Guttenberg plagiarism scandal refers to the German political scandal that led to the resignation of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg as Minister of Defence of Germany over the plagiarism of his doctoral dissertation. The first accusations of plagiarism in Guttenberg’s dissertation were made public in February 2011. Guttenberg’s doctoral dissertation, “Verfassung und Verfassungsvertrag” (“Constitution and Constitutional Treaty”), had been the basis of his 2007 Doctorate from the University of Bayreuth. Guttenberg at first denied intentional plagiarism, calling the accusations “absurd,” but acknowledged that he may have made errors in his footnotes. In addition, it emerged that Guttenberg had requested a report from the Bundestag’s research department, which he had then inserted into his thesis without attribution. On 23 February 2011, Guttenberg apologized in parliament for flaws in his thesis, but denied intentional deception and denied the use of a ghostwriter.

On 23 February 2011, the University of Bayreuth withdrew Guttenberg’s doctorate. In part due to the expressions of confidence by Angela Merkel, the scandal continued to evoke heavy criticism from prominent academics, legal scholars (who accused Guttenberg of intentional plagiarism), and politicians both in the opposition and in the governing coalition. On 1 March 2011, Guttenberg announced his resignation as Minister of Defense, from his seat in the Bundestag, and from all other political offices.

In May 2011, a University of Bayreuth commission tasked with investigating Guttenberg’s dissertation came to the conclusion that Guttenberg had engaged in intentional deception in the writing of his dissertation, and had violated standards of good academic practice. The commission found that he had included borrowed passages throughout his thesis, without citation, and had modified those passages in order to conceal their origin.

In November 2011, the prosecution in Hof discontinued the criminal proceedings for copyright violations against Guttenberg on condition of Guttenberg paying €20,000 to a charity. The prosecutor found 23 prosecutable copyright violations in Guttenberg’s dissertation, but estimated that the material damage suffered by the authors of those texts was marginal.

Further investigations

On 24 February 2011, Bundestagspräsident Norbert Lammert declared that Guttenberg had used six reports by the parliament’s research service for his doctoral thesis without prior approval. However, Lammert acknowledged the fact that it was widespread practice among Bundestag Members to use documents prepared by the parliamentary research service without first obtaining the necessary approval. The same day, an open letter to chancellor Merkel was published to be signed by doctoral students and researchers. The successor of Guttenberg’s thesis supervisor Häberle at the University of Bayreuth, Oliver Lepsius, alleged that the minister made the mistakes deliberately and accused him of fraud.

Media reported that between 1999 and 2006 a new chair of the University of Bayreuth had been sponsored with €747.000 by Rhön-Klinikum. Until 2002 Guttenberg’s family held a major stake in the hospital and he had been a member of its supervisory board. In a statement the university denied any sponsoring by Guttenberg as the funding had been part of cooperation between the university, a health insurance, the state of Bavaria and Rhön-Klinikum.

Two days later, minister Schavan in an interview criticized Guttenberg for his thesis: “As someone who earned my doctorate 31 years ago and has worked with many doctoral candidates during my career, I’m embarrassed, and not just privately.” Bundestag’s president Lammert called the affair a “nail in the coffin for trust in our democracy”.

Chancellor Merkel announced through her spokesman Steffen Seibert on 28 February 2011 that Guttenberg had still her full confidence. Asked for Merkel’s opinion on the fraud accusation by Oliver Lepsius, Seibert declared, that “fraud requires intention. Any intention was denied by Guttenberg. The Chancellor believes him.” Guttenberg himself gained strong support at a CSU-meeting in Munich, while several CSU-politicians sharply criticized Lammert and Schavan on their comments.

Apology

On 2 March 2011 the district attorney’s office in Hof announced the launch of an investigation into potential copyright violations contained in Guttenberg’s thesis as soon as his immunity would be withdrawn. With his official resignation as Member of Parliament the following day, Guttenberg abandoned his parliamentary immunity, thus allowing the district attorney’s investigations to proceed. Media reported on more than 80 charges, which had been filed. On 3 March 2011 Guttenberg received his dismissal certificate in a ceremony hosted by German President Christian Wulff.

The same day, media reported about an anonymous member of the Commission of Professional Self Regulation in Science allegedly accusing Guttenberg of deception. In contrast, Volker Rieble, law professor at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, himself a strong critic of Guttenberg’s thesis, published an op-ed disputing the legal basis for further investigations in view of the fact that the university had already revoked Guttenberg’s title and that he was no longer affiliated with the university.

On March 5, 2011, the thesis supervisors Peter Häberle and Rudolf Streinz issued a statement declaring that in 2006, when the thesis was finished, the plagiarism wasn’t detectable for lack of technical opportunities. Without knowledge of the copied passages, Guttenberg’s thesis demonstrated “a high degree of analytical depths and penetrated the dissertation topic in all its facets”, Häberle emphasized. “It is important to note that the candidate [Guttenberg] was able to respond successfully to even intense questioning regarding the methodology and content of the thesis and was completely able to hold his own during the discussion as part of the oral PhD exam”, the supervisors declared on Guttenberg’s doctoral examination procedure and its grading (summa cum laude).

On 7 March 2011 the district attorney’s office in Hof announced the launch of a preliminary investigation into potential copyright violations by Guttenberg. The University of Bayreuth, on 8 March 2011, announced the expansion of the commission investigating Guttenberg’s dissertation to also include Wolfgang Löwer, professor of law at University of Bonn, and Jürgen Mittelstraß, professor of philosophy at University of Konstanz.

A few days later, as a means of taking responsibility for his error, Guttenberg sent personal apology letters to all those authors who were not properly quoted in his thesis. Guttenberg resigned from his last political office, the Kulmbach county council, on 15 March 2011. At the same day the open letter, signed by 63,713 people, was delivered to the Chancellery in Berlin. On 20 March 2011 the Zurich weekly NZZ published extracts of an apology Guttenberg had sent to Klara Obermüller for not quoting her in his dissertation.

 

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