Keep Watching Guttenberg

John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images

Keep Watching Guttenberg

Germany’s defense minister has resigned. Here’s why you should continue to keep an eye on him.

Faced with a continual barrage from the left widely publicized by Germany’s mainstream press and media, Baron Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned today from his post as Germany’s defense minister.

To the ignorant, this may appear the end of Guttenberg’s political career. To the real student of German politics, nothing could be further from the truth.

Not only does Guttenberg hail from an aristocratic line proud of its heritage of remaining standing in the face of adversity, but he also represents a legacy within his own party, the Christian Socialists of Bavaria, with a postwar record of leaders who bounce back quickly from political setbacks.

Foremost among these was Franz Josef Strauss.

Strauss was the mentor of Bavaria’s previous prime minister, Edmund Stoiber. Stoiber in turn became political mentor to the young Guttenberg. Both Strauss and Stoiber were no strangers to scandal.

Franz Josef Strauss, once known as the “strong man of Europe,” was forced to resign from the same job from which Guttenberg has now stepped down—Germany’s minister of defense—in 1962. His resignation came at the end of a media campaign not dissimilar to the one Guttenberg has faced over allegations of having plagiarized his doctoral thesis.

During Strauss’s term as defense minister, the high-profile German newsmagazine Spiegel—one source that has prominently featured the Guttenberg affair—reported negatively on Strauss’s work of strengthening Germany’s military force, the Bundeswehr. Consequently, Spiegel’s office premises were searched, and the magazine’s editor, Rudolf Augstein, placed in custody.

The press and Strauss’s political enemies created a huge imbroglio over the issue to the point that they engendered massive protests against Strauss from the German public. He was forced to apologize to the German parliament and resign over the affair.

At the time he took on the defense portfolio, Strauss, at 41, was the youngest minister to hold that position till Guttenberg, at 38, took on the job in 2009.

Comparisons between the two are interesting.

Each took on the defense portfolio at crucial times in the evolution of Germany’s defense forces.

Just as Strauss faced negative publicity in his drive to build the strength of Germany’s fledgling postwar military force, so has Guttenberg since the day he took over the Defense Ministry and started to reform it.

While Strauss accepted the controversial job of building German’s postwar military strength, Guttenberg has taken on the equally controversial task of converting that force into a lean, mean, highly professional, high-tech force capable of rapid response to any part of the globe. He has, like Strauss, weathered many a political storm and potential scandal during his short term as defense minister.

However, there is a profound difference between Guttenberg and Strauss. Whereas Strauss created enemies within both politics and the public by his divisive and somewhat abrasive approach, Guttenberg has been Germany’s most celebrated young postwar political star. Not even this latest controversy about his doctoral thesis has much dented his public image. In fact, some claim it has even helped to lift him in the eyes of an adoring public. He and his glamorous wife still feature prominently on the social pages of Germany’s populist media outlets.

Some of the deeper thinkers within Germany, when considering Guttenberg’s future prospects, see this dent in his political armor as playing in his favor. Guttenberg’s shining star has increasingly shone brighter since rocketing to the forefront in German politics upon his being granted the economics portfolio in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition in March 2009. That star has, despite the sniping of his political enemies, even shone brighter since he gained the Defense Ministry in October the same year.

This latest scandal, however, has shown that the seemingly untouchable rising star of German politics is, after all, human. Though he has shown his preparedness to meet his accusers head on, he is now revealed as sufficiently human as to make mistakes, humble enough to apologize for them and accept the penalty by withdrawing gracefully from political office.

It will be interesting to see both the public and the political response to this revelation of Guttenberg’s human side once the dust has settled. Chances are it will further endear him to a majority adoring public.

One thing is for sure: Guttenberg’s resignation could not come, politically, at a worse time for Chancellor Merkel. Her cdu party lost heavily in recent state elections in Hamburg. She will now face three state elections this month, another in May and two in September. Each will demonstrate a critical measure of cdu support, or the lack of it—a factor that will affect the ongoing performance of the coalition in parliament.

Guttenberg thus steps down at an extremely crucial time in Angela Merkel’s chancellorship.

On the broader political front, Guttenberg resigns amid the ongoing need for Germany’s Ministry of Defense to be aggressively pursuing its options during the middle of the Bundeswehr’s reforms. He does so at a time of crucial change in North Africa and the Middle East. All that unrest raises the prospect of further Bundeswehr deployments in that region, especially to the crucial Persian Gulf waters.

The resignation of her highest-profile minister also comes as the chancellor is not only fighting for her coalition’s survival during crucial state elections, but is also preoccupied with the effects of the ongoing eurozone crisis.

Watch for a period of disruption now in Germany’s domestic politics, just when foreign policy is becoming a most crucial issue. Some feel that Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle may even be forced out of office if his party’s performance at state elections tanks. Westerwelle’s popularity among the German electorate could hardly be lower. If Merkel loses her vice chancellor in the wake of these elections, just after losing her minister of defense, her government could be in real trouble.

If political turmoil results in Germany, watch out! It’s in such times of turmoil that Germans have a hankering for a populist leader to lead them out of confusion—a state the German mind detests—into a far more settled mindset that hints of the true perceived destiny of the German Volk!

Returning to the comparison between Strauss and Guttenberg, there is one other element which we have yet to see play out. Strauss rebounded from his scandal to return to the federal ministry and ultimately become a contender for the chancellor’s office. He did this despite his abrasive and divisive personality and not a great deal of public support outside of his home state of Bavaria.

In measuring Guttenberg’s chances of following in Strauss’s footsteps, he presents a far different persona. Whereas Strauss was abrasive, Guttenberg is smooth as oil in his aristocratic bearing, he is straightforward yet not divisive in discourse and a true diplomat of high order in his political dealings. Whereas Strauss was ousted from office by public outcry, Guttenberg retains great favor with the German electorate.

Given these two measures, one would have to rate Guttenberg’s chances for a successful return to politics as at least as high, if not higher, than those of Strauss after his temporary demise. In fact, given these two pluses, it may well be that Guttenberg will not have to wait the four years that Strauss had to before being invited back to political office.

We say “invited” deliberately. For if Guttenberg is, indeed, who we think he is, then the hard evidence will be if he regains political office not via election, but rather by flatteries.

In the meantime, in respect of Guttenberg’s political battles, he may well be reminded of the words of Winston Churchill reflecting on a far different battle in a far different time: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Again we say, watch Guttenberg!