Merkel's Copycat Minister Guttenberg Seeks to Wait Out Plagiarism Scandal
German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said on Friday he would temporarily relinquish his "doctor" title in the wake of accusations that he plagiarized entire passages of his dissertation. But his attempts to deflate the growing scandal may ultimately fall short.
The Internet never sleeps. And neither, it would seem, does one of the web's newest pages. Since it went online on Thursday, the site (German only), a Wiki devoted to examining the Ph.D. dissertation of Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg for yet more instances of extensive borrowing and inadequate citation, has been overrun with contributors. As of early Friday morning, fully 76 passages had been identified as revealing uncanny similarities with previously published works.
Definitive proof of ill intent is still lacking, but one thing has become clear: accusations that Guttenberg plagiarized portions of his dissertation, first uncovered by the Süddeutsche Zeitung earlier this week, are not going away. And they could soon develop into a significant danger to the defense minister's political future.
The facts of the scandal would seem no longer to be in dispute. Large passages from Guttenberg's 2006 dissertation -- published in book form in 2009 -- were taken one-to-one from newspaper articles, presentations, journal entries and speeches without proper citation. Even the first two paragraphs of his introduction appear to have been borrowed from a 1997 article in the center-right daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
More than the SPD Can Resist
Germany's opposition, not surprisingly, has smelled blood. Guttenberg has long been the country's most popular politician. His combination of youthful good looks, can-do attitude and reputation for forthrightness has ensured him iron-clad political support from his Bavarian constituents. And many have mentioned him as a possible chancellor candidate once Merkel calls it a day. The opportunity to take him down a peg has proven more than many a Social Democrat can resist.
"One cannot be minister with such a blemish," influential SPD parliamentarian Dieter Wiefelspütz said on Thursday. "That would be the case for anyone else as well." Rainer Arnold, likewise with the SPD, told the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung that "ministers who have lost their credibility can't do their jobs."
For now it would seem that Guttenberg has the backing of his party and of Chancellor Merkel. According to the German news agency DPA, Merkel told Guttenberg at a Thursday evening meeting that she had "complete faith" in him.
Others have also gone public with at least tepid statements of support. "I think even ministers have the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty," Education Minister Annette Schavan told the Rheinische Post on Thursday. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble told German radio on Friday morning that "accusing him of having copied his entire dissertation doesn't do justice to the character of the work" -- a 495-page comparison of US and European efforts to establish a constitution, which Schäuble claims to have read.
Still, Schäuble seemed to strike a note of caution. When asked if he thought Guttenberg should resign as a result of the affair, Schäuble paused briefly before saying: "We must first wait ... and examine the facts of the case."
Relinquishing His Doctor Title
Guttenberg himself had been largely silent on the issue this week, saying only that he would wait for the verdict from the University of Bayreuth, where he earned his Ph.D. The university announced it was looking into the plagiarism accusations, a process with which Guttenberg said he would fully cooperate.
On Friday, however, Guttenberg announced he would temporarily relinquish the title of "doctor" and said he was "genuinely sorry" for the errors that his dissertation "unquestionably contains." Whether the statement provides temporary relief from the ongoing media hype remains to be seen.
Such apologetic press conferences, though, have been occurring with disturbing regularity for Guttenberg in recent months. Even as he is celebrated as the future of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats, his Defense Ministry has been the focus of several scandals in recent months.
- In December, a German soldier died in Afghanistan after being shot by a comrade as the two were playing around. The Defense Ministry was accused of trying to cover up the true nature of the incident.
- In late 2010, large numbers of letters from soldiers were reportedly "systematically" opened before being delivered to their addressees in Germany. Some of those envelopes that were delivered were reportedly empty.
- In January, the death of a female cadet aboard the naval training ship Gorch Fock in November led to revelations that conditions for trainees on the ship were both substandard and dangerous.
Indeed, Guttenberg's stint as defense minister, which began in the autumn of 2009 in the wake of Merkel's reelection, even kicked off with a scandal. In the aftermath of the Sept. 2009 German-ordered bombing of two tanker trucks in Afghanistan -- an attack which killed almost 150 people, including several civilians -- Guttenberg was accused of having misled the public as to what he knew about the attack and when.
More recently, his planned reform of the German military, the Bundeswehr, has been attacked for inefficiency and for not leading to the kind of savings the minister had promised.
Still, such hiccups and political battles are hardly out of the ordinary, even if Guttenberg has presided over more than his fair share in recent months. Furthermore, his standing in the government and among the populace would not seem to have suffered.
This time around, however, the situation could ultimately prove more precarious. There is, after all, no one for Guttenberg to blame, no one to whom he could pass the buck. And the search for yet more problematic sections in his dissertation continues. The Internet never sleeps.
cgh -- with wires