A government billboard is seen displaying George Soros in Hungary [File: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters]
Born to a Jewish family in Budapest in 1930, George Soros survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary, during which more than half a million Jews were killed.
As a teenager, Soros, like many other European Jews, worked as a courier for a Jewish council, a body set up by German occupying authorities to ensure the implementation of Nazi orders.
When deportations from Hungary to death camps began to soar during the Holocaust, he was reduced to hiding his Jewish identity to survive.
Today, the 87-year-old billionaire, philanthropist and founder of the Open Society Foundations (OSF) NGO, is the favourite obsession of right-wing and far-right politicians, conspiracy theorists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis across Europe and North America.
From Charlottesville to Budapest, Soros has loomed in the rhetoric of leaders and controversial figures, replete with accusations placing the philanthropist behind everything from Black Lives Matter to migration.
In an email to Al Jazeera earlier this month, the Hungarian government’s international communications office said: “The defence of Hungary requires an action plan: this is the ‘Stop Soros’ legislative package.”
Soros conspiracies have always been a marker for the radical right as opposition to mainstream conservatism.
Alex Reid Ross, author of Against the Fascist Creep
Despite widespread condemnation by civil society groups and international watchdogs, the bill is the latest, and perhaps most concerning, realisation of the vast number of conspiracy theories surrounding the Hungarian-American Holocaust survivor.
Soros’s long-standing advocacy for liberal democracy and the acceptance of refugees in Europe and beyond is an ongoing source of contention in Hungary and several other countries on the continent.
Alexander Reid Ross, author of Against the Fascist Creep, explained that “Soros conspiracies have always been a marker for the radical right as opposition to mainstream conservatism”.
Explaining that such theories found currency among some leftists in the past, Ross noted that Soros has been blamed for economic crises, the tanking of currencies worldwide and backing an uprising against Serbia’s former ultra-nationalist ruler Slobodan Milosevic, who was toppled in 2001.
The far right’s narrative, however, has anti-Semitic undertones.
“In a way, he fits the perfect sort of historic epistemological category in the national socialist tradition,” Reid Ross told Al Jazeera.
“It used to be Rothschild, but today, Rothschild conspiracy theories are much easier to debunk than they were back then.
“Now you have George Soros filling that space that those conspiracy theories used to occupy.”
Hungary mainstreaming anti-Soros rhetoric
While Soros conspiracy theories were once largely confined to the hardline margins, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been accused of bringing them to the mainstream political discourse.
During campaigning for the April vote, in which the increasingly far-right Orban was re-elected, the ruling Fidesz party placed an intense focus on Soros.
Accusing him of using his wealth to buy influence in the Central European country, Orban alleged a conspiracy to create “the Soros type of man” in February.
The comments followed years of demonisation that largely stemmed from the OSF’s advocacy against corruption and for refugees and migrants.
During that campaign, Orban’s party plastered Soros’s face on billboards that harkened back to World War Two-era anti-Semitic propaganda, as noted by many critics at the time.
The way the Hungarian government is acting against civil society is very similar as the way it is happening in Russia under Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Casba Csontos, Open Society Foundations spokesperson
Following years of harassment at the hands of Hungarian politicians, the OSF announced earlier this year that it would leave Hungary for good. The Central European University (CEU), a liberal academic institution funded by Soros, has also announced fears of being forced to quit Hungary and plans to open a campus in neighbouring Austria.
Casba Csontos, an OSF spokesperson, argued that Orban’s government elevated Soros conspiracy theories from the once-obscure political fringes to the mainstream.
Describing the allegations against Soros as “harsh” and “very manipulative”, he explained that pro-Orban media outlets have a virtual monopoly on news in many parts of Hungary, particularly in the impoverished countryside.
“Those people can perceive that information as fact, as reality, as real stories of real events happening,” Csontos told Al Jazeera.
“It’s purely a political tactic to distract their attention from pressing problems of average people and corruption,” he said, adding that the impact was essentially a far-reaching crackdown on civil society which carries consequences for both Hungarians and asylum seekers.
Elsewhere in Europe and beyond, the OSF was evicted from Russia in 2015 and Soros has been vilified by politicians in Poland and across the Balkans.
“The way the Hungarian government is acting against civil society is very similar as the way it is happening in Russia under Vladimir Putin’s regime,” Csontos concluded.
The Hungarian government’s office dismissed the allegations, arguing that civil society “is doing just fine without the Soros-funded groups”.
Despite the incredibly low number of asylum seekers in Hungary, the spokesperson claimed that Soros-backed NGOs tried to turn Europe into “an immigrant continent”.
The spokesperson added: “The Soros foundation is fleeing from transparency. They don’t want the public to know exactly what they are engaged in and in what way and thanks to that financing they are supporting immigration.”
Shadow governments and Nazi collaboration
In the United States, Soros is alleged to be behind the reinvigorated anti-fascist movement (also known as Antifa), the 2008 economic collapse, anarchist demonstrators, Black Lives Matter and a host of left-wing protests.
According to Reid Ross, this rhetoric became prevalent among the far right during the era of the Tea Party, the ultra-conservative movement that sprung up in the wake of Barack Obama’s 2008 election.
In 2010, the once popular right-wing Fox News commentator Glenn Beck aired a now infamous series deeming Soros as “the puppet master” pulling the strings behind global political developments.
Pushing the conspiracy that Soros was complicit in the Holocaust, Beck said he had bankrolled civil society and liberal organisations as part of a plot to “form a shadow government, using humanitarian aid as a cover”.
Paradoxically, Beck, who was a vocal supporter of the Tea Party, also painted a complicated and grim picture of Soros as pushing for communism and violent left-wing protests.
The commentator accused Soros of complicity in the Holocaust, Nazi sympathies, pro-Stalin sentiments and funding the “training” of anarchists.
“He’s waged a war against capitalism,” Beck, who later left Fox in 2011, scowled in the first segment’s closing remarks.
“This is a man who wants the world to be one global society without borders or individual governments. One global society and one global gatekeeper.”
Referring to that period, Reid Ross said: “It caught speed, like many conspiracy theories, during the Tea Party because that was really a far-right driven anti-federal government, anti-liberal movement.”
He added: “The conspiracy theories worked their way out from radicalisation of the Tea Party through the Obama administration and into Trump’s presidential campaign and then to the opposition to Antifa.”
Debunked but widespread
Alex Jones, the host of the pro-Trump conspiracy website InfoWars, has aimed his ire at Soros on several occasions.
With more than 750,000 average daily views, the online platform has said that Soros has attempted to manufacture a civil war in the US and orchestrated the European refugee influx to undermine the sovereignty of European countries.
[Soros conspiracies] have a core that has survived for years and years, and that core is anti-Semitism.
Shane Burley, author of Fascism Today
In November 2016, InfoWars broadcast a segment titled Why George Soros Wants to See the World Burn, in which Jones accused Soros of aligning with Democratic Party presidential candidate Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump.
In August 2017, when a far-right protester allegedly killed an anti-racist activist by ploughing his car into a crowd during the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, right-wing websites quickly spread a rumour that the assailant was supported by Soros.
Last week, Roseanne Barr, the star of the TV show Roseanne, included Soros in a Twitter outburst that led to ABC Entertainment pulling the plug on her sitcom.
In addition to comparing an African American, Obama-era official to an ape, Barr, who is Jewish, recycled Beck’s allegations, accusing Soros of turning in fellow Jews “to be murdered in German concentration camps”.
Although fact-checking websites such as Snopes have debunked many of these theories time and again, they remain prevalent.
Brooke Binkowski, a reporter at Snopes, described Soros as “the platonic idea of what anti-Semites think Jews are”, explaining that they are part of an “artificial push to normalise” conspiracy theories by recirculating them online in the US and elsewhere.
“The pattern I’m seeing is that someone pushes a [false] story about Soros, then a swarm of bots and paid trolls start picking it up and spreading it [on social media] … and then it’s pushed back into the news cycle,” she told Al Jazeera.
Shane Burley, author of Fascism Today, argued that Soros conspiracy theories have proven “durable” in the face of years of fact-checking and debunking because “they have a core that has survived for years and years, and that core is anti-Semitism”.
“This conspiracy theory mixes their suspicion of the left and of big banks,” Burley told Al Jazeera.
“Because he is kind of liberal, George Soros touches on both [for the far right].”
Explaining that “their narrative” positions “the left as part of the establishment”, Burley concluded: “They need anything right now that says that resistance to them is organic and isn’t part of the establishment.”