When Fox News commentator Glenn Beck recently accused investor and philanthropist George Soros, who is of Jewish and Hungarian origin, of running a “shadow government” whose aim is to destroy the American political system, he was drawing on a rich tradition of anti-Semitic attacks.
It’s indeed amazing how often, in the past hundred years or so, the most deranged people, movements and governments have found their way, with a kind of dreary consistency, to anti-Semitism as the explanation for their activities. Hitler (much mentioned by Beck), of course, placed his attack on the Jewish people at the core of his political program—a fact that for all its familiarity still has the power to astonish. When the exercise of great power is involved, something in most of us would like to think that rational motives—even if only ruthless self-interest, for instance—are at work. Such rooted, commonplace impulses would at least promise to set some limits on whatever wickedness was afoot. That they can be overridden by crazier considerations raises a possibility that is more distressing: that, in the old nihilist formulation, “anything is possible.”
What is it about this particular piece of insanity that has had such power to derange? The burden of the question was captured in a well-known joke that circulated in Hitler’s time: “The Nazis are planning to kill all the cyclists and the Jews.”
“Why the cyclists?”
“Why the Jews?”
Whatever the answer, anti-Semitism has not been confined to the right. The century’s other colossal monster, Stalin, found his way at the end of his life through all the thickets of Marxist dialectic to anti-Semitism. After a series of anti-Semitic trials in the early 1950s in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe (the accused were charged with Zionism and “cosmopolitanism”), Stalin began laying the ground for a broad anti-Semitic purge, which was cut short only by his death.
While it’s impossible, of course, to assign any single or simple cause to the recurring appeal of anti-Semitism for demagogues, one reason appears to be that by the beginning of the twentieth century it had developed into a full-dress conspiracy theory, set forth by the infamous forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, according to which Jews were secretly planning to subvert all existing governments and take over the world. A clear advantage for totalitarian regimes was that the fictional conspiracy provided the ideal justification for perfectly real conspiracies mounted by those regimes to achieve world domination. There was no better guide to what they planned to do than what they professed to fear.
But to achieve this mirror effect, in which reality responded to and aped fantasy, something prior was needed. The totalitarians had to cut themselves off from actual events—to achieve what Hannah Arendt called “the totalitarian contempt for facts and reality.” Anti-Semitic global conspiracy theories, by purporting to account for the inner workings of history itself, were ideal for the purpose. Indeed, one might say that they provided the gold standard for divorce from reality—for organized insanity that rests not on mere inattention to truth or failure to fact-check but on the systematic replacement of reality with a more satisfying world of fantasy.