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Germany's First Husband Shuns Limelight

DW Staff (jen)November 23, 2005

Angela Merkel's publicity-shy spouse seems determined to redefine the role of political spouse -- starting by taking a pass on the new chancellor's inauguration.

Merkel's husband was noticeably absent from the sea of well-wishersImage: AP

"Where was her husband?" blared the front-page headline in Germany's top tabloid, Bild, and every other news organization in the country made mention of it as well: While new Chancellor Angela Merkel's parents and brother were on the podium during her swearing-in ceremony, her spouse, Joachim Sauer, was visibly absent.

"He watched it on TV," Merkel told public broadcaster ZDF. "Sometimes people have different tastes on days like this one. But he was very happy."

According to reports, Sauer -- a professor at Berlin's Humboldt University and considered one of the top 30 researchers working in the field of physical chemistry of molecules -- was busy with important appointments that day. He opted to watch the inauguration on television, and congratulated his wife by telephone. The couple celebrated in a small circle of friends and family in the evening, the news reports said.

'Phantom of the opera'

The couple has known each other for 20 years, having met during their studies in then East Germany. They were married in 1998; it is a second marriage for them both.

Sauer is repeatedly referred to in the press as "extremely publicity shy," and unlike ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's wife Doris, he was virtually invisible during Merkel's election campaign. In fact, the couple is rarely seen together in public, aside from an annual social appearance at the opera festival in Bayreuth -- earning Sauer the nickname "phantom of the opera" in the German press.

Angela Merkel mit Ehemann Joachim Sauer
Merkel and Sauer did vote together on Sept. 18Image: dpa - Bildfunk

To date, 56-year-old Sauer has rigorously refused to assume the mantle of political spouse.

"I will not talk to journalists about anything that does not concern my work as a scientist or lecturer," he told newspaper reporters last summer.

But like it or not, Merkel's election to the country's highest office means her husband will, to some degree, represent Germany right beside her. And she conceded during the election that, should she become chancellor, he would have to appear more frequently at her side.

No Denis Thatcher

The question is, what role will -- or should -- her husband take? Sauer stayed in Berlin during her first official foreign visits, to Paris and Brussels. While protocol says he has the right to determine the shape of his visits to other countries when he accompanies his wife, it seems clear he won't be taking part in the usual "ladies' program."

Margaret Thatcher und Denis Thatcher
Even long past retirement, Denis is at Margaret Thatcher's sideImage: AP

He almost certainly will not emerge as Germany's answer to England's Denis Thatcher, who once carried his wife's handbag, and was often pictured standing at Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's side during public appearances and state visits.

'A great guy'

Merkel appears to have no problem with Sauer's decision to avoid the limelight.

"My husband would like to keep his career," was how Merkel, 51, summed up their future as first couple in when pressed during the campaign.

Gerhard Schröder und Doris Schröder-Köpf auf Wahlkampftour
The power couple were often seen together, looking happyImage: AP

This is a stark contrast with her predecessor Gerhard Schröder, whose wife Doris was a frequent and vocal presence, both during the campaign and in office. While Schröder frequently touted his love for his wife before TV audiences of millions, Merkel's standard public response is to call her husband "great guy."