The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an anti-Semitic pamphlet published in Russia at the end of the 19th century. It purports to be the minutes of meetings held secretly by Jewish wise men plotting to control the world. Exposed many times as a forgery, the Protocols has nevertheless continued to be translated, published, and distributed all over the world, from the United States to Japan, from the Arab world to Latin America. Its legacy is alive and well today in the charter for Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, as well as among Holocaust deniers, and conspiracy theorists.
The Protocols consists of 24 “meetings” during which the chief of the Jewish wise men explains how to turn non-Jews into slaves and how to take hold of various global institutions. The text contains a critique of liberalism, an analysis of methods that can be used to gain control of the world, and a description of the universal State to come. The book does not give details about the identity of the wise men, the author of the “minutes,” the time and place of the meetings, the intended audience, or the ways in which the manuscript was made public.
Different editions give different accounts of where the manuscript was “found.” In some editions, it was discovered in the “chancellery of Zion,” purportedly located in France. In others, it was obtained by “a woman who knew one of the top leaders of Free Masonry,” another society typically associated with Jewish conspiracies. In other editions, the Protocols was presented by Zionist leader Theodor Herzl himself at the First Zionist Congress in 1897.
Writing the Protocols
The true origin is less colorful. At the end of the 19th century, as popular unrest was threatening the czarist regime in Russia, the secret police of the czar — known as the Okhrana (the forerunner to the KGB)- – opened a branch in Paris with the hope of securing a Franco-Russian alliance. The head of this section, Pierre Ivanovitch Ratchkovsky, foiled bombing attempts that he had masterminded himself, had personal foes assassinated, wrote letters denouncing so-called revolutionaries, and published anonymous pamphlets that he would then use as proof of anti-czarist activity that needed to be curbed. The Protocols gives a taste of his imagination. He was looking for a scapegoat in order to calm down Russian unrest against the czar in the 1890s. The Jews came in handy, since anti-Semitism was widespread in Russia, and conspiracy theories involving Jews were blossoming at the time. Indeed, another paradigmatic claim of Jewish conspiracy occurred in France in 1894 with the Dreyfus Affair.
Ratchkovsky, who was later unmasked as the author of pseudo-revolutionary pamphlets and forced to return to Russia, fabricated the Protocols in 1897 or 1898 in Paris. He sent the “revealing” manuscript to a Russian mystical writer, Sergey Nilus, who translated it from the French into Russian and published the text in 1903 in a nationalist review, Znamia (The Flag). The editor of the journal, Krutschevan, a well-known anti-Semitic leader in Russia, was the organizer of the recent pogrom (government-orchestrated attack on Jews and Jewish property) in Kishinev. Like in all subsequent editions of the Protocols, there is no mention of the author or the origin of the manuscript. It is simply stated that the document was written in France and the subtitle “Jewish Conspiracy To Control the World” is added on the cover of some editions.
The czar and his advisors were impressed by the content of the text, though it was quickly understood to be a forgery. However, it did not deter the Orthodox Church and other institutions from distributing it throughout the Russian Empire and beyond. By 1917, it became a bestseller in Europe and the United States, where it was published by the American car magnate and notorious anti-Semite Henry Ford.
Details of the Plot
The Protocols‘ conspiracy to destroy Christianity and control the world includes a plan to take over the media, as laid out in the 12th Protocol: “Literature and journalism are two of the most important educative forces, and therefore our government will become proprietor of the majority of the journals…It will put us in possession of a tremendous influence upon the public mind.” As part of the conspiracy, the Pope and the Church will be annihilated “so that only years divide us from the moment of the complete wrecking of that Christian religion (Protocol 17).”
The final takeover will be achieved financially: “We shall replace the money markets by grandiose government credit institutions, the object of which will be to fix the price of industrial values in accordance with government views…You may imagine for yourselves what immense power we shall thereby secure for ourselves…(Protocol 21)”
The text makes the Jews responsible for present and past disasters, from the downfall of Christian monarchies to the French Revolution and the advancement of liberal and bourgeois ideas. The Protocols contain a number of metaphors essential to conspiracy vocabulary, such as an “invisible hand” pushing pieces on a chessboard. The plotters are portrayed as poisonous snakes, spiders weaving their webs, and wolves ready to devour Christian sheep. The last protocols describe the future reign of the Jews in Christian terms, announcing the coming of a “King of the Jews” who will be “the real Pope of the Universe, the patriarch of an international Church.”
Exposing the Farce
In May 1920, the Times of London wrote favorably about the Protocols, judging they were real because of their prophetic value: The real danger did not come from Germany, but from the Jews, and everything that was accomplished against them was “justified, necessary and urgent.”
A year later, however, the Times withdrew its support for the pamphlet. The Times‘ correspondent in Constantinople, Philip Graves, discovered that the Protocols was a fabrication. The reporter revealed that the Protocols did not originate from a mysterious Jewish source and included sections plagiarized from a book written in 1864 by a Frenchman, Maurice Joly, attacking Napoleon III and his policies. The Protocols contain about 160 passages taken from Joly’s Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu.
A closer look at the Protocols casts further doubt on its authenticity. There is a large part devoted to the situation in France at the end of the 19th century, the time and place where the Protocols were written. The original French text contains spelling errors, grammatical awkwardness, and a number of typical Russian-language structures that divulge the identity of the author.
Further confirmation of the Protocols‘ forged nature came in 1935 during a trial in Bern, Switzerland. The Federation of Jewish Communities in Switzerland sued a local pro-Nazi group for distributing copies of the anti-Semitic pamphlet. The trial became an opportunity to dissect the text and expose it as a hoax. Russian witnesses testified that the Protocols was a forgery created by Ratchkovsky for political purposes.
And yet the popularity and legacy of the Protocols continued to flourish .
Still in Circulation
The Nazis found great inspiration in the Protocols and used it to blame the Jews for Germany’s defeat during World War I, the financial bankruptcy of the State, and the decline of the German race. Convinced that a Jewish conspiracy was in the works, Hitler mentioned the Protocols in his tract Mein Kampf and in speeches, while Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels distributed the text widely.
Later in the century, the Protocols became a bestseller in the Muslim world. The Protocols help provide a denunciation of Zionism as the source of all problems in Arab lands, an excuse for the defeat of Arab armies, and a reason for their slow economic development. The Palestinian Islamic group Hamas, which now rules Gaza, has made excerpts of the Protocols actual articles of its charter. According to Hamas’ political agenda, calling for the destruction of Israel is justified as a means of survival necessary before Zionists take over the rest of the world. From Iraq to the Palestinian territories, from Egypt to Iran, from Turkey to Indonesia, there is not one Muslim country that has not published or distributed the Protocols, even in recent years.
Holocaust deniers have also contributed to the legacy of the Protocols. They claim that the Holocaust never happened and that it was a Jewish plot aimed at establishing the State of Israel and receiving financial compensation from Germany. They cite the Protocols to confirm their fantasies, and they provide editions in various languages on the Internet.
The fact that the text of the Protocols continues to be reprinted, quoted, and recycled to this day remains a troublesome curiosity in the history of hoaxes and conspiracy literature.