Inspirations: The first modern conspiracy theory

  •  The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were forged by the Tsar’s secret police to discredit his opponents.
  • They purport to describe a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world, but were actually plagiarised from a satirical pamphlet.
  • The Protocols have been widely used as antisemitic propaganda even though the forgery was exposed in 1921.
  • They have been quoted by Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, Adolf Hitler, Henry Ford and the leadership of Hamas.


Piotr Ivanovich Rachkovsky by unknown photographer (Aristodem [Wikimedia Commons])

Piotr Ivanovich Rachkovsky was a man with many plans. He was a senior officer of Tsar Nicholas II’s intelligence service, the Okhrana, with a mission to disrupt the reformist movement outside Russia. Between 1884 and 1902, he was based in Paris, where he ran agents and agents provocateurs throughout Europe. He continued his role after he returned to Russia, and was appointed chief of the Okhrana in 1905.

It was probably in Paris that he created his most enduring legacy, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Protocols describe a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world and although they were exposed as misinformation in 1921, they have appeared and reappeared as a justification for antisemitism from pogroms in pre-revolutionary Russia to the Nazi holocaust to modern day Gaza. Much has been written about them, but my main source is David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories.

The Okhrana invented the conspiracy theory

The Protocols have many of the features of the modern conspiracy theory. They detail a network of secret puppeteers who are so powerful, so lacking in humanity and so difficult to nail down that any injustice can be blamed on them. The Protocols have outlived the regime that they were crafted to defend and carried their misinformation much further than Rachkovsky can ever have envisaged. What makes their endurance all the more remarkable is that to any dispassionate reading, they are utterly ridiculous.

The author Rachkovsky employed to write the Protocols has never been identified. What is clear is that the first version appeared in southern Russia in 1903, amid a spate of anti-Jewish pogroms. Two years later, Sergei Nilus published the version that has become best known through translation.


Cover of the 1905 version of the Protocols, published by Sergei Nilus (Jaybear [Wikimedia Commons])

At the time, the Protocols attracted little interest outside Russia. In one of many ironies that surround the story of the Protocols, it was only after the fall of the regime they were crafted to defend that they were widely circulated. In 1917, they were published in German by Ludwig Muller von Hausen, under the penname Gottfried zur Beek, based on a version he received from a Russian royalist refugee. It was only once the First World War ended that, to use modern parlance, the Protocols went viral. Europe was reeling from the carnage and the literate classes feared drowning in a tide of Bolshevism from the east, so people were ready to seize on a document that not only explained what had just happened to them but gave them someone to blame.

The supposed origin of the Protocols

Theodor Herzl chaired the first conference of the Zionist Organisation in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. The conference was no secret, and the Zionist Organisation would go on to play a part in establishing of the state of Israel 50 years later. Rachkovsky’s forgery took over from fact by claiming that Herzl chaired a number of secret sessions, attended by an inner cabal of inductees into the secret plan for world domination.

The essence of the plan was to infiltrate industry, the media and governments to prepare the ground for a ‘one-day coup d’etat (revolution) over all the world’ (Protocol 15).

There are various explanations as to how such secret meetings came to be documented and disseminated. A veteran intriguer like Rachkovsky would have made sure everyone involved in the plan had their story straight, so the more lurid explanations were probably added by the publishers of the translations to add to add a frisson of the cloak and dagger.


Judas de Coyoacan (Beto Sanchez [CC / Flickr])

The explanation of the English version is straight out of John Buchan: A Mademoiselle Glinka became aware of the secret sessions by means unspecified and paid one of the attendees 2,500 francs for a transcript. This version gives us a plucky and possibly attractive heroine of good breeding who takes it upon herself to uncover a villainous plot. On the other side of the story is a Jew so in love with money that he betrayed his cause for little more than Judas’s thirty pieces of silver.

The story demands that its readers believe simultaneously in a vast secret conspiracy and in conspirators who are unable to keep its secret in the face of a bribe. As with all the best conspiracy theories, the Protocols require their believers to be adept at the art of cognitive dissonance.

The Protocols are widely available on the internet, mostly on the websites that present them as a genuine document. The vitriolic antisemitism of most of those websites does not make for the most edifying reading, and I am not going to link to any of them. I recommend the version posted on David Dickerson’s Jewish history site, which is clearly marked as antisemitic propaganda.

The heroic aristocrats

The 24 Protocols amount to a bizarre document that combines some delicious rhetorical flourishes with lot of tedious repetition.  Each protocol is delivered by a single speaker and is apparently received with no discussion. They are presented as the minutes of a meeting, but they read more like the exposition of a Bond villain played by Al Pacino.


(Tyler Merbler [CC / Flickr])

The Protocols describe the hidden forces that form the basis of many subsequent conspiracy theories. The conspiracy will take over the media, will start wars to shore up its domination of the armaments industry and will foment insurrection in order to further establish its grip on the world. The same pattern was attributed to communists in 1950s America , Leon Trotsky and his allies in the early Soviet Union, and more recently to the Bilderberg Group, the CIA and the alien lizards of the Illuminati.

The longest protocol is Protocol 20, which is devoted to international finance, perhaps to play on the stereotype of the Jewish obsession with money or perhaps because banks generated as much resentment a century ago as they do now.

As Rachkovsky’s objective was to discredit the elements that threatened a landed aristocracy, they present a conspiracy that was equally invested in capitalism and socialism. Both threatened the domination of the aristocracy that the Okhrana was protecting. The aristocracy itself is portrayed as the major obstacle of the conspiracy:

Nowadays, with the destruction of the aristocracy, the people have fallen into the grips of merciless money-grinding scoundrels who have laid a pitiless and cruel yoke upon the necks of the workers. (Protocol 3).


Tsar Nicholas II and son (OlestC [CC / Flickr])

If the life under the Tsars was harsh, the Protocols made it clear that they stood between their people and a far worse fate. There was to be no doubt as to what that fate would be. It is made explicit on the first page:

It must be noted that men with bad instincts are more in number than the good, and therefore the best results in governing them are attained by violence and terrorization, and not by academic discussions. (Protocol 1).

The Protocols continually remind the reader of the dire consequences of the Jewish conspiracy’s success. A particularly description that demands a particularly villainous sneer is:

The goyim are a flock of sheep, and we are their wolves. And you know what happens when the wolves get hold of the flock? (Protocol 11)

Critics of the Tsarist regime were to understand that if they were persecuted and imprisoned, it was not oppression but indulgence in comparison to what awaited them if the aristocracy fell.

It is easy to read the Protocols with a satirical eye now we know they were forged, but many were sceptical at the time. Tsar Nicholas II himself, originally enthusiastic about the Protocols, soon concluded that they were forgeries and stopped referring to them. His objection was not rooted in any sympathy for Jews tormented by pogroms, but rather from the conviction that controlling the Jews was too holy a duty to be tainted by false documents.

The Protocols enter the Anglophone world

In 1920, the Protocols were translated into English and published under the title The Jewish Peril. As English was to emerge as the world’s lingua franca in the 20th century, it was the English translation that would lead to their widest dissemination. It would also lead to their exposure as a forgery.

Initially, the Protocols fell on fertile ground. They stated, ‘the despotism of Capital… is entirely in our hands’ (Protocol 1), and weren’t the Rothschilds, perhaps Britain’s best known banking dynasty, Jewish? How could Michael Marks have risen from a penniless refugee to one of the richest retailers in Britain, part owner of Marks and Spencer’s department stores, without a hidden support network? Surely it couldn’t simply be business acumen and hard work. It had to be part of a conspiracy:


Marks and Spencer store in Bristol (Paul Townsend [CC / Flickr])

In order to give the goyim no time to think and take note, their minds must be diverted towards industry and trade. Thus, all the nations will be swallowed up in the pursuit of gain and in the race for it will not take note of their common foe. (Protocol 4).

At the same time, wasn’t Bolshevism the product of Judaism? Karl Marx had been Jewish and while many of the leading revolutionaries in Russia used pseudonyms, several hid obviously Jewish names behind more wholesomely European noms de guerre such as Trotsky, Apfelbaum and Kamenev. As the Protocols explained, popular revolutions very like the one that had plunged Russia into chaos were part of the plan:

In all corners of the earth the words “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” brought to our ranks, thanks to our blind agents, whole legions who bore our banners with enthusiasm. (Protocol 1)

Even more ominously, 1918 had seen a general election in which the vote was extended not only to unpropertied men, but even to women. Anyone who suspected it was the beginning of a slippery slope now had their worst fears confirmed:

We must have everybody vote without distinction of classes and qualifications, in order to establish an absolute majority, which cannot be got from the educated propertied classes. (Protocol 9)

To modern thinking, capitalism and socialism are so diametrically opposed that it appears absurd that one organisation could be in control of both. To Rachkovsky, the ideological opposition between them would have been less important than the fact that they both threatened the aristocracy. By 1920, Rachkovsky had been dead for ten years and the regime he served had fallen three years earlier. Credulous readers were free to take on whichever elements fitted their prejudices.


Buildings originally part of the Jewish ghetto in Venice (vgm8383 [CC / Flickr])

The Protocols also demanded that their reader overlook the fact that only a small minority of Jews were prominent in either business or revolutions. Many Eastern European Jews were confined to impoverished ghettos that were periodically plundered during pogroms. Britain had no ghettos but it had no shortage of slums, which was where the overwhelming majority of British Jews were to be found. There was no country where they were concentrated at the top of society as the Protocols imply.

The Protocols and the First World War

Most prophetic of all was what was interpreted as a plan to instigate the First World War:

War will thus be brought on to the economic ground, where the nations will not fail to perceive in the assistance we give the strength of our predominance, and this state of things will put both sides at the mercy of our international agentur. (Protocol 2).

In a country traumatised by war, this was far more inflammatory than Rachkovsky could have imagined 20 years earlier.


American troops march past the London Cenotaph in 1919 (Leonard Bentley [CC / Flickr])

Blaming the Jews for instigating of the First World War demanded a selective memory, just as modern conspiracy theories very often do. The Kaiser of Germany, The Tsar of Russia, the Emperor of Austria-Hungary and the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire had all bounded enthusiastically into the war that dethroned them. Perhaps their failure to benefit from the war showed that they could not have started it, or perhaps their enthusiasm simply showed they had been duped by the Jewish conspiracy.

Similarly, few Britons were keen to remember the mass celebrations that greeted the declaration of war. Many of those who had celebrated had donned khaki and marched to their deaths, and the rest were bereaved, shell shocked or crippled. Believing in a shadowy conspiracy may have been preferable to reconciling their own eagerness in 1914 with their regrets of six years later.

The Times Thinks twice

The Times of London led the media charge with an editorial titled A Disturbing Pamphlet: A Call for Enquiry. An enquiry was what the Times wanted and an enquiry was what it got from its own correspondent in Constantinople (now Istanbul), but it was not the enquiry the editor had in mind. He wanted an enquiry into what the Jews were doing to further the aims detailed in the Protocols. Instead, Philip Graves, the correspondent in question, enquired into their veracity.

Graves’s enquiry began when he ran into an unnamed Russian exile who sold him some documents he attributed to the Okhrana. Among them was a pamphlet in French, published in 1864 and titled Dialogues in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu. The author was a journalist called Maurice Joly, and consisted of a series of dialogues satirising the authoritarian rule of Emperor Napoleon III whose reign ended in 1870.


Okhrana group photo taken in 1905 by Фотография ателье Буллы (KBECT [Wikimedia Commons])

Graves must have wondered what the Okhrana had wanted with a satire of the dead emperor of a fallen monarchy. Then he read it. He realised that the wording of Joly’s Dialogues was so close to the Protocols as to be almost identical. A line by line analysis showed that fully two thirds of the Protocols had been plagiarised directly from Joly. The battered pages in his hands revealed not only the origin of the forged Protocols but an explanation as to why their villainy is so exaggerated: they were originally written as satire.

Graves published his findings in the Times under the title The End of the Protocols. The final nail in the coffin of their credibility was driven by Herman Bernstein, an American Jewish journalist. Bernstein investigated the Protocols in Germany, and discovered an obscure novel called Biarritz by a right wing journalist called Herman Goedsche, published under the penname of Sir John Retcliffe in 1868. In Biarritz, a sinister cabal of Jews meet in a graveyard and take turns describing their progress toward world domination. The structure was almost identical to the Protocols. Where plagiarising Joly left gaps, the forger had filled them with Goedsche.

A further irony of the Protocols is that the attention they focused on Joly’s Dialogues led to their being exposed as having been partly plagiarised from an 1856 novel, Les Mystères du Peuple by Eugène Sue. The text of the Protocols can be followed four decades before they were forged, to works that had nothing to do with antisemitism.

Graves and Bernstein made their discoveries independent of one another and published them in 1921. Rational belief in the Protocols should have collapsed at that point. Unfortunately, belief is not rational.

Twists and turns

The revelations of Graves and Bernstein divided people into those who accepted the debunking and those who were willing to perform all manner of mental gymnastics to believe them.


Lord Alfred Douglas by Bain News Service, probably between 1910 and 1915 (January [Wikimedia Commons])

One of the first responses to the debunking came from Lord Alfred Douglas, better known to posterity by his nickname ‘Bosie’. The youthful beauty that had enticed Oscar Wilde into disgrace and Reading jail had now faded, but his notoriety had not. He had been on both sides of court in a series of high profile libel cases, several of which involved his writings in the virulently antisemitic Plain English magazine that he owned. In the pages of Plain English, Douglas announced that Maurice Joly was in fact a Jew called Moses Joel. If the Dialogues appeared to be a critique of Napoleon III disguised as a dialogue between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, it was only to disguise their real meaning as a detailed description of the Jewish conspiracy. Quite why a conspirator would publish a description of the conspiracy at all was a blank left to his reader to fill.

Douglas’s ‘rationalisation’ illustrates the convolutions a believer will follow to protect their beliefs. Douglas must have believed in the Protocols so strongly that he rationalised them in a way that, to most of his readers, must have raised much stronger objections than it answered. If the existence of a global Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world stretches the imagination, Douglas was asking his readers to believe they published the details of it.

Whatever passed between Douglas and Wilde, Wilde had not taught him the art of the plausible plot twist.

The Protocols in the USA

The Protocols polarised opinion in the USA. There were many who immediately dismissed them. A petition denouncing them as ‘un-American and un-Christian agitation’ was signed by prominent Americans such as the African American author and activist WEB Dubois, lawyer and orator Clarence Darrow, and former president Woodrow Wilson.


Henry Ford taken in 1919 by Hartsook (DIREKTOR [Wikimedia Commons])

The main advocate of the Protocols was the industrialist Henry Ford. Given that the Protocols claim industry and capital as part of the master plan, we might expect that an arch-capitalist like Ford would question them purely because he was not himself an agent of the conspiracy. He regarded the capitalism in question as referring only to banks and to have overlooked manufacture.

Among Ford’s other ventures, he was the owner of the Dearborn Gazette, named for the city where his companies were based, and distributed across the country through Ford dealerships. In 1920, Ford published an article titled The International Jew: The World’s Problem. It was to be the first of a series that would run for two years, decrying American Jews and the Jewish conspiracy while advocating the veracity of the Protocols.

Ford changed his mind in 1927, going as far as to issue a public apology and to ask the ‘Jewish community’ for forgiveness. For the believers in the Protocols, his recanting simply proved that he had been somehow ‘got at’.

Reinforcement by rejection

Once a conspiracy theory has been debunked, belief is often rationalised by the further belief that the debunking is itself part of the conspiracy. Once a secret plot is uncovered, it’s is reasonable to expect the plotters to do something to deflect suspicion. Once the belief is in place, any argument supporting the debunking is evidence that the conspirators are working harder to silence the truth.

As the conspiracy dominated trade and industry, it followed that it also dominated the press. If it was not using its control to put out a relentlessly consistent message, it was because the conspirators were clever enough not to give themselves away:

All journals published by us will be of the most opposite, in appearance, tendencies and opinions, thereby creating confidence in us and bringing over to us our quite unsuspicious opponents, who will thus fall into our trap and be rendered harmless. (Protocol 12).


Pillar of Heroism, Jerusalem (Benjamin [CC / Flickr])

The logic is show in a simple statement written in a prison cell, probably in 1924:

The Frankfurter Zeitung is forever moaning to people that they are supposed to be a forgery; which is the surest proof that they are genuine.

The author was Adolf Hitler and his words were published a year later in Mein Kampf. The story of the Protocols is laden with ironies, and another is that Hitler’s embrace of the Protocols led to both their most hideous application and a thorough public debunking in a court of law. The application, to justify the murder of around six million Jews, is well known. The debunking came about when the newly elected Nazi government supplied German translations of the Protocols to their allies in the Swiss National Front.

A coalition of Jewish groups brought a prosecution against the National Front based on a law against distributing obscene literature, leading to the so-called Berne Trial of 1934. As well as examining the evidence of Graves and Bernstein, the court also heard the testimony of Vladimir Burtsev, who had been exiled by the Tsarist government and exposed several of Rachkovsky’s agents provacateurs in Europe. The court found against the National Front.

Judge Walter Meyer’s concluding statement is further evidence that they were only ever credible to the credulous:

I hope the time will come when nobody will be able to understand how in 1935 nearly a dozen sane and responsible men were able for two weeks to mock the intellect of the Berne court discussing the authenticity of the so-called Protocols, the very Protocols that, harmful as they have been and will be, are nothing but laughable nonsense.

The conviction was overturned on appeal, on the grounds that the Protocols may have been forgeries but were not actually obscene. Their refutation in a court of law stood.

Centre de Musique Mediane pour Vikipedia

Vladimir Burtsev taken by By Фотография Карла Буллы in 1900 (Aristodem [Wikimedia Commons])

The Protocols endure

Rachkovsky probably had no idea what he was starting when he had the Protocols forged. They had moved far beyond the milieu they had intended for and been seized on wherever people combined a distrust of the Jews and any of the groups the Protocols attribute to Jewish control, which was more or less everything but the aristocracy.

Like many expressions of racial prejudice, they present a foreign ‘them’ as venal, intelligent, disturbingly well organised and having their beady eye on ‘our’ property and freedoms. At the same time, they provided an explanation for anyone who felt powerless in their dealings with government, industry or the media. By placing everything under the auspices of a vast conspiracy, it explains both the consistent persecution that the disgruntled feel and also why the reasons behind it are so elusive.

In Voodoo Histories, Aaronovitch describes his visit to Gaza in 2003, when Gaza was still occupied by Israel and Hamas was an insurgent group. While the 20th century had seen the Protocols used to justify antisemitism in countries where the Jews were an often oppressed minority, Aaronovitch found they were equally attractive to a minority who had been ghettoised by a Jewish state. He found the Protocols being quoted by senior members of Hamas, which at the time was an insurgent group opposed to Israeli occupation. In Voodoo Histories, Aaronovitch wrote:


Gaza during the 2008-9 conflict (andlun1 [CC / Flickr])

A Palestinian child in a Gazan class at the beginning of the twenty-first century may well be hearing things written by a Parisian lawyer about Napoleon III 140 years earlier, falsified by a Russian spy three decades later and used as a pretext for racial mass murder in Germany.

The Protocols have transcended both their milieu and their purpose, and have survived the gauntlet of decades of debunking. They demonstrate the power of a well-crafted work of disinformation and the pattern of the belief in improbable conspiracies.

It is terrifying to imagine how powerful they would have been if they had been better written.

Have you ever run across any aspect of the conspiracy detailed in the Protocols, attributed to the Jews or any other group? Do you think it may have originated from the Protocols? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification
One comment on “Inspirations: The first modern conspiracy theory

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