The resignation of Germany’s Defence Minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, on 1 March 2011 marks the preliminary culmination of an astonishing political career. Catapulted out of relative obscurity to become Economics Minister in February 2009, he quickly became the brightest star of the German political elite, regularly outshining Chancellor Angela Merkel in popularity ratings. Just seven months later, following the 2009 Bundestag election, he became the youngest Defence Minister in German history at age 37.
And his tenure as Defence Minister, which has long been viewed as a political graveyard in Germany, was remarkably successful too. He was popular among the troops fighting in Afghanistan, not least because of his regular visits there. Most of all, he led and presided over the end of conscription in Germany: a policy issue which had largely been viewed as taboo, especially by his party, the Bavarian CSU, was jettisoned overnight, not with a bang, but with a whimper. In short, zu Guttenberg appeared to defy the laws of political gravity.
Until now. Already, there were rumblings over his style of leadership: questions had been asked about his handling of allegations over initiation rites on the German Navy’s training ship, the Gorch Fock, and over an accidental shooting fatality in Afghanistan. But ironically it was over the plagiarism of his PhD thesis that he ultimately stumbled. In part, he had set himself up for a fall by portraying himself as a man of honour and integrity: the strapline on his personal website reads Verantwortung verpflichtet – an updated version of noblesse oblige. The extent of plagiarism which was revealed in his thesis was scarcely compatible with this ambition. But more broadly, in a country where a doctorate is widely regarded as a prerequisite for both social respectability and professional advancement, and is therefore more common than in Anglo-Saxon countries, the sense of outrage from the other (many) holders of this title, both within academia and the professions more widely, was always going to be strong.
In political terms, his resignation creates a real headache for Chancellor Merkel, as she has lost by far the strongest member of her government. In Foreign Policy terms too, Germany’s profile abroad will take a knock: as the Wikileaks cables showed, zu Guttenberg was regarded by the US in very positive terms. That said, zu Guttenberg’s career is far from over, and a quick return to prominence, perhaps as eventual successor to Horst Seehofer as Minister-President of Bavaria is surely only a matter of time – indeed, this would in many ways be an ideal outcome for the currently embattled CSU.
But zu Guttenberg was also being touted as a potential Federal Chancellor, and this avenue is likely to be closed off to him, at least in the short to medium term. That leaves Angela Merkel and the CDU with a real challenge: who might possibly succeed her, not in 2013 but sometime before the end of the current decade?