By Craig Whitlock and Shannon Smiley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 14, 2008
BERLIN, March 13 -- Americans with PhDs beware: Telling people in Germany that you're a doctor could land you in jail.
At least seven U.S. citizens working as researchers in Germany have faced criminal probes in recent months for using the title "Dr." on their business cards, Web sites and r¿sum¿s. They all hold doctoral degrees from elite universities back home.
Under a little-known Nazi-era law, only people who earn PhDs or medical degrees in Germany are allowed to use "Dr." as a courtesy title.
The law was modified in 2001 to extend the privilege to degree-holders from any country in the European Union. But docs from the United States and anywhere else outside Europe are still forbidden to use the honorific. Violators can face a year behind bars.
Ian Thomas Baldwin, a Cornell-educated researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, has stopped calling himself "Dr." ever since he was summoned for interrogation by police two months ago on suspicion of "title abuse."
"Coming from the States, I had assumed that when you get a letter from the criminal police, you've either murdered someone or embezzled something or done something serious," said Baldwin, a molecular ecologist. "It is absurd. It's totally absurd."
No one has questioned the legitimacy of his degree or whether he has the right to conduct research here. But going by "Dr." is verboten. If he wants to refer to his doctorate, German law dictates that he identify himself as "Prof. Ian Thomas Baldwin, PhD, Cornell University."
Baldwin confessed in a telephone interview that "there's no question I'm guilty as charged." But he hopes prosecutors will give him a break.
In his defense, he noted that the Max Planck Institute has always addressed him as "Prof. Dr. Baldwin" since it offered him a job a decade ago, and nobody warned him he might be in legal peril if he did likewise.
The proper use of honorifics is no small matter in Germany, a society given to formality where even longtime neighbors insist on addressing each other using their surnames. Those with advanced degrees like to show them off, and it is not uncommon to earn more than one. A male faculty member with two PhDs can fully expect to be called "Herr Professor Dr. Dr. Schmidt," for example.
In effect, forcing Americans to forsake their titles amounts to a social demotion. "It's an indication of the hierarchization of German society," said Gary Smith, director of the American Academy in Berlin. "Germans are much more status-conscious about these things, and the status is real."
Smith holds a doctorate from Boston University and has tempted fate by answering to "Dr. Smith" during the two decades he's lived in Germany. He said he was told years ago that there is a legal way for foreign PhDs and MDs to register for permission to use the appellation, but he has never bothered.
"It wasn't worth the trouble of doing anything about it," he said. "It's really an absurd situation in a globalized world."
The German doctor rule has been in effect since the 1930s, but it has been only sporadically enforced in recent years.
That changed last fall, when an anonymous tipster filed a complaint with federal prosecutors against seven Americans at the prestigious Max Planck Society, which operates 80 scientific research institutes across Germany. Federal authorities forwarded the complaint to prosecutors and police in at least three states, who decided to take action.
Joerg Stolz, the chief prosecutor in the city of Jena, which is investigating Baldwin and another researcher at the Max Planck Institute there on suspicion of title abuse, said those two probes were "near closure."
He said his office had recommended to a judge against filing charges. In that event, he said, the matter would be referred to the Cultural Ministry in the state of Thuringia, which could still decide whether a civil fine is warranted.
Detlef Baer, a spokesman for the ministry, said officials planned to drop both cases. "We spoke with the parties involved and determined they had no criminal intent," he said. "They were given instructions as to how they can refer to their titles," by citing the degree but not calling themselves doctors.
Another American investigated by police is an astrophysicist with a doctorate from Caltech and membership in the German Academy of Sciences.
The criminal investigations have alarmed higher education officials in Germany, where U.S. researchers are in high demand and treated as blue-chip recruits. Last week, state education ministers met in Berlin and recommended that the law be modified so anyone holding a doctorate or medical degree from America could be addressed as "Dr." without running afoul of the police.
"This is a completely overdone, mad, absolutely ridiculous situation," said Barbara Buchal-Hoever, head of Germany's central office for foreign education. "We are talking about highly acclaimed researchers here. . . . The people who have pressed charges must be gripers or troublemakers who wanted to make a totally absurd point."
Even if the proposal is adopted, however, it would extend the privilege only to people with degrees from about 200 U.S. universities accredited by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Anyone with a PhD from Canada, Japan or the rest of the non-European world would still be excluded.
For now, the old law remains on the books. It is unclear when, or if, Germany's state parliaments will change it.
So the next time Dr. Condoleezza Rice (PhD, University of Denver) or even German-born Dr. Henry Kissinger (PhD, Harvard) pay a visit to Berlin, they may want to stick with the title "secretary of state."