A few days ago, Glenn Beck accused George Soros, a Holocaust survivor, of turning in Jews to the Nazis. Now some people want his head, calling him an antisemite. I don’t agree. His head is worth nothing. Beck’s history lesson shows exactly why.
Beck doesn’t like Soros. Soros is one of the world’s biggest donors to liberal causes, and he has lots to give. He reportedly made $1 billion in an English currency crisis, by correctly predicting that the pound sterling would be devalued. The organization that Soros created and leads, the Open Society Institute, promotes democratic ideals and liberal practices in countries with authoritarian governments. Beck hates the causes that Soros funds.
But that’s all irrelevant to what happened to Soros in 1944 when the Nazis occupied Hungary. He was a Jewish teenager trying to avoid being sent to Auschwitz, where over half a million Hungarian Jews were murdered that year. To survive, Soros had to do some unpleasant things. He once told a journalist that he and other kids were called to the Jewish Council, a group of Jewish leaders forced to transmit the Nazis’ orders to their fellow Jews. The kids were given slips of paper to deliver to Jews in town. When he went home and showed them to his father, he found out they were notices of deportation. His father sent him back out to tell the recipients not to go. Soros was 13 years old.
When he was 14, he took on a Christian identity and found protection in the home of a sympathetic Hungarian bureaucrat. Once, when that man was sent to inventory the property of a Jewish family who had already fled the country, he took young Soros with him for 3 days, rather than leave him alone in Budapest.
Like most Holocaust survivors, Soros has not talked much about his narrow escape from death. His writings are all about his current political interests. So we don’t know much more than what I wrote above. But Glenn Beck claims he knows a lot more. Beck said Soros “used to go around with this anti-Semite and deliver papers to the Jews and confiscate their property and then ship them off. . . . It was frightening. Here’s a Jewish boy helping send the Jews to the death camps.”
Beck’s comments about Soros are a perfect window into his mind. More than other conservative media personalities, Beck uses historical information to prop up his political ideas. In his attempt to play the TV historian, he appears in disguise, dressing up as one of the academics he constantly mocks. Decked out in a tweed blazer, writing on a chalkboard, a pipe in his mouth, he tells his viewers stories about World War II, Franklin Roosevelt and the writers of the Constitution. And about Adolf Hitler -- Beck constantly brings up Hitler and the Nazis.
Real historians try to create a story that could explain as much evidence as they can find. Like everyone else, we bring our own prejudices and assumptions, interests and experiences to this task. About historical eruptions like the Holocaust, every historian and every survivor creates a personal narrative.
No historian would transform the evidence into the nasty claims about Soros, and the Baumbach family who saved him, that Beck broadcast to his 2.6 million FOX News viewers. Beck is not a historian at all. He doesn’t hate us for our “elitism”; his suits cost more than my yearly salary. He worries that we will expose his act.
His antisemitism isn’t the main issue. Our American problem is that Beck the entertainer pretends to be teaching history. Beck’s TV lectures have the same truth value as Jerry Seinfeld’s jokes or Tina Fey’s impersonations.
Maybe less value, because Seinfeld and Fey are honest about what they are doing. Beck isn’t -- perhaps he is deluding himself, too, as most successful con men do. FOX News presents him with a straight face. But we are supposed to laugh, not believe.
I won’t be watching, though. I don’t get Beck’s sense of humor. I can’t laugh when I hear someone call Katrina victims “scumbags”, and I never liked Holocaust jokes.
Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the H