The Rothschild conspiracy theory is an age-old myth that a single European Jewish banking family has the power to control world events. It has deep antisemitic roots, and over time has been used as a vehicle to promote different forms of hate. This widespread fantasy was later imported to Iran and given a local flavor, again to achieve political ends. It continues to be cited today despite having no basis in reality.
What are conspiracy theories, and why do they matter?
Conspiracy theories are false narratives that simplify highly complex events and processes by reducing them to ‘plots’ carried out by powerful people. They claim that either discrete historical occurrences, or the world at large, are being manipulated or outright controlled by a secretive and influential group. Because conspiracy theories allege clandestine plots are being used to wield power, they are, by their very nature, hard to disprove.
These ideas can be promoted from the top down, by politicians, spiritual leaders and media personalities who seek to gain support by blaming a scapegoated group for their country’s problems, or from the bottom up, by small groups of individuals who may feel isolated, anxious and disempowered. Sometimes, they are promoted at both levels at the same time. Social media has enabled conspiracy theories to spread faster and wider than ever before.
Conspiracy theories are attractive because they appear to make sense of a confusing world. They often thrive in times of uncertainty, when events over which we have little say or understanding impact our lives. These could be economic crashes, rapid social change, wars, revolutions and political upheavals, or even pandemics. They appeal to a psychological need for security and stability because their simplistic explanations appear to put human beings squarely in control of events: a comforting notion in a frightening world. The “solution” to otherwise overwhelming problems then becomes seductively simple: get rid of the people you believe are secretly causing these problems, and you get rid of the problem.
Conspiracy theories are harmful in three ways: to those the claims are made about, to those who believe in them, and to wider society. They invite hatred of and even violence against those targeted; they prevent those who believe in them from really understanding the world we live in; and they spread disinformation and distrust, eroding faith in institutions of knowledge and authoritative sources of information. If we cannot agree even on what is true in the world, then shared understanding, compromise, and working together to find solutions to our problems is much more difficult.
The Rothschild conspiracy theory is one of the oldest and most persistent of these fantasies. Using deep-seated pejorative and hateful stereotypes about Jews, it originated more than 150 years ago and spreads lies about the prominent Rothschild family as symbols of a mythical “Jewish power”, said to be malevolently orchestrating world events and catastrophes. Over the decades it has resurfaced in many guises, always intending to demonize the Jewish people, and has been pressed into service to achieve many different political ends, including in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Why should Iranians care?
In Islamic Republic of Iran, the regime withholds information and uses conspiracy theories to control how information is interpreted. Iranians deserve accurate and relevant information about the world they are living in so as to better themselves and their society. Those whose judgement becomes skewed by conspiracy theories cannot perceive the real causes of the problems and challenges they face and so have little hope of confronting, solving and overcoming them.
In Iran, conspiracy theories have regularly been weaponized in public discourse to justify the targeting and abuse of religious minority groups. By fostering fears of a growing and amorphous “foreign” threat, the Iranian regime can encourage people to close ranks in times of uncertainty and provide itself with a scapegoat to blame for any societal unease. In addition to hurting Iranian society overall, this in turn also harms those minorities and stops them from reaching their full potential in society.
For instance, in Iran, where Shia Islam is the official state religion, conspiracy theories abound about Sunni Muslims advocating Wahhabism: a distinct strand of Islamism endorsed in Saudi Arabia. Sunni Muslim Iranians can therefore be subject to the same conspiracy theories propagated by the Iranian media about Wahhabis. These include fantasies about Wahhabist plans to undermine Shia Islam by using kindergartens to convert Shia children, or Wahhabis being engaged in a project backed by the United States and Britain to increase the fertility rate among Sunnis in Iran, reducing the Shia population.
It is true that Iran and Saudi Arabia have been rivals since the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and it is widely believed that certain members of the Saudi establishment have aided groups who oppose the Islamic Republic. But branding all Sunnis as Wahhabis and subjecting them to conspiracy theories stymies the growth of Iranian Sunnis as a community, and ultimately hurts Iran by denying it the talents and services of Sunni Muslim citizens.
Other religious minorities have also been accused of plotting to harm the Islamic Republic. Sufis have been accused by Iranian government officials, seminary leaders and the Basij - a paramilitary organization operating under Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) - of holding satanic rituals and seeking to divide and weaken Iran’s Muslim communities by “deviating” the minds of the younger generation. This rhetoric has justified the destruction of many Sufi mosques and shrines. Evangelical Christians in Iran are similarly accused of proselytizing, an offence in Iran’s penal code, and being part of a historic conspiracy to ‘de-Islamize’ Iran.
Sustained state-sponsored conspiracy theories in Iran have also been levelled significantly at Jews and members of the Baha’i faith, who respectively number at least 15,000 and 300,000 in Iran. The spiritual father of these theories was Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, who accused Jews and Baha’is of conniving together to form an anti-Islamic unholy alliance and help found the state of Israel. His successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, has further claimed the Holocaust did not take place and accused Iran’s Jews of being “co-conspirators” in a “fake story”. Abdullah Shahbazi, the first director of Iran’s Institute for Political Studies and Research, has also claimed that all wealthy Iranian Jews are part of a secret global cartel that controls the world.
The Rothschild Conspiracy Theory
In their selection of the “bad actors” they claim to be responsible for society’s ills, conspiracy theorists often target and scapegoat individuals who belong to minority groups. This can create a negative public perception of that minority, leading them to be shunned, discredited or subjected to repressive measures and violence. Because the Rothschilds are both wealthy and Jewish, it is easy and effective to swirl conspiracy theories around them. This particular conspiracy theory about the Rothschilds is antisemitic because it draws upon and advances pejorative and hateful stereotypes about an entire group of people, in this case Jews.
The Rothschild conspiracy theory forms a central strand of a wider delusion that the world and all its most pivotal events are controlled by a small, elite, powerful and secretive group. Even when that secretive group is “unmasked” as a non-Jewish organization, for example the Freemasons or the Illuminati, still it is often claimed that behind them is a “Jewish cabal” and – pulling the strings of them all – the Rothschilds.
Conspiracy theorists claim the Rothschilds have the power to control international banking and financial institutions, control governments and dominate the world by fanning rivalries and even orchestrating wars to suit their own ends.
The Rothschilds are indeed a very wealthy family, but by no means the richest in the world or even close to it. By 2019 just one member of the family, Benjamin de Rothschild, was on the Forbes List of the world’s billionaires – and he was ranked at number 1,349. And although in 2015 the Rothschild Group had an annual revenue of $500 million, that figure was dwarfed by the $500 billion revenue of the supermarket chain Walmart, which is owned by a Christian family.
It is ludicrous to suggest that a single family has the power to dictate world events or control the world’s banking institutions. But the facts do not matter to conspiracy theorists. Regardless of their actual material wealth or power, the Rothschilds are presented in the role as leaders of a ‘global cabal’ because they are Jewish. In some communities there persists a centuries-old lie that Jews conspire to control the world and profit from its misfortunes. Political movements of all stripes have expounded on and exploited this myth, rendering Jews a useful scapegoat for society’s ills, too often with devastating consequences.
The Rothschild Conspiracy Theory in Iran
Rothschild-based conspiracy theories are popular all over the world, including in Iran. From the 1960s and due in no small part to the speeches of Ayatollah Khomeini, a number of baseless claims were circulated about Jews in Iran. The Rothschild conspiracy theory was co-opted into this narrative. Targeting Iran’s relations with Israel was one of the main thrusts in Khomeini’s campaign against the then-Shah of Iran, and eliciting the idea of a global “cabal” spearheaded by Jews helped to unite Iranians.
Iran’s so-called Jewish Studies Center regularly produces antisemitic, anti-Israeli and anti-Baha’i articles and papers. During Khomeini’s early campaign it published an article falsely claiming that Abbas Afandi – better known as Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the founder of the Baha’i faith – had worked with members of the Rothschild family in the project to settle Jews in Palestine, thereby playing a central role in the creation of the State of Israel. The idea that these two minority groups were conspiring together became entrenched in the rhetoric of the time, and has helped justify the mistreatment of Jews and Baha’is in Iran ever since.
Decades later the Rothschild conspiracy theory was still being touted by prominent individuals and official mouthpieces in Iran. The newspaper Kayhan, whose managing editor is appointed by Iran’s hardline Supreme Leader, regularly circulates outrageous accusations against Jews and Baha’is in a series of features entitled Discovery of Conspiracy Networks. These articles often provide intelligence and security officials with the justification they need to bring trumped-up charges against Iranian intellectuals, writers and artists.
In 2008, Kayhan published an article about Lord Victor Rothschild (1910-1990). It claimed that his career trajectory “shows the unbelievable role played by the Rothschild family in Western intelligence services”.
“Lord Victor Rothschild played a major role in supporting Mossad and its transformation into one of the most powerful spy agencies,” it wrote. “At this time, a member of the Rothschild dynasty by the name of General Daniel Rothschild is at the helm of Mossad.
“It was the Rothschilds who promoted Palestine as the Promised Land among wealthy Jews and Jewish intellectuals – whereas, at the time, many Jews had no particular land in mind and some were thinking about America or even southern Africa. Eventually, it was with the Rothschilds’ financial support and political influence that this conspiracy was realized and led to the establishment of Israel in the Middle East.”
In fact, Major General “Danny” Rothschild – like countless others who bear the same surname – is not a direct descendant of the Rothschild banking family. He never served at the helm of Mossad, but in the Intelligence Corps of the Israeli Defense Forces. From 1990, as Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, he is credited with playing a key role in the negotiations that led to peace agreements with Palestinians – and he had retired from service by 1995. Lord Victor Rothschild, meanwhile, worked in counter-sabotage for British intelligence during World War II. There is to this day no credible evidence that he worked with MI5 or indeed any other global intelligence agency beyond the end of the war.
The Rothschild conspiracy theory also came to the fore in Iran after the signing of the nuclear agreement with the US in 2015, this time to undermine the validity of the accord as well as the position of Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani. Following what should have been a historic accord, the hardline Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei wasted no time in warning that the US wanted to exploit the arrangement to "infiltrate” Iran along with Israel. Media outlets affiliated with Iran’s security and intelligence agencies promptly spewed forth a torrent of articles about “infiltrators”. The news website Mashregh published several articles about foreign businessmen visiting Tehran during this period. One was about Norman Lamont, the UK’s commercial representative to Tehran and chairman of the British-Iranian Chamber of Commerce.
“Many analysts in the UK consider Lamont an agent of the Rothschild family for destroying the British economy so that this Masonic-Zionist family can strengthen its grip on the financial arteries of this country,” wrote Mashregh, painting Lamont as a despised character in Britain since his tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer. “Of course, it appears that Lamont was paid well for carrying out this mission. Immediately after he was removed from office he started working as a senior director for the Rothschild financial empire.”
The article went on to proclaim Lamont’s business career had begun in the mid-1980s “as a banker for the Zionist financial empire of Rothschild and Sons... Responsible officials must explain to the public why and for what mission such an individual is in Iran, somebody with such a past whose ties with Zionism through the Rothschild family cannot be denied.”
The article did not name the “analysts in the UK” who supposedly believed Lamont sabotaged the British economy during his tenure as Chancellor. Lamont was a curious target; not only had he left his early investment banking career at N M Rothschild & Sons as early as 1972, when he first became an MP, but he has a long track record of opposition to sanctions and external meddling in Iranian affairs, saying in a 2006 interview: “The history of Iran has been interfered with by foreign countries”. An Anglo-Iranian group he formerly directed, Balli Group, is still under investigation in Britain for selling aircraft to Iran in 2010 in defiance of US sanctions.
The name of Rothschild and the associations that, by now, came with it were also deployed in an article published by the state-owned Mehr News agency in July 2018. Months after US President Donald Trump announced the US would be withdrawing from the nuclear deal, a long-form feature published by Mehr purported to reveal Trump’s “true” intentions in the region. Drawing a series of over-stretched links between long-time associates of Trump and the Rothschild family, the article claimed Trump had “deep ties to the world mafia in the Middle East”. This “behind-the-scenes Mafia”, it claimed, was ultimately steering Trump’s actions as president and would see him pursue an interventionist policy so as to bring about the collapse of the region. “It is the same Mafia that ignited the Syrian civil war”, the article continued, disregarding the fact that this conflict was ignited by the Assad regime – a regime supported by Iran – in response to a widespread movement of Syrian civilians calling for democratic reforms.
At every turn, deployment of the Rothschild conspiracy theory in Iran has had little to nothing to do with the Rothschilds themselves. It has had everything to do with using antisemitism to advance some pressing ulterior motive: be that fueling revolutionary sentiment, undermining political opponents or even advancing personal careers through the spread of disinformation.
The Violent Consequences of Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracy theories lead to many forms of violence. They do violence to the truth, in that they spread lies and misunderstanding; they do violence to communities by deepening divisions between different groups, generating suspicion and hostility toward minorities; and more immediately, they give rise to physical violence when the “solution” to problems comes to be seen as getting rid of the group accused of causing them.
Antisemitic conspiracy theories pre-date the rise of Nazism in Germany and were also a virulent and toxic component of Nazi ideology. As such, they were a powerful contributing factor in one of the most lethal mass atrocity crimes in human history, the Holocaust: the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its allies and collaborators. Millions of others, including Roma, people with disabilities, Slavs, gay men, and political opponents were victims of Nazi racial and political ideology. The antisemitic fantasies promoted to the German people by the Nazis included the myth about the Rothschilds.
In the early 20th century, the long-standing suspicion toward Jews already present in many countries had gained further currency with the emergence of a publication called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion: a forged document first published in Tsarist Russia in 1903 which purported to describe a Jewish plot for world domination. The claims in The Protocols fell on fertile ground due to a widespread and centuries-old hostility to Jews throughout Christian Europe and further afield.
In the aftermath of World War I, many people in Germany found solace in the fantasy that they had not been defeated on the battlefield, but rather had been betrayed by Jews and left-wing elements living among them. This was despite the fact that German Jewish men had fought and died in their thousands in the trenches alongside their non-Jewish comrades.
The Nazi movement led by Adolf Hitler seized the opportunity to magnify these claims of a Jewish anti-German conspiracy by claiming that “Jews are the cause of all our misfortunes”, blaming them variously for the threat of communist revolution, economic disasters such as hyper-inflation, and the social disaster of mass unemployment in the Great Depression. After the establishment of the Nazi dictatorship in 1933, mass propaganda campaigns, from posters to news coverage to tub-thumping speeches in countries across Europe and further afield, were instrumental in spreading these fictions and indoctrinating the general public.
Among them was a film, Die Rothschilds, which was produced in 1940 in Nazi Germany. Playing on an already-debunked myth, it claimed the Rothschild family had bankrolled the Napoleonic Wars before making a fortune on the London stock exchange by spreading false rumors about the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo. The film concluded with the suggestion that the Rothschilds were poised to set up a Europe-wide banking network that would next be ‘targeting’ England. By this time the Rothschilds were already a well-known Jewish family and this false narrative helped to bolster fear and hostility toward Jews among its audiences - which was, of course, the intention.
These conspiracy theories about Jews bolstered Nazi racial ideology which defined Jews as a separate race that were a “biological threat” to the “superior” German “race”. Jews were portrayed as an evil, powerful group bent on the destruction of civilizations and on world domination. This intolerable situation, Nazi Germany’s leaders insisted, called for a “Final Solution”.
During the Second World War these unfounded, irrational and paranoid fears contributed to a systematic program of mass murder and the deaths of six million Jewish men, women and children throughout the European continent. The very fact that this was possible is evidence enough - if any were needed - that the claim that Jews were a dominating force in the world was no more than a delusion. Rather, they were a small, vulnerable minority in every European country in which they had a presence. The schemers were the Nazis themselves, and the malevolent intent was found not only in the leaders of the Nazi movement, but also in the homes of ordinary people across Europe who turned against their Jewish neighbors.
The Rothschild Conspiracy Theory in the Present
At the time of writing, the world is engulfed in the coronavirus pandemic. Entire national ways of life and economies have turned upside down in a matter of months by efforts to halt the spread of a potentially deadly new disease, Covid-19.
Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, conspiracy theories are again circulating. The most common claim is that the virus was manufactured in the interests of a global elite. Internet memes and sensationalist articles have recently accused the Rothschilds, as well as Jews in general, alongside states such as China and a number of wealthy individuals – from Bill Gates to Jeff Bezos (who are not Jewish) – of fabricating the current crisis, in order to make vast fortunes from a vaccine they have already developed, or else to kill off a vast proportion of the global population. This is said to be a part of a plot to create a “New World Order”: an obsession which predates the coronavirus crisis by a long way and one in which the Rothschilds have almost always been placed front and center.
In a global emergency such as this, we rely on one another. These theories prey on people’s fears at times of great social anxiety and appeal to their pre-existing prejudices. They not only promote antisemitism and hatred; they are dangerous in the context of a pandemic as they undermine trust in scientific experts, health care professionals and institutions giving the best available advice on how to suppress, contain, and defeat this new contagion. This puts us all at risk.
For as long as antisemitic theories and widely available publications like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion continue to persist, Jews in general and the Rothschilds in particular will be accused by some of conspiring to control the world. And those who believe or spread these conspiracy theories, in Iran and across the globe, will continue to damage their societies as well as their own ability to understand the world in which they live.
Case Study 1: The Poisonous Pamphlet That Sparked a Myth
The Rothschild conspiracy theory appears to have its origins in France in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1846 a left-wing polemicist and avowed anti-capitalist, Georges Dairnvaell, produced an antisemitic pamphlet in which he accused Nathan Rothschild, founder of the London branch of the family bank, of profiting from the Napoleonic Wars.
Writing under the pseudonym “Satan”, Dairnvell claimed that Nathan Rothschild had been present at the Battle of Waterloo and on observing Napoleon would be defeated, had hot-footed it back across the English Channel to make a fortune on the London Stock Exchange ahead of other competitors. In fact, the account was by turns a total fabrication or relying on forged evidence, including a fake diary entry and fake newspaper quotes. Nathan Rothschild was not at the Battle of Waterloo but in London that day along with other traders. He bought stocks at the time but certainly made no great fortune.
Conspiracy theorists also claim that Rothschild spread false rumors that Napoleon had won the battle in order to make the price of stocks plummet so he could buy them cheaply and later sell them again at a vast profit. But this, too, is a lie, rather easily exposed: there is no record of a price slump that day.
Georges Dairnvaell had repeatedly libeled wealthy members of the Rothschild family in his writings before. He openly disliked both capitalists and Jews. This is undoubtedly the root cause of the first enduring myth about the Rothschild family, rather than anything Nathan Rothschild had said or done more than 30 years before.
Case Study 2: Internet Memes Lead to New Targets
The proliferation of different voices on the internet today can make it difficult to sift authoritative sources of information from bogus ones. New technologies including image-editing software have also made it easier to package information in such a way that it looks credible, even when it is not. Conspiracy theorists and antisemites have seized on these tools to attract new audiences in recent years.
Since 2013 a meme has circulated online claiming that Jeff Rothschild, the vice president of Facebook, is part of a plot to provoke a Third World War. This is supposedly intended to kill off billions of people across the globe and enslave the survivors. While giving a speech in China, he is supposed to have proclaimed: “In order to finalize the New World Order process we need a Third World War to exterminate 90 percent of the world's population. This will resolve the problem of human overpopulation as well as put an end to civil disobedience.”
There is no record that Jeff Rothschild ever said these words, because he did not. In addition, this modern addendum to the Rothschilds conspiracy is supremely ill-conceived as Jeff Rothschild is from a completely different family. He happens to share a surname with the Rothschild banking family but is not part of the same family tree. Unfortunately, the theory continues to circulate, as the truth is no encumbrance to those who wish to believe in these fantastical tales.
Case study 3: Joining the wrong dots
Governments around the world are committed to improving transparency in the private sector. In a bid to clamp down on money-laundering, fraud, tax avoidance and kleptocracy, many countries such as Britain, Australia and many in the European Union publish detailed information about the private companies that are registered in their territories.
Unfortunately, these corporate registers can be confusing to navigate. Uninitiated readers can become confused about what they are seeing online, and may draw connections between legal entities where they do not exist: leading, in turn, to fresh conspiracy theories.
This has been the case in Britain, where people mistakenly drawing connections between records on the British corporate register has led to a thousands-strong online community becoming convinced that the Rothschilds control a network of businesses in the UK involving ex-prime minister Tony Blair, senior figures in the BBC, weapons manufacturers, oil barons and the Italian Mafia. The fact that it is possible to navigate between any two online records with enough clicks of a mouse is, to conspiracy-theorists and would-be believers, proof that the companies are all part of the same cabal and together are “facilitating War Games all the way to the Rothschilds”.
The main “evidence” cited by the group is that many of these businesses used, at one point or another, the same mail forwarding address in north London. But so did 260,000 others: the firm based there has been running since 1978. Just as people who buy the same T-shirt at Walmart do not necessarily know each other and are not in cahoots, nor are this firm’s clients. But that does not matter to these conspiracy theorists, who also believe the address is controlled by the Rothschilds and note darkly on their website that it is located “in a predominantly Jewish area”.