Conspiracy theory

Posted on 18th January 2012 by simonbeattie

Umberto Eco’s latest novel, The Prague Cemetery, sees its main character write an anti-Semitic book called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  The novel may be fiction, but the Protocols really did, and still does, exist.  The book, first published in 1905 and much reprinted, also circulated in manuscript, although only one early handwritten copy is known to exist.  This is it.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a literary forgery, ‘one of the most important forgeries of modern times’ (Levy), created, it is thought, by Pyotr Rachkovsky, head of Okhrana, Imperial Russia’s secret police, in the late 1890s.  It is a famously poisonous text, presenting a Jewish plot to take over the world and to reduce non-Jews to abject slavery.  It has been used in support of Tsarist pogroms and the Holocaust, and, although exposed as a forgery as early as 1921 and with a large literature documenting its fraudulence, still fuels anti-Semitism today.  And beyond: Jonathan Kay, in his recent book Among the Truthers: a journey through America’s growing conspiracist underground (New York, HarperCollins, 2011, p. 71), writes that ‘the Protocols would remain ensconced as a sort of universal blueprint for all successor conspiracist ideologies that would come to infect Western societies over the next nine decades,—right up to the modern-day Truther and Birther fantasies of the twenty-first century’.

The Protocols first appeared in print in 1903, in abbreviated form, in the Russian newspaper Znamia (The Banner).  Two years later, a longer version, which served as the basis for subsequent printings, was included as an appendix to the second edition of Velikoe v Malom (The Great within the Small) by the self-proclaimed mystic, Sergei Nilus (1862–1930).  Further editions followed, likewise translations, until Philip Graves, a journalist with The Times in London, debunked the Protocols as a forgery in August 1921.  But it continued to be reprinted, in both America (by Henry Ford, although he later retracted it), Europe (by the Nazis: the historian Norman Cohn termed the book Hitler’s ‘warrant for genocide’), and elsewhere.  ‘From its first publication in 1903, the book was meant to serve a political function, to influence powerful individuals or mobilise large groups of people to think or act in particularly destructive and self-deluding ways.  Over time, the political agendas of the publishers of the Protocols have changed, but the sowing of hatred and the urge to self-defense against the “enemy of mankind” have remained common to them all.  This is not innocent literature’ (Levy, p. 4).  Publication did not die with Nazism either: editions appeared in Beirut in 1968 (300,000 copies), in Spain in 1972, in Bombay in 1974, in America in 1977 (by the National States Rights Party), in Japan in 1987, in Australia in 1994 (by Christian fundamentalists), in Iran in 1999.  And they are still being published and cited, both online and in print, today.

The book was banned in Russia by Nicholas II early on, but continued to circulate, in both underground printed versions and manuscript, as here.  All early editions of the printed text are extremely rare: only microform copies of the original 1905 book appear to be recorded in Western libraries, and no copies whatsoever of the later Nilus editions (1911, 1912, 1917).  This made identifying the source edition for this manuscript difficult.  I called up the three earliest Russian printings held by the British Library—Berlin, 1920; New York, 1921; Berlin, 1922 (both Berlin editions had to be read at a ‘restricted items’ desk)—and part of the introduction matches that in the New York edition, but the first paragraph here was not included: ‘The “Protocols” printed below … are taken from Sergei Nilus’s book “Bliz est’ pri dveriakh” [“He is near, at the doors”, 1917], being the fourth edition of the book earlier known under the title “Bliz griadushchii antikhrist i tsarstvo d’iavola na zemle” [“The near-approaching Antichrist and the kingdom of the Devil upon earth”].  All four editions were zealously bought up by Jews and burned, which is why the book is now extraordinarily rare.’

The editor’s note at the end of the manuscript offers an interesting angle on the history of the book, which has been ‘driven underground in Russia’.  An article on the Bolsheviks written by the American journalist Carl W. Ackerman published in the English-language Japan Gazette in Yokohama in 1919 is translated here in its entirety.  Ackerman had published an edition of the Protocols himself in 1919 in which the word ‘Jew’ was replaced by ‘Bolshevist’, seemingly the book’s first appearance in America.

Much has been written on the Protocols.  I recommend Richard Levy’s edition of Binjamin Segel’s A Lie and a Libel: the History of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1995) and Hadassa Ben-Itto, The Lie that wouldn’t die: the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (2005).

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One response to “Conspiracy theory”

  1. […] week is Banned Books Week.  I’ve written about banned books before: the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in the Weimar Republic, in the Soviet Union.  Here’s something a little earlier: the […]

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