• History
  • Books

The History of Antisemitic Conspiracy Theories, from the Rothschilds to George Soros

10 minute read

Jewish families are gathering to mark Rosh Hashanah (Sep. 15-17), the start of the new year in the Jewish calendar, and fast for Yom Kippur (Sep. 24-25), a day of atonement. Yet the holiest days of the year for those who observe come during a record year for tracking antisemitic incidents, according to the Anti-Defamation League, and a new book looks at one aspect of what is driving the rampant antisemitism today by focusing on the history of the legendary family of German financiers, the Rothschilds.

In Jewish Space Lasers: The Rothschilds and 200 Years of Conspiracy Theories, out Sept. 19, author Mike Rothschild (no relation to the bankers he writes about) tracks how this one wealthy family became the subject of myriad far-right conspiracies. While the family still makes real headlines—the first North American auction of items and art from the Rothschild family’s collection on Oct. 11 is expected to bring in about $50 million—there are countless false stories about them that the journalist debunks in his book. The author Rothschild is an expert on conspiracy theories, and his last book was about the origins of QAnon.

TIME talked to Rothschild on Aug. 28 about where the conspiracy theories about the Rothschild financiers fit in the larger history of antisemitism.

The following conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.

More From TIME

Who is the real Rothschild family?

The Rothschilds were one of a number of wealthy German Jewish families in Frankfurt and they simply went out into the banking capitals of Europe at the right time. They made an enormous amount of money off of the Napoleonic Wars, and invested that into railroads, mining, real estate, media.

Descendants of the family still exist. What do they do now?

There are many, many descendants of the Rothschild family. Some are involved in banking, some have nothing to do with banking. There's one who is an environmentalist and adventurer currently dating Angelina Jolie. There's another one who was mixed up with Paul Manafort and Oleg Deripaska. One thing that they really have in common though is they have a real aversion to the media. Occasionally one will be interviewed about banking or art or wine or some new philanthropic venture they're interested in, but they are very, very publicity shy, which is a big change from many of the other wealthy families we've seen dominating the landscape over the last few decades.

How did the Rothschild family become a target of conspiracy theorists? Was there a turning point?

This pamphlet that came out in Paris in 1846, written by an anonymous pamphleteer who went by “Satan." One is that Nathan Rothschild, the best known son of the original Patriarch Mayer Rothschild, had known the outcome of the battle of Waterloo in advance. Now this pamphlet came out 30 years after the Battle, and Nathan had been dead for 10 years at this point.

The other accusation in this pamphlet is that Nathan's brother James, who is based in Paris, had owned a railroad and neglected the maintenance on it. And there was an accident on it, and a bunch of people were killed. So you have this idea that the Rothschilds are greedy, they are manipulators, but they're also cheap, and they don't care about the lives of ordinary men.

This pamphlet was a massive hit in Paris. It sold tens of thousands of copies. After that, there is a massive industry of Rothschild conspiracy theories, some of which are just invented on the spot, and others utilize tropes like Jews being cheap, Jews being greedy, Jews being clannish, keeping their money to themselves. This was really the first instance of a specifically antisemitic anti Rothschild conspiracy theory becoming a major driver of commerce—that essentially went viral to use our current parlance. Throughout a lot of the 20th century, the Rothschilds were seen in antisemitic propaganda as the kings of Jews—the string pullers of the string pullers.

Your book talks about the roots of antisemitism and how Jews became associated with being good with money because of how they grew up learning arithmetic very young. How did that get twisted by conspiracy theorists?

There were a number of prohibitions in the Middle Ages in Europe on what Jews were allowed to do and what Christians were allowed to do as far as money. It was considered a mortal sin by Christians to lend money at too high an interest rate—that was considered usury. It was on par with murder and incest as just the worst thing you could do. At the same time, these growing Christian communities needed money to build their churches, to build their castles, to equip their army, so they had to go somewhere to get it. They ended up going with Jewish communities where they had access to wealth, they were able to lend money at interest. So you had this dichotomy of we have to go to these people for money, but we also loathe them because they have the money to lend us. Jews got this reputation as being good with money, as being able to sort of conjure money out of thin air, but also very suspicious because they were good with money. It's very contradictory.

Did you find any key differences between antisemitism about the Rothschilds in the U.S. compared to in Europe?

I was really surprised to learn that there was never a Rothschild branch of the family in the U.S. But the volume of conspiracy theories about the family is enormous, and really started with the initial diaspora of Europeans to the U.S. A lot of these people really did extol the Rothschilds as paragons of virtue and the example to which all Jews should look up to. And a lot of Christian papers of the time found it just baffling and found the Rothschilds figures of fascination—and of course, that very quickly curdles into antisemitism. In Europe, the Rothschilds are really visible. They've got their palaces everywhere. They've built railroads. Their names are on hospitals. But in America, they were objects of curiosity, and curiosity can very easily turn into suspicion.

It’s like, if you don't see physical evidence of these people, then people's imaginations run wild.

That's exactly it.

Let's talk about the title of your book, Jewish Space Lasers. What's that conspiracy? Where does that conspiracy fit in the history of conspiracy theories?

That specific phrase “Jewish space lasers” is the one that is supposedly uttered by Marjorie Taylor Greene in her 2018 Facebook post, accusing the Rothschilds of using a space-based solar generator to start the California wildfire that turned out to be one of the worst in the state's history. This post—which I think had been deleted pretty quickly after it went up—was found again in 2021, just after she took office, and it started this whole round of memes and jokes about how Marjorie Taylor Greene thinks the Rothschilds own a laser and use it to control the weather.

Now, one of the interesting things that I found is that in that Facebook post, she never uses that term. She never says “Jewish space lasers.” She never even says Jewish. She talks about the Rothschilds and how it's interesting that a board member of Pacific Gas and Electric—who were found negligent for the fire—was also a senior executive at Rothschild Inc.

But her conspiracy theory is so cockamamie and so unfollowable that you don't even really understand what role the Rothschilds are supposed to play in all this. It's really an example of not even so much an antisemitic conspiracy theory but how conspiracy theories are so needlessly complicated, and serve as much more histrionic explanations to obscure what's really going on—which of course, in this case is something like climate change making every forest fire much worse.

How would you describe the state of antisemitism in the U.S.?

There is a major, major upswing in public antisemitism, certainly in antisemitic acts of violence, acts of vandalism, flyers being distributed around neighborhoods, by these very internet-savvy young racists who are getting attention for themselves. Some of these big social media influencers talk constantly about Jewish influence, Jewish power, the Jewish ability to get away with things nobody else can get away with. We've really dropped the veneer that there's any kind of separation between the Rothschilds and just the rank and file Reform Jew who goes to synagogue once a year.

Where does the Donald Trump era sit in the history of antisemitism in the U.S.?

I don't think Trump made America more antisemitic. America has always been antisemitic. What Trump did was give us permission to say this stuff, give us permission to really expound on these cockamamie theories.

Are there similarities or differences between the antisemitic myths around the Rothschilds and George Soros?

The book finishes with how Soros has become the Rothschild of the 21st century. There's always going to be a need for someone to blame when things go wrong—someone who has gotten too powerful, too rich, and needs to be knocked down a peg. For a long time, the Rothschilds really filled that role. It was really about 2004, when George Soros got involved in American politics and helped fund the John Kerry campaign that this rightwing media machine that had spent generations attacking the Rothschilds very quickly and very vociferously pivoted to George Soros.

Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly did hour-long specials on him as a puppet master. Alex Jones, who talks constantly about the Rothschilds, constantly about George Soros, was inspired by some of the most prolific anti-Semites of the 20th century. He talks all of the time about how the book None Dare Call it Conspiracy was a huge influence on him when he was a teenager. That book is full of Rothschilds conspiracy theories. What we're seeing now is this repurposing of antisemitic conspiracy theories for a new generation of people who are just discovering them, and it really runs through the Rothschilds.

Nowadays, with the 2024 presidential election coming up, we're definitely seeing the idea that Soros is funding all the Democrats, funding all the district attorneys who are indicting Trump. It's all part of some plan to keep Trump out of office, and it's all Soros's doing.

Is there a takeaway you want people to come away with after reading your book?

Antisemitism is very easy to couch in euphemisms. When you hear terms like “globalists,” “foreign bankers,” or “London financiers,” that usually has some reference to the Jews. Unfortunately, these theories travel much faster than any kind of debunking will ever be able to stop. The truth is always going to travel slower than the lies, and we have an election coming up that is very susceptible to being influenced by this constant stream of conspiracy theories.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com