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My Meeting With George Soros

The billionaire financier deemed Hungarian anti-Semitism a thing of the past in the 1990s. Would he amend that view today?

Edward N. Luttwak
June 19, 2020
 John Giles/Getty Images
George Soros in 1992 John Giles/Getty Images
 John Giles/Getty Images
George Soros in 1992 John Giles/Getty Images

While serving a stint as chief economist of the World Bank in 1991-1993, on his way to much bigger and better things as secretary of the treasury and president of Harvard University, Larry H. Summers invited George Soros and myself to have a chat about the world economy. Soros was already Soros, the man who had broken the Bank of England, while I was there as the author of The Endangered American Dream, a book stuffed with gloomy numbers that would soon slide into oblivion, until they were resurrected by the liberal luminary Richard Rorty—and then, in 2016, as a prophecy of Trumpism, by Rorty’s fellow luminary, Robert Reich.

Alas, I have no recollection of what Summers himself or any of us said about the world economy, and our side chat about both of us being Karl Popper students in London was mere prattle. But I vividly recall my futile request to Soros that he stop funding Hungarian causes and instead give his spare cash to Israel and its then great number of new immigrants from Russia. I did not claim that the Hungarians were especially undeserving—I merely pointed out that he, Soros, would inevitably unleash anti-Semitic reactions by donating money to Hungarian causes.

Knowing that Soros had been hunted like a rat in Budapest under siege, surviving by his wits while many other Jews were drowned in the Danube, shot, or beaten to death in the streets (the Germans, SS included, were shocked by the unshrouded brutality they witnessed), most Hungarians would assume that he had a plan to take over the country while posing as its benefactor. They would think it impossibly naive to believe that Soros was motivated by generosity alone; no, there had to be a sinister, Judaic plot, even if non-Jews could not be expected to identify it exactly by unraveling its talmudic complexities.

Soros scornfully replied that I was a tribal throwback, a primitive who did not realize that the Hungarians of 1944 were no more. In post-communist Hungary, with its increasingly well-educated population, anti-Semitism was a thing of the past. My feeble retort was that my father had been told the same thing in 1938, when visiting my mother’s exalted Budapest family in their splendid palace with liveried servants.

Larry Summers was embarrassed by this utterly irrelevant quarrel—it was political economy he wanted discussed. He had not realized that he was inviting two Hungarian speakers, ensuring a bitter argument in any case, but all the more so when one, Soros, was a second-generation Budapest assimilationist (Soros himself has more bluntly described his upbringing as “Jewish anti-Semitic”) while the other, myself, was born in Arad, a place so utterly provincial that it is not even in Hungary, but rather in Romania. That both Soros and I had studied at the London School of Economics, and that both of us had studied the logic of science in Karl Popper’s classroom, did not seem to matter at all.

I take no satisfaction from having been proved 100% right and Soros 100% wrong. But perhaps he remembers the Karl Popper principle of refutation, which should lead him to divert his giving even now. George?

Edward N. Luttwak is a contractual strategic consultant for the U.S. government and an author.