A Chronic Doctor-Overload
A medical emergency occurred the other day on a flight from Frankfurt to America. The stewardess was instructed not to make the usual call – is there a doctor on board – in case it stirred panic. Instead she took the passenger list and went to the seat of everyone using a doctor title.
By the time she found a physician to treat the distressed pregnant woman, she had talked to three doctors of philosophy, a doctor in musicology, a doctor in jurisprudence, a doctor in theological studies and a doctor honoris causa. Fortunately, the patient is doing well – which is more than can be said for German academia, suffering from chronic doctor-overload.
An obsession with the DoktortitelNobody is quite sure when it began but Germany has an obsession with the Doktortitel. Most other titles have become irrelevant or an embarrassment. Many aristocrats who could theoretically style themselves “Freiherr” or “Freifrau” let the label drop; it is often more of a hindrance than an asset. The “Dr.” in front of your name however is seen as an Open Sesame to the world, a mark of seriousness. Outside the academic and medical world, Anglo-Saxons tend to see their doctorates as something largely irrelevant to everyday life. Just as adults rarely, if ever, discuss their school-leaving (Abi) grades, so it is a matter of supreme indifference that one completed a thesis on the significant Absence of Blue-spotted Butterflies in Southern Peru. There are exceptions: (German-born) Henry Kissinger always referred to himself as Dr. Kissinger, a fact that was duly picked up by Stanley Kubrick when he parodied Kissinger in “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”.
A doctorate is not exactly cool
But since the middle ages - the first Doktorgrad was awarded by a German university in 1359 – the two letters in front of the name have been regarded, by German men at least, rather like the magic chain hanging around the neck of a tribal chief: a sign of potency and authority. German women, happily, take their titles less seriously (the first German woman to win a doctor title was Dorothea Erxleben from Quedlinburg in 1754). A doctorate seems to be a useful way of rising in German industry: it is Doktor Thomas Middelhoff who leads KarstadtQuelle, Dr. Josef Ackermann at Deutsche Bank (subject: “Der Einfluss des Geldes auf das reale Wirtschaftsgeschehen”). When they eventually reach the top and have to deal with Anglo-Americans, they tend to play down their qualification. As Daimler Chrysler CEO, Dr.-Ing. Dieter Zetsche was a little out of balance with his American colleagues, most of whom had started work in the car industry in their early 20s. So Doc Dieter emphasised his music playing skills rather than his long university years. And Dr. Ackermann became plain “Jo”. In the global economy, the German bosses have come to acknowledge, a doctorate is not exactly cool. They try to present their study years – in conversation with English reporters at least – as a brush with real life. It was the time of their lives when they worked as taxi drivers or worked in McDonalds to pay the rent.
It helps to have the DoktorhutWell, believe that if you want. The fact is the Zeitgeist means that
the elite has to present itself as unelitist (remember how Dr. Klaus Kleinfeld had his Rolex airbrushed out of the photograph when he took over as head of Siemens?). But in order to get on the ladder
in the first place, it helps to have the Doktorhut.
No more so than in German politics. In British politics a doctorate is an embarrassment. We have had medical doctors in the cabinet (David Owen was British Foreign Minister) and the occasional sociological doctor (Denis MacShane who was Britain’s only multi-lingual Europe Minister) slips through the net. But on the whole academic achievement is something to be kept quiet. Not so in the Bundestag. The Chancellor, Angela Merkel, earned her doctorate with a dissertation entitled “Untersuchung des Mechanismus von Zerfallsreaktionen mit einfachem Bindungsbruch und Berechnung ihrer Geschwindigkeitskonstanten auf der Grundlage quantenchemischer und statischer Methoden“.
Now she calculates the Zerfallsreaktion, the destructive reactions of her Grand Coalition. And why is one not comforted by the doctoral thesis of Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier: “Tradition und Perspektiven staatlicher Intervention zur Verhinderung und Beseitigung von Obdachlosigkeit”. Could it be that his SPD will soon be politically homeless?
In German politics your doctorate can sometimes be used against you. Left wing activists were sure that Dr. Helmut Kohl had written something compromising in his dissertation “Die politische Entwicklung in der Pfalz und das Wiedererstehen der Parteien nach 1945”. In 1983 they queued at Heidelberg Uni library in order to truffle for something that could be used against him. All they could find was a slightly disparaging remark about the “typical pfälzische” behaviour of the parties.
The Anglo-Saxon suspicion of doctorates in politics is based on the idea that aspiring politicians should have a young, rebellious phase. That works fine in Britain: you can get your Bachelor of Arts by 21, compete unsuccessfully for a parliamentary seat for a few years and still be in the House of Commons by the late 20s. In Germany one usually completes the Abitur at 19, then Bundeswehr, a year off. Diplom (if you are lucky) by 26 or 27; doctorate in your 30s. It is a rite of passage and reflects a sense that really young people should not be in a parliament.
Active illegal business in doctorates
Perhaps the Germans are right. But the world, unfortunately, is moving faster than the internal working of the Bundestag or the German corporate sector. Ideally you need to be everything, as soon as possible: young and experienced, highly qualified, multi-skilled and flexible. The pressure is heavy. So, no wonder that there is an active illegal business in doctorates. One doctor-dealer has just been jailed in Hildesheim for arranging doctorates in at least 68 cases. Several law professors were bribed in order to accept a candidate and then steer him to a doctor title. Over 20,000 euros was the going rate for the complete package – that includes a doctoral supervisor and a ghost-writer. A bargain? The English would say, a complete waste of money. In Germany businessmen seem quite happy to pay that kind of cash and save themselves the bother of four years sitting in libraries and living in cold student attics. But I would like to make one thing clear. If I have a heart attack during a Lufthansa flight I want the stewardess to check the doctoral diploma of whoever tries to save my life.
is Germany correspondent for the London daily newspaper "The Times".
He has been living in Germany for twenty years and is author of the column "My Berlin" in the "Tagesspiegel". In his book "My dear Krauts" he describes the peculiarities of everyday life in Germany with typical British humour.Translation: Christiane Wagler
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Online Editorial Office
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