German 'cut-and-paste' minister quits

1st March 2011, Comments 0 comments

Germany's popular defence minister dramatically quit Tuesday after being stripped of his doctorate for alleged plagiarism, robbing Chancellor Angela Merkel of her star performer.

"I give particular thanks to the chancellor for all the support she has given me and her great trust and understanding," Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg told a hastily convened news conference in Berlin.

"I was always ready to fight. But I have reached the limits of my strength."

The suave aristocrat, 39, became the most popular figure in Merkel's cabinet since bursting on the scene in 2009, impressing first as economy minister and then slashing Germany's bloated armed forces at defence.

Party rallies ahead of Merkel's re-election in late 2009 saw the nobleman from Bavaria's Franconia region feted like a pop star. He was even touted as a possible successor to Merkel, 56, at the helm of Europe's biggest economy.

"This is a big loss for Angela Merkel," political scientist Gero Neugebauer told AFP. "She is losing an important election campaigner ... Nobody else can excite the same level of interest and excitement."

Merkel, whose party suffered a crushing defeat on February 20 at the first of 2011's seven regional elections, had stood by her minister, saying she "didn't appoint him as a research assistant."

One survey last week even indicated that his popularity had increased since the plagiarism scandal blew up on February 16, with a thumping 73 percent of those questioned happy with his performance.

But he was never a hit with the media -- the mass-circulation Bild being the notable exception -- and papers gleefully went on the attack when accusations he had ripped off others' work for his thesis emerged two weeks ago.

Journalists had previously jumped on a series of minor scandals from an alleged mutiny after a death on a naval training ship off South America in November to his handling of a controversial Afghan airstrike in 2009.

In December he was accused of turning a December visit to German troops in Afghanistan into a publicity stunt because he took along not only his wife but also a television chatshow host.

None of the mud stuck, but the plagiarism row, which broke after a law professor close to the opposition went through his doctoral thesis, proved to be his undoing.

Zu Guttenberg, who can trace his family back to the 12th century and whose wife is a direct descendant of the 19th century "Iron Chancellor" Otto von Bismarck, was ridiculed as "Baron Cut-And-Paste" and "Zu Googleberg".

Internet sleuths set up a collaborative website, or Wiki, to comb through the 475 pages, concluding that more than two-thirds of the dissertation contained evidence of unattributed copying.

His alma mater, Bayreuth University, withdrew his doctor title last week, with university president Ruediger Bormann saying the thesis was "not the result of correct scientific work".

Merkel too, facing the next state election on March 20, had begun to feel the heat, with 50,000 academics signing an angry letter that was delivered to her office on Monday -- with television cameras rolling.

A number of her political allies had also begun to make critical noises.

Zu Guttenberg had previously asked the university to take back the title, saying there were "serious technical faults which contravened proper academic standards".

"I am a human being, who has weakness and who makes mistakes," he had said.

© 2011 AFP

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