Two years after a plagiary scandal turned him into a pariah in his own country, Karl-Theodor Guttenberg is thriving in the United States. A profile in contradictions.
WASHINGTON - When he walks into the room, I have to double-check: is that really him? Yes, it really is Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, 41, the former German Minister of Defense. He is just about to participate in a discussion about military strategists at the prestigious Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.
Guttenberg changed his look well over a year ago, and no longer uses hair gel or wears rimless glasses. Otherwise the man who was once a rising star on the German political scene hasn’t changed much, except perhaps for putting on a few pounds. And he’s got one arm in a black sling. “Skiing accident,” he says – the arm had been operated on a few days earlier in New York. His body language is relaxed, elegant jacket thrown casually over his shoulder, and he’s tieless, but his face shows traces of tension.
Almost exactly two years have passed since Guttenberg stepped down from his position as German Defense Minister after the discovery that there were numerous plagiarized sections in his law school doctoral thesis, which was subsequently revoked. Not long after stepping down, Guttenberg, who has the title of baron, his wife Stephanie, born Countess von Bismarck-Schönhausen, and their two daughters moved from Germany to Greenwich, Connecticut.
Guttenberg repeatedly said the move was temporary – but there was no indication in Washington that the former politician was in any hurry to get back to Germany.
Guttenberg has the run of CSIS offices. In Sept. 2011 the independent think tank bestowed the informal title of "distinguished statesman" on him, and he heads a forum for trans-Atlantic relations there that was created especially for him.
Based on his experience, the former secretary general of the Christian Social Union, former Federal Minister of Economics and Technology before going over to Defense – and former doctor of law – is recognized as an expert in the States, where unlike Germany academic titles play a secondary role. Guttenberg also has excellent connections, including at the White House and in Congress with both Democrats and Republicans. When he was in New York he had lunch with Henry Kissinger, and he was due shortly after the CSIS discussion to fly to Utah to appear at a conference.
Today, at the CSIS gathering in the nation’s capital, talk centers on Fritz Kraemer, who was born in 1908 in Essen (Germany). A Lutheran with Jewish roots, he fled the Nazis in 1939 and in the States became one of the most influential and important Pentagon strategists. Under discussion this morning is the new book called True Keeper of the Holy Flame that Hubertus Hoffmann, founder and president of the World Security Network Foundation, just published about his mentor and friend.
Guttenberg jokes that he’s read more “comfortable” books than this one, and traces the extremely close relation Kraemer had with Henry Kissinger until the mid-1970s, when Kraemer abruptly broke off the friendship: he considered the man who later became Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State too "flexible" in his political views and too vain.
Kraemer on the other hand was an idealist, a man of firm convictions and principles who never put the focus on his own career. For the remaining 30 years of his life Kraemer didn’t exchange another word with Kissinger, whose last encounter with his former mentor came in 2003 when he paid his respects as the deceased Kraemer lay in state.
During the discussion, it becomes clear that Guttenberg admires Kraemer – the way one admires a saint yet whose life one wouldn’t wish to emulate. Politics, he says, requires compromises for progress to be made and results achieved. "Was Kraemer a Democrat? Somebody capable of making compromises without which democracy can’t function?" he asks.
The person in this small, select group who answers his question is legendary Lieutenant General and Ambassador Ed Rowny, who planned the invasion of Japan and served the United States as chief negotiator in the Geneva talks with the Soviet Union on reducing strategic nuclear arms. "Fritz was an absolutist, and we need absolutists," Rowny, who is going on 96 years old, said of his dead friend. If one had to ascribe “sides” in the matter, Guttenberg would be a Kissingerian – an adept of Realpolitik.
From most popular to ridiculed
Yet a little over two years ago, Guttenberg was seen as the antithesis to unprincipled German party politics – a plain speaker who despite his aristocratic background placed little value on formalities and whose youthful stride could break all the encrusted structures wide open.
The acknowledged AC/DC fan brought hard rock to Berlin’s government scene and with lightening speed became the most popular German politician. Many thought he would become chancellor. Until, that is, the many plagiarisms in his thesis came to the fore – and which he at first strenuously denied. Then his fall from grace was one of the steepest in the history of Germany democracy. He tried gingerly to regain some foothold, but attempts were met with ridicule and malice.
Guttenberg does not wish now to talk about Germany, its political parties, his plans or eventual return. No interview, please. He does say that he doesn’t miss his past in the spotlight and likes the relative anonymity he enjoys in the States. Maybe so. Or is this a defensive stance adopted because he knows full well that the Germans are not yet ready to forgive him?
In January Guttenberg cancelled a speech scheduled at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire after a German professor there assembled signatures against his appearance. According to the professor, Guttenberg had “never seriously” apologized for his plagiarism and with that background was unfit to address university students.
In November dozens of German doctoral students at Yale demonstratively left the lecture hall when Guttenberg launched into his speech on myths of trans-Atlantic relations." "If you stay I will gladly say a few words about the plagiarism, also about shame and failure,” he said. One of the German students fired back sarcastically: "No, we have to work on our dissertations, we’re going to the library.” However according to press reports other German students – in fact most of them – stayed to listen to what Guttenberg had to say.
The Americans, who are more insistent than Germans about sniffing errors out ongoing, are also more willing to give people a second chance. In any case with regard to Guttenberg they singularly fail to see what the fuss is about. Did he kill somebody? Embezzle money? Then he must at least have had an inappropriate relationship with a female intern at the ministry. No again. So why – two years later – is he still in the doghouse?
Still: one shouldn’t talk the gravity of the situation down – to plagiarize then deny it until the evidence becomes too overwhelming certainly warrants resignation from a high-level job.
On this Washington morning, Guttenberg now looks a little tired. When others talk he stares off into the distance as if his thoughts were elsewhere. However when he speaks, in his English that was already perfect before his self-chosen exile in the States, he addresses what the person before him said articulately, with precision and focus.
For Americans someone like this is a "distinguished statesman." But to the many Germans who continue to ostracize him, he’s just a has-been.