BERLIN, Feb. 28 (UPI) -- Pressure is rising on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to sack Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who has come under fire for allegedly cheating in his 2006 doctoral dissertation.
Nearly 30,000 academics, doctorate degree students and other Germans signed an open letter addressed to Merkel that denounces her handling of Guttenberg's alleged plagiarism.
"The place of the sciences in Germany and the credibility of Germany as a country of ideas have suffered as a result of the trivial handling of the Guttenberg case," said the letter. "Merkel's treatment of the plagiarism affair suggests that obtaining a doctorate through fraudulent means is a harmless crime."
The letter was drafted by Tobias Bunde, a 27-year-old doctoral student at the University of Konstanz. He posted it on the Internet Friday and thousands of Germans have signed it.
"We're absolutely overwhelmed by the feedback," Bunde told United Press International in a telephone interview Monday, following a media frenzy that he said has kept him off his own dissertation and from sleeping enough.
On Monday, after around 22,000 people had signed the letter, Bunde personally delivered it to the chancellor's office.
Merkel has so far chosen to stand by her minister, saying that she had appointed him for his political abilities and not because she needed "a scientific assistant." Bunde said the chancellor's stance disappointed him so much that he decided to write a letter.
"It's not just about footnotes; it's about principles and values. Ms. Merkel always talks of Germany as a place for educational excellence but her actions mock that," Bunde told UPI. "She has no choice but to react to this letter personally and to rethink her position regarding the defense minister."
A rising star among Germany's conservatives, Guttenberg, 39, has been accused of copying entire passages of his dissertation on development of constitution law in the European Union and United States from journalists, scientists, think tanks and political speeches without citing sources. More than one-fifth of his 393-page dissertation, which helped him earn a doctorate at the University of Bayreuth, is fraudulent, media reports say.
A member of the Franconian noble House of Guttenberg, the minister first called the plagiarism allegations absurd but then admitted to "serious mistakes." He has denied knowingly cheating.
Professor Oliver Lepsius, the doctorate supervisor at Bayreuth University, said he doesn't believe Guttenberg didn't know about the plagiarism.
"We have been taken by a fraud," Lepsius told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. "His brazenness in deceiving honorable university personnel was unique."
The affair is poised to have political consequences. One of Germany's most popular politicians and the natural successor to Merkel as chancellor candidate, Guttenberg had set himself apart in the past thanks in part to his image as an honest man who puts his convictions above political expediency.
The entire opposition has called for Guttenberg's head. His critics argue he has lost political credibility and should step down. His supporters blast the opposition demands as a political witch hunt aimed at getting rid of a serious conservative competitor.
Conservative politicians say Guttenberg shouldn't be judged for mistakes he has admitted to and apologized for but for his actions as defense minister. In a survey by pollster TNS Emnid released Sunday, 46 percent of respondents said they still see in Guttenberg a future chancellor.
Yet the anti-Guttenberg faction, often young and creative, seems to get the upper hand. Criticism has gone viral on the Internet. Users can post alleged plagiarism evidence on a recently launched Web site called "Guttenplag," critics call him "Googleberg" on Facebook and Twitter and sell "ergonomic Guttenberg keyboards" on eBay. They're stripped of all keys except the Ctrl, c and v ones -- think copy and paste.
Despite the online frenzy, plummeting popularity ratings and the most recent letter, Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert reiterated Monday the chancellor's support for Guttenberg, saying Merkel would still trust him.
Observers, however, doubt that Merkel can shield her minister for much longer.
Bunde said he and his friends would continue to collect signatures and deliver them to the chancellor's office if they pile up again.
"If Guttenberg remains in office despite all the revelations, it would be a sad sign for the political culture in our country," he said.