Dear Straight Dope:
I'd like to know about the history of that infamous forgery "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion." Who wrote it, and more importantly (to me anyways), why is it that so many people, even today, refer to it as fact? That Nazis and their bretheren are knuckleheads is no big surprise, but it seems a lot of otherwise even minded people believe the text is legitimate. Any ideas?
DG, Cambridge, Mass
SDStaff DavidB replies:
I don’t know that we can really answer why so many believe it, other than to say some people have beliefs that are simply immune to facts — for example, Holocaust deniers. To a rabid anti-Semite it makes no difference that the Protocols have been debunked countless times. I question whether somebody who believes in the Protocols is “otherwise even minded” — simple minded is more like it. The thing is so far out there it defies belief.
The Protocols are the classic statement of the old notion of an international Jewish conspiracy. They purport to be the text of discussions showing how Jews planned to take over the world and enslave non-Jews. They’ve long been an excuse to persecute Jews and have been promoted by many famous and powerful people, including some in the U.S.
In 1920, Henry Ford started a newspaper for the purpose of attacking Jews and communists. His paper, the Dearborn Independent, “printed every conceivable staple of contemporary anti-Semitism, including the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” (A Legacy of Hate: Anti-Semitism in America, by Ernest Volkman, p. 33).
A U.S. Congressman, Hamilton Fish of New York, once used his office to distribute copies of the Protocols. Accused of anti-Semitism, he responded, “It doesn’t bother me any. There’s been too much Jewism going around anyway.” He was defeated in his 1944 re-election bid (A Legacy of Hate, p. 42).
Where did the Protocols come from? Binjamin Segel’s book (translated and edited by Richard S. Levy), A Lie and a Libel: The History of the ”Protocols of the Elders of Zion” begins with a likely timeline. According to Segel, the Protocols were most likely fabricated in Paris between 1897 and 1899 under the supervision of the head of the Russian secret police abroad, Pyotr Ivanovich Rachkovsky. The intent was “to strengthen the czar Nicholas II’s position by exposing his opponents as allies with those who were part of a massive conspiracy to take over the world” (Skeptic’s Dictionary, http://skepdic.com/protocols.html.)
The first known publication of the Protocols was August 26-September 3, 1903, when they appeared in abbreviated form in the Russian language paper Znamia (“The Banner”). In 1905, Sergei Nilus published the “full” version as an appendix to his book Velikoe v Malom (“The Great in the Small”). In 1906, another version was published by G. Butmi in his book Vragi Roda Chelovecheskago (“Enemies of the Human Race”).
In 1917, Nilus, who had already published the Protocols two more times, produced yet another edition, this time attributing them to Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), the founder of modern political Zionism, i.e., Jewish nationalism.
In 1919, anti-communist Russians distributed copies of the Protocols to members of the U.S. cabinet, judiciary, and intelligence agencies. Henry Ford’s edition appeared in 1920, as I said, and the document received attention in the British press as well. Thirty-three editions are known to have appeared by 1933.
In 1921, a reporter for the Times of London, Philip Graves, found that the Protocols had been plagiarized. As it turned out, there were two sources: Dialogue between Machiavelli and Montesquieu in Hell, an 1864 satire of the French ruler Napoleon III by Parisian lawyer Maurice Joly, and Biarritz, an 1868 novel by German anti-Semite Hermann Goedsche.
Goedsche is credited with developing the whole “Jewish plan of world conquest” idea. Biarritz features a chapter, “In the Jewish Cemetery of Prague,” in which the princes of the twelve tribes of Israel gather at the cemetery to report the progress of their world takeover schemes. As Segel said in A Lie and a Libel, “The plot bore such a striking resemblance to the one developed in the Protocols that any reasonable person must conclude that either both were written by the same man or one was plagiarized from the other” (emphasis in original).
Segel continues: “Thus the world-conquering plans of the Elders of Zion came out of Goedsche’s trashy novel. But the Elders’ political dogmas and schemes, as well as the moral principles that were their foundation, came almost word for word from the speeches of Machiavelli in Joly’s petty satire on Napoleon III.”
Graves debunked the Protocols in the Times, the first in a long series of refutations. Among others, a South African court ruled them a forgery and a Swiss court declared them a fraud.
Faced with the facts, some early promoters of the Protocols repented. Henry Ford published the Protocols along with his other anti-Semitic articles in a book entitled The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem. But in 1927, he publicly retracted and apologized for the book, claiming his assistants had duped him.
But Ford was the exception. Others continued to publish the Protocols in other countries long after they’d been debunked.
A few even managed to explain away the evidence of plagiarism. Segel relates that Lord Alfred Douglas, an anti-Semitic leader in London, said that Joly was actually a Jew originally named Moses Joel, who interwove the real Jewish plan for world conquest into his satire. This meant that showing the Protocols were extremely similar to his satire proved nothing — of course they were, because they both were talking about the same real event!
The truth is, the Protocols were a useful weapon against the Jews, and those who propagated them in all likelihood didn’t care if they were true or not. In 1933, excerpts were read at the Romanian parliament by Fascists as a reason to expel Jews from the country. Hitler cited them in Mein Kampf and again when castigating the Jews as warmongers in 1939. Franco cited the Protocols in his denunciations of the Jews as well.
You’d think the Protocols might have been put to rest after World War II and the Holocaust, but no. Communists in the Soviet Union used the Protocols to stir up anti-Jewish sentiment, and they continued to be circulated around the world. Segel’s timeline continues all the way up to 1994 (his book was published in 1995), when an Australian edition was produced by Christian fundamentalists.
Web users can still find people promoting this hoax as if it were real. For example, a site called “Radio Islam” (https://www.radioislam.org/islam/english/index_protocols.htm) talks about the Jewish conspiracy against the Muslims, citing the Protocols as “evidence.”
Refutations of the Protocols have also continued. A Russian court in 1993 ruled the Protocols an anti-Semitic forgery. (See http://www.nizkor.org /ftp.cgi?documents/protocols/protocols.001.) But judicial rulings don’t faze the believers — to them it just shows how the Jews have taken over the courts.
The Protocols are part of a centuries-old tradition of antisemitism. Dr. Daniel Keren, in an essay on the topic (http://www.nizkor.org /ftp.cgi?documents/protocols/protocols.zion), notes that the hoax “draws on popular antisemitic notions which have their roots in medieval Europe from the time of the Crusades. The libels that the Jews used blood of Christian children for the Feast of Passover, poisoned the wells and spread the plague were pretexts for the wholesale destruction of Jewish communities throughout Europe.” Indeed, the Protocols were used by the Czarist Russians to justify pogroms against the Jews, by Nazis and Fascists to justify their attacks on Jews, and by Communist Russia to justify its anti-Semitism. As Rabbi Joseph Teluskin is quoted as saying, “Thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, of Jews have died because of this infamous forgery.”
So there you have it. The Protocols are a hoax, and anyone with half a brain knows it. They persist not because they’re true, but because they’re useful.
SDStaff DavidB, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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