An unusual retraction: German defense minister zu Guttenberg loses doctorate over plagiarized thesis

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, photo by Peter Weis via Wikimedia

When we cover plagiarism on Retraction Watch, particularly when it leads to retractions, we’re writing almost exclusively about science. But there’s a story about a retraction outside of the scientific literature that has been unfolding over the past week, and grabbing enough headlines, that we figured we should post something on it.

It was Bremen University’s Andreas Fischer-Lescano who discovered what he called “a brazen plagiarism” in German defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg’s 2006 law thesis, according to The Guardian. The minister was already a member of parliament at the time, and had apparently used sections of newspaper articles without attribution.

When the allegations first came to light last week, zu Guttenberg denied them. But a university ombudsperson began looking into the matter. And der Spiegel reported that zu Guttenberg

used the services of the parliament’s research department for his dissertation, and didn’t mention the author in his footnotes.

On the 21st, zu Guttenberg said he would give up the title “Dr.” while the investigation was underway. Meanwhile, people using a wiki set up allow them to page through his thesis and compare it to other material were finding more and more instances of plagiarism, more than 400 at last count. You can also click through the evidence at an interactive graphic at the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Wednesday night, the university formally took away his doctorate. Earlier in the day, according to the Guardian:

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who recently overtook Angela Merkel as Germany’s most popular politician in a poll, admitted in the German parliament on Wednesday that he had made “serious errors” in his academic work, which he completed in 2006 while already an MP.

He said he had been overwhelmed by writing the work while starting a family and launching his political career and that he had been “arrogant” to believe he could juggle it all at the same time.

“I did not deliberately cheat, but made serious errors,” said Guttenberg to loud jeers in the chamber.

We’re not students of German politics, so we’ll leave the prognosticating about zu Guttenberg’s future to the experts. We don’t even really know any German, except for the word “unglaublich,” for “unbelievable,” which we used to describe the most recent developments in the Joachim Boldt case. But it seems worth noting that plagiarism is going to become more and more difficult, with products such as CrossCheck coming into wide use.

We don’t know how zu Guttenberg’s plagiarism was uncovered. But if a finance minister who has been dubbed “Zu Googleberg” — the other too obvious joke is to misspell his name as Gutenberg, although there’s no evidence of any relation — can get caught, so can a scientist working in a lab.

Please see an update on this case.

Hat tips: Marcus Anhaeuser, Martin Fenner, Joerg Heber, Jochen Mierau, Willem van Schaik, Neil Withers

10 thoughts on “An unusual retraction: German defense minister zu Guttenberg loses doctorate over plagiarized thesis”

  1. Thanks for picking this up here, too. The true scandal about this affair is how relaxed many top-level politicians in Germany are about this, including Chancellor Merkel. There is a sense of “oh, cheating in the humanities, or academia in general, well… why would anybody get THAT upset about it? Aren’t there more important things for a Minister of Defense to worry about than footnotes?”

    The more attention this affair draws outside Germany, the better.

  2. Thank you for this post, however, I think one aspect of that story is not really covered enough in the English media.

    For many academics in Germany, the scandal here is not that there is a politician who lied, but it is about the defense of scientific integrity. The fact that he seems to get away with it and “only” lost his title, but not his job and career, sends the message to the public that plagiarism is a minor offence.

    Academics in Germany are up in arms against that attitude, and in the last few days there have been numerous statements from academic societies as well as editorials in science magazines stating clearly that integrity is the foundation of science and that plagiarism has to be taken seriously and should lead to significant consequences, even when the perpetrator is a popular politician. Today the German Research Foundation (DFG) also stated that “Science relies on truthfulness, integrity and trust” (

    In addition to these “official” position statements, Ph.D. students started a petition, an open letter to Merkel, stating that her continuing support for Guttenberg is a slap in the face of all students and researchers who work hard to earn their degree:

    So this is not just another case of a retraction or just another lying politicians, but it’s a big debate in Germany on the value of scientific integrity in society.

  3. The real zinger is that he received his degree “Suma cum laude” which in and on itself must be an accomplishment.

    Even more interesting is that the Government tries to push through new copyright laws and to that extend the Chancellor in a podcast was saying just this week that “copyright infringement is a serious crime”. That is, unless you’re defence minister in which case it’s all just a mistake.

  4. Well of course it was summa cum laude. He only copied and pasted from the very best articles.

    It does strike me as amazing that Merkel is not even giving him a slap on the wrist for a) plagiarism and b) lying about it.

    But from what I’ve read he’s seen as a rising star in Merkel’s party and hence if she did anything, she’s be shooting herself in the foot. So not surprising.

    1. Yes. He is the “hope of the right” and he is being groomed as the next chancellor. His wife is also trying to come off as very “first ladilike” by getting involved in “Innocence in Danger” (which in and on itself is a funny little organization) not to mention that the German Yellowpress is trying their darnest to bend the perception of him into the positive.

      None-the-less, at least 400 people last Saturday showed up on short notice and protested him in front of the Defence Ministry and neither opposition nor media or academics seem to “let go” of the issue.

  5. This entire scandal is a massive attack against scientific integrity and standards. A recent poll resulted in an astonishing 87% support for Guttenberg. See (in German). The fact that upkeeping political power at the expense of scientific and ethical (sic!) values will fire back for sure. The short-term effect of keeping Dr. Googleberg is a high prize for the long-term and devastating effects on the reputation of science and political hygiene in Germany.

  6. People following the story might find this post interesting:

    It’s an English translation of a letter accusing the German chancellor of trivialising plagiarism. Apparently it’s been signed by over 20, 000 people.

    Article in German about the protest here – look at the picture of the guy with the “[citation needed]” sign if nothing else!

    (via Dietram A. Scheufele on twitter)

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