Chancellor Angela Merkel’s veteran Education Minister was fighting for her political life today after the university which awarded her a doctorate more than 30 years ago took steps to take it away amid allegations that parts of her academic thesis were plagiarised.
Annette Schavan, one of Ms Merkel’s closest Christian Democrat allies and her Education Minister since 2005, faces charges that she intentionally inserted borrowed passages into her doctoral arts thesis, Character and Conscience, without properly attributing them.
Düsseldorf University, which awarded the 57-year-old minister the title in 1980, announced on Tuesday that it had begun an investigation which could lead to her being stripped of her doctorate. A committee of academics concluded that her thesis contained evidence suggesting a “deliberate intent to deceive”.
Ms Schavan has flatly denied the allegations. Today she launched an angry counter-offensive demanding that a group of “external” academics be called in to conduct an independent assessment of her work. “This intensive involvement with the text of my dissertation only strengthens my conviction that it is not plagiarism,” she insisted.
Düsseldorf University maintains that it has reached no final conclusion and the result of its investigation into Ms Schavan’s dissertation remains “open”. But political commentators concluded unanimously today that if she was found guilty she would have to resign and that even a lengthy investigation would put pressure on her to step down.
Such an outcome would come as an embarrassing blow to Ms Merkel, who faces a general election in September. She is already smarting from a painful defeat by the opposition Social Democrats and Greens during polling in the state of Lower Saxony last weekend and her hopes of an automatic autumn victory have dimmed.
Ms Merkel has insisted that she has full confidence in her Education Minister, but if Ms Schavan is found guilty, she too will appear compromised. Today another leading conservative, the Employment Minister Ursula von der Leyen, leapt to Ms Schavan’s defence and insisted that she was an “excellent Education Minister”.
Ms Schavan’s case follows the ignominious fall from grace of Germany’s former Defence Minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. The conservative aristocrat was found to have plagiarised large sections of his Bayreuth University doctoral thesis. Previously rated Germany’s most popular politician, he was forced to resign over the affair in 2011. He now lives in America.
Mr zu Guttenberg was tracked down and exposed by so-called “plagiarist hunters” – direct action campaigners who make it their business to check up on politicians. Ms Schavan is their latest victim.