The Protocols of Zion and the roots of a racist forgery

Down the centuries Jewish people have been blamed for everything from the Black Death to the Russian Revolution. But rarely has such race hate found more cogent expression than in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The Protocols purports to be the verbatim transcript of speeches made by a secret council of Jewish leaders at the Jewish cemetery in Prague. It weaves together all the classic tropes of anti-semitism – the overthrow of national governments, control of capital, control of the media, world domination, and so on – in such a way as to satisfy anti-semites across the political spectrum.

The Protocols exists in multiple versions, and its origins are, unsurprisingly, murky. It seems to have been created for the Okrana, the secret police of Tsarist Russia, where it was first published in 1903. Tsar Nicholas himself certainly approved: “All of this is undoubtedly genuine! The destructive hand of Jewry is everywhere!” he wrote in his copy. The former Kaiser Wilhelm II was another admirer; he sent copies of it to his friends.

The Protocols were first published in Britain in early 1920 under the title The Jewish Peril. Both The Times and The Spectator, their scepticism wrapped round a greater credulity, bewailed anti-semitism in the abstract but gave credence to the alleged conspiracy and called for an official inquiry into its truth. The Morning Post devoted 18 articles to an exposition of the plot.

But it was The Times which first published proof that The Protocols were a forgery. In three articles, beginning 16 August 1921, the paper’s Constantinople correspondent Philip Graves revealed that it had been largely plagiarised from an obscure French pamphlet published in 1865 called Dialogue aux Enfers entre Machiavel et Montesquieu.

Graves’ account of the discovery sounds a little like the backstory to The Maltese Falcon: his source was a White Russian, a former landowner now in exile from the Bolsheviks. The Russian had bought some books from a former member of the Okrana, now also in exile in Constantinople. Browsing one of these titles, the White Russian realised he had read some of the passages before – in The Protocols.

The Dialogue itself was an attack on the government of Napoleon III, which earned its author, Maurice Joly, 18 months in prison. It does not mention Jewish people at all; the author of The Protocols simply took the arguments that Joly put into Machiavelli’s mouth and gave them to his Jewish Elders. (Other parts of The Protocols were plagiarised from an anti-semitic novel called Biarritz by the German writer Hermann Goedsche under the pseudonym Sir John Retcliffe, but Graves did not know that.)

The revelation that The Protocols was fake did not dim its popularity any more than it put an end to anti-semitism. It remains widely referenced among conspiracy-minded people; and it remains powerful too: it formed part of the 1988 founding covenant of Hamas, for example.

In places The Protocols reads a little like Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch: “the weapons in our hands are limitless ambitions, burning greediness, merciless vengeance, hatred and malice”. If it hadn’t had such deadly consequences, it might be funny; the construction of underground railways is part of the plot. Perhaps it is necessary to laugh anyway.

A shorter version of this piece first appeared in the August 2021 issue of History Today.

Like this? You can read more Months Past posts here.

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