KELKHEIM, Germany (Reuters) - Germany's defense minister said Monday he would give up his doctorate title in an attempt to quell a plagiarism scandal that has prompted a criminal investigation.
Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, Germany's most popular politician and a potential future candidate for chancellor has been accused by newspapers of copying parts of his doctoral dissertation without correctly attributing them.
Guttenberg, from the more conservative Bavarian sister party (CSU) of Merkel's Christian Democrats, has apologized for individual errors in his dissertation on constitutional law that he submitted in 2006 but said he did not intend to cheat.
"I made mistakes, but I didn't do them on purpose," he said at an election rally Monday. "The decision to no longer carry the title is painful."
The scandal, dubbed "Copygate," comes at a difficult moment for Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose coalition is recovering in opinion polls ahead of seven regional elections in 2011, which kicked off Sunday in Hamburg.
Her party was swept from power in Germany's second city with its worst result since World War Two.
Guttenberg has said he will not resign, and Merkel and CSU leader Horst Seehofer expressed their support for him Monday.
Merkel said his work as a minister was decisive, as she had not nominated him because of his PhD, and he carried out his office "excellently."
The 39-year-old aristocrat -- full name Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester, Baron von und zu Guttenberg -- is a rising star in Merkel's conservative coalition, who tops popularity polls and has so far enjoyed doting coverage in the conservative media and gossip magazines.
Yet Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported last week that Guttenberg, married to the great-great-granddaughter of "Iron Chancellor" Otto von Bismarck, had used incorrectly attributed work from some 19 authors in at least 50 pages of his more than 400-page thesis.
Guttenberg repeatedly has said the thesis is his own work.
"I wrote this thesis myself, and I stand by it, also by the idiotic things that I wrote," he said.
Bayreuth public prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation and the university there has given Guttenberg two weeks to respond to the allegations.
(Writing by Sarah Marsh; editing by Michael Roddy)