Doesn’t it seem as if Europe is going down the slippery slope of Berlusconi-style politics as entertainment — “politainment”, perhaps? Not only in Italy but in France, Germany and Britain too, leaders no longer attend only summits and state banquets. They frequently appear at the right kind of parties, with their glamorous wives in tow: women with jobs that make them a regular feature of glossy magazines, from Samantha Cameron to Carla Bruni. Instead of the statesman we have the showman, who cares as much about his (and his wife’s) appearance as his political agenda.
Not that there’s anything wrong with a good show. It’s just the sleaze that’s worrying: how do we sense the tipping point, when an inappropriate wink or a pair of sunglasses just that little bit too flashy become dangerous — the point where personal vanity turns into political hubris?
Enter a man who doesn’t ooze the ster-eotypical Gallic charm or Italian sprezzatura, but hails from Germany, a country not exactly known for its panache. In Berlin, even the spiciest political scandal seems like a bleak post-modernist version of a Wagnerian tetralogy. Until a month or two ago, Defence Minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg had been hailed as a likely successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel. A scion of the Bavarian nobility, with independent wealth, impeccable manners, artistic father, smart and pretty wife (one of the Bismarck clan), he seemed the picture-perfect politician for the next generation. The charismatic young conservative was happy to chat to interviewers about heavy metal and still sound convincing when discussing heavy artillery. He was good at explaining his policies and getting people interested in politics. In short, he was the most suave and cosmopolitan politician you could imagine — at least by German standards, where most are irredeemably provincial and few versed in the art of rhetoric (no Oxbridge debating societies here, nor parliamentary battles of wits). Guttenberg was the hero of his party and the darling of the media. Even his opponents admitted he was an unusually dashing figure.
Nemesis came, as always, by a fatal error of judgment: Guttenberg fell over his own incapacity to tell right from wrong. First, he plagiarised substantial parts of his PhD thesis in the most blatant manner, copying not only from learned legal articles but even from newspapers. Then, he mishandled the scandal when the extent of his plagiarism was revealed, admitting only to “minor mistakes” that a busy politician and father of two could easily make. He was not only ignorant of the distinction between private and political morality, he also offended the ethos of academic life — which the Germans have now reacted strongly against.
Despite his popularity, Guttenberg was driven out of office by a storm of outrage; on the internet, in the academic community and among the chattering classes, everyone had an opinion. Germany has a peculiarly high opinion of people with doctorates. Many of the upper-middle classes consider themselves Akademiker — by which they mean “intellectuals” rather than academics. Devoting up to five years of life to research is a rite of passage. Germans love their Wissenschaft — and have shown themselves willing to ditch anyone who jeopardises the old ideal of the pursuit of knowledge.
Neither Guttenberg nor Merkel, who protected him for a while, were able to withstand the pressure. At first he didn’t want to step down, apparently believing that his popularity would save him. But in the end he had to learn that the same rules applied to him as to every other politician. Merkel, who also has a doctorate, defended him: “I didn’t appoint a research assistant but a minister.” But this line backfired, leaving the intelligentsia fuming. In the end she dropped him.
Is the Guttenberg Affair a blessing in disguise for Germany’s future political culture? Politicians are still expected to be decent, honest and reliable. However, the rise and fall of Guttenberg isn’t a tale of politicians as role models, let alone “politainers”. Instead, it showed that Germans value the written word over the personal performance and cling to the ideal of research as a way of improving our society. Anyone who violates this must pay the price. This may seem old-fashioned. It is certainly an everyday expression of why German intellectual history, or Geistesgeschichte, is more metaphysically inclined than the Anglo-Saxon tradition.
The departure of this popular man attracted withering criticism from some. So be it. What the tale uncovered is a rather admirable trait in German society: to value mind over matter. When Mr Googleberg attempts a comeback — as he surely will — he’ll come up against this stubborn attachment to truth and decency again. Only this can prevent the Berlusconification of Europe.