The “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the most notorious and most successful work of modern anti-Semitism, draws on a popular anti-Semitic 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. Tales were circulated among the masses of secret rabbinical conferences whose aim was to subjugate and exterminate the Christians, and motifs like these are found in early antisemitic literature.
The conceptual inspiration for the Protocols can be traced back to the time of the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century. At that time, a French Jesuit named Abbe Barruel, representing reactionary elements opposed to the revolution, published in 1797 a treatise blaming the Revolution on a secret conspiracy operating through the Order of Freemasons. Barruel’s idea was nonsense, since the French nobility at the time was heavily Masonic, but he was influenced by a Scottish mathematician named Robison who was opposed to the Masons. In his treatise, Barruel did not himself blame the Jews, who were emancipated as a result of the Revolution. However, in 1806, Barruel circulated a forged letter, probably sent to him by members of the state police opposed to Napoleon Bonaparte’s liberal policy toward the Jews, calling attention to the alleged part of the Jews in the conspiracy he had earlier attributed to the Masons. This myth of an international Jewish conspiracy reappeared later on in 19th century Europe in places such as Germany and Poland.
The direct predecessor of the Protocols can be found in the pamphlet “Dialogues in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu,” published by the non-Jewish French satirist Maurice Joly in 1864. In his “Dialogues,” which make no mention of the Jews, Joly attacked the political ambitions of the emperor Napoleon III using the imagery of a diabolical plot in Hell. The “Dialogues” were caught by the French authorities soon after their publication and Joly was tried and sentenced to prison for his pamphlet.
Joly’s “Dialogues,” while intended as a political satire, soon fell into the hands of a German anti-Semite named Hermann Goedsche writing under the name of Sir John Retcliffe. Goedsche was a postal clerk and a spy for the Prussian secret police. He had been forced to leave the postal work due to his part in forging evidence in the prosecution against the Democratic leader Benedict Waldeck in 1849. Goedsche adapted Joly’s “Dialogues” into a mythical tale of a Jewish conspiracy as part of a series of novels entitled “Biarritz,” which appeared in 1868. In a chapter called “The Jewish Cemetery in Prague and the Council of Representatives of the Twelve Tribes of Israel,” he spins the fantasy of a secret centennial rabbinical conference which meets at midnight and whose purpose is to review the past hundred years and to make plans for the next century.
Goedsche’s plagiary of Joly’s “Dialogues” soon found its way to Russia. It was translated into Russian in 1872, and a consolidation of the “council of representatives” under the name “Rabbi’s Speech” appeared in Russian in 1891. These works no doubt furnished the Russian secret police (Okhrana) with a means with which to strengthen the position of the weak Czar Nicholas II and discredit the reforms of the liberals who sympathized with the Jews. During the Dreyfus case of 1894-1906, agents of the Okhrana in Paris redacted the earlier works of Joly and Goedsche into a new edition which they called the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The manuscript of the Protocols was brought to Russia in 1895 and was printed privately in 1897.
The Protocols did not become public until 1905, when Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War was followed by the Revolution in the same year, leading to the promulgation of a constitution and institution of the Duma. In the wake of these events, the reactionary “Union of the Russian Nation” or Black Hundreds organization sought to incite popular feeling against the Jews, who they blamed for the Revolution and the Constitution. To this end they used the Protocols, which was first published in a public edition by the mystic priest Sergius Nilus in 1905. The Protocols were part of a propaganda campaign that accompanied the pogroms of 1905 inspired by the Okhrana. A variant text of the Protocols was published by George Butmi in 1906 and again in 1907. The edition of 1906 was found among the Czar’s collection, even though he had already recognized the work as a forgery. In his later editions, Nilus claimed that the Protocols had been read secretly at the First Zionist Congress at Basle in 1897, while Butmi, in his edition, wrote that they had no connection with the new Zionist movement, but, rather, were part of the Masonic conspiracy.
In the civil war following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the reactionary White Armies made extensive use of the Protocols to incite widespread slaughters of Jews. At the same time, Russian emigrants brought the Protocols to western Europe, where the Nilus edition served as the basis for many translations, starting in 1920. Just after its appearance in London in 1920, Lucien Wolf exposed the Protocols as a plagiary of the earlier work of Joly and Goedsche, in a pamphlet of the Jewish Board of Deputies. The following year, in 1921, the story of the forgery was published in a series of articles in the London Times by Philip Grave, the paper’s correspondent in Constantinople.
A whole book documenting the forgery was also published in the same year in the United States by Herman Bernstein (The Truth About “The Protocols of Zion.” Reprinted with an introduction by Norman Cohn. NY: Ktav Publishing House, 1971). Nevertheless, the Protocols continued to circulate widely. They were even sponsored by Henry Ford in the United States until 1927, and formed an important part of the Nazis’ justification of genocide of the Jews in the Holocaust.