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How fathers influenced world leaders

June 17, 2012

WASHINGTON: US 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.

Horst Kasner, 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.

Benzion Netanyahu, 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.

Georges Gustave Hollande, 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.

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 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.”

By arrangement with the Washington Post/Bloomberg News Service