The most influential book in the history of modern antisemitism and the original source for most of the key themes of contemporary conspiracy theory, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion first surfaced in Russia around 1895. It purports to be a plan for world conquest adopted by a secret meeting of Jewish leaders at an unspecified place and time. The 24 “protocols” or sections of the plan lay out a campaign of subversion and financial manipulation. The Elders, according to the book, already control all European political parties and economic interests, and use their control of the media to discredit authority and undermine Christianity, in order to bring the Christian kingdoms of Europe to their knees and establish a worldwide empire under a Jewish monarch. See Antisemitism.

In reality, The Protocols is a crude hoax patched together from several earlier antisemitic works. About 40 percent of the text was plagiarized from Maurice Joly’s Dialogue aux Enfers entre Montesquieu et Machiavelli (Dialogue in Hell between Montesquieu and Machiavelli, 1864), a satire on the authoritarian politics of Napoleon III of France. Some of the remainder is closely modeled on a chapter from Hermann Gödsche’s 1868 novel Biarritz, in which two characters spy on a meeting between Jewish elders and Satan in a Prague graveyard. The rest is pieced together from other antisemitic and antimasonic works popular at the time, from contemporary critiques of industrialism, and from claims about the Great White Lodge, the secret government of the world in Theosophical belief. The author, or rather compiler, of The Protocols was Yuliana Glinka, a Russian noblewoman living in Paris during the 1880s and 1890s, who combined an interest in Theosophy with a career as a spy for the Russian secret police. See Great White Lodge; Theosophical Society.

The Protocols was first published in an abbreviated form in a Russian newspaper in 1903, and pamphlet versions appeared in late 1905 and early 1906 from a press controlled by the Black Hundreds, the leading right-wing secret society in Russia at that time. It also appeared as an appendix to a 1905 book, Velikoe v Malom (The Great in the Small) by Sergei Nilus, a Russian Orthodox mystic whose wife was a lady-in-waiting to the Tsarina Alexandra. It quickly found a following in Russian antisemitic circles, and during the Russian revolution became standard reading material among conservative opponents of the Bolsheviks. See Black Hundreds; Russian revolution.

Refugees from the Russian civil war brought The Protocols with them to Germany, where it was translated at once and found an eager audience among radical right-wing parties. One minor party based in Munich adopted the Protocols with particular fervor; its leader, an Austrian veteran named Adolf Hitler, took to quoting them frequently in his speeches and writings. When Hitler took power in 1933, The Protocols became a standard textbook in German public schools. See Hitler, Adolf; National Socialism.

Once published in Germany, The Protocols quickly gained worldwide circulation, and during the 1920s copies could be found throughout Europe and the Americas. The first British and American editions appeared in 1920. The Second World War and its aftermath drove the book underground in English-speaking countries and in most of western Europe: images of Auschwitz and vivid recollections of Nazi diatribes made the fantasy of Jewish world domination too difficult to defend. However, in Latin America and the Arab world, where sympathy for the Nazis ran high during the war, The Protocols stayed in circulation, and editions found their way back into America and western Europe as memories of the war receded and the neo-Nazi movement took shape. See neo-Nazi secret societies.

Well before this happened, though, the Protocols had taken on a new life as evidence for secret masters of the world who were no longer linked to Judaism at all. This transformation began as early as 1919. In that year The Public Ledger, a Philadelphia newspaper, printed extracts of The Protocols as secret Bolshevik plans for world conquest, with all references to Jews removed. The writings of Nesta Webster and Lady Queensborough, the two most influential conspiracy theorists of 1920s Britain, adapted most of the book’s ideas for the communist world conspiracy they claimed to uncover, while having little to say about the Protocols themselves. By the early 1960s, when Robert Welch’s John Birch Society was redefining modern conspiracy theory, nearly all the allegations contained in The Protocols had been transplanted from the Jews to Welch’s sinister conspiracy of Insiders and their New World Order. See John Birch Society; New World Order.

The circle completed itself in the late 1990s when copies of The Protocols began to appear in conspiracy theory literature, sometimes with references to Judaism deleted, sometimes not. M. William Cooper’s 1991 book Behold A Pale Horse, required reading in conspiracy-hunting circles at the beginning of the twenty-first century, included the full text of the book, and David Icke’s books, which claim that the world is actually controlled by a secret elite of shape-shifting reptiles, also quote The Protocols in detail. See Reptilians.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006