The Many Lives of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion"

tags: racism, antisemitism, Protocols of Zion

Walter Laqueur is the author of, among other books, Weimar, A History of Terrorism, Fascism: Past, Present, Future, and The Dream that Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union. His newest book, Putinism: Russia and Its Future with the West, was released in 2015 by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s.

Turbulent times tend to produce turbulent voices—some of them insidiously persuasive. In particular, such times offer a fertile breeding ground for peddlers of conspiracy theories. Adducing supposedly definitive evidence of hidden hands, secret cabals, and sinister machinations, they feed the suspicion that unseen forces operating in the background of events are acting to undermine settled arrangements, pervert sane policy, scramble and transform political reality in order to promote their own diabolical aims—if not, indeed, to achieve total domination.

Easy to dismiss as the ravings of paranoid crackpots, such theories have, in some places at some times, infected the minds of both elites and multitudes of ordinary people at every level of society. Perhaps the most notorious textbook case is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion: a pamphlet that, appearing early in the 20th century and summoning “proof” of a monstrous Jewish conspiracy to enslave all of humanity, would become one of the most famous and important political documents in world history.

Exposed repeatedly as itself a monstrosity—an outright forgery and fraud—the Protocols would nevertheless enjoy the proverbial nine lives before it faded from view in the aftermath of World War II. Or did it? In some less enlightened parts of the globe, it continues to live on, circulated often by cynical governments, especially in the Middle East and Asia, anxious to deflect their own responsibility for the discontents of their restive subjects. But traces of its influence, alongside solemn asseverations of its real, actual truth, can also be found today, in our own turbulent times, among some of the unlikeliest bedfellows in the enlightened West.

To approach the mystery of its longevity, let’s begin by exploring its history. ...

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