A young scholar in the fast lane. Until the crash.
His dissertation is excellent. He is widely recognized as a talented lecturer. Then the news comes: he is a fraud. And almost no one had noticed anything.
In the summer semester of 2014, Dr. Christian M. held the introductory lecture course, History of Political Thought, every Monday from 2 to 4pm. Plato, Kant, Marx, the great thinkers; these were the main subjects in Room 011 of the central lecture building of the University of Göttingen. Dr. Christian M. himself, 33, seemed to fit among their ranks: the greying temples, the glasses, the fine clothes. Lean and lofty, M. paced around his lectern with a certain sovereignty, speaking as though he were reciting the written word. A charismatic lecturer, according a student that was there at the time. He is said to have properly stood on ceremony in his lectures, and is described as having been a lecturer with an eccentric bent, never anything less than impeccably dressed – slacks with a dress shirt under a sweater, and socks that always matched the collar. No trace of self-consciousness. Nonetheless, former colleagues of his say that M. was always nervous before his lectures. This comes as no surprise, now that we know that Dr. M. should never have been a lecturer in the first place. His entire academic career was based on lies and deceit.
That something was not quite right was noticed by one of the politics students at the time. The lectures didn’t match the literature that M. had provided. Introductions, definitions, formulations: everything was different than it had been in the textbook of M.’s supervisor, whom he was replacing as lecturer. The student, then in his second semester, ventured into a bookstore and discovered another textbook – Tobias Bevc’s Political Theory. The book doesn’t actually play a role in Göttingen’s curriculae; an attempt to find it within the university’s library system would be futile. And yet, leafing through its pages in the bookstore, the student was amazed: there on page 19, displayed in diagram 1, was Bevc’s work on conceptions of justice, which the student recognized from folio 8 of M.’s lectures. There were passages, those on interpretations of socialism, which had appeared word for word on M.’s densely printed pages, here listed by Bevc in 29 lines on page 166. M. had apparently taken a great portion of his course directly from this book.
Why would a lecturer present the work of his own mentor, but develop the course based on a book by a different author entirely? Strange, the student thought, but kept it to himself; after all he was still new to the university. Lucky for M., for now. Two and a half years later, the story of the phony political scientist, Dr. Christian M., had filled 21 folders in the office of the public prosecutor of Göttingen. For his fraud, among other charges, he was given a prison sentence with probation. This was the end of a meteoric academic career, as well as a story that raised the question of whether cons and fakes are such a daily part of the academic world, that years of bold deceit can remain unnoticed. Even at such a renowned institution as the Georg-August-University of Göttingen, which boasts over 40 Nobel prize winners among its alumni, where the brothers Grimm taught, and where Carl Friedrich Gauß was head of the observatory.
The Silence of the Others
Anyone who wishes to learn more about Christian M., and tries to find out more by asking around at the University of Göttingen, will quickly get the sense that any and all who might have something to offer about the case have collectively agreed to remain silent. A colleague of his from his days teaching there says he was “massively deceived and lied to” by M. over the years, but refuses to elaborate any further. Another describes it as a “sorry chapter,” albeit one that he has closed. M.’s thesis advisor and mentor himself, the professor for whom M. substituted, hangs up in the middle of a conversation, as soon as his former doctoral student is mentioned. Any attempts at following up via telephone or email are left unanswered. So who was Christian M.?
To find answers one must look through old files and internal reports, and seek conversation with peers of M.’s. Only by way of such extensive research can one begin to approach the mystery of M.
Before arriving in Göttingen, Christian M. had other plans. In 2008, at the age of 27, he sent an application to the Benedictine order in St. Ottilien, 40 kilometers west of Munich, with the goal of becoming a monk. Today, the abbot recalls having hesitated. M.’s development seemed to him too unstable and restless. M. reassured him, however, that his inner drive was strong, that he had made a decision. The abbey accepted him as a novice. They allowed M. to wear the black vestments for a yearlong trial period, as is customary among newcomers to the order. His days there followed a strict routine: waking at 4:45 to meet his brothers for the morning prayer; late mornings studying with a handful of other novices under the watchful eyes of Christ, who hung from a cross in the room; afternoons spent laboring for the monastery, milking cows. Contact to the outside world was only possible through written letters. At some point during this year, he named himself Brother Julius.
In April 2009, the media company Bayerische Rundfunk (Bavarian Radio) contacted the monastery in order to film a television documentary about life as a monk; the Benedictines recommended Christian M. as interviewee. In the report, M. can be heard speaking in soft tones about his parents, who had to adjust to the idea that their child was now living in a monastery. About the silence in his room. About his quarrels with Jesus, his struggles with faith. “And yet, in the end,” he slowly says, “my conscience wins out: yes, that which I do, even through the difficult moments, is right.”
Only a few months later, M.’s conscience abandoned him. He left the monastery, hastily and in a rage, as one of his former brothers describes it from memory. The brotherhood was not convinced of his virtue, and wanted to extend his trial for another year. This must have angered M. One brother helped M. pack his room, before the latter disappeared. He left no address.
It is around this time that M. must have come across the invitation for application written by the professor who would soon become his doctoral advisor: “whoever wishes to write a thesis or dissertation on the topic what does ‘conscience’ mean in a political context is warmly invited to do so in my department (as quoted from the website of the political science department at the University of Göttingen). Later, according to a fellow doctoral candidate, M. boasted to his colleagues that he had applied to the department with only a postcard. His doctoral advisor contradicts this claim: “Mr. M. applied with the standard application documents.”
The Strict Lecturer
Christian M. sent in two diplomas, both from his time before the monastery. First, a degree in philosophy from the University of Munich, signed and stamped, all A’s, notarized on August 21st, 2009 by the city of Georgsmarienhütte near Osnabrück. Second, a degree in theology from St. Georgen College, also all A’s, not notarized. He received an acceptance by the University of Göttingen, and began his doctoral studies in the fall of 2009. Soon after he also began to teach seminars: two examples being Truth, Morality, Conscience, and Justice in Politics, and Crisis Ethics – Ethical Crises.
Students that visited M.’s office hours were met by a harsh strictness. One former student reports him having responded aggressively when asked if the student could still receive credit despite his poor attendance. Another tells of a time he asked M. for an extension on an essay. “Please,” came the reply, “when I was a student, I wrote two essays in a weekend, and they were twenty pages apiece, not a measly ten.” M. showed a similarly brisk work ethic in the completion of his dissertation: “his speed was a cause for astonishment among us all,” says a fellow doctoral student. Others report that M. was the model PhD student in the department.
His Dissertation: Plagiarism
M. had but one close call during that period: his doctoral advisor suggested Renate Martinsen, a political science professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen, as co-reviewer for his dissertation. Martinsen had habilitated as a lecturer on conscience in politics only a few years previously. As such, she was an expert on M.’s subject. Christian M. made a counteroffer: he suggested a moral theologist, whom he had previously met through the Catholic student community in Osnabrück. M. justified the choice by claiming that an additional political scientist would be redundant, and that his dissertation also touched on religious queries. His advisor agreed, the theologist signed on to review M.’s dissertation, and Renate Martinsen was never asked. A mistake, as would soon become clear.
On June 20th, 2012, M. passed his oral exams. He received the highest possible marks, summa cum laude. He barely needed three years to complete his doctorate. In the forward to his dissertation, he thanks his advisor for the “kind gift of such a highly interesting topic.” He continues, “I especially want to express my gratitude for the freedom he granted me throughout this research project, which was certainly a key factor in the success of this paper.”
The assembly hall at the University of Göttingen has a stucco ceiling and a colonnade, with busts of former professors looking on from their plinths. On Friday, the 19th of April, 2013, the faculty of social sciences honored their best graduates, five students and two doctoral candidates. One of the latter was Christian M., awarded a prize of 750 euros for his “outstanding dissertation.” That afternoon he gave a small speech, with all the airs of a learned scholar, according to the memory of one who attended. Afterward came the champagne reception.
M. continued to teach at the University of Göttingen, and even gave a guest seminar at the University of Hildesheim. He applied for positions at other universities, an academic foundation, and the German Ethics Council. He eventually received a job at the Institute for Theology and Peace in Hamburg, a research facility created by the Catholic Military Chaplaincy. M.’s next goal was to attain professorship. A colleague in Hamburg remembers him saying that he was “essentially acting chair” when he was in Göttingen. A young scholar in the fast lane. Until the crash.
One day in the summer of 2015, a professor was sitting at home at her computer, doing research for a new article. Her name: Renate Martinsen, the woman who was initially supposed to have reviewed M.’s dissertation. She was working on a paper in which she wanted to include an argument from the sociologist Niklas Luhman, whom she had cited before, while completing her habilitation. What were the exact words again? Martinsen googled.
One of the results was a preview for Christian M.’s dissertation, on the 63rd page of which he had used the same Luhmann quote as she had. But not only that. The rest of the text also seemed familiar to her – had the PhD student simply worked sloppily? Or was this a blatant copy? Martinsen ordered a copy of M.’s dissertation, and resolved to follow up on the matter after her vacation in South Tyrol.
In the meantime, a research assistant in the same department from which M. had received his doctorate, noticed that M.’s dissertation and Martinsen’s habilitation overlapped. And not only the Luhmann quote on page 63 of the dissertation. The same went for the approximately 30 pages leading up to it, and the 200 pages following: aside from a few headings and subsections, they were identical to Martinsen’s book. Even the text of the abstract was similar.
On the 23rd of June, 2015, M.’s former advisor discussed the potential plagiarism case with his colleagues. This, according to an internal report. Next, he informed the dean’s office, and then called his former student. Six days later he sent a letter to “Mr. Dr. Christian M.,” which included a “preliminary assessment of possibly plagiarized texts.” In addition to the dissertation, five other published texts of M.’s were under suspicion – essentially everything he had ever written in a professional capacity. Included among these was even an entry in a commemorative volume of his former advisor’s.
Just over two weeks later, on the 14th of July, 2015, the university received a letter from M. In it were his doctoral diploma and his wish to have his degree revoked. The following day, the faculty decided to summarily remove M.’s doctoral title.
Through these years of deceit, M. must have been aware of the risks he was taking. While M. was supposedly busy writing his dissertation, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg had to resign as minister of defense due to his plagiarized dissertation being discovered. Shortly before M.’s oral exams, Annette Schavan, then the federal minister of education, also fell under suspicion. She had written a dissertation on conscience, just as M. had. But M., the PhD imposter, was not only guilty of Plagiarism.
His Graduate Degree: a Counterfeit
M.’s former advisor made contact with the College of Philosophy in Munich, where M. had reportedly received a graduate degree before joining the monastery, in order to review the thesis he had written there. No thesis was to be found, however. In the six semesters he had spent there, M. had only passed one exam, a written test on the history of medieval philosophy. He had received a C-. He had failed three oral exams. At St. Georgen College, where M. had started studying theology in 2002, M. had failed the oral exam necessary to even qualify to write a thesis. On the two next possible dates for retaking the exam, he had called in sick. In April 2005 he had dropped out.
The all-As transcripts that had made M.’s doctoral candidacy possible: fakes. The dissertation itself: plagiarized. Explaining himself to the university, he spoke of deep self-doubt and inner turmoil. In an email to the professor who had reviewed his dissertation instead of Martinsen, he apologized for his deceit and expressed his regrets. He wrote about expectations that he had felt unable to fulfill, according to the professor. As a theologist, the latter had not recognized the plagiarized passages.
That M.’s doctoral advisor never suspected a thing is especially surprising. One of the passages M. had plagiarized had come from a text that they had published together. Although he had noticed this offense, the advisor explains now, he hadn’t “found it to be grave.” Separately, the advisor had previously written of Renate Martinsen as the author of a “pioneering study.” That his own student had shortly thereafter copied the majority of his dissertation from another essay of Martinsen’s had apparently escaped his attention. In his defense, the advisor states that “similar content, or similar results that are reached by researchers of different disciplines, are usually rather seen as a confirmation of correctness.”
In January 2017, the district court of Göttingen charged M. with fraud, forgery of documents, breach of copyright, and abuse of his title. He was sentenced to one year of prison and a fine of 2,000 euros. He pled guilty. Judicially speaking, the case was thereby closed. Several questions remain, however: are a confident manner, a handsome shirt, and strict conduct toward students enough to be accepted as brilliant within a university context? Even if, like M., one has never achieved even an undergraduate degree?
In response to what potential repercussions this might have for the university, one representative said that the selection of doctoral applicants has become more thorough. “In addition, the University of Göttingen has increased its focus on prevention: expectations for academic integrity should be set as soon as possible,” he said. “For instance, we are now offering courses in didactics in which students learn preventative methods through the use of example cases. This is a part of our package deal in quality assurance.”
But will all this help in cases like M.’s, where someone is making a conscious effort to cheat? Not even plagiarism software was able to detect M.’s violations when a copy of his dissertation was tested. Here, the representative added, “the efficacy of plagiarism software is generally exaggerated.”
The political science student who, in his second semester, had kept his suspicions about M.’s lecture text secret, has lost his trust in the university. “At this point, very little in professional academics would surprise me,” he said.
And what about M.? What is his response to all this? Neither his former Benedictine brothers, nor his colleagues from the University of Göttingen, have any contact to him anymore, and he had to resign from his position at the institute in Hamburg after he lost his doctoral title. After that, the all trace of him disappears. Calling his old phone number results in a man answering who denies being Christian M.
“Okay, then with whom am I speaking instead?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“But if you’re not Christian M., then it shouldn’t be a problem for you to tell me your name, right?”
“Why should I have to tell you my name? And if you’re a journalist then most definitely not.”
“Honestly, your voice sounds just like Christian M.’s, based on his interview on Bavarian television as Brother Julius.”
“That may be, but this is not Christian M.,” says the man. “And by the way, we’re not even in Germany right now. And you are interrupting us during a meal.”
Whosoever Cristian M. was, whomsoever he wanted to be: by now he is almost certainly someone else.