he was not hired to perform the analysis, it raises questions of neutrality and intent simply because it is a lone individual.
  4. The Quantity: Even accepting the allegations at face value, there is not a great deal of quantity to the alleged copying. It’s five passages in a book, all of which, according to The Guardian, are presented as context, and are not the core parts of Baerbock’s philosophies.
  5. The Response: Historically, German politicians were relatively quiet after alleged plagiarism came to light, generally choosing to wait for a decision from their school. The Greens, however, are hitting back both hard and fast. Not only have they hired a libel attorney, but they’ve gone on the offensive, calling the allegations “character assassination.”

Because of these differences, it’s not clear how this one will play out. Not only does it remain to be seen what, if any, action Baerbock will take legally, but it’s unclear what impact this will have on the election. Simply put, this case will not follow the arc we’ve seen in past cases.

Clearly, this case is going to be one to watch in the days and weeks ahead.

Bottom Line

When dealing with plagiarism stories, there’s a strong temptation to seek out patterns and use them as a means to predict the future. To that end, German political plagiarism stories have been one of the strongest patterns over the past decade and, even as recently as May, the pattern seemed to hold.

However, this one is wildly different. In fact, it’s different in just about every way a political plagiarism scandal can be. The outcome of this story is very much undetermined.

But one thing that definitely is damaged by this story is Baerbock’s image as someone who is detail-oriented and a perfectionist. Clearly, her book was not perfect. Even if the imperfections are minor in the larger scheme, these are unforced errors and serve to erode the trust that she sought to cultivate.

Still, the election is several months away and much can happen in that time. Likewise, this story is also likely far from over and there’s little we can do to predict the outcome.

While we may have seen many German political plagiarism scandals, we’ve never seen one quite like this, and that can make a great deal of difference when it comes to how it ends.

Header Image: Stefan Kaminski (photography), Annalena Baerbock (full rights of use), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons