The World from Berlin Plagiarism Scandal Threatens 'Merkel's Minister of Scandals'

Chancellor Angela Merkel's defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, has proven adept at dodging political bullets in the past. But accusations that he plagiarized large portions of his dissertation may ultimately destroy his greatest asset: credibility. German commentators aren't sure he can escape.

German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has been accused of being a copy-cat criminal.
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German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has been accused of being a copy-cat criminal.


Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is hardly a run-of-the-mill politician. He's glamorous, he tells it like it is and he is credible. That, at least, is what he would like German voters to believe. His consistently high popularity ratings would indicate that he has had some success in building that reputation.

This week, however, his image has taken a substantial hit. On Wednesday, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the paper of record in Guttenberg's home state of Bavaria, reported that the defense minister plagiarized large portions of his Ph.D. dissertation. Entire passages, some running several paragraphs, would appear to have been lifted from newspaper articles, academic journals and speeches -- without appropriate citation.

Journalists across the country spent Wednesday taking a closer look at the work, which was published in book form in 2009. They found additional passages that had been borrowed. Works from think tanks, universities, even the US Embassy -- all are honored with partial reproduction in the minister's masterpiece. Guttenberg even copied-and-pasted the first two paragraphs of his dissertation from a 1997 article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Danger for Guttenberg?

The alleged instances of plagiarism, uncovered by a law professor at the University of Bremen, are currently being looked into by Guttenberg's alma mater, the University of Bayreuth. It remains unclear just how present the danger might be that the defense minister loses his doctorate degree. Guttenberg himself called the accusations "absurd" and said he isn't worried. He said he would be willing to check through the 475-page work, which he submitted in 2006, and correct any citation errors that may have occurred.

But how great might the political harm be? Germany's opposition is doing its best to make sure the answer to that question is "a lot." Several politicians from the center-left Social Democrats have blasted Guttenberg. Rainer Arnold, an SPD expert for defense issues, told the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung that "ministers who have lost their credibility can't do their jobs."

The truth, of course, is that Guttenberg's shine had already begun to fade in recent months. A number of Defense Ministry scandals have kept him back-pedalling of late and his much touted military reforms -- including the elimination of conscription -- are beginning to look less cost-effective and efficient than promised.

With those scandals, Guttenberg could pin the blame on subordinates or plead policy considerations. But this latest "Xeroxgate" affair shines the spotlight squarely on him, and him alone.

German commentators on Thursday take a closer look at the flap.

The financial daily Handelsblatt writes:

"Guttenberg needs to watch his back. Slowly but surely he is becoming Chancellor Angela Merkel's minister of scandals.... Criticism from his own party has become impossible to ignore: Merkel's Chancellery has criticized his reform and personnel plans, while Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble ... compared Guttenberg to (Germany's Eurovision star) Lena, mentioning the 'circus atmosphere' that surrounds them both."

"The mood in the cabinet has long since turned against Guttenberg -- as it has in portions of the German military. In both instances, the loss of sympathy for the minister has the same cause. He isn't just seen as someone who is loved by the public, which can arouse envy. He is also seen as someone who steps on others on his way up, which can elicit opposition."

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"There is no room for sangfroid. The fact that even the first paragraph of Guttenberg's dissertation shows startling similarities to a 13-year-old newspaper article cries out for explanation. The desire for a credible account is not a violation of the minister's private life. The German government to which Guttenberg belongs has held up education as one of its central policy areas. Adherence to the strict rules that apply in academia is a prerequisite, should Germany wish to be counted among the global leaders in education."

"It is said that an error rate of five to 10 such passages (eds. note: which lack appropriate citation) are acceptable in dissertations. But Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has made sure that he is not seen as a person just like any other. Those wishing to set an example must live up to higher standards."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"The accusations of plagiarism won't just harm Guttenberg in political circles, but will damage his reputation among broad swaths of the population. Previous stumbles as defense minister have shown that Guttenberg has a fleeting relationship with the truth. This case now threatens to hurt his greatest asset: the image of being reputable and upright, someone who stands for truth and clarity. It should thus be in Guttenberg's interest to personally clear up the questions surrounding his dissertation as quickly as possible."

-- Charles Hawley

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