‘Lies have short legs” is a proverb invoked by historian Richard Levy in discussing historical frauds and forgeries. Clearly, in the case of a slew of antisemitic libels — most infamously “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” — such folk wisdom is just plain wrong. “Protocols” may well be the longest-legged lie of modern times, and no amount of light shed on the “hoax of the 20th century” has been able to kill it.
“Protocols” purports to reveal the minutes of a secret meeting held by world Jewish leaders, the “Elders of Zion,” who are conspiring to take over the world. The 24 “protocols” profess to be the confidential minutes of a Jewish conclave, convened in secret in the last years of the 19th century, who are bent on a host of incredible plans, a number of which derive from libels well known from the High Middle Ages, such as the “blood libel.” For example, “Protocols” charges the Jews with secretly subverting the morals of the non-Jewish world; it describes Jewish control of the world’s economies and of the wealth of nations by Jewish bankers; it tells of Jewish control of the press; it describes, ultimately, Jewish plans for the destruction of civilization.
A creation of the Paris branch of the Russian secret police, “Protocols” was first circulated during the late 19th century. It is most likely that the source of the document was a volume written by a French lawyer, Maurice Joly, in 1864, titled “Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu” or “The Politics of Machiavelli in the Nineteenth Century.” Joly’s book, which cast Machiavelli as the conspirator bent on world conquest, had a political purpose and was not antisemitic on its face. The author of “Protocols,” however, made use of large portions of Joly’s book, simply attributing to Jewish “Elders of Zion” the aims of world conquest that Joly had attributed to Machiavelli. The book’s original intent probably was not to incite the masses against the Jews, but to frighten the tsar into complying with the demands of the reactionary right wing in Russia by throwing suspicion on the relatively moderate prime minister, Count Witte, as being an agent of international Jewry.
It was apparent soon after the book appeared that “Protocols” was a crude forgery and a hoax. But in the context of the war, starvation, revolution and economic chaos that characterized the first decades of the 20th century, “protocols” found a home. In such a context, as Levy and others have noted, antisemitism ceased to be merely a cynical political tool but became lethal for Jews: pogroms, legal anti-Jewish discrimination, ultimately the destruction of European Jewry.
But most significant about “Protocols” is that it is the single document that has had the greatest influence on antisemitic activity in the 20th century; antisemites of every conceivable stripe — in every country, of every political persuasion — have kept it close at hand. The use of “Protocols” as a fundamental tool of antisemitism soon spread: by émigré tsarists after the Bolshevik Revolution; in Great Britain in the 1920s; in inter-war Poland, where the Catholic bishops invoked “Protocols,” and, of course, in Nazi Germany, where the myth of “Protocols” fit in well with the strains of German “Volkist” nationalism and European racist antisemitism. In our own day, “Protocols” continues as a staple of radical Muslim reading and as a justification for anti-Zionist activity. “Protocols” is yet with us, as are those who succumb to the myth of the Jewish world conspiracy.
Jerome Chanes is the author, most recently of “Antisemitism: A Reference Handbook” (ABC-CLIO, 2004). He teaches at Barnard and Stern Colleges.