The conservative German Minister of Defence, Baron Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg (CSU), is the most popular politician in Germany and considered a worthy successor of the chancellor, Angela Merkel. His great project is the reform of the army and the abolition of military service. He has defended the role of the armed forced in Afghanistan with skill, against heavy opposition. He had been an effective minister of economic affairs. In his speeches, he speaks eloquently of honour, integrity, honesty and decency.
The law professor Andreas Fischer-Lescano recently discovered that one hundred pages of zu Guttenberg’s Ph.D. thesis – between a third and a quarter, about a hundred pages – were stolen from the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, diverse articles, speeches and term papers. (The subject was a comparison of the German and American constitutions.) The degree had been awarded – summa cum laude – by the University of Bayreuth, founded in 1975.
The discovery triggered a storm of indignation in the German press and, of course, demands for his immediate resignation from the opposition. The Guttenberg family is unusually venerable and, it was rumoured, had made financial contributions to the University of Bayreuth. His mother, Countess Christiane of Eltz, a prominent activist against child abuse, had divorced his father in 1977 and married a son of the Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop who was hanged after the Nuremberg trial. Guttenberg grew up with his father. His wife is Stephanie Countess von Bismarck-Schönhausen, the great-great-granddaughter of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. His great-great uncle, the Catholic monarchist Baron Karl Ludwig zu Guttenberg, took part in the military resistance to the Nazi regime and was executed for his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944.
In the days since the discovery of the plagiarism, newspapers have tracked down other incidents on the public record when the minister evidently displayed a somewhat tenuous relationship to the truth.
Last Monday, he declared that he will no longer use the academic title. He requested that the University of Bayreuth revoke his doctoral degree due to “serious errors” on his part. On Tuesday, he was grilled for half an hour in the Bundestag, during Question Period. He was reminded that he had given his word of honour in writing, at the time his degree was granted, that the work was his own. He admitted his “mistake,” for which he was genuinely sorry, and said he had never had any intention to deceive anybody. The university revoked the degree on Wednesday, citing “extensive violations” of doctorate regulations regarding source citations. The president of the university appointed a commission to investigate the incident, which may take several weeks.
The whistle-blower, law professor Andreas Fischer-Lescano, has received a number of letters of abuse. He has refrained from comment, except to say that if indeed the minister had had no intention to deceive he must have been “nicht zurechnungsfähig” – not compos mentis.
According to the television network ARD, the affair has not damaged Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg’s approval rating. He not only remains Germany’s most popular politician but obtained an even higher approval rating immediately after the announcement than before.
The Chancellor described the affair as a “private matter.” She had not hired him, she said, to be her scholarly assistant.