Inside a sleek but unobtrusive office building a few blocks from the River Danube, conference rooms and executive suites that once buzzed with activity will stand vacant by the month’s end.
What was previously the second-largest international outpost of the Open Society Foundations, a sprawling international philanthropic and pro-democracy network, is in the final stages of pulling up stakes in Budapest, Hungary, and moving to Berlin. The exodus was propelled by unrelenting official harassment targeting its staff — but ultimately directed at its 87-year-old founder, George Soros.
Soros, a naturalized U.S. citizen, is among Hungary’s most famous native sons. A Holocaust survivor and a billionaire many times over, he has directed the bulk of his personal fortune to his foundation, which advances progressive political causes and supports an array of human rights, health and education initiatives across the globe.
But for anyone with even a passing familiarity with the darker and more conspiratorial corners of the internet, Soros’ name is synonymous with a vast and sinister network spanning decades and vaulting continents.
He is portrayed as a baleful puppet master out for world domination, a wily architect of perfidious acts such as currency manipulation and plotting the slaughter of Christian children. Crude anti-Semitic tropes call attention to his Jewishness, and an often-invoked smear accuses him — falsely — of colluding with the Nazis in his youth.
Sometimes it seems he is everywhere: name-checked last month in Helsinki, Finland, by Russian leader Vladimir Putin, his face looming over Budapest on anti-migration billboards, reviled in a Roseanne Barr tweet, feverishly invoked by followers of the QAnon movement that has lately begun capturing media attention.
For a time, it seemed that large historical forces favored Soros’ pro-democracy aspirations for his native region, just as hedge-fund fortune had smiled upon him. Liberated from communism, former Soviet satellites such as Poland and Hungary moved to embrace political pluralism as they began to recover economically. Civil society groups backed by his foundation took root and flourished.
But watershed political events of the last two years — Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency, Britain’s vote to exit the European Union and the rise of populist nationalism in Europe — fly in the face of the ideals advanced by Soros, who said that the collapse of the Berlin Wall and an opening of the “closed societies” behind it would energize democratic and liberal forces to the benefit of all.
It’s been a dizzying reversal, and one that Soros himself ruefully acknowledges. “Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong,” he declared in a Paris speech in May that centered on Europe but alluded to wider woes.
The worldwide financial shocks of 2008 helped loosen democratic moorings, he said. The wave of migration that washed over Europe in 2015 was exploited by “unscrupulous leaders … even in countries that have accepted hardly any refugees” — including Hungary, whose autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been in ascendancy.
But longtime associates say Soros, while frustrated, remains undaunted.
“The world now may be more like the Eastern Europe into which he was born than the complacent world of Western freedoms,” said Mark Malloch Brown, a former deputy United Nations secretary-general who sits on the board of Soros’ foundation. “In a strange way, the setbacks he’s facing remind him of the lessons he learned as a youngster.”
Those lessons could scarcely have been harsher. Soros, who was born György Schwartz in Budapest in 1930, has credited his father, Tivadar, with a prescient grasp of events that would result in the near-obliteration of Hungarian Jewry.
Soros’ earliest years were spent in a comfortable middle-class existence in a cultured and cosmopolitan European capital. But as anti-Jewish racial laws took hold in Hungary in the mid-1930s, his lawyer father changed the family name, and after the Nazi invasion, the Soros clan survived by assuming false identities and staying on the move, ever alert to the growing dangers.
Ultimately, some 600,000 Hungarian Jews perished, accounting for a full tenth of Jews killed in the Holocaust. Soros, together with his parents and his brother, Paul, survived.
After the war, Soros left Hungary to pursue his education in London. Following hardscrabble years that famously included stints as a railway porter and a waiter, he emigrated to the United States in 1956 and amassed a fortune as an investor and financier.
For more than 20 years, Soros’ vast wealth and political engagement, together with latent but virulent anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere, have made him an ideal target for right-wing forces, political analysts say. More recently, the growth of social media and the success of nationalist movements in Europe turbocharged his role as a scapegoat for the world’s ills.
“He fulfills the criteria the conspiracy theorists search for,” said Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, which receives support from Soros. “There is a growing skepticism against elites, free capitalism, free trade and freedom of movement. … The new right uses that.”
It’s not only the extremist fringes that have aligned against Soros; mainstream U.S. conservatives were angered by his vocal opposition to the war in Iraq and his heavily bankrolled hostility toward then-President George W. Bush. And even some critics whose liberal worldviews align fairly closely with his own consider Soros to be cantankerous and out of touch.
Recently, he unleashed sharp criticism of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat touted as a potential presidential contender, faulting her for pushing fellow Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota to resign in the face of sexual misconduct allegations. Gillibrand and her own backers were dismissive.
“If standing up for women who have been wronged makes George Soros mad, that’s on him,” Gillibrand told HuffPost.
In his native country, the incitement against Soros carries almost Shakespearean overtones. Nearly 30 years ago, a Soros-funded scholarship enabled Orban, the Hungarian leader who is now a self-proclaimed champion of illiberalism, to study at Oxford and hone the political skills that helped him launch his Fidesz movement. Soros at one time considered him something of a protege.
As Fidesz and Orban moved sharply to the right, the falling-out grew increasingly bitter: Last year, in a speech in Brussels, Soros accused the Hungarian leader of building a “mafia state.” Orban’s government used the tag “Stop Soros” to whip up support for harsh legal measures targeting migrants and nongovernmental organizations.
One particularly painful pressure point in the Hungarian government’s campaign against Soros has been a labor of love for him: Central European University, which he founded in 1991 and which his foundation continues to support. Its status as an accredited independent educational institution is under threat in what critics describe as part of a concerted government campaign against other democratic touchstones, including a free press and judiciary.
The university, a warren of elegantly restored structures in one of Budapest’s most charming neighborhoods, with nearly 1,500 graduate students from scores of countries, is embarking on the new academic year after a series of difficult bureaucratic negotiations with the government over the legality of its operations, but is making contingency plans in case it is forced to relocate the main campus to Vienna.
The decision by Soros’ New York-based foundation to uproot its Budapest office and move to Berlin — an echo of its effective expulsion from Russia in 2015 — was a wrenching one, said spokesman Csaba Csontos. But senior Open Society officials felt they could not protect the local staff from harassment and intimidation, including surveillance, monitored communications and outlandish smear stories carried by outlets loyal to the government.
Csontos described an incident targeting his own family, in which his son was hospitalized for a surgical procedure and news reports publicized the boy’s private medical records and then mocked his father as a supposed malingerer who ducked reporters’ queries.
“You come to feel a certain helplessness,” he said, glancing around a conference room soon to be emptied of its fittings and furnishings.
Soros’ boyhood home is only a short distance from the Hungarian parliament building, where lawmakers in June overwhelmingly approved a package of measures criminalizing aid to asylum seekers and whose targets included nongovernmental groups aided by his foundation. In a city dotted with historic monuments, no plaque or marker designates the building where his family lived until driven into hiding.
On a Budapest Jewish-heritage tour, a friendly guide’s face clouded over when asked about young György Schwartz, who went on to attain the kind of wealth and fame that usually brings a measure of hometown pride and remembrance.