|Protocols of the Elders of Zion|
Through their secret government, it is alleged, they will ultimately succeed in overthrowing nations, introducing a single world economic system, and preparing the way for a King of the Jews who will be “the real Pope of the Universe, the patriarch of an international Church” (Protocols, 58).
For many believers in the Protocols, this King of the Jews is none other than the Antichrist; for more secular conspiracy theorists, the outcome is a “one-world government” or “New World Order” run by international (Jewish) bankers (although these two interpretations are not mutually exclusive).
The Protocols were first proven to be a forgery in 1921 and are now almost universally recognized as such. Yet their dubious authenticity has never substantially reduced their effectiveness as antisemitic propaganda, and they have been used to support anti-Jewish conspiracy theories from their first appearance around 1900 right up until the present day, perhaps most famously and most tragically in Nazi Germany.
The Composition of the Protocols
Although the “writer” of the Protocols is unknown, much of the text is derived from a nineteenth-century political satire written in France by Maurice Joly. In Joly’s Dialogue aux Enfers entre Montesquieu et Machiavel (1864), the political philosophers Montesquieu and Machiavelli are engaged in debate, with Montesquieu (the hero of the piece) arguing the case for liberalism and Machiavelli (the villain and standin for Napoleon III) arguing the case for cynical despotism.
As Norman Cohn points out in his indispensable Warrant for Genocide (1981), whoever compiled the text of the Protocols seemed to do so “in a hurry” because the elders can be found offering the arguments of both Montesquieu and Machiavelli.
Yet, ironically and tragically, this apparent mistake resulted in one of the text’s great “strengths” as right-wing propaganda, for the apparent contradiction between the two political philosophies is resolved as follows: the elders’ “true” goals for world conquest through sinister political machinations are revealed in the Machiavelli passages, while the Enlightenment liberalism advocated in the Montesquieu passages is merely a ploy the elders use to delude the “goy cattle.”
Whether by accident or by intention, the compiler of the Protocols managed to forge the conceptual matrix that would allow generations of antisemitic conspiracy theorists to view every liberal-progressive development in politics (e.g., the formation of the UN, the development of labor unions, the liberalization of trade, secularization, etc.) as merely a ploy of the international Jewish conspiracy.
The rampant forces of globalized capitalism were indeed causing many changes throughout Europe, and the Protocols are quite clearly offering a distorted—and ultimately deadly—metaphor for the new economic world order.
The elders want wars, for instance, to be fought “on economic ground” (Protocols, 17), which is, of course, the sphere of their power, for, as they remind us throughout the text, they control the world’s gold.
When nations subsume their own sovereignty under the general rule of international economy, they are playing right into the elders’ hands. Money knows no national boundaries; it is the international force par excellence.
The elders speak of capital in awed tones as an entity “which possesses millions of eyes ever on the watch and unhampered by any limitations whatsoever,” and it is this that provides a clue about what lies behind the antisemitic conspiracy theories the Protocols generate. As the U.S. literary scholar Frederic Jameson points out, conspiracy theory can be understood as a flawed attempt to comprehend a social totality that is, ultimately, beyond comprehension.
In this case, the awesome power of globalization (i.e., global capitalism) itself is misunderstood as somehow being the conscious scheme of a few individuals, rather than as an impersonal force driven on by markets and banal, everyday consumer self-interest. This particular flawed understanding of the social totality is distinguished by its cruel scapegoating and its ability to generate violence.
The History of the Protocols from Nineteenth-Century Russia to the Holocaust
Though the origin of the Protocols is a complex subject, the general consensus is that the text resulted at least in part from labors of Pyotr Ivanovich Rachkovsky, the head of foreign operations for the czarist secret police force, Okhrana.
Rachkovsky may well have commissioned the work as an attempt to create support for a Franco-Russian league, ostensibly to counter the international Jewish conspiracy, but no doubt more practically to offset other European military powers.
While references within the text to the French political scene cause scholars to argue that the text was produced in France in 1897 or 1898, the Protocols first appear in print in Russia (as early as 1903), with their “canonical” formulation coming in the mystical writer Sergey Nilus’s ominously titled work, The Great in the Small: Antichrist Considered as an Imminent Political Possibility (1905).
Nilus revised and expanded his work for publication just in time for the revolution, and it was predominantly the 1917 version, entitled He Is Near, at the Door ... Here Comes the Antichrist and the Reign of the Devil on Earth, that furnished the world with what was to become a startlingly popular explanation of both the October Revolution and World War I.
Very quickly, the Bolsheviks’ opponents, the White Russian forces, seized upon the Protocols as a foreign policy tool. They believed, or at least wanted others to believe, that the revolution was the work of the elders.
By distributing copies of the Protocols to delegates at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and to government officials throughout Europe and the United States, the White forces hoped to persuade foreign powers to intervene in their civil war against the Bolsheviks. In 1920 the Protocols were being taken quite seriously in mainstream newspapers such as the London Times.
Editions began to appear in many languages throughout Europe. Then Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent published a series of ninety-one articles “explaining” the mysterious power of Jews in the United States and introducing the Protocols to a wide U.S. audience (the journal had a readership that often neared 500,000).
Reprinted as The International Jew, Ford’s particularly U.S. version of the antisemitic conspiracy theory was shipped back to Europe and ultimately, in the words of Norman Cohn, did “more than any other work to make the Protocols world famous” (Cohn, 159).
One of the many inconsistencies in the worldwide dissemination of the Protocols is the ways in which the conspiracy theory was subtly warped within each nation to fit the national strategic interests.
While antisemites in each country believed the Jews to be behind a secret world government or conspiracy, they were in wild disagreement as to who exactly was supposed to be in league with the international Jewish conspiracy. In Germany, it was believed that the City of London was the elders’ center of operations, and that the English actually financed the Bolsheviks.
In England, on the other hand, it was supposed that Germany was in league with the Bolsheviks and the elders. In both cases is quite clear that the Jews were being made a scapegoat in order to drum up opposition to each country’s strategic military and economic rivals.
Interest in the Protocols dramatically tapered off in Britain when the London Times proved them to be a forgery in August 1921. Yet certain radical elements in Germany refused to believe this. In Mein Kampf, Hitler perversely argued that even if the Protocols turned out to be a forgery, that did not mean that the contents were untrue.
In fact, for Hitler, all of the public denunciations of the Protocols in the British papers and elsewhere proved all the more that the Protocols represented things the way they really are; after all, the elders themselves announce in the Protocols that they already control the press (Protocols, 30).
In the end, the Protocols formed one of the pillars of the Nazi ideology. Yet not only did the Nazis found their antisemitism on the Protocols, they also seemed entranced and profoundly influenced by the elders’ conspiracy.
The great irony of the situation has been pointed out by Hannah Arendt: “the Nazis started with the fiction of conspiracy and modeled themselves, more or less consciously, after the secret society of the Elders of Zion.”
As is too often the case, the conspiracy theorists end up mirroring the very conspiracy they ostensibly hope to eradicate (perhaps revealing the psychological “projection” that all along formed the basis of the racial hatred). The tragic result of this ideology is well known—at least 6 million lives destroyed in the Holocaust.
The Protocols Today
Though the Holocaust is the obscene climax of the Protocols’ history, it is far from the end of the story. To this day the Protocols are still used effectively in anti-Israeli propaganda in the Middle East.
The Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) refers to the Protocols in its “Covenant” as evidence of Zionist expansionist policy. It suggests that the Protocols are “the best proof” of its claim that Israel intends to “expand from the Nile to the Euphrates.”
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) keeps a running record of positive references to the Protocols in more mainstream Middle Eastern media as well (particularly those references found in Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda, the official newspaper of the Palestinian authority).
In the United States, Neo-Nazi groups, right-wing separatists, and the Nation of Islam have all distributed (or been accused of distributing) copies of the Protocols (these groups are also tracked by the ADL). The Internet has provided a cheaply accessible forum for such groups to publicize their views, and no doubt ensures that Protocols of the Elders of Zion are more widely accessible today than ever.