Germany's First Fella

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband Joachim Sauer wait for the arrival of US President George W. Bush on July 13, 2006 in Stralsund, Germany.
Getty Images/Alexander Hassenstein
Public Eye's Brian Montopoli is writing weekly dispatches for while living and working in Berlin as part of the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship Program. He will return to Public Eye in October.
A candidate rarely gets very far in American politics without putting his family in the spotlight. Look at the most recent presidential election: The daughters of both President Bush and John Kerry spoke at the party conventions. The candidates' wives made regular public appearances. And at the end of each debate, their families joined them onstage, where they hugged and smiled and helped project the idea that this was the kind of good family man who deserves your vote.

But it's different in Germany. Consider Joachim Sauer, a 57-year-old quantum chemist and professor who is married to German chancellor Angela Merkel. You probably haven't heard of Sauer — in part because he has assiduously stayed out of the public eye.

While his wife was sworn in as Germany's first female chancellor last November — a landmark moment for Merkel that had her fighting back tears — Sauer was at home, watching on television. While she campaigned for the job, Sauer refused to give interviews unless they concerned his work in science.

"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," he told the newspaper Berliner Zeitung.

Thanks to his shunning of the spotlight, the German media has come up with a nickname for Sauer, whose last name means "sour" or "angry" in German: The Phantom of the Opera. That's because he attends an annual Wagner festival with his wife, but other than that is almost never seen.

Sauer is in something of a difficult position. Germany, like many countries, has no history of female leadership, and thus no protocols for how a first husband should comport himself. The best contemporary comparison is Denis Thatcher, who was married to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.