German scandal fells a mighty baron

BERLIN – This time the handsome young knight in shining armor lost the tilting match. Some Germans grieved, others cheered, not a few laughed with that happy joy at other’s loss called schadenfreude.

There are reasons to believe that plans were forming, with the aid of much of the German media, to elevate Baron Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg to the position of chancellor after the Bundestag elections in 2013. His most vigorous ally was Germany’s mass-appeal tabloid newspaper BILD (picture), a mainstay of the Springer media empire which, in methods and influence, is a German version of the Murdoch empire. It wins its nearly 12 million readers with giant headlines, sensation-mongering, a daily nudie photo and, in between, catchy political injections, all way off in right field. Most recently, aside from “hate the Muslims” propaganda and bad-mouthing welfare recipients, it beat the drums for “Gutti”. Until the very end its dubious polls plugged him as the most popular politician in Germany, well ahead of his boss Angela Merkel, and build him up to be her successor. But his publicity was not only found in BILD. Every second issue of Der Spiegel had an article about him, and this was typical.

But any such plans to build up Guttenberg as a far-right ruler in 2013 at the latest – with almost inevitable echoes of the past – suffered a big blow March 1 when the otherwise mostly smiling minister of defense in Angela Merkel’s government, after two weeks of revelations and controversy, finally stepped down in disgrace.

Until mid-February this scion of a noble Bavarian family going back to the 1100s could seemingly do no wrong, or none that got past the Teflon. Visiting the troops in Afghanistan with his glamorous wife and a friendly TV crew, misleading reports about killings of both German soldiers and Afghan civilians, covering up the death of a young woman trainee after a fall from the rigging of a three-masted schooner, then bowing to pressure from BILD and suspending the captain without a proper hearing, all that was smoothed over more or less successfully while he went about transforming the armed forces into an  all-voluntary force of highly-skilled warriors, ready to be sent to any spot in the world – as they have already been sent to Afghanistan, Congo, and the waters off Lebanon and the Horn of Africa. He was going to put not just German weapons but German officers back onto the world military map with a vengeance (almost literally), while BILD and the others gathered support among all those bold, brave, blue-blooded bar-room Germans with dangerously short memories or poor history teachers.

Then on February 12 a young professor in Bremen wanted to review Guttenberg’s dissertation, nearly 500 printed pages about constitutional law in the USA and Europe. Somehow a number of lines seemed familiar. They had neither quotation marks nor a footnote but he soon found them in an article by someone else. He checked further, got a newspaper story, and soon he and others found plagiarized material on 271 pages, making up almost 22 percent of the total text. They had been diligently copied, with only the alteration of a word or two, from a wide range of other publications. Even the opening paragraphs were almost exactly plagiarized.

At first Guttenberg denied everything and threatened a libel suit. As the evidence multiplied he began to speak of possible “mistakes,” caused by the fact that he had been so very busy politically and also had to raise a young family. Then it was found that as a deputy in the Bundestag he had ordered discussions of books prepared by the staff and used that, without paying of course, thus breaking all the relevant rules.

The head of his party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), a Bavarian branch of Merkel’s CDU, refused to find anything wrong with all this. Angela Merkel, though perhaps secretly glad that one very menacing rival was losing ground, also feared the effect of a big scandal in a year with six important state elections looming, and after her party had hardly recovered from a terrible beating it took in the year’s first election in Hamburg. He was one of the top men in her Cabinet, after all, and almost the only one with any charisma. So she stuck up for him until the end. After all, she said sweetly, “I didn’t hire him as a literary adviser or as an academic doctor, but as Minister of Defense, and he is an extremely good one.”

The question of honesty and dependability seemed not to bother her, although she also has a doctorate title and her husband is a professor. One opponent responded by saying that she hadn’t hired Guttenberg as a driver, either, but if he had committed a drunken driving offense she would certainly have had to draw some conclusions about his status in the Cabinet.

Bayreuth University, which granted him the summa cum laude degree, was close to his very well-endowed ancestral estate – from which it had received an indirect but very munificent grant. All this was extremely embarrassing. At first it rejected any reflections on the degree granting but, forced into a corner, it finally withdrew the doctorate – though not before he had himself already dropped the title, first only “temporarily”, then permanently, with announcements which somehow looked almost magnanimous.

While BILD kept defending Gutti against all those nasty, elitist and probably leftist detractors, other media were getting more cautious, and soon not only people from the opposition parties but even some from the Christian Democrats and his own Christian Social Union, aside from its head and Angela Merkel, began to desert him, one after the other.

A website, its name recalling the famous legendary liar, Baron Munchhausen, started collecting names of professors, doctors and those working on their doctorates, demanding that he step down or be dismissed before the whole scientific reputation of Germany and all credibility of its government was lost. Over 60,000 signed an indignant open letter.

Talk about legal consequences of this deception began to make the rounds, a few state prosecutors began to grumble about consequences of fraud, and finally, a red-faced, angry baron gave a press conference lasting a few minutes, implying that, although he had not consciously done anything wrong (like 270 cases of plagiarism), he had been unjustly mobbed. Not a word of apology, the same old arrogance and the final sentence, “I was always willing to put up a fight, but now I have reached the limits of my strength. Many thanks,” and he walked away and disappeared up the nearest stairway. Perhaps some soft-hearted sympathizers even wept for this poor victim.

Merkel now has the difficult task of finding a successor, one who will follow the same military policies in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but will make fewer blunders, while not threatening her as a rival. It will soon be learned whether the election results will be affected; the three most important ones are due on March 20, two in western Germany, one in the East.

It would seem that an extremely dangerous man with powerful ties and influence has at least for the near future, and perhaps permanently, been removed from the scene. That is an important gain.

Photo: Then-Defense Minister Baron Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg strikes a dashing pose, August 2010. Budeswehr-Fotos CC 2.0 





Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled his U.S. Army post in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive, and became a freelance journalist and author. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, the tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, the reasons for the fall of socialism, and the importance of today's struggles.