Copies of the "Protocols," passed from hand to hand, helped stir up anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia in 1905, and the book's thesis played a major role in the intellectual development of Adolf Hitler and the design of his genocidal campaign against the Jews. With the train of hatred and violence it carries, it may come as a surprise to some (though not, alas, to most Jews) that the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" have emerged resurgent in recent years, showing up everywhere from Egypt to Manhattan, and treated by many as a legitimate historical document.
Two recent works have sought to explore the ugly history of the "Protocols," one with an eye to the past, and one looking to the present. The graphic artist Will Eisner, who passed away in January, completed his last book just before his death: "The Plot," an illustrated history of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion." A new documentary by filmmaker Marc Levin ("Slam"), "Protocols of Zion," documents the text's strange re-emergence, journeying deep into the heart of contemporary world conspiracy theorizing to find the "Protocols" seemingly lurking everywhere.
The "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" began life as a forgery by the Russian czar's secret police, intended to serve as an all-purpose slander against hated Jewry. It sought to convince the Russian citizenry of the Jews' nefariousness, and the ill will they bore the Gentile world at large, and in that task, it was monumentally successful. The "Protocols" were so triumphant, in fact, that they spilled over their intended audience and into the world at large. Henry Ford, the notorious Jew-hater, published them verbatim in his newspaper the Dearborn Independent. Even after the Holocaust, traffic in the "Protocols" continued unabated, with fringe figures like American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell preaching its message of hate.
Eisner's book, meticulously researched, begins in the 1850s, when a French writer named Maurice Joly wrote a diatribe against Napoleon III thinly disguised as a dialogue between the political philosophers Machiavelli and Montesquieu. That book made only the smallest of splashes, but some 40 years later, when the Russian secret police hired a writer named Mathieu Golovinski to create a false document detailing the Jews' perfidy in order to yank Czar Nicholas II from his liberalizing tendencies, he turned to "The Dialogue of Machiavelli and Montesquieu" for inspiration, lifting large chunks of Joly's work wholesale. In Eisner's telling, the "Protocols" are like a hydra-headed snake, continually beheaded by scholars and debunkers, only to find new life among a new generation of Jew-haters and conspiracy theorists.
Levin's film begins in the aftermath of September 11, when unfounded rumors spread about the alleged 4,000 Jewish workers at the World Trade Center who had received word to stay home from work that day. Jumbled together with talk of a Mossad conspiracy to destroy the Twin Towers, the pseudo-history of the "Protocols" found a new home in post-9/11 conspiracy-mongers. Manhattan street vendors began carrying the book, and certain fringe elements found solace in their vision of a world secretly run by a Jewish mafia.