Can Germany's Teflon Defense Minister Survive Plagiarism Accusations?

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Michael Sohn / AP

German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg arrives for the weekly Cabinet meeting at the chancellery in Berlin on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011

"What doesn't kill me makes me stronger." That saying must be German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg's mantra these days. On Feb. 23, following a series of scandals that would have felled most politicians, Guttenberg's alma mater, the University of Bayreuth, decided to retract his Ph.D. amid accusations that he had plagiarized his doctoral thesis. (Guttenberg had previously requested that the university do so, admitting to errors in his dissertation.) Calling for his resignation, local media have dubbed Guttenberg Germany's Minister of Self-Defense. Still, 74% of Germans polled by ARD television couldn't care less that Guttenberg may have cheated to get his Ph.D.

This information comes on the back of earlier events, including his handling of an investigation into the death of a cadet on board a German navy training vessel and a 2009 controversy over the civilian casualties caused by an air strike ordered by German commanders in Afghanistan. It's astounding to many that Guttenberg appears undeterred on a stellar flight that could lead him to the chancellery one not-too-distant day. But right now, he is facing his greatest challenge yet. Guttenberg, who consistently polls as Germany's favorite politician, just may be the best hope the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Party has of extending its hold on power beyond the next national election, in 2013. If he ultimately falls over the plagiarism affair, it could be the first mortal blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel's chances of re-election.

Guttenberg was becoming a threat to Merkel because of his unparalleled popularity with German voters and the weakening of support for Merkel among rank-and-file conservatives who feel she has taken the party too far from the CDU's traditional values. Guttenberg appeals to a broad spectrum of Germans who see the Minister of noble birth as something of a fairy-tale prince, financially independent of the Berlin political machine and until now possessing a credibility and moral authority that many of his political peers lack.

Now, Guttenberg can survive only with Merkel's continued backing. But her support for him bears political risks for her future. They are tied to the mast together as German conservatives face increasingly harsh political seas. "Guttenberg has lost his independence," says Gerd Langguth, a Merkel biographer and a political scientist at Bonn University. "He needs Merkel. For now, she benefits from his enormous popularity, but he can become a political liability."

Guttenberg had hoped, with Merkel's support, to ride out the wave of media criticism over his alleged plagiarism and get back to business as usual. It at first appeared that he might succeed, but outrage is rising from within the ranks of his party and the government coalition. The Defense Minister has claimed that he simply lost track of his sources and innocently copied passages from published material verbatim into his text without proper sourcing. But now even his allies are casting doubt on his explanations. Martin Neumann, a lawmaker from Merkel's coalition partner the Free Democrats, told the Financial Times Deutschland newspaper that he had "grave doubts" about Guttenberg's explanation. "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 military universities, is no longer acceptable," Neumann said.

Merkel's standing by Guttenberg has angered the academic community. On Monday, Feb. 28, a group of 20,000 academics from universities in Germany and elsewhere in Europe published a scathing open letter, accusing Guttenberg of making a mockery of serious scientific research. Annette Schavan, the German Minister of Education and Research, told reporters that "intellectual theft is not a small thing."

Also on Monday, Günther Beckstein, former premier of Guttenberg's home state of Bavaria and former head of the Christian Social Union (CSU) Party, which is allied with Merkel's CDU, suggested that Guttenberg would have to resign if it turned out that he lied to Parliament about the inadequate sourcing in his doctoral thesis. "The affair surrounding his dissertation damages both the CSU and Guttenberg himself," Beckstein was quoted as saying in the magazine Stern.

As Guttenberg's star has risen over the past two years — thanks in large part to his admission that Germany's troops are at war in Afghanistan when all other German politicians were claiming that soldiers were on an aid mission — while Merkel's power has gradually eroded. On Feb. 20 her CDU party suffered a major defeat in the Hamburg election, the first of seven state elections this year that will be the most reliable political barometer going into next year's national election campaign. So far, it's not looking good for Merkel's party. Last year, several long-serving conservative governors, men whom Merkel had systematically sidelined during her rise to power, threw in the towel one after the other. More recently, Axel Weber resigned as president of the Bundesbank, Germany's central bank, alluding to feeling isolated in his defense of a strong euro and an independent European Central Bank. The resignation was another blow to Merkel, strengthening the growing ranks of euroskeptics in Germany.

It is still too early to speak of the twilight of Chancellor Merkel. Nevertheless, she will likely have an uphill re-election battle next year. Recent opinion polls show that the Christian Democrats have come off their lows, but coalition partner the Free Democrats has been dramatically weakened, allowing Merkel's government to be surpassed in the polls by a possible coalition of leftist parties.

Guttenberg has become the linchpin in the conservative machine, his popularity and political resilience clearly helping the party more than Merkel. In ARD public-TV rankings, Guttenberg is still Germany's most popular politician, with an approval rating of 68%, followed by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a leading Social Democrat, and Merkel in third place.

The opposition parties are trying hard to embarrass Merkel into firing her Defense Minister. "You have lied and deceived," Thomas Oppermann, a Social Democrat, told Guttenberg during a parliamentary debate about the plagiarism affair. "I find it intolerable that the Chancellor has decided that an academic impostor and a liar can continue to be a member of her Cabinet." For his part, Guttenberg apologized, bowing his head and affecting humility. But some analysts saw a flash of arrogance when he suggested that by taking responsibility for his actions, he wanted to be a role model for others.

But Merkel has clearly decided that in her Cabinet, the personal is not political, insisting that Guttenberg's academic achievements are part of his private life and have no reflection on his job. "I chose Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg as Defense Minister," she told reporters in late February. "I did not choose him as a research assistant."