The Protocols of the Elders of Zion purports to be written evidence of a vast and secret Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. It’s presented as a factual and detailed description of a late-nineteenth century meeting to plot international Hebrew hegemony through manipulation and treachery. These ideas are at the root of the mother of all conspiracy theories for those who live in the bizarre world of alternative historical reality.
In fact, the publication is a forgery – probably the most sinister and infamous fake in literary history.
The year is 1898, and Nicholas II rules a Russia that’s beginning to experience the revolutionary stirrings of modernism. The Tsar is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and tends to be easily led by strong people around him. He tries to take incremental steps toward leading the nation away from its feudal past, but some in his court are alarmed. Thus, evil men began to seek a way to short-circuit these liberalizing influences.
If only they could convince the Tsar that the voices of change he’s listening to are motivated by something other than the best interests of Russia – but how? It was in this environment that the greatest of all anti-Semitic lies was born. A threatening conspiracy would be manufactured - one that would bring Nicholas to his senses – and the Jews to their knees.
Mathieu Golovinski was living in Parisian exile at the time. Though he was Russian, having been born in the Simbirsk region in 1865, he was forced to flee after repeated clashes with Russian authorities, usually having to do with his tendency to fabricate documents and evidence in legal matters. He was a master of spin, innuendo, and dirty tricks. He was also very skilled in the arts of forgery and plagiarism.
And he worked for the Okhrana – the Tsar’s secret police.
He was approached by agents’ provocateur from the Tsar’s inner circle about creating a convincing anti-Jewish legend. They needed a narrative, one that would be seen as proof of a sinister plot behind the winds of change beginning to blow in Russia. Golovinski was commissioned to fabricate the evidence.
He came across an old book, written in 1864 by an anti-monarchist activist named Maurice Joly. It was entitled, Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquie and was written as a thinly disguised attack on Napoleon III’s rule in France. The book was suppressed by the French government and the writer was imprisoned. He committed suicide in 1878.
A plan was hatched to borrow from this obscure book, changing some of its cosmetics and phrasing. It would be recast, using Joly’s fictional dialogue for a model, as the actual deliberations of a secret cabal of Jews bent on taking over the world. When the fake was finished, it was spirited back to St. Petersburg, and all that would be needed was a way to get it before the ruler of the realm.
Enter the other religious zealot in and around the court of the Tsar.
When most think of religious influences around Nicholas II, attention is usually given to Grigori Rasputin, the mad monk who haunted that scene beginning about 1905. But often overlooked, and certainly more ominous as far as long-term impact on the world is concerned, is the influence of his cultic contemporary, Sergei Alexandrovich Nilus. He was a writer on religious matters and a self-styled spiritual mystic.
And he is also the man who first published Golovinski’s sinister forgery.
Initially placing the Protocols as a chapter in one of his books, Dr. Nilus saw to it that the potentate was fully briefed and convinced about the purported Jewish threat. And like Rasputin, he also had the ear of ruler’s wife – so the Tsar, never a man to have his own firm opinions, fell prey to the lie. And in the days following his nation’s defeat at the hands of the Japanese at a loss of several hundred thousand men, not to mention overwhelming financial expense, circumstances were ripe for the rotten fruit of a compelling scapegoat story.
On January 9, 1905, the Tsar’s troops opened fire on protesters who peacefully marched near the palace in St. Petersburg. This would become known as Bloody Sunday. The Tsar and his inner circle saw in the Protocols the real reason for the unrest – it was a big Jewish plot to overthrow the monarchy.
So it began – the gargantuan conspiratorial lie that has reared its hideous head time and time again over the past one hundred years. Jewish plotters were blamed for The Great War (1914-1918). Then in its aftermath, when Germany was struggling to recover from defeat, the big lie was discovered by the greatest demagogue of the day, Adolf Hitler. By the time the future German dictator was sent to prison in 1923, he was well versed in the Protocols and drew significantly from the forgery as he wrote his own hate-filled and delusional tome, Mein Kampf.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion became, to men already filled with anti-Semitic ideas, proof positive of a sinister Jewish agenda. To those who believed the lie, the writings were sufficient evidence for the indictment, condemnation, and eventual execution of these conspiratorial people. The Protocols in many ways fueled the Holocaust.
Yet all along, reasonable people – scholars, journalists, and statesmen – have gone to great lengths to expose the fraudulent nature of the Protocols. Beginning with a lengthy analysis in the Times of London in 1921, to a celebrated trial in Switzerland in 1935, to a report by the United States Senate in 1964, good people have said again and again: “the book’s a fake.” Good people still do.
It’s the bad people who are the problem.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the biggest publishing hoax of the past one hundred years, is not going away. This is largely because Islamists are using it, with great effectiveness, to fan contemporary flames of hatred. In fact, it’s arguable that there are more copies of this lie-laden text extant, than ever before. The forgery is used by politicians and clerics in the Muslim world to justify their distorted and destructive world-view.
Gamal Abdel Nassar, the late president of Egypt, recommended the book to his countrymen. His Saudi contemporary, King Faisal, had the forgery put in hotels in his nation, like Gideon Bibles (he once gave a copy to Henry Kissinger). The Ayatollah Khomeini, who took over in Iran in 1979, made the Protocols a national bestseller. An entire generation of Islamic thinkers and scholars now aggressively promotes the forgery as literal fact.
Hamas owes Article 32 of its charter to these long-ago-discredited writings when it says things like: “Zionist scheming has no end…Their scheme has been laid out in the Protocols of Zion.” And it’s, of course, a perennial favorite with Holocaust deniers such as that wacky Iranian, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Islamist anti-Semitism is at the root of the so-called War on Terror. The bad guys use the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as their proof-text. It would make sense that if we really want to eradicate the symptom we must deal frankly with the cause. Islamism isn’t an aberration. It’s an ideology based on prejudices rooted in the distant past and lies that won’t seem to go away.
Shortly before his death in early 2005, the legendary pioneer of twentieth-century graphic art, Will Eisner, a man who spent much of his life debunking the infamous forgery, called the Protocols a “terrifying vampire-like fraud.”Indeed.