Germany's popular conservative defence minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has been forced to publicly renounce his title as a doctor of law amid mounting allegations that he plagiarised vast sections of his university thesis.
The aristocratic, Mr zu Guttenberg who enjoys seemingly permanent status in opinion polls as his country's most-liked politician, announced his decision late on Monday at a rally attended by hundreds of conservative party supporters near Frankfurt.
In what appeared to be a clear admission of guilt, the defence minister declared he was giving up the title for good: "I had another look at my doctoral thesis over the weekend," he said. "It appears that I lost track of the sources. I made mistakes, but they weren't intentional," he insisted.
His announcement clearly came as relief to Chancellor Angela Merkel as she was under mounting pressure to dismiss her defence minister. Mr zu Guttenberg's position was becoming untenable even though he is considered a major political asset. Some even see him as Ms Merkel's possible successor.
"The Chancellor considers Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg's decision to give up his doctor title to be right," a government spokesman said yesterday. However political observers said it was still not clear whether his decision to revoke his PhD would be enough to defuse the crisis and enable him to keep his job.
Allegations that Mr zu Guttenberg had plagiarised parts of his doctorate surfaced a week ago after a respected legal academic publicly revealed that large sections of the minister's Bayreuth university doctorate had simply been lifted from newspapers and academic works without being sourced.
Der Spiegel magazine subsequently published evidence suggesting that Mr zu Guttenberg had engaged parliamentary staff to write sections of his doctorate. At the same time a so-called "Guttenberg-Wiki" website claimed to have established 180 examples of plagiarism in his doctorate.
Mr zu Guttenberg, who initially dismissed the allegations as "absurd", declared last Friday that he was temporarily giving up his doctor title while the university reread his thesis to establish whether the plagiarism charges were true. However political expediency and pressure from his party persuaded him to permanently renounce the title on Monday night.
The defence minister, who is renowned for a sense of humour rarely found in German politicians, told his supporters on Monday: "I can assure you all that I myself am not a product of plagiarism, what you see here is the real thing."
He added "I didn't come here as the self-defence minister either."
Opinion polls suggest that the plagiarism affair has done little to dent his popularity. According to a poll conducted by the Emid research group only 21 per cent of Germans believe that Mr zu Guttenberg "swindled" to get his doctorate.
Members of Germany's conservative party welcomed Mr zu Guttenberg's decision yesterday: "We have every reason to back him to the hilt," declared Volker Kauder, the conservative parliamentary spokesman in a statement, which brought loud applause from MPs.
However opposition Social Democrats and Greens insisted that the zu Guttenberg affair was by no means over: "The defence minister has lost all sense of reality, this usually happens shortly before a resignation," said the party's parliamentary leader, Thomas Oppermann.
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