Merkel’s Defense Minister Quits Over Plagiarism Charge

German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg
German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg faced calls by lawmakers to resign last week after he admitted to “grave” mistakes in compiling his 2006 doctoral thesis in law. Photographer: Michele Tantussi/Bloomberg

German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg quit amid allegations that he plagiarized passages of his doctoral thesis, depriving Chancellor Angela Merkel of her most popular Cabinet member in an election year.

“This is the most painful step I’ve taken in my life,” Guttenberg, 39, told reporters in Berlin today. “Like anyone else, I have to take responsibility for my mistakes.”

Guttenberg faced opposition calls to resign last week after he admitted to “grave” mistakes in compiling his 2006 doctoral thesis. The University of Bayreuth, which awarded the doctorate in law with the highest grade “summa cum laude,” revoked it on Feb. 24, as Guttenberg said passages that appeared to be copied from other texts weren’t the result of conscious deception.

Guttenberg’s departure robs Merkel of the darling of her Christian Democratic bloc as her coalition seeks to regroup for six state elections after her party suffered its worst defeat in Hamburg since World War II on Feb. 20. Guttenberg regularly tops polls as Germany’s most popular politician, and two-thirds of respondents to a Feb. 18 Forsa poll said they didn’t want him to resign over the plagiarism spat.

‘Most Promising Man’

“This is a very bitter loss for Merkel and the Christian Democratic bloc,” Jan Techau, an analyst at the Rome-based NATO Defense College and a former German Defense Ministry official, said in an interview. “Guttenberg’s departure means they’ve lost the most promising man in the party.”

In Germany, where politicians are not normally flamboyant, Guttenberg’s personal popularity flourished even as public opposition grew to the war in Afghanistan, where Germany has the third-largest foreign troop contingent after the U.S. and U.K.

Announcing his resignation, Guttenberg cited the media outcry over the plagiarism allegations, now in its second week, that has dominated government press briefings and displaced coverage of soldier deaths in Afghanistan.

“I was always ready to fight, but I reached the limits of my abilities,” Guttenberg said.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, Merkel’s former chief of staff, is the most likely candidate to replace Guttenberg, the Rheinische Post newspaper reported on its website.

Merkel said Guttenberg told her of his decision this morning, and she accepted his request to stand down “with a heavy heart.” A decision on a successor will be made in good time, she said.

“I’m convinced that we’ll have the opportunity to work together in the future one way or another,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin.

State Campaigning

The loss of Guttenberg threatens to undermine Merkel’s campaigning for state elections that culminate in Berlin in September. Merkel is due to make at least seven appearances in Baden-Wuerttemberg, the southern state her party has held for more than 50 years, before elections there on March 27. Guttenberg canceled a campaign appearance as the charges broke.

The allegations over Guttenberg’s 475-page thesis comparing constitutional law in the U.S. and the European Union were first published in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper on Feb. 16. In a statement the same day, Guttenberg dismissed the report as “absurd” and said he didn’t receive any help in writing the dissertation from his staff.

Two days later, he apologized for possible irregularities in his thesis and said he wouldn’t use his academic title pending the outcome of an inquiry by his professors, while again denying the plagiarism charges.

Merkel backed him, saying last week that she appointed him to reform the military rather than on the strength of his doctoral title. The coalition agreed in December to Guttenberg’s plans to suspend army conscription and reduce military numbers to 185,000 as part of one of the biggest overhauls of the German armed forces since World War II.

Chancellor Material

Guttenberg, a former economy minister who is a member of the Christian Social Union, Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s CDU, had been regarded by the German media as a possible future chancellor. The news magazine Der Spiegel ran a cover story on Guttenberg and his wife last October with the headline: “The Fabulous Guttenbergs, Skating to Power in the Chancellery.”

Guttenberg’s approval rating has been higher than Merkel’s in polls for more than a year. A Feb. 2 Stern magazine survey showed 68 percent of voters had a positive view of Guttenberg, who hails from an aristocratic family in Bavaria.

“He may go somewhere else for a few years such as Washington, or he may try to rebuild his political career in Bavaria, where the scandal won’t harm him as much, by seeking to become premier,” said Techau. “I don’t think he’s gone.”