German Defence Minister quits over PhD plagiarism scandal

Tony Paterson
Wednesday 02 March 2011 01:00 GMT

Germany's Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg caved in to overwhelming public and political pressure and announced his resignation yesterday after weeks of criticism over revelations that he plagiarised his doctoral thesis.

The aristocratic conservative had been considered Germany's most popular politician and was viewed as a future chancellor. His resignation came as a major blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel who had been counting on his support in regional elections this year.

In the semi-theatrical style which has become the hallmark of the 39-year-old baron's brief yet flamboyant political career, Mr zu Guttenberg called a press conference at the Berlin defence ministry to announce with tears in his eyes that his resignation was "the most painful decision in my life".

Thanking Ms Merkel, who 24 hours earlier was still supporting her Defence Minister to the hilt, he added: "I was always ready to fight, but I have to admit that I have reached the limit of my strength." The Berlin chancellery issued a statement saying Ms Merkel had accepted his resignation "with a heavy heart".

Mr zu Guttenberg stepped down after an unprecedented 50,000 German academics and their supporters signed an open letter to Ms Merkel protesting about his plagiarism. They said it made a "mockery" of the country's long-established reputation for academic and scientific integrity.

The letter was delivered a fortnight after a leading academic published damning evidence which showed that Mr zu Guttenberg had copied more than half of his 475-page Bayreuth University doctorate from other people's work without attributing the sources. The thesis was published in 2006.

Oliver Lepsius, a law professor at Bayreuth University who succeeded Mr zu Guttenberg's doctoral supervisor, said: "We have been taken by a fraud. His brazenness in deceiving honourable university staff was unique."

Mr zu Guttenberg initially dismissed the allegations as "absurd" and Ms Merkel suggested his offences were not significant as she had recruited him to serve as Defence Minister and not as an academic. However last week Mr zu Guttenberg sought to end the affair and save his job by renouncing his doctorate and admitting that he had made a terrible mistake.

But conservative support for the minister had all but evaporated by yesterday amid mounting allegations that sections of his other publications had also been plagiarised. Mr zu Guttenberg was nicknamed "Baron cut and paste" and "zu Googleberg" in the media. Norbert Lammert, the conservative parliamentary leader said his plagiarism was "a nail in the coffin for democracy".

Opposition parties attacked Ms Merkel for her handling of the affair. Thomas Oppermann, the Social Democrats' parliamentary leader, said her decision to continue backing Mr zu Guttenberg in the face of overwhelming evidence that he had cheated over his PhD was a disgrace. "She has brought shame on the reputation of politics," he said.

Mr zu Guttenberg's resignation could hardly have come at a worse time for the Chancellor. There is no obvious choice for a successor. Yet her Defence Minister is leaving as the German armed forces begin their most significant reforms since the end of the Second World War. These involve axing conscription and creating a fully professional army while maintaining an unpopular presence in Afghanistan.

At the same time, Ms Merkel's party faces a total of eight key regional and local elections during this so-called "super-election" year. Their outcome will determine her ability to survive as Chancellor.

Ms Merkel's Christian Democrats face their next electoral test in the eastern state of Saxony Anhalt but their most crucial challenge will be in southern Baden-Württemberg at the end of March. The southern state has been conservative-controlled for more than 50 years, but opinion polls suggest the party could lose to Greens and Social Democrats for the first time.

Observers predict that if the conservatives lose the state, Ms Merkel may be forced to call an early general election ahead of its scheduled date in September 2013.

It was not clear if Mr zu Guttenberg would stay on as a backbench MP. Several observers said he could easily return to politics within two years.

Plagiarising Politicians

Joe Biden A string of plagiarism and falsification charges forced the current US Vice President, above, to abandon his own race for the presidency in 1987. Biden's fall from grace began when he delivered a speech on his humble background, which plainly lifted a paragraph almost word-for-word from a speech the British Labour politician Neil Kinnock had delivered earlier that year. Allegations later emerged that Biden had also copied speech material from fellow politicians Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, and admitted to having received an "F" grade during law school for plagiarising a published report in one of his essays. Within a month of copying Kinnock's speech, he had dropped his campaign for the1988 presidential elections.

George Bush Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid alleged that the former US President's autobiography Decision Points borrowed heavily from his own work when it was released in November last year. One news organisation also drew close parallels between the memoir and passages from the investigative journalist Bob Woodward's book Bush at War, as well as a work by former US press secretary Ari Fleischer. At the time, Bush's publisher responded to the allegations by saying that any resemblances between Bush's book and other works only confirmed its accuracy.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi The London School of Economics confirmed yesterday that it is investigating allegations that Colonel Gaddafi's son plagiarised his PhD thesis whilst studying at the university from 2003 to 2008. The Libyan dictator's son is accused of using the services of a ghost writer and copying large sections of his final essay, which he completed as part of a doctorate qualification. The LSE is also under pressure to return £300,000 from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, which was part of a £1.5m donation pledged by Saif al-Islam in 2009.

Gordon Brown During his three years in power, the former British prime minister was regularly blasted in the blogosphere for echoing the words of his prominent contemporaries just that little bit to closely – particularly those across the pond in America. Close comparisons have been drawn between his speeches and those of former American vice president Al Gore, former president Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, which some believe to be rooted in Brown's admiration for the wordsmithery of the prominent American political consultant Robert Shrum.

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