GERMANY: PhD row ex-minister faces charges after resignation

Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg, who last week stepped down as Germany's Minister of Defence following allegations of plagiarism in his doctoral thesis, has also resigned his seat in parliament, meaning he is no longer immune from prosecution. With more than 100 accusations of plagiarism being probed by prosecutors, zu Guttenberg is now facing preliminary court proceedings.

The affair attracted considerable media attention, with Germany's powerful Springer publishing company clearly coming out in favour of the highly popular (former) defence minister.

However, the topic also became the focus of a new website, GuttenPlag Wikia, which has been enjoying up to 1.8 million page visits a day. With everyone able to check the facts surrounding the beleaguered baron and criticism building up in the academic community, even politicians belonging to the ruling Christian Democratic Union began to speak out.

Federal Parliament President Norbert Lamers called the affair "a nail in the coffin of our democracy's credibility". And Minister of Education and Research Annette Schavan said that "having received a PhD 31 years ago myself, I am not just secretly ashamed". She added that in her opinion, the issue was not merely a petty matter.

It was at this stage, too, that Margret Wintermantel, President of the Rectors' Conference (HRK) of higher education institution heads, stated that "academic misconduct is not a trivial offence and should not be treated as one, either".

Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel nevertheless refused to withdraw her support for zu Guttenberg, stressing that she had not recruited him as an academic, but as a defence minister.

Sentiments among doctoral students were sent to Merkel in an open letter signed by 60,792 scholars. The letter accuses Merkel of "ridiculing" all academic staff. "Our impression is that you are clinging to a minister who still denies deceiving the examination board with his doctoral thesis, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary," the doctoral students claimed.

They maintain that "the factual evidence is there for everyone to see and check", and stress that "scientific and hence social progress have to rely on honesty in the scientific community".

The authors of the letter also claimed that treating the zu Guttenberg case as a trivial matter will damage Germany's academic reputation and its credibility as the 'Land of Ideas', a slogan that the Research Ministry uses in campaigns to boost international cooperation.

"But perhaps you simply regard our contribution to society as negligible," the letter concludes. "Then, however, you ought to refrain from speaking of what you yourself claimed to be an 'Education Republic'."

What probably ultimately prompted zu Guttenberg's resignation from all political offices on 1 March was a change in position by his doctoral supervisor Peter Häberle, who reconsidered his initial public defence of zu Guttenberg and declared in a written statement that he "deeply regretted" that the circumstances of the thesis he had supervised were "suited to bring the University of Bayreuth into disrepute in public debate".

The statement says that the "flaws detected in zu Guttenberg's doctoral thesis, which are quite inconceivable to me, are serious and not acceptable", and also stresses that they "clash with what I have strived to demonstrate as good academic practice for decades and have also always made a point of getting across to my students".

Stripping zu Guttenberg of his doctoral title was a necessary consequence, Häberle says, and he now judges his initial statement as a "spontaneous and all too rash response".

The University of Bayreuth is assuming willful deceit in the zu Guttenberg case and its academic standards commission will be reviewing the issue in this light.

Having resigned his seat in Parliament, zu Guttenberg has lost legal immunity and now faces possible prosecution. The public prosecutor's office of Hof, in his native Bavaria, has instituted preliminary proceedings and is to review possible criminal offences relating above all to copyright.

On Monday prosecutors in Hof announced that they had received more than 100 complaints relating to plagiarism allegations against zu Guttenberg, and were also looking into breach of copyright. Around 20 further allegations are reportedly being handled by the authorities in Berlin.