What a drama! Just the blink of an eye ago, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was Germany's most popular politician, the hero of his party, the darling of the tabloid press. He was even feted as a potential future chancellor. Now he's gone, evaporated in just 14 days, like a shooting star.
For starters, Guttenberg's departure is a shame. A lot of hopes were pinned on him. He exuded charisma. He had the ability to explain policies and to get people interested in politics. The troops liked their defense minister and voters did too. What more could one expect from a politician?
The Guttenberg case is nvertheless a blessing for Germany's future political culture. It has shown that politicians remain subject to high expectations regarding decency, honesty and reliability -- without exception.
Politicians are role models. Guttenberg violated these standards and is now, very belatedly, paying the price. At first he didn't want to step down, believing that his popularity would save him. But in the end he had to learn that the same rules apply to him that apply to every other politician. He was driven out of office by a storm of outrage over the PhD he obtained through cheating: on the Internet, in the influential academic community and in the middle classes. Guttenberg and the chancellor who protected him for so long weren't able to withstand it. And that's how it should be.
Departure Will Unleash Misunderstanding and Bitterness
The Guttenberg case is a problem for the reputation of the political process. He's the second popular politician to step down in less than a year, after Horst Köhler quit as German president last May. Guttenberg's departure will trigger a lot of criticism and bitterness among the many people who are disenchanted with politics and who saw a kind of messiah in him.
But Guttenberg himself has also contributed to fuelling these sentiments. In his resignation speech, he murmured about the "public and media attention" that had been concentrated so intensely on his person. He said that had created additional burdens for the soldiers in Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr. By saying that, Guttenberg concocted a legend of having been stabbed in the back that could soon be making the rounds amongst the chattering classes: Namely that a group of envious politicians and reporters in Berlin exerted so much pressure on the popular man that he was driven out of office. Or at least something like that.
Guttenberg is a phenomenon. Many seem prepared to forgive any mistake he makes. They have, if you will, blind faith in him. The parties will eventually feel the rage of these voters -- perhaps during the next election or perhaps in a few years when the first right-wing populist party is founded. Something is brewing and it isn't good -- that much is certain.
Guttenberg Could Still Have a Future in Politics
Incidentally, this doesn't necessarily have to be the end of Guttenberg's political career. History has shown that repentant sinners in politics -- in Germany, too -- often get a second chance. The country's parliament is filled with people who have fallen and then risen again, including Cem Özdemir, who had to resign after getting involved in a personal loan scandal and returned to the political stage again to become the co-head of the national Green Party. Or Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who had to resign as head of the Christian Democratic Union party in 2000 after a campaign finance scandal that also ensnared former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. After a cooling-off period -- in Özdemir's case by taking a seat in the European Parliament in far-away Brussels -- it's possible to come back to Berlin.
But history also shows us another thing: People like that do not become chancellor. Guttenberg has lost his shot at the chancellery. A German leader who cheated to get his doctorate? Unthinkable.
As of today, the race for a successor to Angela Merkel is open again. And it's not a pretty sight, either. Guttenberg appeared to be the ideal candidate -- and all of the hopes in the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, had been placed on him. One thing, more than anything else is evident, if one peruses the leadership ranks of the two parties for a potential successor: the emptiness.