Alex Soros, right, attends a charity awards dinner in New York
Alex Soros on stage during a charity awards dinner in New York in 2019. Credit: Alamy

Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros is rich. He’s famous – or infamous, depending on who you talk to. He’s extolled as a philanthropist, cursed for supposedly controlling the “forces of evil”, and is the subject of innumerable biographies, profiles, myths, hoaxes and conspiracy theories.

What he is not, though, is immortal. And at 93 years old, he has transferred the leadership of his powerful philanthropic organisation, the Open Society Foundations, to his 38-year-old son Alex, who took control as chairman in late June. Handovers of family businesses are normally fodder for tabloid gossip, or inspiration for episodes of Succession. But when that family has the last name “Soros”, the rules are different.

The Murdochs are powerful. The Kochs are politically active. The Rothschilds are both historically affluent and publicly Jewish. All have seen ups and downs in generational transitions (witness the media frenzy over the recent handover of Fox and News Corp from Rupert to Lachlan Murdoch). But in the current world of conspiracy theory, nobody is ascribed as much influence and lust for power as George Soros. He has been accused by far-right mouthpieces as well as heads of state – notably Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán – of controlling world events, including by funding godless progressivism. Others accuse him of enforcing his will through hordes of super-soldiers, while also being a secret Nazi who drinks the blood of children.

Some of this theorising is very loosely based on events from Soros’s real life or his philanthropic priorities. Some of it is made up out of thin air. But all of it stems from an obsession with a man who overcame unspeakable horror to find outsized success in what has been an extraordinary life and career. There is peril and potential, then, in Alex taking over the reins of the family wealth and operations. But he will also have to deal with the peculiar mythos that has sprung up around his father.

Born Georgy Schwartz in Budapest on 12 August 1930, the man who became George Soros was the second son of a middle-class and non-observant Jewish family. In 1936, as antisemitism in eastern Europe increased, George’s father Tividar changed the family’s last name to “Soros” – a term that meant both “next in line” in Hungarian, and “to soar” in Esperanto, the invented language that Tividar spoke fluently. Tividar’s fears were warranted, as Hungary was taken over by Hitler in 1944. The Soros family went into hiding, with George staying with a gentile family on the outskirts of Budapest.

Despite the great danger, George later reflected on this time as the happiest year of his life because of how close he grew to his father. Like much of Soros’ past, the statement, made during an interview decades later, would be weaponised by opponents who had concocted baseless theories that Soros had participated in the looting of Jewish estates, or had even joined the SS at the age of 13.

Once the war ended, George emigrated first to London then New York, with little to his name. After taking odd jobs and studying economics, he eventually established himself in American finance in the 1950s. It was only in the 1970s that he started managing his own hedge fund. Two decades later, Soros had become a widely known figure, largely because of his massive gain from betting against the British pound in 1992 – an event that earned him the nickname “the man who broke the Bank of England.”

By that point, Soros was giving money to organisations actively engaged in bringing democracy to former Eastern Bloc countries. In 1993, he launched the Open Society Foundations to further his goals of encouraging anti-totalitarian movements in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. OSF became Soros’s primary arm for funding progressive politics and justice, and he has donated more than $32 billion of his fortune to it over the last 30 years.

From the Rothschilds to Soros

Meanwhile, conspiracy theorists were already setting him up to be the replacement for the last set of “Jewish puppet-masters”: the Rothschild banking dynasty. As I wrote in my new book, Jewish Space Lasers: The Rothschilds and 200 Years of Conspiracy Theories, the myths and hoaxes about the Rothschilds (to whom I am not related, despite the shared surname) repurposed two millennia of tropes and canards about the Jews. These, in turn, were repurposed to attack the wealthy Jewish financiers who came after – with George Soros top of the list.

At first, these myths were confined to the fringes. In November 1996, an article in Executive Intelligence Review, founded by American economic conspiracy theorist and arch-conservative Lyndon LaRouche, claimed that the Rothschild family was “The Secret Financial Network Behind ‘Wizard’ George Soros”. It accused Soros of being a puppet of the Rothschilds, of having his first hedge fund seeded with Rothschild money, and of being in a secret society with the Rothschilds called the “Club of the Isles,” which was supposedly “built upon the wreckage of the British Empire after World War II.” None of this was true, as the Rothschilds never employed or funded Soros, and weren’t part of the “Club of the Isles”, for the simple reason that it didn’t exist. But setting up a link between them allowed Soros to inherit many of the antisemitic myths and tropes once directed at the Rothschilds.

As Soros grew in prominence, he began to attract enemies outside the fringe and in the growing far-right political and media machine. But this animosity was limited while he was not perceived to be an active political threat. Although much of the money given away by OSF went towards progressive causes like criminal justice reform, same-sex marriage, drug legalisation and press freedom, Soros himself was politically conservative and regularly praised American Republicans like Ronald Reagan.

This changed during the 2004 presidential election. Seeing it as a version of the overly aggressive foreign policy he had fled when he left Europe, Soros vocally opposed the Iraq War and began funding John Kerry’s candidacy against George W. Bush. With the American right still drunk on “with us or with the terrorists” fearmongering after 9/11, he quickly became the focal point of populist conservative rage.

High-level Republicans including Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, along with prime-time Fox News personalities like Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, began attacking Soros and his funding of liberal causes and politicians. In countless interviews and TV news magazine segments, he was falsely deemed “the most powerful Democrat in America”, a “robber baron” and a “sleazoid” who hates the US and launders his riches through “drug groups” and fake foundations. In 2010, Fox News ran a multiple-night special on Soros where Glenn Beck accused OSF of attempting to create “a global replacement for our republic, for all the work our Founders did”. One of the segments was called “Making the Puppet Master”, a particularly obvious antisemitic trope.

Now Alex will be taking his father’s place as the face of “godless western hedonism”. It’s an earthshaking event for the vast industry dedicated to pushing fringe conspiracy beliefs. And it’s coming at a time when public displays of antisemitism – from Kanye West’s rants to the publicity-grabbing antics of the online-savvy, neo-Nazi troll group Goyim Defense League – are at their highest level in years.

How will the young Soros cope? The jury is still out. Because George Soros was a self-made billionaire, Alex Soros didn’t have to be, and at first showed little interest in continuing his father’s success. In his 20s, he seemed more excited by models and partying on yachts than in taking over the business – to the point where he told the New York Times in 2012 that he was concerned about developing a reputation as “just another deadbeat lazy trust-fund kid”. But he had already started his first philanthropic foundation, and after receiving a PhD in history, he joined the board of Soros Fund Management.

Over the next decade, Alex appeared to develop a keen sense of how both finance and philanthropy were changing. In doing so, he put himself in a position to inherit the leadership role of the Foundations when the time came this year, over his older half-brother Jonathan, who apparently had a falling out with George, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Since taking over in June, Alex, who described himself to the Journal as “more political” than his father, has immediately begun to put his stamp on the Open Society Foundations. He announced he’d continue to prioritise funding abortion rights, the expansion of voting access and the liberalising of drug laws. And he has made no effort to hide his political affiliation, meeting with high-ranking Democrats and Biden administration officials in anticipation of another Donald Trump presidential run.

He also wants to streamline what he sees as the often dysfunctional grantmaking process at OSF in a way that has shocked many grantees and observers. A few weeks after the handover, he announced a 40 per cent reduction in OSF’s staff, along with a “redesign and retooling” of the Foundations’ operational model. While some type of refocusing was already in the works, many organisations funded by the group publicly claimed that the drastic cuts – which don’t appear to be based on any sort of financial trouble – would hamper their work and even roll back much of what George’s funding had accomplished.

'The left's new sugar daddy'

Meanwhile, the conspiracy theorists have pounced on Alex. Days after the handover was announced, USA Today debunked an “article” from the right-wing blog “The People’s Voice” which falsely declared that the younger Soros said he would “eradicate conservatives from the Internet”. Other reliably anti-Soros outlets like Breitbart and Fox News dredged up Alex’s ties to Barack Obama and Joe Biden while calling him “the left’s new sugar daddy”. They reminded readers of his past life as a yacht-bound playboy, as well as his father’s various alleged dirty deeds. Conspiracy theory celebrity Alex Jones, who has spent over a decade attacking George, had already started focusing his wrath on Alex, calling him “drugged up” and a “gibbering demon” and declaring that he spends “hundreds of millions of dollars a year to try to cause race wars.” Now that Alex has officially taken over, these attacks are likely to ratchet up.

So, will the handover be successful? The decline of the Rothschilds may be instructive here. As with George Soros, family patriarch Mayer Amschel Rothschild was a self-made man, working up from being a small-time money lender to the head of one of the preeminent German-Jewish banking families in the Holy Roman Empire. When Mayer died in 1812, the business was left primarily to his sons Nathan and James, who transformed the Rothschilds into the standard by which all other financial dynasties are measured.

Thanks to massive gains from the Napoleonic Wars, European railroads and mining, the London-based Nathan died in 1836 the richest man in the world. His four brothers were entrenched in the other financial capitals of Europe – Frankfurt, Vienna, Naples and Paris. A vast web of conspiracy theories and myths trailed behind them, starting with the accusation made in a popular pamphlet in 1840s Paris that Nathan Rothschild made enough money to take control of the British Empire by getting the news of the French defeat at the Battle of Waterloo first and buying up depressed bonds at the London Stock Exchange. This false story would be repeated by everyone from mainstream biographers to Nazi filmmakers, who used it as “proof” of what one Nazi propaganda film called a “British plutocracy” dominated by the Rothschilds.

By the mid-1860s, however, Mayer’s grandsons and great-grandsons began leaving the business, instead spending their time on pursuits of the idle rich. The Rothschilds’ dominance in the bond market was usurped by new forms of banking. Far from proving the conspiracy theory that “the Rothschilds have funded both sides of every war since Napoleon”, when the British and French had to get a loan to fund the massive military expenditures of the First World War, it was American titan JP Morgan who cut the cheque, not a Rothschild. Two of the five Rothschild houses were gone by then, while the Nazi occupation of Austria a few decades later finished off the Vienna house. Many Rothschild heirs simply weren’t up to the task of bringing the dynasty into the 20th century. Such is the potential and danger inherent to a handover of leadership – it can lead to massive riches, until it doesn’t.

Not that such details matter to the conspiracy creators. Even as the family’s fortune faded, paranoia pushers like televangelist Pat Robertson and “lizard aliens” conspiracy theorist David Icke continued to include the family in their deranged plots. These days, the same old tropes and hoaxes are more likely to be applied to Soros and his son. It’s the same trajectory; only the Rothschild myth took the better part of two centuries to spin out, while the Soros myth industry has really only emerged in the last two decades.

George steps down from head of the Foundations having been falsely accused of so much chicanery that it might be easier to list what he hasn’t been accused of. Funding violent anti-fascist movements under the umbrella of “antifa”; paying for NFL players to take a knee during the “Star-Spangled Banner”; arranging migrant caravans to swamp the US-Mexico border; even suppressing secret cures for cancer – to someone somewhere with an internet connection, Soros has done it all. He has not only had to cope with the sheer tonnage of vitriol thrown at him by conspiracy theorists. He has also had to live in fear, with a number of threats made against him and at least one failed attempt by a “Make America Great Again” believer to blow him up with a pipe bomb in 2018.

Given the burden Alex is taking on, it would be understandable if he just wanted to head back out on the yacht. But despite the fusillade of verbal and print attacks, he is poised to continue the work his father started, to attempt to make OSF sleeker and more efficient, and perhaps to do what many Rothschilds never could: adapt.

We might not know for years if the handover was successful. Even with their decline in power, the Rothschilds passed on their wealth successfully for generations – many still work in finance while others are known for their philanthropy or artistic endeavours. They manage to keep family embarrassment to a minimum. For the Soros family, Alex’s new role brings great possibilities, substantial risk and a myth-making machine that will probably continue once his heirs take over the family business.

In the end, it’s all just one more inheritance.

This article is from New Humanist's winter 2023 issue. Subscribe now.