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Home Current Issue Comments The Great Anticipator

The Great Anticipator

Additional Info

  • Autore:

    Mario Calvo-Platero

  • Titolo:

    Columnist for la Repubblica, Guarantor for the Italian edition of the New York Times, President Gruppo Esponenti Italiani New York, Chairman Palazzo Strozzi Foundation USA

George Soros is one of the most iconic financiers of the century. He is the man who in 1992 “broke” the Bank of England, the philanthropist who has given away $32 billion to promote open societies, the political pugilist who has sparred with Donald Trump and Viktor Orban. And yet, sitting in his private flower garden at his home in Long Island, and looking ahead to his imminent 90th birthday, Soros has one lingering uncertainty: “people do not know me”, he confides.

His doubt is understandable. Few people have been more subject to conspiracy theories, many of them absurd. Soros’s parents survived the Gestapo in his native Hungary and yet he has been called a Nazi; he has been falsely accused of being the architect of the 2007/9 financial crisis; of being a Jew of “flexible morals”, and even of being the Antichrist. He is claimed to be masterminding a project to wipe out Christianity in Europe by organizing the large-scale immigration of Muslims from Africa.

All fantasies, and the list could go on. Soros has mysteriously become a symbol of the utter confusion, ignorance, and fear that dominates the digital world today, with attacks coming both from the left and the right. Even the Five Star Movement in Italy, a grass roots leftist   movement set up by a comedian, has identified him as an enemy.

None of this seems to worry Soros. We are sipping tea in a shady courtyard cooled by the breeze coming in from the Atlantic Ocean, with a plastic partition between us in observance of the COVID-19 distancing rules. He has a rational explanation for the unusual viciousness of some of the attacks on him. “There are several strands of these conspiracies”, he says quietly. “One is that I have built a foundation that actually covers most of the globe. That fits the idea of what was at the time called a Judeo-Bolshevik global conspiracy. Now it’s just called a Jewish conspiracy”.

He wants to make clear that he is not a politician but a man of conviction engaging in many causes all over the world, and that proponents of those causes find it convenient to share the same enemy internationally. This explains one simple truth, he says “there is an actual, genuine international conspiracy against me. So, when I am challenging the same issues for an Open Society throughout the world, like discrimination, racial exclusion, totalitarian regimes, I am not conspiring, I am openly bringing forward the mission of my life. And my enemies learn from each other. And they attack together using similar techniques”.

That is why, in the midst of so much fake news about him, Soros feels the urge to tell who he is. And so, his story begins: “I was born in 1930 into a middle-class Jewish family in Budapest. Like so many other Jews I could have perished in March 1944 when Nazi Germany occupied Hungary, if my father hadn’t understood better than most people what was going to happen”.

His father Tivadar and mother Elizabeth had deep roots in Hungary, but in 1936, when antisemitism and nationalism were growing across the country, they decided to change the original German Jewish family name Schwarz to Soros, to become less visible as Jews. His father was managing buildings, and when the Nazis arrived he arranged false identity papers and hiding places, for his family and a fairly large number of others.  Some would pay, if they could; those with fewer means would be helped for free.

“It was my father’s finest moment” says Soros with a touch of emotion in his voice and eyes. For over an hour he goes back to the years of his childhood in Hungary. And goes further back in time: to his father Tivadar’s adventures, running away from a prisoner’s camp in Siberia, in 1918, in the midst of the Bolshevik Revolution.

During long afternoons at a public swimming pool in Budapest, he and his brother Paul would hear these stories.  When he was in the concentration camp in Siberia, Tivadar learned Esperanto. Later Tivadar wrote a book, Crusoes in Siberia, about his Russian experiences and his timely and adventurous escape from the camp.

In another book, Masquerade, Tivadar writes how he and his community were dancing with death in Nazi-occupied Germany and how he managed again to escape, this time saving his family and his immediate circle. It is clear that those stories about the dangers of communism, totalitarianism and discrimination made an impression on young George, who learned a key lesson that would become a mantra throughout his life: to anticipate the course of events is a matter of survival.  A lesson well learned.

In 1947 it was George’s turn to bite the bullet and escape from USSR-occupied Hungary. He travelled first to an Esperanto conference in Switzerland. From there, at 17, he went to England where he attended the London School of Economics. It was at LSE that he met Professor Karl Popper, a Vienna-born philosopher, who wrote The Open Society and Its Enemies. “I chose him as my mentor, my tutor. I came under his influence, his thinking. I became a great believer in an open society. I developed a conceptual framework based on the twin pillars of fallibility and reflexivity which remains the guiding philosophy of my life. In fact, it is a tool to anticipate events and it also helped me with success in the financial markets. And I made a lot of money”.

He did make a lot of money. After giving away $32B in philanthropy, Soros retains a personal fortune of about $8B.

His financial career started in 1954 at the merchant bank Singer and Friedlander in London. In 1969, in New York, he set up a very small fund called Double Eagle with a $4M investment – one of the first hedge funds. And the rest is history.

Double Eagle became the Soros Fund in 1973 and later the Quantum Fund. In 1992 came his biggest coup, a bet of $10B shorting the British Pound. At the time Germany borrowed huge quantities in the market to finance reunification, creating enormous pressures on the then European Monetary System. Eventually, the Pound collapsed and Soros made $1B.

The victory was bittersweet as in that deal there was an evident contradiction: the man who had already started a foundation to support Europe was also willing to deliver a blow to the Union he cherished for his own gain.    This is a charge that he rejects completely.  “In 1992” he says, “I saw an opportunity where the risk was limited, but the reward much bigger in case of success. It was an asymmetric bet in my favour. I was willing to risk my entire capital in betting on this. And I was not the only one doing it either. I was an important factor, but if the inefficiency was in the market then other people also speculated. Perhaps I did it on a larger scale than others did relative to my wealth”.

To explain his point about taking a risk, Soros goes back to 1979, when he made another important bet. He was under a great deal of pressure. As he recalls it, he was walking down Leadenhall Street in the city of London looking for financing for the bet he had taken. “The strain was so big that I thought I was going to have a heart attack. It was a false alarm. But it made me think that if I had died, I would have been a loser because I would have lost my life trying to make money”. Eventually his bet failed.

It was around that time that Soros decided to start his foundation. Making money was not enough; he understood the need for a mission of the common good. He focused on Europe, still at the forefront of his worries.

His mission was to further develop his old mentor’s idea for an Open Society, strengthening the pillars of democracy, civil rights, education.  That he was successful is clear from the attacks he receives online from the forces of nationalism.  As he turns ninety, it is sad to witness that, 76 years after he was escaping deportation in his native Budapest, those same forces of nationalism, prejudice and racism are back. That’s why his mission is still alive and well: it is true that history repeats itself. It’s also true that something can be done about it.

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