Merkel's Phantom of the Opera A Fleeting Glimpse of Germany's Camera-Shy First Man

As Angela Merkel becomes Germany's first female leader, the country is wondering what role will be played by her media-shy husband Joachim Sauer, a dour chemistry professor who is rarely seen by her side.

By in Berlin

Angela Merkel is sworn as chancellor in parliament in Berlin.

Angela Merkel is sworn as chancellor in parliament in Berlin.

You would think that if your wife gets made leader of the country you might go along to see it happen. Not Professor Joachim Sauer, the eminent chemistry professor wedded to Angela Merkel who was formally voted and sworn in as chancellor of Germany in parliament on Tuesday.

Professor Sauer was unable to come to the Reichstag because he was too busy working at Berlin's Humboldt University, said one source close to Germany's first female leader.

He did not witness his wife gulp shyly and fight back tears, briefly overwhelmed by the occasion as hundreds of members of parliament and visitors in the historic Reichstag got to their feet to applaud the pastor's daughter, her dream come true.

The event, broadcast live on the main television channels, was a huge personal victory for Merkel after years of battling political opponents and rivals in her male-dominated conservative Christian Democrat Union party.

Joachim Sauer caught at his door.

Joachim Sauer caught at his door.

German media have been speculating for months about what role will be played by the austere-looking Sauer, reputedly one of the world's top brains in the field of quantum chemistry. His appearances at Merkel's side are limited to social events and are so rare that he has been dubbed "Phantom of the Opera" because he accompanies her to the annual Wagner festival in Bayreuth.

Sauer's absence on Tuesday is fresh evidence that the scientist intends to stay well outside the limelight engulfing his powerful wife. His private role can only be speculated on. Merkel, who describes him as a "great guy," says he is an "important source of advice," and that her conversations with him are "almost vital."

Is he to be called "First Husband" or "First Man," German newspapers are asking? Strictly speaking, he deserves neither title, because the role of "First Lady" is reserved for the spouse of the president, Germany's ceremonial head of state, rather than the chancellor.

Avoiding the Dennis Thatcher Fate

Professor Gerd Langguth, Merkel's biographer, says Sauer may occasionally join Merkel on foreign trips. "But apart from that he'll do all he can to avoid playing a major role. He doesn’t want to become another Dennis Thatcher," said Langguth.

The late husband of Britain's former prime minister Margaret Thatcher took on campaigning duties and accompanied the woman he called "The Boss" on diplomatic tours, accepting photo opportunities that included feeding an elephant and putting on a turban, but managing the occasional loss of dignity with good grace.

The prospect of a male consort to the chancellor is unfamiliar territory for Germans who were used to a long line of leaders' wives who engaged in charitable work.

Doris Schröder-Köpf, the fourth wife of Merkel's predecessor Gerhard Schröder, took an active role in the summer election campaign when she pointed out that Merkel was childless and had done nothing to help working mothers during her time as cabinet minister in the 1990s.

Doris often accompanied Schröder on diplomatic tours and at party conferences. By contrast, it is hard to imagine Merkel hugging Sauer on stage after a campaign rally, even if he chose to attend.

The right chemistry

Merkel and her husband go to vote on Sept. 18.

Merkel and her husband go to vote on Sept. 18.

Merkel, a physicist until she entered politics after the fall of the Berlin Wall, met Sauer at the Berlin Academy of Sciences in the 1980s. They married in 1998. It was the second marriage for both of them. Sauer has two children from his first marriage. Like her husband, Merkel has a cool and reserved public image.

But where she has been forced to open up as she has risen to the top of the political heap, he has refused to give interviews to the media. In a terse statement to Berliner Zeitung earlier this year he declared: "I have decided not to give interviews and not to hold conversations with journalists who deal with the political activity of my wife rather than my activity as university teacher and researcher."

Students describe him as distant but have praised his lectures.

Commentators are speculating whether he may accompany Merkel to Friday's press ball in Berlin, an annual get together of journalists and VIPs. But Merkel, as ever keeping her cards close to her chest, hasn’t said yet whether she is coming.


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