Ursula von der Leyen

German Defense Chief Denies Plagiarism Charges

Ursula von der Leyen, the German defense minister, has been accused of plagarizing parts of her doctoral dissertation a quarter century ago. She denied the charges on Monday.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party could suffer in popularity and defense minister Urusula von der Leyen could lose her job if she is found guilty of plagiarism.

  • Facts


    • Ursula von der Leyen is a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats party.
    • She has been defense minister since 2013, and has held minister posts in Ms. Merkel’s previous governments since 2005.
    • Ex-Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and former Education Minister Annette Schavan resigned in 2011 and 2013 respectively amid accusations of plagiarism.
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The German defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, on Monday denied a report that she had plagiarized parts of her doctoral dissertation 25 years ago, a charge that four years ago brought down one of her predecessors.

But Ms. von der Leyen’s university, Hannover Medical School, said on Monday that it had opened a formal investigation by a five-member committee into the matter after receiving a recommendation from the university’s ombudsman.

Ms. von der Leyen, a physician and mother of seven who is often handled as a potential successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, has denied the allegations made by a German online platform called Vroniplag Wiki.

The Internet platform on Saturday said Ms. Von der Leyen’s thesis contained “many literal and similar text usages, which are not identified as such.”

Plagiariasm accusations have forced several German politicians in recent years to resign or make mea culpas.

A former German defense minister and rising political star from Bavaria, Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, stepped down in 2011 after another German research group showed that his dissertation had been largely copied from others.

In 2013, Annette Schavan, the German minister of education, resigned amid similar accusations. The charges made against Ms. von der Leyen were prepared by several of the researchers who worked on Ms. Schavan’s thesis.

”I can reject the accusations of plagiarism,” Ms. von der Leyen told German newspaper Berliner Morgenpost. “It is not a new thing that Internet activists try to discredit politicians’ theses.”

“I can reject the accusations of plagiarism. It is not a new thing that Internet activists try to discredit politicians’ theses.”

Ursula von der Leyen, German Defense Minister quoted in Berliner Morgenpost

Hannover Medical School, in a statement, said its decision to open an investigation was not an indication of whether or not the committee considered the accusations against Ms. von der Leyen grave enough to strip her of her title.

The university said the “threshold to open an investigation is generally low.” The university committee will now examine the details of the doctoral thesis.

Ms. von der Leyen earned her doctoral dissertation in medicine in 1991, and is a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party.

No one at the German defense ministry was immediately available to comment when contacted by Handelsblatt Global Edition, but a ministry spokesman confirmed Ms. von der Leyen’s denial to German news agency DPA.

Ms. von der Leyen contacted Hanover Medical School the same day she heard of the accusations in August, the ministry spokesman told the news agency.

“She contacted the Hanover Medical School on the same day to request her thesis be examined by an expert and neutral party of the institute,” the spokesperson was quoted as saying.

Ms. von der Leyen, who studied economics and medicine, wrote her thesis on the value of a specific protein to diagnose a type of infection in pregnant women.

Ms. von der Leyen’s fellow conservatives Mr. zu Guttenberg and Ms. Schavan resigned after their universities stripped them of their doctoral titles. In both cases, a panel of experts had examined their dissertations.

von der leyen with soliders reuters
It’s not that her medical degree is of the essence in her role as minister of defense. Source: Reuters


“If the responsible panel agrees with the allegations of plagiarism, this might lead to (Ms. von der Leyen) losing her doctorate,” Christian Pestalozza, a professor for medical law and administrative law at the Freie Universität Berlin, told Handelsblatt Global Edition.

“These panels have some leeway in assessing a dissertation. There are guidelines on this by scientific organizations and by the universities, but there is not one way to determine whether someone will lose their doctorate or keep it.”

So far, the allegations against Ms. von der Leyen made by VroniPlag Wiki concentrate on the first parts of her dissertation, which includes the introduction and literature review.

Large chunks of Ms. von der Leyen’s own scientific research seem to hold up to the platform’s comparative research, which the group published on its website.

“If the plagiarized parts are in the introduction or historical overview or other secondary matters, then it might be considered less grave,” Mr. Pestalozza said. “But if they are part of the scientific core of the thesis, then this will be considered more grave.”

Ms. von der Leyen’s father, Ernst Albrecht, was the state premier of Lower Saxony from 1976 to 1990.

According to its website and German news reports, VroniPlag Wiki was founded in 2011 by Martin Heidingsfelder, a self-described “professional plagiarism hunter” from Nuremberg who was involved in testing the doctoral works of Ms. Schavan and Mr. zu Guttenberg.

Germany places a high priority on advanced college degrees, and a much broader swath of society, including its political and business elite, routinely have one — or more — doctoral degrees in their fields.

Carsten Koschmieder, a political scientist and research assistant at Freie Universität Berlin, said so far, Ms. von der Leyen has been handling the allegation well. How German lawmakers handle such accusations can often be more fateful than the substance of the charges themselves, he said.

“It rarely is the case that politicians stumble over the mistake they made in the past as such, but rather over the way they deal with it,” Mr. Koschmieder said.

Mr. zu Guttenberg didn’t just resign because he plagiarized, but because he denied any wrongdoing when there was substantial doubt, he said, and threatened to sue members of the Bundestag for slander who accused him of plagiarism.

“If you react like this, you just have to be absolutely right,” Mr. Koschmieder said. “If it then turns out that you plagiarized, stepping down is inevitable.”

Ms. Schavan’s predicament was heightened because she was Germany’s minister for education, and supposedly the standardbearer for academic honesty.

“Whether or not a scandal like this buries a politician’s career depends on whether they lose their title, and the way they handle the affair,” he said.


Gilbert Kreijger and Franziska Roscher are editors at Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. To contact the authors: kreijger@handelsblatt.com; roscher@handelsblatt.com

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