At first, it looked as though German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg would be able to simply wait out the political storm. Last week, after several days of mounting accusations that he had plagiarized significant portions of his Ph.D. dissertation, Guttenberg renounced his academic degree. That, he hoped, would be the end of it.
He was wrong. While Germany's opposition spent days blasting Guttenberg for his academic infraction, the defense minister this week faces increasing criticism from his own side of the aisle. Some members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing coalition, in fact, are even hinting that he should resign.
"Should he continue to allow the circumstances of his dissertation to remain so unclear, I think that he, as minister and as the top official of two Bundeswehr universities, is no longer acceptable," Martin Neumann, parliamentary spokesman for academic issues for the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), Merkel's junior coalition partner, told the Financial Times Deutschland newspaper.
Neumann added that he has "grave doubts about Guttenberg's explanation that he merely lost track of his sources."
News that Guttenberg had inadequately cited long passages of his dissertation was first broken by the Munich-based daily Süddeutsche Zeitung earlier this month. In the ensuing days, journalists and others found dozens of additional segments that appeared to have been copied one-to-one into Guttenberg's thesis. Last week, Guttenberg asked the University of Bayreuth, where he earned his Ph.D., to withdraw the degree -- which the university did shortly thereafter.
'A Nail in the Coffin'
Merkel, for her part, has remained loyal to her defense minister as has the Bavarian sister party to the chancellor's Christian Democrats (CDU), the Christian Social Union (CSU), of which Guttenberg is a member.
But more and more conservatives in Germany have gone public with critique of Guttenberg. Parliamentary President Norbert Lammert, of the CDU, said in a meeting with parliamentarians from the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) that the affair is "a nail in the coffin of confidence in our democracy," according to a story in the daily Mitteldeutsche Zeitung. During a parliamentary session last week, Lammert allowed withering attacks on Guttenberg from the opposition, saying merely that he had "seen more polemical debates on issues of less importance."
On Monday, German Minister of Education and Research Annette Schavan welcomed the withdrawal of Guttenberg's Ph.D. and emphasized that she does not "consider the incident to be a trifle." While she stopped short of calling for his resignation, she said "intellectual theft is not a small thing. The protection of intellectual property is a higher good."
Last week, Bernhard Vogel, the former CDU governor of Rhineland-Palatinate, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that "resignation would certainly have been easier" for Guttenberg.
However, Guttenberg has received support from at least two prominent conservatives in Merkel's cabinet. "I understand the debate, and the incident is anything but good, but it also needs to come to an end." If there is no new evidence, the interior minister told SPIEGEL ONLINE, "then the issue is resolved in my opinion. ... Then and now, Guttenberg still has the authority needed to carry out his office." De Maiziére said he shared the view of Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble that his "young colleague would recover (from the affair) and that better times lie ahead" for the beleaguered politician.
Guttenberg has maintained that he did not intentionally borrow the passages in question, a position he repeated during questioning in parliament last week. The session was called as a result of indications that Guttenberg included passages in his dissertation from research notes produced for him by parliamentary research assistants.
But several German academics have said the extent of inadequate citation in Guttenberg's dissertation makes it look as though he intentionally plagiarized. And on Monday, Günther Beckstein, former head of the CSU, said that Guttenberg would have to resign if it became apparent that he lied to the Bundestag. "The affair surrounding his dissertation damages both the CSU and Guttenberg himself," Beckstein told the weekly magazine Stern. Another member of the CSU, a party which has long seen Guttenberg, 39, as a possible future leader, said that the defense minister was "a dandy, not a politician."
So far, the scandal does not seem to have harmed Merkel's government nor Guttenberg's own popularity. Even as non-representative online surveys conducted last week by several news websites found that a majority of Germans think he should resign, a survey last week indicated that 60 percent of the country still think he is suitable for high office. The same survey also found that, while he has lost some popularity as a result of the scandal, he is still Germany's best liked politician.
Still, the scandal comes at an awkward time for Merkel. Earlier this month, her party suffered through a disastrous regional election in the city-state of Hamburg and there are several more state elections approaching this year, including four later this month. Additional defeats for the CDU could further erode her power on the national stage.
The embarrassment is all the more intense due to the fact that Merkel, a Ph.D. holder herself, has long placed great emphasis on supporting academic research. But on Monday it became clear that academia is furious with the way the chancellor has handled the affair. In an open letter to the chancellor, some 20,000 academics from Germany and around Europe said Merkel's support of Guttenberg was a "mockery" of all those who "contribute to scientific advancement in an honest manner."
"If the protection of ideas is no longer an important value in our society, then we are gambling away our future," the statement reads. "We do not expect gratitude for our scientific work, but we do demand ... respect. The scientific community is suffering as a result of the treatment of the Guttenberg case as a trivial offense. As is Germany's credibility."