Dreams From Their Fathers

The dads who made the world's leaders who they are.


U.S. presidents have certainly had their share of daddy issues, from John F. Kennedy trying to escape the shadow of the patriarch who enabled his rise to George W. Bush trying to measure up to his father’s legacy. This year’s election pits an incumbent who has made Barack Obama Sr.’s story part of his own public narrative against a challenger trying to outdo his father’s failed 1968 campaign. Looking around the world, it shouldn’t be a surprise that many of the world’s most powerful leaders are either carrying on a father’s legacy — or trying to escape it.

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Father of Angela Merkel

The German chancellor has acquired a reputation as an unsentimental pragmatist, but it’s probably not a trait she inherited from her dad. In 1954, when Angela was only three months old, Kasner made the nearly unheard-of decision to move his family from democratic West Germany to the east. At the time, travel between the two countries was still possible and the Protestant Church asked Kasner — a young minister — to move from Hamburg to a small town in Brandeburg where there was a shortage of ministers.

“You see, I was young. It was my mission to go there. After the Second World War, we were just thankful that we had survived. Those who were priests had a kind of duty. They needed priests over there,” he told the International Herald Tribune in 2005.

Kasner stayed in the east after the wall went up in 1961. Christian churches were tolerated — barely — by the Soviet-backed East German government, but Kasner pushed his luck by hosting a regular discussion group for anti-government leftist intellectuals and was once called in for questioning by the Stasi, the East German state security service, after an informer reported that they had been discussing the writings of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. Things were harder for his family. His wife, who had been a teacher in the west, was prevented from working for fear that she would indoctrinate students. Angela was also prevented from going into teaching because of her father’s profession and instead studied as a physicist before going into politics.

Merkel certainly hasn’t inherited her father’s left-wing politics — he opposed reunification, hoping to see a democratic, socialist East Germany — but she may have gotten more than a little of his stubbornness.



Father of Xi Jinping

The Chinese vice president widely assumed to be the country’s next leader doesn’t discuss his father much — and he’s barely mentioned in official biographies — but the elder Xi was present at the highest levels for some of the most important moments in the history of the Chinese Communist Party, as well as being one of its most high-profile victims. A student radical and early member of the Communist Party, Xi Zhongxun commanded guerrilla fighters in northwest China during the revolution and was one of Mao Zedong’s top military commanders. After the revolution, he rose through the party’s propaganda wing to the rank of deputy prime minister.

But in 1962, when his son was 9-years old, Xi was purged from the party for supporting the publication of a book deemed critical of Mao and was imprisoned for 16 years in a labor camp. His family fell into poverty and was sent to a remote village in northwest China where Xi Jinping, the onetime “princeling,” labored with peasants. When he was finally released, the older Xi later said he could barely recognize his children and recalled an old Chinese poem: “My children do not know me. They smile and say: ‘Stranger, where do you come from?'” Xi Zhongxun was later rehabilitated and returned to the government, where worked with Deng Xiaoping to implement economic reforms in the 1980s. He died in 2002.

Some observers have tried to glean clues about the future Chinese leader from his father. The elder Xi was known as something of a liberal by CCP standards — while commanding the military in northwestern China in the 1950s, he resisted pressure to crush an early Tibetan uprising by force and was reportedly appalled by the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, though he said nothing about it publicly.

If U.S. Treasury officials are hoping Xi will ease up on China’s tight-fisted fiscal discipline, they should hope he doesn’t take after dad. Xi Zhongxun was so frugal he made his son wear his sister’s hand-me-downs and made him use the same water after he had taken a bath.

via Wikimedia Commons


Father of Benjamin Netanyahu

“Always in the back of Bibi’s mind is Benzion,” a friend of the Israeli prime minister told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in 2010. “He worries that his father will think he is weak.” Benjamin has dismissed speculation about his late father’s influence over him as “psychobabble,” but many Israelis see his hawkish policies as an extension of the stark worldview of his historian father.

Benzion was born in what was then Russian-occupied Poland and immigrated to Palestine with his father — a Zionist rabbi — in the 1920s. As a young student, he became involved with Vladimir Jabotinsky’s “revisitionist” Zionist movement, which accused more mainstream groups of being too accommodating to Arabs and the British authorities and envisioned a Jewish state encompassing all of what is now Jordan.

In the 1940s, he lived in the United States and lobbied Washington to support for a Jewish state, meeting with officials like Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dean Acheson and placing advertisements in the New York Times.

As a historian, he is best known for his revisionist take on the Spanish Inquisition, which he saw as racially rather than religiously motivated and a forerunner of Nazi anti-Semitism. “Jewish history is a history of holocausts,” he told the New Yorker‘s David Remnick in 1998.

The elder Netanyahu opposed almost any settlement with the Palestinians, arguing that Arabs are “an enemy by essence” who “would choose to exterminate us if they had the option to do so.” Some have speculated that Netanyahu might have been unwilling to strike a deal giving up territory to the Palestinians while his father was alive. Benzion passed away in April at the age of 102. We’ll soon know if anything has changed.

Avi Ohayon/GPO via Getty Images


Father of François Hollande

France’s new president may owe his election, in part, to the anti-immigrant National Front that sapped crucial votes from Nicolas Sarkozy in this year’s election. The life-long Socialist politician likely understands the far-right mindset pretty well thanks to his own father. Georges Hollande had his own political education into the Vichy military in 1944 and, according to French media accounts, maintained a “certain loyalty” to Philippe Petain, the disgraced leader of France’s Nazi-occupied government and disdain for those who conveniently claimed afterward to have supported the resistance.

He went on to become an ear, nose, and throat doctor and raised his family in the northern city of Rouen. In 1959, he ran unsuccessfully for local office on a far-right ticket, despite his friends’ warnings that it could hurt his practice. Georges was reportedly a supporter of Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour, the controversial nationalist politician who was a mentor to National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, as well as the OAS —  a short-lived right-wing terrorist paramilitary group opposed to the French handover of Algeria that carried out a series of bombings and assassinations in the early 1960s.

Young François’s disagreements with his father weren’t just political. In 1968, Georges informed the family without warning that they were moving to the French suburb of Neuilly and threw out the contents of his son’s room. A rebellious older son was sent away to a tough Catholic boarding school.

François’s parents divorced not long after the move and he sided both personally and politically with his mother, a left-wing social worker. Nouvel Observateur editor Serge Raffy believes that Hollande’s non-confrontational political style is linked to “the way he constantly had to duck and dive against the impetuous, authoritarian character of his father. It was his only way to survive.” That may be be little more than pop psychology, and the president rarely discusses his upbringing, but he may have been referring to Georges at one campaign rally when he said in a speech, “The left wasn’t my heritage. I chose it.”



Father of Dilma Rousseff

As a former Marxist guerrilla and political prisoner, the Brazilian president already has a fascinating background. The mysterious and peripatetic life of her Bulgarian born father adds yet another piece to the puzzle. Rusev was born in the central Bulgarian town of Gabrovo in 1900. He moved to Sofia, the capital, at an early age and set up a successful textile business. In 1929, he abruptly left Bulgaria, leaving behind his wife, who was in her final month of pregnancy. His Bulgarian family wouldn’t hear from him again for 18 years. The reasons for Rusev’s departure aren’t quite clear. Dilma has said that he faced persecution because of his communist sympathies under Bulgaria’s right-wing “white terror” government. On the other hand, his Bulgarian son Lyuben Rusev said it was because his business was failing.

In either case, Rusev spent 15 years living in France before moving to Argentina and then Brazil, where he married Dilma Jane Silva, changed his name to the Latinized Pedro Rousseff, and settled in Belo Horizonte, where he eventually built a prosperous business in steel and real estate.

Dilma, named after her mother,  by all accounts, had a comfortable childhood and credits her father with instilling in her a love of French language and literature. He died in 1962, shortly before Dilma became involved in politics. Things were harder for his Bulgarian son Lyuben, whose mother was left behind with Petar’s unpaid debts. He became an engineer but was hampered professionally under the communist government because of his involvement in the opposition Social Democratic Party. His father reestablished contact in 1948 and sent him regular parcels of money, but the two never met. He repeatedly begged his father to help him find a way out of Bulgaria.  The younger Rusev died in 2007 after he stopped taking his heart medicine in what a relative described as “passive suicide.”

When Rousseff visited Bulgaria in 2011, she was fêted by the government as a returning hero. But Ana Petrova, Lyuben’s half-sister by his mother’s second marriage, told the press, “I’m not sure I want to even meet her…. I can’t help feeling bitter about everything that happened to my brother and my mother and the feeling they were completely abandoned.”

Via Wikimedia Commons


Father of Felipe Calderón

Mexico’s president was literally born into politics, with his mother accompanying her husband on the campaign trail while he was still in the womb. Throughout this childhood, young Felipe was a regular at his father’s rallies, passing out fliers and chanting slogans.

Calderón Vega, who was also an acclaimed novelist and historian, was one of the founders of the PAN, the Christian democratic opposition party formed in the 1940s to challenge Mexico’s ruling PRI. Throughout the 20th century, the PAN was essentially a permanent opposition and, as such, Calderón Vega — despite being a well-known figure in his native Mihoacan state — was generally on the losing end of campaigns.

According to historian Donald Mabry, father and son didn’t always see eye-to-eye on politics. “Luis was a ‘Christian socialist,’ a man who believed that his God demanded social justice, that the better off in society should share the wealth with the less fortunate,” Mabry writes. Calderón Vega left in the party in 1981 believing it had strayed too far to the right. Felipe, who was first elected to office at the age of 26, embraced the PAN’s new free-market-oriented direction and stayed in the party, going on to become its second president in 2006.

El Universal


Father of Fidel and Raul Castro

The father of the leaders of the Cuban revolution was actually something of a model capitalist. Born in northwestern Spain in 1875, Ángel Castro y Argiz first came to Cuba in 1898 as a soldier in the Spanish army during the Spanish-American war — and harbored strong anti-American sentiments throughout his life. Fidel believes his father likely took the place of a rich boy who had been conscripted. Despite being illiterate, he showed a talent for logistics and worked on organizing supplies.

He returned to Cuba in 1905 as a penniless immigrant, eventually found work organized work crews for the United Fruit Company’s sugar cane plantations — and reportedly maximized his own profits by paying his Haitian and Jamaican laborers in coupons rather than cash. He was later able to cut his ties with the American conglomerate and set up his own 26,000-acre plantation.

He married a Cuban woman, María Argota y Reyes, in 1911 and had 5 children with her — not including Fidel and Raúl. They were the sons of his cook, Lina Ruz González, with whom he carried out a long affair. He eventually set up Lina with her own house and married her after the death of his wife. Raúl was born in wedlock, but it was years before Ángel would recognize Fidel as his son.

Asked years later about his youthful rebelliousness, Fidel told his biographer that it was the result of being “faced with a certain Spanish authoritarianism, and even more so the particular Spaniard giving the orders.”


Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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