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. */*/