The Professor's Quantum Leap

Joachim Sauer, husband of the German chancellor, on a rare official outing. With him are first ladies Akie Abe of Japan, left, and American Laura Bush.
Joachim Sauer, husband of the German chancellor, on a rare official outing. With him are first ladies Akie Abe of Japan, left, and American Laura Bush. (By Krafft Angerer -- Getty Images)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 8, 2007

HOHEN DEMZIN, Germany, June 7 -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel's greatest accomplishment in advance of this week's G-8 summit had nothing to do with global warming or easing tensions with Russia. Rather, it was just persuading her reclusive husband to show up.

Joachim Sauer, Merkel's grim-faced spouse, is so allergic to publicity that he didn't bother to attend her inauguration in 2005. While she was being sworn in as arguably the world's most powerful woman, he was hunkered down in his chemistry lab in Berlin, though government officials insist he did tune in to watch the ceremony on television.

Since his wife's election, Sauer -- whose name means "sour" or "grumpy" in German -- has issued no public statements, granted zero interviews and has only occasionally been seen in public with his wife. So it was big news in Germany when he agreed to serve as an official host during the Group of Eight summit and appear in public to face the cameras, a chore he clearly dislikes.

On Thursday, Sauer took the wives of other national leaders on a tour of cultural and historical sites along the northern German coastline. First stop: a 19th-century castle in the village of Hohen Demzin, where the group of seven first ladies and one first gentleman had lunch and heard a lecture on demographic trends in industrialized nations.

After the group arrived in helicopters, Sauer led the wives on a short walk to the castle entrance and his first dreaded moment of the day: a group photo opportunity.

His guests tried hard to cheer him up. Cherie Blair, wife of outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair, pecked him on both cheeks and whispered a joke that made him briefly smile. When he tried to hide behind Laura Bush during the photo shoot, Canadian first lady Laureen Harper intervened. "You've got to get in the middle. That's the rule!" she ordered.

Wearing a light checked sport coat but no tie on a hot day, Sauer suffered the indignity for about two minutes. "So, thank you very much," he declared in English, a cue to the spouses to follow him inside. A bevy of German photographers pleaded with him to pause on the top step and turn to face their cameras, but he blithely ignored them without a word.

Sauer, 58, is a professor of quantum chemistry at Humboldt University in Berlin. Considered brilliant, if even more dour than his admittedly uncharismatic wife, he has made clear that he has no interest in fulfilling the usual role of a political spouse. He also is fanatical about his privacy, forbidding his students to talk to reporters, according to German media reports.

As Merkel rose to prominence in German politics, Sauer generally would appear in public with her on only one occasion a year: the summertime Wagner opera festival in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth. Even then, he squirmed in his tuxedo and declined to make small talk with other guests, prompting the German media to dub him "the Phantom of the Opera."

"It was torture for him to be with all the average people who attended Bayreuth and to endure all the press coverage," said Gerd Langguth, a University of Bonn political science professor who has written a biography of Merkel. "He doesn't want to be known as her appendage."

It took Sauer eight months to make his first public appearance after his wife's election. He surfaced last July to stand at Merkel's side during a visit by the Bushes to the northern city of Stralsund, leaving German diplomats visibly relieved that a protocol breach had been averted.

Since then, however, there have been signs that Sauer is slowly coming to accept his new role. He has accompanied his wife on a state visit to Poland as well as to the opera in Vienna.

A breakthrough moment came in March when Sauer agreed to entertain the wives of other European leaders during a summit in Berlin to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the European Union. He gave the 26 spouses a brief tour of central Berlin and appeared to enjoy himself. News photos showed him smiling broadly, causing a mini-sensation in German political circles.

Kerstin Jaeckel, a correspondent for the German celebrity magazine Bunte, is one of the few German journalists who has spoken to Sauer, something she has done twice. She declined to reveal what he said, citing his insistence that even his small talk be off the record.

She said Sauer in fact has a dry sense of humor. Many Germans, she added, are understanding and accepting of his desire to remain in the shadows and focus on his scientific career.

"It's accepted by all the Germans that he has essentially said, 'Okay, I'm sticking to my job, and my wife is doing her job,' " Jaeckel said. "It's a very modern relationship. Even though he won't talk, she has said it's very important for her to have this strong relationship with her husband, but also for him to have his own career."

Sauer and Merkel, a physicist by training, met in the 1980s when both worked at the Academy of Sciences in the former East Germany. They lived together for many years and married in 1998 after the archbishop of Cologne subtly warned Merkel that her political career might suffer if she didn't formalize the relationship. It was the second marriage for both.

Sauer and Merkel share an apartment in the center of Berlin, where the chancellor regularly serves him breakfast. The couple decided against moving into the official chancellor's residence and can occasionally be spotted shopping for groceries.


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