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“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”

“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is a fake document that outlines Jewish plans to destroy the Christian world and establish a totalitarian regime in Europe. The fake document, aimed at inciting hatred against Jews, has become the most influential tool of anti-Semitic propaganda. Despite ample evidence that the “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is a forgery, the document is continuously being used by propagandists and anti-Semites around the world, including conspiracy narratives about a secret government and about vaccines against Covid-19. In this text, we will get to the bottom of who is behind the creation and dissemination of the most influential conspiracy theories and what the Russian intelligence services have to do with it.

When “The Protocols” appeared

1903. The Russian Empire is on the brink of revolution. For decades, the authoritarian regime of the Tsar has pursued a repressive policy against critics of the monarchy, fighters for the rights of workers and peasants, and leaders of liberation movements in the colonies. Industrialization is in full swing. The development of the economy is accompanied by the exploitation of factory workers. Demands for better working conditions and higher wages are more often followed by calls for a transition from autocracy to a democratic republic. Protest actions are brutally suppressed by the police and Cossacks. In March 1903, in Zlatoust, thousands of workers go on strike, protesting against new, worse working conditions and unlawful dismissals introduced by the factory administration. The police are shooting the protesters. Sixty-nine people die. More than 250 more are wounded, and about 100 people get arrested. In July 1903, in Ukraine and Transcaucasia, the Social Democrats manage to stop production and lead 200,000 workers to a nationwide strike.

The Tsar refuses any dialog with the opposition and intensifies repressions. Due to the growth of the protest movement, the Tsar’s special services, the Guard Department, expand their work in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Political investigation offices are opened in Kazan, Tbilisi, Odesa, Kyiv, and Kharkiv. The main purpose of the Guard Department, informally known as “Okhrana”, is to prevent political assassinations, plots, and liberation movements, as well as surveillance and repression of critics of the regime. The arsenal of the tsarist security services includes provocation, spreading disinformation in the media, and manipulation of political processes.

For example, to reduce the influence of the Jewish socialist party BUND, “Okhrana’s” head Sergei Zubatov creates a clone, the Jewish Independent Labor Party, in 1901. Its goal is to establish control over the movement for Jewish rights in Poland, Lithuania, and Russia, and to channel protest activities toward an economic and cultural agenda, abandoning political demands. Under the Tsar’s patronage, the controlled Independent Labor Party gains popularity among moderate Jews and spreads its influence in the cities of Belarus and Ukraine. The manipulation of opposition movements through the Russian secret services has gone down in history as “Zubatovshchina”.

Russian-French trace

The work of the tsarist secret services was not limited to the territory of the Russian Empire. Okhrana offices were opened at diplomatic missions. The Paris branch of Okhrana became the center of political investigations and provocations against the Russian opposition in Europe. Pyotr Rachkovsky headed the foreign agents of the tsarist police. Historians associate his name with the assassination of Vyacheslav von Plehve, Minister of the Interior of the Russian Empire, and the appearance of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” 

Rachkovsky was born in 1851 in Dubossary, Kherson province. After his studies, he worked sorting correspondence in Kyiv. In Odesa, Rachkovsky was employed as a clerk in the border post office and was placed at the command of the police chief. His promotion in the civil service took place in Arkhangelsk and Warsaw. In 1885, Rachkovsky was appointed head of the political investigation abroad. A year after moving to Europe, Rachkovsky and his agents broke in smashed the opposition printing house of the Russian left-radical party People’s Will in Switzerland. In Paris, Rachkovsky gets a small room in the Russian embassy and built up an agency. The main goal was to prevent protests and demonstrations in Russia.

Who wrote and published “The Protocols”

The exact authorship of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” has long been a subject of debate among historians. Experts point to three key figures (see the classical study by Norman Cohn from 1966 and the publication of Italian professor Cesare G. De Michelis from 2004).

The forged document was first published in 1903 in the newspaper Znamya in St. Petersburg under the title “The Program for the Conquest of the World by the Jews”. The author was the odious anti-Semite Pavel Krushevan from Bessarabia (a historical region nowadays in Moldova and Ukraine). His propaganda texts were published in the far-right newspaper Bessarabets, where he falsified facts and spread false information. In 1903, Krushevan spread false information that Jews had allegedly murdered a Christian teenager for occult purposes. It provoked a pogrom in Kishinev, during which 49 people were killed, and hundreds of Jews were wounded, raped, and forced to leave Bessarabia forever. It later became known that the Jews had not sacrificed the boy, but that he had been killed by his uncle because of his inheritance.

The first publication of “The Program for the Conquest of the World by the Jews” in 1903 was not very popular but became the basis for a text by the Orthodox publicist and anti-Semite Sergei Nilus. A complete edition of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was published under his name in 1905. The Orthodox propagandist published the book “Great in Small,” where he spread a conspiracy theory about the imminent coming of the Antichrist. Nilus claimed that the Jews were sectarian Talmudists who had rejected Jesus and were “under the curse and wrath of God”. Nilus’s book became a bestseller and landed on the Tsar’s desk. Nicholas II, at first, did not doubt the authenticity of “The Protocols”. Only prime minister Pyotr Stolypin initiated an investigation. A specially created commission studied the text, questioned Krushevan and Nilus, and found that the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is fake. Both authors of the publication confirmed that they had received the text of “The Protocols” from France but were allegedly unaware of the document’s origins.

The cover of the book “The Great in the Small” by Sergei Nilus, where the full text of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was published for the first time

Pyotr Rachkovsky, head of the Political Department of the Tsarist Police at the Russian embassy in Paris, and his assistant Matvei Golovinski played a key role in compiling the forgery. To fight the revolutionary underground, the head of the Parisian “Okhrana” recruited a young journalist. Matvei Golovinski, who, after studying in Russia, moved to France where he worked for the newspaper Le Figaro. While working in the editorial office, journalist Golovinski came across a little-known pamphlet by Maurice Joly, “The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu” (“Dialogue aux enfers entre Machiavel et Montesquieu”). Joly’s satirical pamphlet demonised the political regime of Napoleon III in France but did not mention a word about Jews’ plans to take over the world. At Le Figaro, Golovinski meets Joly’s son and accompanies him on an editorial assignment in St. Petersburg. It is not known what exactly prompted Golovinski to plagiarise the French pamphlet and compose the anti-Semitic text of “The Protocols” on its basis. However, most of the satirical pamphlet is copied verbatim and fertilised with passages about Jewish plans to establish a Zionist dictatorship in Europe. The forgery reaches Russia in French and is presented as a document allegedly secretly stolen from the Jewish community’s repository of texts.

Although scientists have never been able to find written evidence in the form of Rachkovsky’s order or other documents, many indicators point to the fact that  “The Protocols” appeared with the direct or indirect participation of the tsarist secret services. Michael Hagemeister, a contemporary German historian and leading expert on the “Protocols” writes about it in his investigation “The ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ in court. The Bern Trial 1933-1937 and the ‘Anti-Semitic International’” in 2017.

What exactly is written in “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”?

The text consists of 24 chapters: allegedly the minutes of a secret meeting of representatives of the Jewish communities in Basel in 1897. The purpose of this meeting is declared as to draw up a plan for the establishment of a world monarchy in Europe under the rule of a “despot king of the blood of Zion”. The driving force was to be the Freemasons with the slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. The spread of the ideas of Marxism, socialism, liberalism, utopianism, and anarchism was to facilitate the seizure of power by the Jews and the establishment of a Zionist monarchy centred in Europe. Thus, the text of “The Protocols” demonised the Jews, as well as discredited the slogans of the opposition about granting civil liberties and protecting workers’ rights.

Exposing and spreading an anti-Semitic fake document

Illustration for the second edition by Sergei Nilus, 1911

After Stolypin’s investigation in 1906, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” were formally banned in the Russian Empire. Despite this, Sergei Nilus published a second supplemented edition in 1911. Tsar Nicholas II did not prosecute the spread of anti-Semitic literature. Moreover, Nilus’s book took an honourable place in the library of the royal family. After the shooting of the Romanov family in 1918, the investigator, who made an inventory of property, indicated that in the bedroom of the Grand Duchesses were found three books: “Great in Small” by Sergei Nilus, “War and Peace” by Tolstoy and the Bible in Russian.

In the Soviet Union, “The Protocols” were banned, and their dissemination was prosecuted. After the Bolshevik Revolution, right-wing radical immigrants from Russia facilitated the spread of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in Europe and North America. The fake document quickly gained popularity among racists and right-wing propagandists. In the United States, beginning in 1920, the Dearborn Independent, a newspaper owned by Henry Ford, published articles based on Nilus’ “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The automobile magnate published the book “International Jewry,” which got translated into 16 languages, with a circulation of 500 thousand copies in the United States alone. For “International Jewry”, Henry Ford was honoured in 1938 by the Nazi elite in Germany, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Goebbels.

After the First World War and the establishment of the Weimar Republic, German society was looking for someone to blame for the lost First World War and the difficult economic situation, which was due, among other things, to the large number of reparations imposed by the victorious countries. Anti-Semitic slogans became more and more frequent. The stigmatisation of Jews was actively spreading in Germany under the influence of fascist ideology.  In 1920, Ludwig Müller von Hausen, chairman of the Union Against the Influence of Jewry, initiates the publication of “The Secrets of the Elders of Zion” (“Die Geheimnisse der Weisen von Zion”) – the first edition of the fake document, written in German. The following “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” appear in 23 editions and become an important “source” and tool in the Nazi propaganda arsenal. “The Protocols” were discussed in clubs, beer halls, universities, conferences, and parties. After the Nazis seized power in 1933, the “Protocols” made their way into public schools, where teachers used the text to promote anti-Semitism. The ideology and laws of the National Socialists aimed to create an image of the enemy. The apogee of anti-Semitism in Germany were the deportations and genocide of Jews through mass shootings and in extermination camps. In 1942, Germany held a conference near Berlin, which adopted a program for the “final solution of the Jewish question” (“Endlösung”), which provided for the mass murder of Jews in Germany and the occupied territories of Western and Eastern Europe. Between 5.6 and 6.3 million European Jews became victims of the Holocaust.

Exposing the fake

In the UK, after the first publication of “The Protocols” in The Times in 1920, journalists conducted an investigation, presenting convincing evidence that the text was a forgery and a “gross plagiarism”. In 1921, The Times published a refutation of authenticity article where it was first proven that the text of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was largely copied from Maurice Joly’s 1864 satirical pamphlet entitled “Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu”, which never mentioned Jews. Other research has found that “The Protocols” contain borrowings from a chapter of Hermann Goedsche’s 1868 Prussian novel Biarritz.

Adolf Hitler and other anti-Semites refused to believe that the “Protocols” were merely plagiarism and manipulation of public opinion, convincing readers that the copying and reprints were precisely proof of their authenticity.

After the end of the USSR, the “Protocols” began to be banned in Western countries as well. In 1935, a Swiss court fined two Nazi leaders for distributing a German-language edition of “The Protocols” in Bern. The judge called the text “obviously fake” and “ridiculously absurd”. In 1964, the U.S. Senate issued a report declaring that the “Protocols” had been “fabricated”, The Senate called the content of the Protocols fabricated and criticised those who “were spreading” them using the same propaganda techniques as Hitler.

The renaissance of anti-Semitism in the post-truth era

At the end of the Soviet Union, the “Protocols” resurfaced in the regions of the former Russian Empire, spreading through self-publishing. The far-right society “Pamyat”, created with the approval of the KGB, quoted the “Protocols” at its founding meeting in 1985. Although members of Pamyat were convicted in Russia in 1993 for distributing the “Protocols”, the texts of the “Protocols” experienced a renaissance in the 1990s, periodically being leaked to the pages of newspapers and magazines without any indication of being fake. In 2006, the “Protocols” together with Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”, made it to the list of banned literature in Russia.

After the collapse of the Soviet empire and the abolition of communist censorship, the literature of the Orthodox anti-Semite Sergei Nilus, such as “The Great in the Small”, returned to the shelves of bookstores. His book can still be bought in Ukraine and Russia. On online portals and Youtube, one can find hundreds of posts and lectures where anti-Semites try to prove the authenticity of the “Protocols” and the existence of a conspiracy of Jews against Christians and European civilization. Racists and right-wing radicals quote and disseminate the “Protocols” in the USA, France, Great Britain, and even in Japan, where Jews are practically non-existent. In some Middle Eastern countries, the fake “Protocols” continue to be a tool for inciting anti-Semitic hatred. Excerpts from the “Protocols” could be found in the recent past in Jordanian and Palestinian textbooks.

Are the Russian authorities responsible for the spread of an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory?

In 2011, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a tender with a list of literature for its diplomatic missions. It included a book by Sergei Nilus, “The Great in the Small”, including “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”. 

A little earlier, the Russian human rights public political movement “For Human Rights” filed a lawsuit with the prosecutor’s office to stop the dissemination of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” but it was denied. The response of the prosecutor’s office stated: “The Institute of Psychology of the Russian Academy of Sciences conducted a psycholinguistic and social-psychological examination. According to the conclusions of the experts, the book “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” has a critical historical-educational and political-educational orientation. The book does not contain information inciting to actions against other nationalities, social and religious groups or individuals as its representatives”. (see the article).

In May 2022, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov once again accused Ukraine of spreading Nazism, adding that Vladimir Zelensky’s Jewish roots do not mean that there is no anti-Semitism in Ukraine because “Hitler had Jewish blood” and that “the most ardent anti-Semites are usually Jews”, which provoked a diplomatic scandal. The Russian ambassador was summoned to the Israeli Foreign Ministry. 

“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” has become one of the most influential products of anti-Semitic propaganda. Traces of the origin of the fake document are lost among right-wing activists, Orthodox publicists, and the secret police. Back in Tsarist Russia, investigators determined that the text was a forgery and imposed a ban on its distribution. However, this did not lead to its disappearance. Even several years later, anti-Semitic literature with the texts of the “Protocols” was in demand among the royal family members, which testifies to the spread of anti-Semitic ideas and belief in conspiracy theories in Russia. Neither journalists, scholars, nor judges, who have repeatedly proven that the text of the “Protocols” was invented to incite hatred against Jews, were able to stop the spread of conspiracy theories throughout the world.  

Nazi Germany used a conspiracy story to commit genocide against Jews. The Holocaust claimed the lives of up to 6 million people, including Jews from Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. More than 100 years after the publication of “The Protocols”, conspiracy theorists and populists continue to use anti-Semitic narratives with references to “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, spreading new conspiracy theories about the enslavement of humanity through capital concentration or mass vaccination against the coronavirus.

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