Of all the conspiracy theories spun around the 87-year-old Jewish billionaire George Soros – that he is the “puppet master” of all liberals, that he owns Black Lives Matter, that he is secretly building a new world order – the most demonstrably insane may be the claim that he was a Nazi.
That is: That the 14-year-old boy who had to hide from his own government during the German occupation of Hungary was a war criminal who sent his own people to gas chambers.
This particular strain of anti-Soros paranoia has festered for years on far-right message boards, but it suddenly metastasized on Tuesday when it appeared in Roseanne Barr’s Twitter rant, then spread to the feeds of Donald Trump Jr. and tens of thousands beyond.
Unlike other parts of Barr’s rant – namely her comparison between a black woman and an ape, since deleted and apologized for, though not before it cost her her ABC sitcom – the actress has shown no regret for writing “George Soros is a Nazi.”
Trump Jr., too, has defended his decision to share the message, denying there was anything anti-Semitic about it. Alex Jones claims there is even proof of what Barr claimed – that Soros admitted to Nazi collaboration in a 1998 interview on “60 Minutes.”
This is, at best, a gross distortion of an interview in which the financier reflected on how he survived as a Jewish teenager in Nazi-occupied Hungary.
“I was 14 years old,” he told Steve Kroft. “It was a tremendous evil, a very personal experience of evil.”
But it was an experience for which he felt no guilt, he added, unwittingly seeding smears that would follow him for the next 20 years.
Early in the occupation, Soros worked as a courier for the local Jewish council, which Nazis set up in many occupied countries – using Jews to identify and keep tabs on other Jews.
“The members of the Jewish councils faced impossible moral dilemmas,” the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum wrote. They were often unaware that the Nazis’ goal was the death of all Jews, or even believed that working with the regime might benefit their communities.
One day, Soros was ordered to deliver messages to several Jewish lawyers in Budapest, according to the biography, “Soros: The Life and Times of a Messianic Billionaire.” The letters instructed the lawyers to report to a rabbinical school, but Soros realized they would be imprisoned upon arrival. He warned them of their danger, according to the book, and quit his job with the council after carrying out the errand.
As the deportation of Jews increased, Soros was forced to hide his Jewish identity. He assumed a fake name, and his father paid a Christian government official to take the boy in as his “godson.”
Soros once accompanied his Christian protector on a trip out of town, according to the book, where the official had been ordered to inventory the mansion of a Jew who had fled the country.
“George walked around the grounds and spent time with [the homeowner’s] staff,” biographer Michael Kaufman wrote. “He collaborated with no one and he paid attention to what he understood to be his primary responsibility: making sure that no one doubted that he was [Christian]. Among his practical concerns was to make sure that no one saw him pee.”
But decades later, on “60 Minutes,” Kroft interrogated Soros about the trip.
“You went and helped in the confiscation of property from the Jews,” the host said.
“Yes,” Soros replied.
“Was it difficult?”
“Not at all,” Soros said. “Maybe as a child you don’t, you don’t see the connection.”
“No feeling of guilt?”
“No. . . . Whether I was there or not, I was only a spectator. The property was being taken away. So I had no role in taking away that property.”
In fact, Kaufman wrote in the biography, Soros would spend years in therapy “dealing with the impact that his temporary, necessary, and pragmatic denial of Jewishness at the age of fourteen had had on the development of his personality.”
Not that any such nuance was included in Glenn Beck’s three-part Fox News series about George Soros in 2010: “The Puppet Master.”
Soros was very rich and world-famous before the series aired. He had been sometimes portrayed as a hero, such as for spending billions of dollars on foundations promoting democracy in Eastern Europe. And he had been sometimes portrayed as a villain, as when he earned a fortune by speculating against the British pound in the 1990s.
But Beck turned Soros into a cartoon nightmare – using actual puppets as props as he told Fox News viewers that Soros was funding a vast web of liberal organizations and trying to “form a shadow government, using humanitarian aid as a cover.”
Beck’s treatment of Soros’ childhood was bizarre. In the second episode of the series, Soros was called “the son of Orthodox Jews.” In the third, Beck said, “his mother was wildly anti-Semitic” – a Nazi sympathizer who had perverted her son.
(According to Soros’ biography, his mother’s religious feeling were complicated. She “treated her Jewishness ambiguously and at times even contemptuously” during the occupation but also risked her own life to help a Jewish stranger escape capture.)
At the time, Beck’s series was largely considered obscene and delusional, if not outright anti-Semitic.
“To hold a young boy responsible for what was going on around him during the Holocaust as part of a larger effort to denigrate the man is repugnant,” the director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, wrote. “George Soros has been forthright about his childhood experiences and his family’s history, and there the matter should rest.”
It did not rest. “The Puppet Master” had aired the near the dawn of the online fake news age, and Beck’s fantasies became gospel in some corners of the Internet. Someone dug up Soros’ old “60 Minutes” interview, and clips spread across YouTube, exciting Ann Coulter in 2015.
Then came the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, whose own popularity exploded after an endorsement from Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“He was a Nazi collaborator,” Jones told his viewers a few weeks after Election Day. “He went around and helped round up thousands of people, stole hundreds of millions of dollars, reportedly. . . . He got off on it. The guy is fundamentally evil.”
From Alex Jones to James Woods. From James Woods to anonymous underground forums, where someone pasted George Soros’ names onto an old photo of a Nazi S.S. officer and sent it out for viral distribution.
A Nazi past finally became just one more aspect in the legend of George Soros: the godlike billionaire Jew who was flooding Hungary with refugees, and infiltrating voting machines and bankrolling the Ferguson protests.
“Our theory about Soros and why he’s such a bugbear, is he’s like every anti-Semite’s idea of what a Jew does,” said Brooke Binkowski, managing editor at Snopes, which has debunked many of these theories. “He’s this rich guy behind the scenes, rubbing his hands together. He’s rich and does media initiatives and dabbles in politics.”
This imaginary Soros had also become Chelsea Clinton’s uncle-in-law and was attempting to overthrow the U.S. government by Tuesday, when Roseanne Barr included him in a rambling Twitter rant that she would later blame on Ambien.
In the fury that greeted Barr’s comments about Valerie Jarrett during the same rant (“muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby”), her slurs against Soros passed relatively unnoticed.
The president of ABC Entertainment did not mention them when she announced that Barr’s popular sitcom would be canceled because of the racist tweet.
Barr said nothing about Soros when she apologized to Jarrett, and left her “Soros is a Nazi” tweet up, even after deleting “apes.”
But for some, at least, it was impossible to ignore.
“George Soros has become the enemy of choice for despots at home and around the world,” his son, Alexander Soros, wrote in the New York Daily News. “That means he is frequently targeted by malicious lies and wild conspiracy theories.”
“Until now, I have been mostly silent on these matters because I have not wanted to add fuel to the fire by giving them further attention,” he continued. “But I find one lie so odious that I feel duty bound to address it directly.”
And then he said it: what his father had done, and what he had not, as a scared Jewish boy in a land ruled by Nazis.
“Roseanne Barr’s claims are not just an insult to my father,” the younger Soros concluded, “but all those who endured the Holocaust.”
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Avi Selk