What explains the strange, long life of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion?
Story by Steven J. Zipperstein-Photography by Tereza Zelenkova
The modern world’s most consequential conspiracy text was barely noticed when it first appeared in a little-read Russian newspaper in 1903. The message of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is straightforward, and terrifying: The rise of liberalism had provided Jews with the tools to destroy institutions—the nobility, the church, the sanctity of marriage—whole. Soon, they would take control of the world, as part of a revenge plot dating back to the ascendancy of Christendom. The text, ostensibly narrated by a Jewish leader, describes this plan in detail, relying on centuries-old anti-Jewish tropes, and including lengthy expositions on monetary, media, and electoral manipulation. It announces Jewry’s triumph as imminent: The world order will fall into the hands of a cunning elite, who have schemed forever and are now fated to rule until the end of time.
It was a fabrication, and a clumsy one, largely copied from the obscure, French-language political satire Dialogue aux enfers entre Machiavel et Montesquieu, or The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, by Maurice Joly. But it has enjoyed a remarkable appeal, despite various attempts to ban it and calls for individuals to denounce it—and now, in our conspiracy-saturated moment, it has decisively reemerged.
The book sells widely in Turkey, Syria, and Japan; remains a staple of Russian Orthodox bookshops; and in 2002, was the subject of a long-running Egyptian television series. It is widely available on eBay and on the Barnes & Noble website. The British charity Oxfam sold it on its site until March of this year. When asked by The New York Times in 2018 to name the books at her bedside, Alice Walker listed David Icke’s And the Truth Will Set You Free, a contemporary summary of The Protocols. At a 2019 congressional hearing, the former National Security Council official Fiona Hill described The Protocols’ image of a greedy, devious Jew as “the longest-running anti-Semitic trope we have.” Last week, when an automated Twitter bot managed by the FBI posted a 139-page file containing the text and the agency’s documents on it, hate-filled praise streamed in alongside the replies condemning the tweet for its lack of context. For devotees, The Protocols’ capacity to explain the world remains so resonant that the COVID-19 pandemic has now been blamed on the machinations of the ubiquitous Jewish elders.
A mountain of writings has surfaced over the past century and more, each devoted to revealing the supposed perfidy of the Jews. But nearly all have disappeared: The back shelves of research libraries are packed with anti-Semitic best sellers now turned to dust. (Who still reads Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, a massive best seller celebrated by George Bernard Shaw at the time of its publication in 1899 as a “masterpiece”?) Even Hitler’s Mein Kampf is rarely cited, though it remains a favorite of the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan and in a newly energized far right.
But The Protocols has survived, more so than any other text of its kind. It has done so not because its ideas are particularly original, and certainly not because they’re correct. It has done so for the simple reason that The Protocols is, curiously enough, a compelling read. Conspiracy theories are many things, but most of all, they’re narratives—understandable, comprehensive stories about how the world works, complete with the arcs and the rhythms of any other epic tale of heroes and villains. Part of what makes certain ones endure is how well they unfurl that story.
The Protocols’ voice is cool, patronizing, vile; the voice of someone who is ready to perform any task, however dastardly, in the march toward world domination. This, then, is no secondary source, unlike other familiar, formulaic expressions of anti-Semitism, but a chance to overhear a consequential Jewish leader plotting the fate of the world. This narrative immediacy is the difference between a newspaper article and a novel, between remove and urgency. The Protocols is not, purportedly, mere narration of a diabolical plot—it’s evidence of one. It projects authority by obscuring its authorship, not unlike various religious texts—or, to use a much more recent and pertinent example, the anonymous dispatches that form the foundation of QAnon.
And beneath its wild, hate-filled surface, The Protocols has a surprisingly solid, if plagiarized, core. Joly’s source material is an astute portrait of modernity’s ills, imagining a collision between (the well-meaning, but inadequate) Montesquieu and (the brilliant, immeasurably more persuasive) Machiavelli, and ultimately reveals the susceptibility of liberal society to manipulation and distraction using war, or greed, or the clouds of nostalgia. It was a prescient view of the world, as the political theorist Hans Speier has said, one that perceived “the hazards of popular sovereignty as well as the abuse of power by social engineers.” Nearly everything about The Protocols is wrong, but just enough about its depiction of the onset of totalitarianism is insightful that it is harder to dismiss than other, more outlandish conspiracy theories.
And though its most fervent following is on the far right, the text itself is without any emphatic leftist or rightist coloring. This is why it can be embraced as it is today by disparate groups such as evangelicals, neo-Nazis, some anti-Israel activists, and a slice of black-metal fans. It is endlessly versatile, a Rorschach test onto which a great assortment of convictions can readily be sketched.
Perhaps the finest of all scholars writing today about The Protocols is Michael Hagemeister, a mild, left-leaning German based at the Ruhr University in Bochum. His entry into the study of this text provides a useful look at its rapid move in recent years from obscurity at the far fringe of political life to something close to the mainstream.
Hagemeister was introduced to The Protocols when he was visiting the Soviet Union in the early 1980s to research a dissertation on the 19th-century right-leaning philosopher Nikolai Fedorov. Hagemeister’s interest in Fedorov, coupled with his ancestry—relatives had served as senior figures in the Romanov administration—convinced the rightist intellectuals he encountered that he was a kindred spirit. As a result, one of them, a specialist in German thought, asked if on his next trip he might bring along a copy of a book of great importance, a book that proved worldwide Jewish domination.
To Hagemeister, the plot laid out in The Protocols seemed no more current than the fear of the Illuminati or the Freemasons, the stuff of a Dan Brown bestseller. Its fortune has risen considerably since. Having now spent 30 years studying the text, Hagemeister told me recently that he isn’t surprised that it’s been used to explain the pandemic. The Protocols feels all the more pertinent, he added, at moments of crisis such as this one, when the righteous are urged to close their ranks to repel the enemy—a strategy the book suggests could effectively stop the Jews. Like QAnon’s missives or some of the finest novels, The Protocols is a narrative about the crucial moment just before cataclysm, and the notion that those horrors can still be averted with a swift and unequivocal response.
The belief captured by The Protocols that the world is in the clutches of a cabal—mighty, yet small enough to fit itself into the discreet, darkened corner of a club—certainly isn’t the sole possession of those who loathe Jews. But Jews, whether in the guise of Soros or Rothschild, Disraeli or Marx, provide a time-tested, biblically vetted vortex. And at a jittery moment such as ours, when it’s so easy to feel the world is cascading out of control, it’s revealing that The Protocols has shed its archaic feel.
Steven J. Zipperstein is the Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History at Stanford University. His latest book is Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History, and he is now writing a biography of Philip Roth for Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series.