Copy that: Plagiarism charges unseat Germany's 'superstar' Defense minister

German Defense Minister Baron Theodor zu Guttenberg, whose charismatic style is rarely found in the world of German politics, quit this week over plagiarism allegations.

Michael Sohn/AP
This Feb. 16 file photo shows German Defense Minister Baron Theodor zu Guttenberg arriving for the weekly cabinet meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany. Germany's most popular minister resigned this week over allegations of a plagiarized doctoral thesis.

He was Germany’s favorite politician, a conservative star boosting his party’s standing in the polls, a doer who pushed through a historic reform of the German armed forces.

But in a development that's rare for a country that never seemed to care much about politicians' private lives or personal indiscretions, Baron Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned this week amid Internet-fueled charges that he plagiarized his PhD dissertation. It was an embarrassment to Chancellor Angela Merkel's battered center-right Christian Democratic Union and the downfall of a politician whose career marked a departure from traditionally bland German politics.

"We’re seeing the failure of a concept where a person presents himself as superstar, where a politician tries to rise so high with so much glamour that he thinks he is an icon," says Gero Neugebauer of the Free University in Berlin.

Mr. Guttenberg, whose wife is the great-great granddaughter of former chancellor Otto von Bismarck, seemed to flaunt his family name the way no German politician had done before. He was seen as a man of action, responsible for pushing through a plan to end the draft in the boldest reform of the armed forces since World War II.

Like many politicians here who see getting a doctorate as a way to increase their political fortunes, Guttenberg wrote his PhD dissertation in 2006 on the development of the US and European constitutions. But trouble started only two weeks ago when a law professor doing a review of the unpublished thesis uncovered incidents of plagiarism.

On Feb. 16, a German newspaper reported that parts of the thesis appeared to draw on articles in other newspapers, a US State Department website, and other essays without attribution. That news led to the development of a website, GuttenPlag Wiki, that made it possible for others to read the dissertation and discuss it.

Saying that Guttenberg, who became known as "baron cut and paste," had violated basic academic standards of honesty and integrity, 51,000 scholars signed a letter asking Chancellor Merkel for Guttenberg's dismissal.

Guttenberg initially dismissed the charges as "absurd." Merkel, too, treated it as a side issue, saying she’d hired a minister, not a research assistant. But when the University of Bayreuth, which had awarded his doctorate, withdrew Guttenberg’s degree, he resigned. "I’ve always been prepared to fight but I have reached the limits of my strength," he said Monday.

"The academic community acted collectively and said, ‘We’re not going to let that happen,' " says Mr. Neugebauer. "It was a milestone that scholars, and not politicians, were the ones that drove a politician to step down."

The scandal "is a reassertion of academic sovereignty vis-à-vis the political sphere," says Paul Nolte, a German historian who is currently a visiting professor of history at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. "But perhaps the lesson is that German politicians should think of themselves as doing politics, not at the same time pursuing some kind of academic career."

On Wednesday, Chancellor Merkel replaced Guttenberg, a potential chancellor candidate, with one of her most trusted aides, and seemingly increased her political chances for the future at the same time.

"Angela Merkel has lost a formidable competitor for chancellor," says Professor Nolte. "If there was anybody having the stature of a chancellor, it was Guttenberg and nobody else."

De Maiziere, the new Defense minister, is the best choice to continue Guttenberg’s milestone reform of the Army, says Nolte. "It’s striking a good deal for Merkel."

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