Political Superstar under Pressure Guttenberg Drops 'Doctor' to Save 'Minister'

German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is under pressure to resign amid allegations he plagiarized parts of his Ph.D. thesis. Angela Merkel and other leading conservatives are worried the popular politician could fall, just when they need him to drum up votes ahead of crunch state elections. Now Guttenberg has announced he is giving up his doctor title.
German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg at a CDU campaign event on Monday evening: Members of the CDU and CSU are worried the popular politician may be forced to resign.

German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg at a CDU campaign event on Monday evening: Members of the CDU and CSU are worried the popular politician may be forced to resign.

Foto: Marius Becker/ dpa

Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer is one of the last great jokers in German politics. But when he spoke on Monday, he made sure that his words contained not the slightest trace of irony or ambiguity. "I told him: 'You have my full support.' That was true then and it's still true now," Seehofer insisted. "We stand fast. And we stay put. You can count on that."

And, once more, to make sure that everyone understood his point: "Karl-Theodor has the support of his political family." Then he added, speaking slowly to emphasize the key word: "And that support is un-con-dit-ion-al."

Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg 

When even the Bavarian governor is no longer in a joking mood, you know that the situation is serious. Indeed, Seehofer's conservative Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, is worried about the fate of its political superstar, . There are fears that the minister could resign amid serious charges of plagiarism  regarding his doctoral thesis.

On Monday evening, Guttenberg announced that he would permanently renounce his doctor title. "I made serious mistakes," he said at a CDU campaign event in Kelkheim in the state of Hesse, explaining that he had "possibly lost track of the sources in one or two places" during the six or seven years that he worked on his Ph.D. But he insisted that he had not deliberately cheated, and there was no talk of a resignation. "I will perform my duties with all my power," he said.

Indeed, the defense minister even joked about his situation. "What you see before you is the original, not a copy," he told the audience.

For days, fellow CSU members have been urging Guttenberg not to resign. The minister has received countless text messages, emails and phone calls, all emploring the same thing: Please stay! No matter whether they are Guttenberg's allies or rivals, everyone in the CSU knows that the future of their mandates and positions largely depends on this baron from the northern Bavarian region of Franconia. The party, which has dominated Bavarian politics for decades, has experienced a sharp dip in popularity in recent years, but the so-called Guttenberg factor has recently helped to stabilize the CSU's support, according to pollsters.

The Uncertainty Remains

The defense minister's supporters confidently insist that Guttenberg has ruled out the possibility of resigning. But they can't say this with complete certainty, because the man is famous for his quick decisions. That was seen in the so-called Kunduz affair, when Guttenberg suddenly fired a senior Defense Ministry official and the head of the German military over their role in a German-ordered air strike in Afghanistan which killed many civilians. Similarly, when a scandal developed late last year surrounding the naval training ship Gorch Fock, Guttenberg relieved the captain of his duties. In the plagiarism scandal, however, there is no one Guttenberg can blame. The only person he can fire is himself.

Can a resignation really be ruled out? "Yes, I have no doubts about that," says Seehofer. But then he adds: "If you know something to the contrary, you should say so." Obviously the concern still exists.

Guttenberg has "made a stabile impression" in recent days, says Seehofer. Nevertheless, it has been clear for some time that the baron is deeply affected by the constant new revelations about plagiarized passages in his dissertation. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung -- the Sunday edition of Germany's leading conservative newspaper, and as such an important reflection of public opinion for Guttenberg -- has now examined his entire resume. Its conclusion was that the politician had "inflated" his CV. The ensuing three-page article came complete with headlines like "The Study Is Not His Natural Home" and an illustration depicting Guttenberg and his high-profile wife Stephanie zu Guttenberg as Ken and Barbie dolls.

The reaction in the media over the weekend and on Monday was generally devastating. Guttenberg did nothing to calm the situation when he issued a statement  last Friday in which he failed to make any gestures of humility.

Guttenberg's Departure Would Be Worse than Hamburg Disaster

Politicians in the CSU's sister party, the CDU, have also been paying close attention to Guttenberg's words. Many Christian Democrats, including leading members of the party, feel that the entire affair could be extremely damaging. They sense that there could be much more to come. Many feel that the evidence against Guttenberg is overwhelming and are surprised by the poor crisis management of their usually eloquent CSU colleague.

In the past, some CDU politicians would occasionally express schadenfreude when cracks were revealed in Guttenberg's squeaky-clean image. This time around, there is little gloating. No one in the CDU wants the government's most popular minister to step down. So far, ordinary Germans have remained loyal to their political darling, at least according to the pollsters. The majority wants him to remain in office. A resignation, coming just before important state elections in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg, would likely have far more serious consequences than the CDU's thrashing  in Sunday's Hamburg state election. Indeed, losing Guttenberg could cost the party many votes.

During a meeting of the CDU executive committee on Monday, Baden-Württemberg Governor Stefan Mappus, who is standing for reelection in what could be a close-run vote, reportedly asked with concern how the party intended to proceed in the plagiarism affair. Angela Merkel, according to participants in the meeting, said the same thing she would later repeat publicly, namely that Guttenberg had her "full support."

Merkel Concerned about CSU Superstar

Merkel, who is leader of the CDU, is worried that she could lose the popular defense minister, right at a time when she needs him as a vote-pulling campaigner. She knows that he is critical to the stability of the CSU and is therefore also important in making sure that the two conservative parties and their preferred partner, the business-friendly Free Democrats, have enough votes together to form a coalition government on the national level.

But Merkel also knows that the plagiarism charges are not without substance. Nevertheless, she did her best to refrain from passing judgment on the allegations. During a press conference at CDU headquarters in Berlin on Monday, she merely mentioned the "mistakes" that Guttenberg himself had admitted to having made.

Otherwise, however, she is doing her best to draw a clear distinction between Guttenberg, the cabinet minister, and Guttenberg, the man with the Ph.D. She said that she "did not appoint a research assistant or a doctoral candidate or the bearer of a doctoral thesis" to the position of defense minister, adding that she only cares about how Guttenberg performs in the position. "He is doing an excellent job," said Merkel, "and that's what counts for me." Merkel did not, however, answer the question of whether this meant that Guttenberg would remain in office as defense minister.

The chancellor's current motto appears to be "keep calm and carry on." But even Merkel knows that if the University of Bayreuth concludes that significant portions of Guttenberg's dissertation were plagiarized and revokes his doctoral degree, it will be all but impossible to keep him. Apart from anything else, it would mean that the minister had lied.

"In that case," say sources in the CDU, "it will no longer be possible to separate Guttenberg the person from Guttenberg the politician."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan