History’s most virulent antisemitic propaganda essay, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” was first published 100 years ago this week. Though the Protocols turned out to be both a notorious plagiarism and a shocking forgery, the essay would exercise a powerful impact upon the modern era, principally as a critical factor in generating the Holocaust.
Despite its gross falsehood and the horrors it sparked, the Protocols strikingly continues to be promoted today, most alarmingly in such important institutional settings as the United Nations and Middle Eastern governmental media.
The first publication to print the Protocols was the St. Petersburg newspaper Znamya — Russian for Banner — from August 26 to September 7, 1903. Pavel Krushevan, editor of the paper, was known for his ultra-rightist antisemitic views and found common cause with the so-called Black Hundreds, a group active on behalf of extremist causes.
Krushevan, however, was not the author of the Protocols. It was drafted under the prodding and guidance of Piotr Rachkovsky, director of the Paris branch of Okhrana, the Russian secret police. Sinister and wily, he cultivated the art of forging letters or documents in which Jews were targeted as revolutionaries and anarchists striving for democracy in czarist Russia. As early as 1891, he revealed his intentions in a private letter.
The published Protocols were said to be the secret decisions reached at a gathering of Jewish leaders. That gathering was initially held to be the First Zionist Congress, which met in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland. Later, the source was attributed to B’nai B’rith.
What was stunning about the Protocols, as later scholarly investigation and research revealed, was that it was lifted almost entirely from a forgotten political satire published in Paris in 1864 and written by a well-known democrat, Maurice Joly.
Joly’s pamphlet was designed to expose the repressive character of Emperor Napoleon III’s regime, which ruled France at the time. Titled “A Dialogue in Hell: Conversations Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu About Power and Rights,” the pamphlet made no reference to the Jews.
The creator of the Protocols simply plagiarized the Joly work. Protocols 1 through 19 strikingly correspond with Joly’s first 17 dialogues. In nine cases, the borrowing amounts to more than half of the Joly text; in some cases, they constitute three-quarters of the test, and in one case, Protocol 7, almost the entire text is plagiarized. Moreover, the very order of the plagiarized passages remained the same as in the Joly work. The main change in the shamelessly forged Protocols, of course, was the insertion of antisemitic content and language into the Joly dialogues.
Nor was the creator of the Protocols original in the inserted antisemitic language. The forgery rests on the traditional trope of international Jewry, or alternatively Zionism, aspiring to world domination based on the biblical concept of the “Chosen People.” This aspiration, the Protocols purported, is to be achieved through guile, cunning and conspiratorial devices, particularly through Jewish control of the international banking system and press.
The Protocols also played on the fear of Freemasons among court circles, aristocracy and the church establishment. The international fraternal order of Masons, which was identified with liberalism and modernity, was presented in the Protocols as having already been infiltrated and manipulated by the Elders of Zion.
In its manipulative conspiracy, the Elders were to focus on both internal, domestic matters and interstate relations. Within each state, they were to foster discontent and unrest, especially among workers. By promoting liberal ideas, they were to produce confusion while, at the same time, seizing behind-the-scenes control of political parties. Drunkenness and prostitution were said to be vigorously encouraged and morality undermined.
Interstate conflicts were to be stirred up through emphasis upon national differences. Every effort was to be made by the Elders of Zion to increase armament production and enhance the likelihood of warfare. The end game of the Zionists, according to the Protocols, was not victory for one side but rather even greater chaos.
The Elders of Zion’s ultimate goal, perceived to be but a century away, was the messianic age when the entire world would be united under Judaism and dominated by a descendant of the House of David. The emergent structure of a Kingdom of Zion resembles the nightmare vision of George Orwell’s “1984.”
The only nightmare vision to result from the Protocols, of course, was the near destruction of European Jewry during the Holocaust. Both Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler were deeply impressed the Protocols and made it required reading for the Hitler Youth.
With the destruction of Nazism and the horrors that antisemitism had wrought, one might have expected that the Protocols would be thrown in the trash bin of history. The forgery, though, found a welcome readership in Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. The extraordinary Soviet campaign against Zionism reached a crescendo in 1977, with the Soviet Academy of Science’s release of the vehemently hateful publication “International Zionism: History and Politics.”
Ironically, the Communists formally turned to Arab sources for their anti-Zionist propaganda. One major center of hate literature was based in Cairo, where Johannes von Leers, a former employee of Joseph Goebbels’s Nazi propaganda ministry, was spreading antisemitism under his adopted Arabic name, Omar Amin.
The Protocols may have been nourished in Europe with its ancient traditions of Jew-baiting, but it found new life in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser endorsed the document in 1958. During the 1960s and 1970s at least nine different Arabic translations were published, some by the Egyptian government press. In June 2001, the Egyptian paper of record, Al Ahram, cited one of the Protocols as specifying how Jews plan to “control the world” by a combination of means, including the use of Freemasons.
A major milestone for the new drive to exploit the old forgery came at the 2001 United Nations World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa. A table at the Durban forum for nongovernmental organizations displayed the Protocols. The tract and similar racist publications so shocked Congressman Tom Lantos of California, a key figure in the American delegation and the only Holocaust survivor in Congress, that he described it as “the most sickening display of hate for Jews I have seen since the Nazi period.”
A century after its first publication, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” continues to nourish a vibrant message of hate. One would have thought that with all that humanity has learned during the past 100 years, the Protocols’ appeal to ignorance would have waned, if not disappeared entirely. The sad truth is that as long as the forgery remains a best seller, the ground remains fertile for antisemitism.