Exclusive Germany's Defense Minister Keeps Doctorate, Avoids Political Scandal

Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defense minister, will get to keep her medical degree after she was absolved Wednesday of allegations that she systematically plagiarized her doctoral thesis, a major relief for the politician who has long been tipped as a future successor of Chancellor Angela Merkel. The highest council at Ms. von der Leyen’s alma mater, Hanover Medical School, said it had decided she can keep her title. “The council decided… with a majority of seven to one votes with one abstention to not revoke Dr. von der Leyen’s doctorate,” Christopher Baum, president of the university, told reporters at a press conference Wednesday evening. An investigation did find proof of “mistakes for which Dr. von der Leyen as the author is responsible,” Mr. Baum said. However, the nature of any plagiarism that was found did not suggest purposeful deceit in the eyes of the council, he added. “We are talking about mistakes, not wrongdoing,” Mr. Baum said during a press conference called by the medical school. The case has drawn public attention, not least because prominent cases of plagiarism in recent years have cost some German politicians their doctorates and even forced them to step down from their posts. Ms. von der Leyen is a member of Ms. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic (CDU) party. Ahead of the university’s announcement, Ms. Merkel’s spokesman had expressed support for Ms. von der Leyen, regardless of the outcome. Asked whether the chancellor would still stand behind Ms. von der Leyen even if the latter lost her title, spokesman Steffen Seitbert replied “of course.” Other politicians have not been so fortunate. Ms. von der Leyen’s predecessor Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned in 2011 after a German research group had found suspected plagiarism on 94 percent of the more than 400 pages of his dissertation. Annette Schavan, a former German education minister, lost her title in 2013 and stepped down just days later. Yet, not all plagiarism allegations made online against politicians have actually led titles to be revoked. While Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s university accused him of sloppiness and some errors after an investigation into his 1991 dissertation, the Social Democratic politician was allowed to keep his doctorate in law. Accusations of plagiarism against Ms. von der Leyen were first voiced in late September by the online platform VroniPlag Wiki, which had already investigated several politicians’ doctoral theses. One of its founders, Martin Heidingsfelder, a self-described “professional plagiarism hunter” from Nuremberg was also involved in testing the Ms. Schavan’s dissertation. Hanover Medical School opened a formal investigation into the matter, instructing a five-member committee to examine the dissertation. The minister has denied the allegations and any wrongdoing in her academic work, but said she asked the university to look into the matter nevertheless. After half a year of investigation, the committee forwarded its recommendation to the council and – according to the guidelines – to Ms. von der Leyen. The minister therefore already knew the result of the investigation concerning her thesis, if not the result of today’s council meeting. Ms. von der Leyen, who studied medicine and economics, earned her medical doctorate in 1991. Her thesis explored the value of a specific protein in diagnosing a type of infection in pregnant women. Advanced degrees are common in Germany, where not just academics but many politicians, executives and even teachers often hold a doctoral degree.   Picture Source: DPA