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German defense minister resigns in plagiarism scandal

The decision by Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg to step down amid allegations that he copied passages of his doctoral dissertation is a major setback for Chancellor Angela Merkel.

March 02, 2011|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from London — Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, Germany's defense minister and the country's most popular politician, resigned Tuesday amid embarrassing allegations that he plagiarized parts of his doctoral dissertation.

"It's the most painful step of my life," Guttenberg told reporters at a hastily called news conference in Berlin.

The man once touted as a possible future chancellor but recently derided as "Baron Cut and Paste" and "zu Googleberg" said he could no longer be certain of meeting "the highest expectations I put on myself."

His resignation is a major blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose conservative coalition has been struggling in the polls and faces important local elections in coming weeks. Last month, her party, the Christian Democrats, suffered a humiliating defeat in Hamburg, one of its former strongholds.

With his aristocratic background and suave demeanor, Guttenberg was the star of Merkel's team, unusually popular for a defense minister. Polls routinely showed him with the highest approval ratings of any politician. He was responsible for a historic decision last year to suspend the draft in Germany and was in charge of a major overhaul of the military, which could see the number of troops reduced by more than 25%.

"I deeply regret his resignation," Merkel said. "Like many other people in our country, I'm very saddened by this."

His continued presence in government became harder to defend as the scandal over his doctoral thesis dragged on and criticism of his response to it mounted.

At first, Guttenberg, 39, described accusations that he copied passages verbatim from other sources without attribution as "absurd." But as evidence grew that up to half of his thesis had been lifted from other sources, he was forced to backpedal, saying he would stop using the title "doctor" until the matter was resolved.

Before a group of jeering lawmakers last week, Guttenberg insisted that he had not deliberately cheated but acknowledged making "serious errors." The University of Bayreuth announced that it was revoking his degree.

A nationwide petition by more than 20,000 academics and researchers called on Merkel to take the alleged breach of integrity seriously and withdraw her support of Guttenberg, whom she had defended by saying she had appointed him to be a minister, not an academic assistant. (Merkel herself has a doctorate.)

Her remarks Tuesday after Guttenberg's resignation suggested that he might still play a role in the government once the scandal dies down. But for now, she must appoint a new defense minister, a job for which German commentators say there are no obvious successors.

Merkel said she was surprised by Guttenberg's decision to quit. He had given little indication that he was contemplating such a step.

"I was always ready to fight, but I have reached the limits of my strength," Guttenberg said.

henry.chu@latimes.com

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