‘My power is greatly overestimated,” Hungarian American billionaire investor George Soros told the BBC in an interview some years ago, talking about allegations that he “broke the Bank of England” during the pound crisis in 1992. “I really did not break the Bank of England,” he said. “It was the market that broke it, I was just leading the charge.”
While responding to Mr. Soros’ recent comments on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indian reforms, Union Minister Smriti Irani repeated the same allegations “The man who broke a bank in England, an economic offender, has said that he desires to break the Indian democracy,” Ms. Irani said in New Delhi last week. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar also called the 92-year-old hedge fund tycoon “old, rich, opinionated, and dangerous”.
The comments came in response to Mr. Soros’ remarks ahead of the Munich Security Conference on February 16, where he said that the turmoil in Indian businessman Gautam Adani’s business empire had shaken the faith in India and threatened investor confidence, adding that it could open “the door to a democratic revival” in the country.
The investor also said that Prime Minister Modi would have to be answerable to foreign investors and the Parliament on allegations levelled against Mr. Adani. “Mr. Modi and business tycoon Adani are close allies; their fate is intertwined,” he said.
Mr. Soros is the founder of the Open Society Foundations, which provides grants to groups and individuals that promote democracy, transparency and freedom of speech. This is not the first time he has taken on the Modi government; the billionaire said in 2020 that the “biggest and most frightening setback” to open societies came from India.
Early years and surviving Holocaust-era Hungary
Mr. Soros was born Gyorgy Schwartz in the Hungarian capital of Budapest in 1939 to a Jewish family. The billionaire said in an old interview that he learnt the “art of survival from a grandmaster”— his father who changed the family name to Soros in 1936 to avoid persecution during the Nazi invasion of Hungary amid the Second World War. Soros said his father arranged a false identity for him, and he grew up in a government official’s home, as his godson. The family managed to survive the war but as Hungary came under a new communist regime, Mr. Soros, then 17, left to study at the London School of Economics (LSE) in the United Kingdom. It was at LSE that Mr. Soros got acquainted with the work of Austrian-born philosopher Karl Popper, which would become the core influence for Mr. Soros’ future advocacy and philanthropy. The philosopher’s classic book The Open Society and Its Enemies distinguishes between open societies which provide space for rational exchange as opposed to closed societies where people have to submit to an entity of authority, be it religious, political, or economic.
Through the more than a dozen books and several pieces in publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, and The New York Review of Books, the investor has advocated for ‘internationalism’ or the creation of an international open society. The Guardian notes in a 2018 profile of the billionaire that for him, “the goal of contemporary human existence is to establish a world defined not by sovereign states, but by a global community whose constituents understand that everyone shares an interest in freedom, equality and prosperity”, which he believes, is the only way to overcome current-day challenges like climate change.
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From hedge funds to philanthropy
Upon graduation, Mr. Soros moved to New York and began trading stocks at F.M. Mayer. He would spend the following decade working in Wall Street, eventually establishing his hedge fund, the Quantum Fund, in the late 1960s. Quantum quickly became one of the most lucrative hedge funds, with Mr. Soros gaining repute as a successful financier with an eye for identifying trends. In November 1992, he made more than $1bn in one day through currency speculation, after short-selling the pound, betting that its price was too high. When Britain refused to devalue the currency and floated it, the pound crashed, and the country was forced out the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. The billionaire is reported to have earned around $44 billion through currency speculation.
In 1979, Mr. Soros reached the conclusion that he “had enough money” and moved in the direction of philanthropy, establishing the Open Society Foundations, now spread across 120 countries through a network of regional and national foundations. According to the official website, Open Society Foundations work toward “vibrant and inclusive democracies whose governments are accountable to their people.” Mr. Soros has given $32 billion of his personal wealth to the initiative.
The billionaire began his philanthropic work in apartheid-era South Africa, giving out scholarships to black South Africans to attend Cape Town University. It was half a decade later that he directed his funds towards creating open societies in Central and Eastern Europe, where he believed multiple communist nations met Mr. Popper’s definition of closed societies and that integration with Western Europe and the West would help open them up.
In 1984, he founded Europe’s first Open Society in Hungary, where he set up the Central European University, funded non-profit, theatres, libraries, and artists; donated Xerox photocopier machines to universities, and gave out student grants, including one to Viktor Orban— then a young liberal activist and now Hungary’s Prime Minister. Mr. Soros went on to set up a network of Open Society organizations in Central and Eastern Europe.
In the U.S., he engaged in what he describes as “political philanthropy”, funding Democratic party campaigns at the local and national level, including contributions to the Presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Mr. Soros spoke out against the administration of George W. Bush, noting in his 2004 book The Bubble of American Supremacy that leaders like Mr. Bush wanted to promote the idea that the “use of force” was the only way to survive, and that his “war on terror” would push the country into a “permanent state of war”.
The centre of conspiracy theories
The outspoken philanthropist, residing in the U.S., has been at the centre of widespread conspiracy theories circulating on the internet, often antisemitic and portraying him as an evil figure having a “sinister” plot. Various versions have been regurgitated across Eastern and Central European countries, the U.S., Australia, and Italy even reiterated by conservative political figures world leaders.
In his birthplace, Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his nationalist administration accuse Mr. Soros of having a secret plan to “flood Hungary with migrants and destroy their nation”. In his public statements and essays, Mr. Soros has advocated for controlled migration to the U.S. and Europe and a collective immigration policy to accept migrants from countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. The Hungarian government in 2017, directed $100 million euros to an anti-migrant ad campaign featuring Mr. Soros and asking voters to stop him from having “the last laugh”. In several places, the hoardings, already perceived as antisemitic by many, were defaced by graffiti that read ‘stinking Jew.’
The government also introduced laws criminalising aid to illegal migrants and taxing support for non-profits that “promote migration“ — incidentally, branding these laws as the “Stop Soros” laws. Mr. Orban’s administration has also attempted to place restrictions on Mr. Soros-funded Central European University, and the Hungary Chapter of the Open Society Foundations had to eventually close down.
In the U.S., conspiracy theories involving the billionaire flourished during former President Donald Trump’s administration. In 2018, Honduran migrants left for the U.S., in a group dubbed the “migrant caravan”, and news outlets like Fox News blamed Mr. Soros for funding them, adding that he wanted unrestricted immigration to the country. Mr.Trump also retweeted a video clip making similar claims.
Another conspiracy theory alleges that the financier is a former Nazi. In 2018, American celebrity Roseanne Barr wrote in a tweet that Mr. Soros “is a nazi who turned in his fellow Jews to be murdered in German concentration camps”.Her tweet was also retweeted by Donald Trump Jr., although it was debunked by Reuters and the Open Society Foundations.