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There was a time when Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was widely tipped to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor of Germany. Good-looking, aristocratic, married to a descendant of Bismarck and beloved by the popular press, zu Guttenberg had cut a dash, first as a decisive economics minister, and then as Germany’s youngest defence minister — appointed at the age of 37 in 2009. And then, in two disastrous weeks in early 2011, his gilded career fell apart, after it was revealed that he had plagiarised large parts of his doctoral thesis. Within two weeks, zu Guttenberg had resigned from the German government. Shortly afterwards, he left for a career in business in the US.

Ever since zu Guttenberg stepped down, there has been speculation about his return to German politics. Now, with Chancellor Merkel in deep political trouble over Germany’s refugee crisis, might this be a time for him to resurrect his political career? As political pundits run through the rather thin list of possible leaders in a post-Merkel era, some eyes have begun to stray over the Atlantic — to the baron across the water. Even if the idea of zu Guttenberg as a future German leader remains a long shot, I am interested to see what this former star of German politics has to say about the state of his native land — and about the political future of his former mentor, Merkel.

We have set up a lunch at the restaurant of the Crosby Street Hotel in lower Manhattan, around the corner from the offices of Spitzberg Partners, a consultancy and investment firm founded and chaired by zu Guttenberg. The restaurant is decorated in Soho chic style, with multicoloured sofas dotted about, colourful lights hanging from the high ceiling and a bar to one side of the dining room. I am shown to a table and settle down to read the paper, which is full of news about the US presidential election.

Looking up, I see my guest approaching across the room. In emails to me he has signed off as KT — which is admirably terse given that his full name is Baron Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jakob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg. Despite this monstrously aristocratic name, the baron is dressed in informal style — dark-blue jeans and a pale-blue shirt, under an anorak-style jacket. He is tall, with a closely cropped beard, horn-rimmed glasses and an engaging smile. Before we have time to settle down, he suggests to the waitress, courteously but firmly, that we move to a quieter table at the back of the restaurant.

The move accomplished, menus are handed to us. The dishes are all described in the comically elaborate fashion that seems to be compulsory in fancy American restaurants. Since I have just returned from the gastronomic tundra of a Holiday Inn in New Hampshire, I am interested in giving some consideration to the relative virtues of pan-seared Long Island duck Breast and lump crabmeat with fresh squid-ink spaghetti and saffron bomba. Zu Guttenberg is showing little interest in the menu. Instead, he talks enthusiastically about a trip to Antarctica that he has just been on, in the company of scientists and tech-entrepreneurs. I find his insights into climate change slightly hard to follow — but it could just be that I’m hungry.

Eventually, I manage to direct his attention to the menu. He raises his eyebrows and says, slightly apologetically — “Soho prices”. A waiter appears, but before he can launch into the usual monologue about the specials, zu Guttenberg places a modest-sounding order — “I’ll have the pumpkin soup and a spinach salad.” I look over at him and notice that, at the age of 44, he does seem to have avoided any hint of middle-aged spread. I decide to be slightly less frugal and go for the tuna tartare, followed by the sea scallops. My guest orders tap water to drink and, slightly regretfully, I follow suit.

Normally, when I interview somebody over lunch, I try to save the trickiest issues for later in the meal. But thinking about zu Guttenberg, it strikes me that both the personal and the political questions that I want to raise are sensitive. Should I start with the plagiarism or with the wounded chancellor?

Instead, as the starters arrive, we talk about the traditional upside of a political downfall — the chance to spend more time with your family. Zu Guttenberg remarks enthusiastically, “My daughters are 13 and 14 and that’s one of the marvellous things of being out of politics that I still have time, at least for a couple of years, to see them as children. Before that, for 10 years, maybe it was three hours per week . . . Sometimes half a day, but your mind’s always somewhere else.” His daughters are called Anna and Mathilda. So they don’t have millions of names, like you, I ask?

“No, thank God,” he says.

I ask how he has been landed with quite so many names — “It’s a family tradition,” he replies vaguely. The house of Guttenberg dates back to 1149 and is still based in an ancient castle in Bavaria. “My name leads to outbursts of laughter, whenever I have to show my passport and it also never fits on to a boarding pass . . . Sometimes they shorten it and just take the zu, then they look for the Chinese person in the room. Where is Mr zu?”

I dig into my tuna tartare, which is surrounded by something delicious and crisp — the shaved sunchokes, I suspect. As zu Guttenberg stirs his yellow soup, I take him back to the scandal that forced him out of politics. I ask how long it had lasted from beginning to end. “Just two weeks,” he replies. “It’s very often described as endless . . . but no, it was just two weeks. It was rather intense to put it mildly.” He smiles slightly.

Zu Guttenberg’s line, then and now, was that he had been unaware of the many instances of plagiarism in his work — that it was all simply the result of sloppy research practices, carried out at a busy time in his life. But he also thinks that, in retrospect, he had been riding for a fall — “I’d been irrationally hyped, way too high . . . It was far from reality, at least in my own perceptions . . . Looking back that was one of the mistakes I made, that I allowed it, that I didn’t actively counter it, but that’s extremely difficult when the whole thing is rolling.” He is smiling a lot, as he talks about this painful episode. “I talked with a lot of friends about it in that crazy hyped period that the moment necessarily must come that it tips in the other direction . . . I did not expect the story that came up, not at all, and this really hit me by total surprise. But again, looking back now, I’ve been in the wonderful situation to experience probably all the extremes that political life can offer.”

His words sound genuine. But they are also couched in terms of learning and redemption that might prove useful, were he ever planning a return to German politics. How often does he go back to Germany? “At the moment, I’d say probably about once a month, but mainly for a board meeting or an investment. Or I might give a speech, to test an idea . . . It’s about learning, learning, learning.”

This seems like the natural moment to raise the refugee crisis — so I ask him if he thought Merkel had been taken by surprise by the arrival of more than a million refugees in Germany in 2015. His reply is more critical than I expect: “I think she was surprised by the outcome of her decision and I see with some interest that she’s now step-by-step moving towards the positions of her harshest critics within her own party and obviously within the CSU.”

Zu Guttenberg himself is a member of the CSU (Christian Social Union), a conservative Bavarian party that is in alliance with Merkel’s Christian Democrats but which has been harshly critical of the chancellor’s handling of the refugee crisis. The CSU even extended a warm welcome to Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary — famous for building a razor-wire fence to keep out refugees and for his trenchant criticism of Merkel. For zu Guttenberg, this went a little far — “Talking to Orbán is fine, whether it was necessary to invite him to the party convention is another question.”

He says that after Merkel said, “we can do it” . . . “There should have been a comma and a ‘but’ . . . at least to have it as a fallback option that would have allowed her to manoeuvre a bit more elegantly . . . that really surprised me, because it was out of character.”

Describing her situation now, he says, “She’s hectically travelling to Turkey, actually a position that should be done by the European Union, but they’re all standing around, just watching her . . . They say, she caused the whole thing, so it’s her business to do that.

“I don’t see the situation improving dramatically,” he continues. “The unfortunate thing about European politics at the moment is it’s just about survival until the next stage — until the next disaster happens. She’s trying everything to regain room to manoeuvre. Having said that we have to deal with more than 1m already in the country, and another 65,000 in the first month of this year . . . I don’t see Germany and Europe regaining stable ground in the months to come. We still haven’t seen, out of sheer luck sometimes, a Charlie Hebdo-style terrorist attack in Germany.”

We have been talking for 50 minutes, but he has not yet finished his soup. The waiter hovers and zu Guttenberg takes the hint — “That’s my last spoonful. It was good.”

The second course arrives. Once again, I dig eagerly into my scallops, while my guest toys with his elaborate spinach salad and keeps talking. Zu Guttenberg’s English is completely fluent and I ask him where he first learnt it. He mentions a year spent at a US high school and adds that he also spent six months as a student in Edinburgh — “I was researching my doctorate, funnily enough,” he says, blushing noticeably.

I switch to the general mood in Germany. During the past decade, the country has struck me as a fantastic success story — prosperous, stable, at peace with itself. Is he worried that that success story might be endangered by the refugee crisis?

There is a long pause and he looks out of the window, before replying — “Yes, I’m deeply worried about it. It may sound absurd but the success story was so strong, lots of things went so smoothly . . . that we were not prepared to deal with difficulties that go much further than ones we have had in recent decades. There is a shock effect and that is always a breeding ground for nationalism, for radicalism.” The shock and uncertainty in German society, he explains — “is not just something you would only see amongst those who have, let us say, a limited educational background. It is growing amongst the university-educated . . . Their mood is highly critical and anxious.”

Given all these uncertainties, I ask, “Are you getting calls from Germany saying come on back, things are . . . ” He interrupts me, before I complete the sentence — “Yes, more in the last couple of months.”

What kind of people?

“It differs. Sometimes it’s just people on the street who recognise me, with the beard and everything. Also the party.”

So what do you say?

“I have a responsibility over here. The company.” He adds that his business, which invests in technology companies has done “extremely well. A bit surprisingly well”.

This denial of political ambition sounds almost convincing. But when I suggest that his activities in New York, which involve the US tech sector and high finance, might excite some suspicion among German voters — who are not noted for their fondness for either Wall Street or Silicon Valley — he is strikingly quick to put me right. “No, I’m not doing anything suspicious. I think they’re all things you can easily explain. I’m investing in companies. I’m helping companies to grow . . . If I was in an investment bank and at Goldman, I think the Germans would utterly dislike me and there are good reasons for that.” Venture capital, he stresses, is quite another thing — “We’re not the business model of Wall Street. Even if we are just a block away.”

I mention that I had predicted in the FT, back in December, that the refugee crisis would force Merkel to leave office during the course of 2016. He smiles broadly and asks, “And did you offer her the position of UN secretary-general at the same time?” He is referring to a rumour that is doing the rounds in New York and Berlin that the German chancellor could be a candidate for the top job at the United Nations — a position that must be decided this September. Malcontents within Merkel’s own CDU-CSU grouping see this as a graceful way to ease the chancellor out — with the obvious replacement being Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister. But Schäuble is 73 years old and not in perfect health. He would probably just be an interim appointment, which might just open the door for a younger man, somebody who might return to German politics in the federal elections, due in 2017 . . . 

There are many twists and turns to come before then. Regional elections in the middle of March will be a vital test of Merkel’s political strength. And almost all pundits are agreed that Germany simply must find a way to reduce the flow of refugees in 2016. If not, all political bets are off.

As we sip our coffees, we discuss the Trump phenomenon. For zu Guttenberg, it is further evidence that politics is “becoming dirtier and dirtier. The new media don’t help here . . . I still struggle with myself, whether I am capable of doing that.”

I am slightly surprised by this apparent humility and remark that I cannot remember many politicians who have turned down the top job on the grounds that they are not up to it. The presidency of the US might be an impossible job, I point out, but somebody has to do it. Zu Guttenberg looks thoughtful and replies: “Somebody has to and of course, there is not a perfect figure for any political position. I think to know you are constantly working with and around your own deficits is already a very helpful starting point.” If that is a job application — it is one couched in strikingly modest terms.

Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator

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