Often referenced by those paranoid of a global cabal of Jewish bankers, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion remains the most sacred text in the arsenal of anti-Semitism. How did such a book emerge? How did its prejudices and conspiracy theories garner traction in societies around the world? And how does it inform opinion today?
The history of the book draws upon elements of plagiarism and, much like the conspiracy itself, a patch-work of anti-revolutionary angst.
Its conceptual inspiration can be traced back to the time of the French Revolution at the end of the 18th Century. Seizing upon the paranoia of reactionary elements who were opposed to the revolution, a French Jesuit priest named Abbe Barruel published a dossier in 1797 which attributed the revolution to the actions of the Freemason Order. In 1806, he elaborated on his earlier work by circulating a forged letter by the state police alleging Jewish involvement in the conspiracy of the Masons.
Although making no mention of the Jews, the theme of clandestine meetings reappeared in 1864 with French satirist Maurice Joly. Joly published a pamphlet named Dialogues in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu which jokingly accused the emperor Napoleon III of convening a meeting in Hell. Although made in jest to prove a political point, the theme was recycled by a German author named Hermann Goedsche – a man known both for his strident anti-Semitism and fraudulence. He routinely forged letters and documents that discredited left-wing politicians, which eventually cost him his job in the German postal service. Goedsche adapted Joly’s satirical work into a series titled Biarritz, although the theme of this work was Jewish conspiracy rather than allegations against Napoleon.
In the late 19th and early 20th Century, the Russian Empire was gripped by a strong wave of antisemitism. Economic hardships created space for a scapegoat and growing dissatisfaction with the Imperial government created fissures between loyalists and revolutionaries. When Goedsche’s work found its way to Russia, it was not critically examined for its accuracy or objectivity. Rather, it was translated into Russian in 1872, and enabled the Okhrana (Russian secret police) to strengthen the position of the unpopular Czar and discredit the liberals who were more hospitable to the Jews.
Events such as the Dreyfus Affair that began in 1894 and the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897 exacerbated the anti-Semitic sentiment of the time and fueled the myth of Jewish attempts to subvert the culture and authority of European states. Evidence suggests that the book as we know it today, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was cobbled together from pre-existing sources by agents of the Okhrana working in Paris during the years of the Dreyfus Affair. Published by the mystic Russian priest Sergei Nilus in 1905, they helped inspire the Russian pogroms of 1905 with the help of the Okhrana. Furthermore, in the midst of an attempted revolution by communist revolutionaries that same year, the Russian ultra-nationalist Black Hundreds organization used the book as a precursor to blame the Jews for the installation of a new constitution and the Duma (parliament).
After its emergence in Imperial times, the document has been used extensively by fascist movements and governments around the world. Most infamously, it was propagated by Adolf Hitler to justify the persecution and genocide of Europe’s Jewish community. In his manifesto Mein Kampf, he wrote:
‘[The Protocols] are based on a forgery, the Frankfurter Zeitung moans every week . . . [which is] the best proof that they are authentic. … the important thing is that with positively terrifying certainty they reveal the nature and activity of the Jewish people and expose their inner contexts as well as their ultimate final aims’.
In the contemporary world, the document continues to inform opinion among people who do not question its authenticity. It remains available in some book stores in countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the Charter of Hamas makes reference to the document in what it says is the embodiment of Jewish and Zionist aspirations:
‘When they [the Zionists] will have digested the region they overtook, they will aspire to further expansion, and so on. Their plan is embodied in the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, and their present conduct is the best proof of what we are saying’.
Aside from people’s ignorance to the document’s fraudulence, its success and reach is derived from well-established stereotypes and myths about Jewish people. Historian Daniel Pipes notes that it effectively reinforces the recurring themes of conspiratorial anti-Semitism:
• Jews always scheme
• Jews are everywhere
• Jews are behind every institution
• Jews obey a central authority, the shadowy ‘Elders’
• Jews are close to success
These perceptions of Jews still exist today in some circles. They are understood to be a highly-organized, secretive sect – more reminiscent of a satanic cult than an ethnic or religious group. They resemble people concerned only with control and resource accumulation, rather than engaging in tikun olam (repairing the world) or adhering to a covenant with an omniscient Creator. Thus, the next time one encounters vilification of Jewish people or the Jewish State, it behooves us to analyze the criticism. If it is based upon an assumption of a well-financed effort to exert global influence, the propagators may be – either knowingly or subconsciously – paying homage to the famous fraudulent manifesto.