Protocols of the Elders of Zion, 1900
Not all documents that change the world are good; some are despicable, and leave hatred and bigotry in their wake.
Aren’t these lovely images? “The sun on the meadow is summery warm/The stag in the forest runs free” and “The branch on the linden is leafy and green/The Rhine gives its gold to the sea.” These picturesque and bucolic words are lyrics from a pleasant Teutonic-sounding folk song, one of the lesser-known numbers from the score of Cabaret. You can imagine happy German people swaying together and singing this, beer steins firmly in hand. The words seem completely innocuous, if evocative. And then they turn, just slightly: “But somewhere a glory awaits unseen/Tomorrow belongs to me.”
In the film version, this is heard in a beer garden where a tow-headed youth sings the opening stanza, as the camera slowly pulls back to reveal his light brown shirt and, eventually, the accessorizing swastika armband. His voice becomes louder and more strident, and others in the garden join in, at first seated, then rising, more and more, louder and harsher, ending practically in a shout with an iconic stiff arm salute. It’s a catchy, memorable tune, and this scene is way more disturbing than anything in any Friday the 13th movie, I can tell you that.
Slowly, more and more is revealed about this song, until we realize it’s not exactly what it first appears to be. Its power and impact aren’t diminished as a result—far from it, they’re enhanced. This can often be the case, that no matter how much of the “truth” is known, people go right on believing as they like, sometimes with terrible consequences.
I’m Joe Janes of the University of Washington Information School. It’s hard to know anything for certain about this book, other than that over the last century it has swept the world and left hatred and bigotry and pain in its wake. Its form is quite clever, really—it purports to be transcripts of 24 lectures, or protocols, delivered in secret meetings of the Elders of Zion, a Jewish cabal bent on global domination, by their chief. In most editions, it’s then surrounded by material explaining and describing the text, all of which lends an air of credibility. It lays out a plan to subvert morals, control the press and economic systems, wipe out all governments and replace them with a single world order ruled by an absolute monarch. In this plan, the Jews will use—and here’s a conspiracy theory twofer if ever there was one— the Freemasons as their unwitting dupes, who will eventually get wiped out for their troubles after the dust settles.
Pretty much everything is murky here—since the text itself says it’s presenting what amounts to meeting minutes of a conspiracy, in reading about it, it’s hard to know at times whether people are referring to the conspiracy in the text or the conspiracy to spread the text as warning of a conspiracy. Still with me? Makes my head hurt. Books and articles about the Protocols tend to toss around references to the League of Nations, Czar Nicholas I, Napoleon III and who knows who else in a dizzying array of boldface historical names.
Multiple origin stories have been offered—that scribal spies copied the Protocols in the dark of night as an emissary carrying them slept in an inn, or that they were stolen from a Zionist archive or lifted from an iron chest by the lover of a Masonic leader. It appears that the original version, whatever it was, was constructed in Paris just before the turn of the 19th century, perhaps at the initiation of one Pyotr Ivanovich Rachkovsky, a name to conjure with, the head of the local office of the Russian Secret Police. The first known printing was in abbreviated form in a St. Petersburg newspaper in 1903, and the first full edition followed some two years later appended to another anti-Semitic book. It spread first through Russia until exploding around the world about 1920, appearing in German, English, French, Polish and Arabic versions in rapid succession. A particular American fan was Henry Ford, who sponsored a printing of half a million copies and serialized it in a series of articles in his Dearborn newspaper. He apologized in the face of a libel suit a few years later, though without evidence that he ever fundamentally changed his ideas.
What it really is, is a fraud, and a plagiarized fraud at that, meant to deceive. The text is taken largely from a little-known 1868 German novel and from the colorfully named political satire Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, written by a Jewish French author. It was exposed as a forgery in 1921 by the Times of London and ruled a forgery by a Swiss court in 1935, which of course has had no effect whatsoever on its acceptance as legitimate. Like any good conspiracy theory, the more it’s denied, even with, or especially with, evidence to the contrary, the stronger it becomes. It continues to be published around the world and is of course easily available on the Internet; a version, complete with 30 pages earnestly debunking the debunking can be found online from an Australian apocalyptic web site that also helpfully links to recent earthquake reports.
It’s impossible to say how great an influence the Protocols had, for example, in the atrocities of the Holocaust, though the Nazi party did obtain the rights to the German translation in 1929. It isn’t clear if Hitler actually read them but he was an enthusiastic fan, encouraging its reading and distribution including to the Hitler Youth. One scholar suggests its most pronounced effect might have been in encouraging inaction in people who had been exposed to it and thus made less willing to question or stop what was happening, a chilling notion.
One online version, accompanied by an extensive commentary about its history, says on the bottom of each page: “WARNING: This document is a provem anti-Semitic forgery and hoax. Abuse is strictly forbidden.” Um, ok, but...forbidden by whom? What exactly constitutes “abuse,” and who gets to say so? You can understand why someone trying to expose this for what it is, not to want their version used to further hate, which explains the prominent red “Antisemitic Forgery and Hoax” on the front page. Although...once you start down that road, labeling words or ideas or people for that matter, unforeseen and unwelcome consequences can sometimes follow.
Finally, just in case you’re still having difficulty believing that people can believe what they want to believe, no matter what the “truth” is, there’s this. Remember “Tomorrow Belongs to Me?” It was written by John Kander and Fred Ebb for Cabaret in 1966, which won the Tony Awards for Best Musical and Original Score. It’s meant to disturb, to warn, to shock us into an acknowledgement of the ease with which evil can seduce. Much more perniciously, the song has since been appropriated by white power rock groups such as Skrewdriver (with a k), who have recorded and played it at concerts and rallies, to audiences who are certain it is an authentic Nazi anthem. It’s not hard to find white power Internet forums praising the song as the only redeeming aspect of an otherwise distasteful or “demoralizing” film, and seeking the original German lyrics or other information about its origins. All of which demonstrates, as if that’s necessary, that words have potential of all kinds, that people believe what they’re ready to believe, and that the future, as is so often the case, belongs to those who shape our view of the present, and the past.
Bronner, S. E. (2000). A Rumor About the Jews: Reflections on Antisemitism and the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. New Y: St. Martin’s.
Cabaret (1972) - Trivia - IMDb. from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068327/trivia Segel, B. W. (1926). A Lie and a Libel: The History of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (R. S. Levy,
Trans.). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. http://www.biblebelievers.org.au/przion1.htm
http://ddickerson.igc.org/The_Protocols_of_the_Learned_Elders_of_Zion.pdf Tomorrow Belongs To Me - Stormfront. http://www.stormfront.org/forum/t6509/