'The Elders of Zion': 113 Years of a Lie That Refuses to Die

To those who would like to try their hand at world domination: 'The Protocols' are sadly lacking in practical detail.

Anti-Semitic poster

This article was originally published in 2008

You read "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" with mounting incredulity. The 24 Protocols document a Jewish plot to take over the world. They consist of a description given by a senior Elder to a new Elder on how the Jews, assisted by Freemasons, will achieve their goal. They will control the press, pervert financial systems, cause world wars, sponsor terrorism, destroy religion. Most significant of all - a telltale indication of the arch-reactionary source of the forgery - the conspiracy will undermine established society by spreading liberalism, freedom of the press, human rights and democracy. The sole speaker in "The Protocols," the senior Elder, says: "Do not suppose for a moment that these statements are empty words: Think carefully of the successes we arranged for Darwinism, Marxism, Nietzscheism. To us Jews, at any rate, it should be plain to see what a disintegrating importance these directives have had upon the minds of the goyim."

What inspires incredulity is less that the alleged conspiracy is so plainly fictional as that it is such bad fiction. It lacks the color of what the best fantasy fiction needs to possess. You ask yourself what person with a modicum of education can ever have swallowed such drivel. Ian Fleming's Ernst Stavro Blofeld would have retired from world domination had he been asked to say something as crassly melodramatic as: "The goyim are a flock of sheep and we are their wolves." Only in "The Da Vinci Code" could you encounter anything remotely as half-witted.

This farrago was concocted by the czarist police at the turn of the last century to counter a hankering for constitutional government among the long-repressed Russian people. The appearance of "The Protocols" did its work well. It did not take much for the people to return from thoughts of liberty to their proper business of slaughtering Jews.

"The Protocols" first saw the light of day in Russian in 1905, in a book by a Russian Orthodox fanatic named Sergei Nilus. It was only in 1920 that the first English translation of the pamphlet appeared, under the title "The Jewish Peril." It is astonishing that it was not greeted with hoots of derisive laughter. Even to full-blown conspiracy theorists it should have been obvious that this farcical invention was not the proof they needed. But "The Protocols" were taken seriously and by serious people. In 1920, The Times of London, then the most authoritative newspaper in the world, called it a "disturbing pamphlet," and called for an inquiry. And The Times was not alone. An article in The Illustrated Sunday Herald in February 1920 spoke about "the schemes of the International Jews" and a "world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization." The author had just been sent a copy of the new English translation of "The Protocols" and his name was Winston Churchill.

It is to its credit that it was The Times that produced and published conclusive proof that the pamphlet was not only a forgery, but a piece of blatant plagiarism as well. On August 16-18, 1921, the paper published a series of three articles from its correspondent in Constantinople, Keith Graves. He had obtained a pamphlet that had been published in French in 1865. It was entitled "Dialogue aux Enfers" (the "Dialogue in Hell"), and was written in French by a liberal French writer named Maurice Joly. It consisted of a debate between the philosophers Montesquieu and Machiavelli. Montesquieu argues in favor of liberalism while Machiavelli, cynical as ever, argues for despotism. It was a thinly disguised satire on the rule of the Emperor Napoleon III. The pamphlet had previously fallen into the hands of the Okhrana, the czarist secret police. The Russian government had been looking for a weapon to use against the growing tide of liberalism. They found no smoking gun so they cooked up a hastily contrived forgery, discernibly plagiarizing Joly's book. Montesquieu and Machiavelli disappeared from the forgery, but Machiavelli was replaced by a senior Elder of Zion. He does not disclose his name, but identifies himself as the "representative of Zion of the 33rd degree."

Norman Cohn, the distinguished historian of the irrational who died last year, ruthlessly analyzed the correspondence between the two texts. It would be hard for anyone who has read that analysis to maintain that a good part of "The Protocols" was not lifted verbatim from the Joly pamphlet, with only a few necessary textual changes. On detecting the plagiarism, The Times published an editorial recanting its earlier stance. There was no question, said the paper, that the document was a forgery.

Strange afterlife

With The Times having unequivocally pronounced the pamphlet a forgery, you would have thought that that would be an end to the matter, at least in the half of the world that generally had little time for conspiracy theories. But the curiosity of "The Protocols" is their strange afterlife. That Hitler discovered them and adopted them for his own was to be expected. With incontrovertible Hitlerian logic, his proof in "Mein Kampf" that "The Protocols" are genuine is that the liberal press claimed that they were a forgery. Nor should one be surprised at the use made by others for whom historical truth is a nuisance that should be shrugged off. Modern Muslim regimes, even so-called moderate ones like Jordan and Egypt, have treated the text as genuine.

But "The Protocols" survived in the West, too. A series of articles in Henry Ford's newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, were collected and republished as a book entitled "The International Jew - The World's Foremost Problem," in 1920. Ford was compelled to recant in 1926, unconvincingly claiming that he knew nothing of its contents. But "The International Jew" by then had a life of its own. It had sold half a million copies and was still doing well. And it was grist to the Nazi mill, of course. And so it goes on. What has been demonstrated to be a lie has refused to die.

"The Protocols" are alive and well and if you are minded to, you can check on their ongoing health by reading the fan mail on the Web sites devoted to them. There is a wearying sameness in the blogs. You can discern a monotonous pattern in the ranting views of the believers. In one form or another their crazy argument is that "The Protocols" must be genuine because the conspiracy has been authenticated by later history. But history does not show that at all. What is surely apparent from reading this pamphlet is how, in the perspective of history, these omnipotent, omniscient Elders made such an unholy hash of things. These would-be masters of the world contrived unprecedentedly to lose six million of their intended beneficiaries with no discernible improvement in their conspiratorial plans.

I am sorry to discourage those who would like to try their hand at world domination. "The Protocols" are sadly lacking in practical detail. There is nothing to guide you on getting started as an Elder. If you want to complete an application form, you will look in vain in "The Protocols" for guidance.

The lesson is clear. If you fancy your chances as a Master of the Universe, try another religion.