As to who created the Protocols, a trial in Berne in Switzerland in 1934-5 brought to light various bits of evidence. Cohn argues that Pyotr Ivanovich Rachkovsky, the head of the Okhrana outside Russia, as the likely originator, taking us on a journey through secret police activities and connections with occultist circles (Pp84ff).
In Russia, the Protocols were the tools of the pogromshchik, the instigator and organisers of pogroms who organised into the Black Hundreds, of whom Tsarist statesman Sergei Count Witte wrote:
… this party can instigate the most frightful pogroms and convulsions, but it is incapable of anything positive. It embodies a wild, nihilistic patriotism which thrives on lies, slanders and deceit, it is a party of wild and cowardly despair but has no room for courageous, far-sighted, creative thinking. The bulk of its membership comes from the wild, ignorant masses, its leaders are political villains, it has secret sympathizers in court circles and amongst nobles with all kinds of titles – people who seek their salvation in lawlessness … (p.121)A description that would apply with minimal adjustment to the Nazi Party. Cohn’s comment that:
These people were in fact the true precursors of the Nazis. Words such as ‘proto-Fascist’ have been so monstrously misused that one hesitates to use them at all – yet there is no denying that the Black Hundreds mark an important stage in the transition from reactionary politics as they were understood in the nineteenth century to the right-wing totalitarianism of the Nazis (p.122)looking back to the past in their throne-and-altar ideals but to the future in their violent agitprop and mass organising methods seems entirely apt.
The utility of the Protocols in Russian politics was undermined when Nicholas II, after at first taking them seriously, became convinced they were a forgery and turned against them (Pp125-6). After his overthrow, and with the shock and traumas of the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik seizure of power and the Russian Civil War, the Protocols were released to wreak their poisonous havoc on the world stage.
A copy of The Great and the Small was found to the one of three books (along with War and Peace and the Bible) founded in the effects of the Empress when White forces temporarily captured the house where the Imperial family had been murdered, along with a swastika she had drawn on the window (p.127). There were prominent Jews in the revolutionary forces: rather than seeing this as a natural consequence of Tsarism’s oppression of the Jews (which had intensified under Alexander III and Nicholas II) it was seen as “proof” of the perfidy of the Jews. The pogromshchik avidly exploited the conjunction, using the Protocols was a weapon to inspire massacres of Jews until the rout of the White forces in 1920, along with further supporting forgeries. (Pp127ff).
The blaming of Jews in general was double nonsense: most Jews were deeply religious and tended to be small shop-keepers and self-employed artisans. The Bolshevik Revolution was a disaster for them twice over (Pp132ff). But anti-Semitism has never been about the truth about Jews: so the Black Hundreds propagated their slogan; Save Russia, kill the Jews (p.134). About 100,000 Jews were killed, many more wounded and maimed (Pp134ff).
Meanwhile, the Protocols travelled West, being circulated among delegates to the Versailles Peace Conference, Cabinet ministers and other influential folk. The aim seems to have been to encourage intervention against the Bolsheviks in Russia’s Civil War (Pp138-9). Two Russian émigrés, who had settled in Berlin, worked to get the Protocols published in the West. (As an aside, Russian émigrés became an important conduit for the funding of the Nazi Party: there was a “cat’s cradle” of anti-Semitic, anti-Bolshevik, anti-liberal, mystical-occultist linkages that are important both in the history of the Protocols and in the rise of the Nazi Party.)
As a country in turmoil, Germany was ripe for the Protocols. (Though Cohn missteps in regarding anti-Semitism as being stronger in Germany than France.) Their publication was delayed since the plan was to have them published simultaneously in Germany and Britain: finding a German publisher turned out to be rather easier than finding a British one. One was found, and royalist circles in the now Republic of Germany actively promoted it. The Protocols were an instant hit, become best-sellers and promoting study groups and discussion circles. (As noted above, after initial credence, they were rapidly discredited in Britain, which was rather poor ground for them anyway: given it was a victorious Power with an expanding empire and deeply entrenched liberal politics.) In Germany, anti-Semitic forgeries, no matter how bizarre, flourished and were taken seriously by highly educated people (Pp139ff).
The assassination of Walter Rathenau was, in part, motivated by the Protocols—indeed, that he was an “Elder of Zion” (Pp156ff). The reaction to his murder took some of the impetus out of the career of the Protocols in Germany, particularly after a law for the defence of the Republic made certain types of what we would now call “hate-speech” illegal (Pp162-3). Not that this interlude was to last.
But the Protocols" were off on their world career. Notions of Jewish conspiracies and the largely Jewish nature of the Bolsheviks were taken seriously in Britain, including in the Foreign Office, until doubts and misgivings were confirmed by the Times report identifying the source of much of the Protocols in an anti-Napoleon III pamphlet (Pp164ff). In the US, the Protocols never reached the level of credence they (briefly) achieved in Britain but had a rather longer, if more limited career, particularly due to Henry Ford’s support for anti-Semitism and “radio priest” Father Coughlin’s turn to anti-Semitism (Pp172ff, 257ff).
In Poland and France—countries with deeply entrenched anti-Semitism—the Protocols were well received (Pp180ff). Again and again, Russian émigrés played crucial roles in disseminating the Protocols (Pp184-6).
But it was, of course, Germany where the Protocols, whose capacity to inspire mass murder had already been established in their Russia, had their most fateful career. The key context there was not the beleaguered Orthodox autocracy of Russia, but a German nationalism that had been forged in opposition to the Enlightenment forces of Revolutionary-and-Napoleonic France. German nationalism therefore acquired a backward character that intensified as Germany struggled with the changes of industrialisation. The anti-figures for this archaic (indeed atavistic) vision were the liberal individualist and, even more, the Jew (Pp87ff). Against the atomising uncertainty of modernity, such nationalism had an ideal of returning to a unity of volk and soil, a unity in which the Jew had no place and so was an enemy of.
Where older nationalists postulated that an assimilated Jew, by entirely abandoning their Jewishness (and thus their separateness), could become part of this unity, the new “scientific” racism saw Jewishness as an inherent, and thus ineradicable, characteristic (Pp189ff). Volkisch nationalism had particular appeal to peasants and middle class, since they tended to have the strongest status issues (Pp190-1).
It was a curious feature that the strongest adherents of volkisch ideology tended to be found in the educated (often highly educated) middle class:
It had the enormous advantage that it made any German who accepted it feel not only important but enormously, supremely important. For men with some pretensions to education but irked by their political impotence and social insignificance it had great attractions. To feel oneself the bearer of a divine mission, a paladin in the vast struggle of ‘German spirituality’ against the dark forces of ‘Jewish materialism’ – this was a most gratifying experience, especially as it carried with it no concrete political responsibilities whatsoever (Pp193-4).Change volkisch ideology to environmentalism and Jewish materialism to neoliberalism and one has a perfect description of the appeal of the contemporary appeal of progressivist environmentalism to the moral middle class. Modern progressivism is, after all, increasingly based on Counter-Enlightenment concerns of ‘authenticity’, ‘identity’, ‘natural values’ etc.
Volkisch ideology had even stronger appeal among Austrian-Germans, confronted by their minority status in “their” Danubian monarchy (p.194). What had been a minor strain in politics before 1914 became far stronger in the shock of defeat (Pp194ff). The Nazi leadership, and Hitler specifically, in public and private pronouncements accepted the notion of a Jewish world-conspiracy as proclaimed by the Protocols, a ubiquitous explanation of the travails of the volk. For Hitler, history was an endless decline from an authentic hierarchical society. The Jew was the eternal enemy of the natural order that was the only source of “true principles”, a polluting virus whose victory would be the death of humanity. Given the absoluteness of Jewish evil and the Jewish “threat”, what Hitler talked over in a private letter in 1919 as “the removal” of the Jews (surely the minimum “necessary” act) became, in 1939, in an infamous speech to the Reichstag:
Today I will once more be a prophet: if the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe (p.209).The theme of Jewish annihilation being something Hitler returned to in both his public and his private utterances.
Cohn argues that Hitler saw any block to his plans as being another manifestation of Jewish evil, that his world-view was genuinely saturated in notions of a Jewish-world conspiracy and that the program of domination in the Protocols had such fascination for him since it was his own program: the creation of an empire based on a regimented master-people (Pp211ff). That certainly gives his dramatic opposing of Jew to Aryan sense and resonance.
From its beginnings in 1920 to its end in 1945, the Protocols were a staple of Nazi propaganda. Alfred Rosenberg, an émigré from the Baltic provinces of the old Russian empire, the official ideologist of the Nazi Party, provided a link between émigré Russian politics and the politics of the Black Hundreds and Nazism. He was an avid pusher of the Protocols and analysis of Bolshevism as a Jewish phenomenon (Pp214ff).
Cohn cautions against over-estimating the role of anti-Semitism in the Nazi electoral success, or even the extent and intensity of anti-Semitism amongst the Party membership (Pp218ff). The leadership was a somewhat different matter. Indeed, as the massacres of Jews (and others) proceeded to their climax late in the War, Nazi propaganda and speeches increasingly referred to extermination of the Jews without even though public reference to mass executions and gassings were strictly forbidden:
It was a curious manoeuvre, as though the Nazi leaders were trying to involve the whole German people in their own guilt, yet without ever really admitting their guilt (p.226).The Nazi leadership was also enamoured of the idea that Anglo-American morale could be undermined by propaganda about the Jewish world-conspiracy, to the extent that anti-Semitic themes overwhelmingly dominated foreign broadcasts (Pp227-8).
As the War turned against Nazi Germany, anti-Semitic propaganda about what a “Jewish” victory would mean—the annihilation of Germans and Germany—was used to stiffen German will to fight. This while attempts to annihilate Jews and Jewry were increasing. Such Nazi propaganda:
… was something else as well: a barely disguised description of what Germans were at that moment doing to Jews (p.229).Indeed, were applying more and more resources to as the War situation was becoming more and more desperate, as if to ensure this one “victory” the “most essential of all” could still be won with anti-Semitic propaganda against “Jewish world-domination” continuing to the last gasp of the regime (p.230). And beyond, Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem claimed that Nazi failure was due to Hitler himself being a puppet of Satanic international finance (p.230).
Studies of the effect of all this propaganda suggest that it had little success in increasing hatred of the Jews: what it was successful at was increasing the level of utter indifference to the Jews and their fate (Pp232-3). The Jews may not have been turned into figures of mass hate but they had been successfully moved outside the moral community of many Germans.
And it continues …
From early in its career, the Nazi Party saw anti-Semitism as a way to get allies abroad. The Protocols was central to this effort. Once the Nazi Party achieved power, the Weltdeinst (Worldservice) organised the publication of the Protocols around the globe (Pp238ff). The Weltdeinst was involved in the Berne trial of 1934-5 (to which Cohn devotes a chapter). The trial exposed much of the curious history of the Protocols.
His last chapter, The Anti-Semitic International explores the Nazi efforts to globally promote the Protocols, particularly in the US and Latin America. There was even a Japanese effort that achieved some success. Given the near total absence of Jews in Japan, that may seem startling. On the other hand, it does reveal how unconnected to actual flesh-and-blood Jews the anti-Semitic exercise is and was.
It is outside the scope of Cohn’s book, which was originally published in 1967, but the Protocols have had their greatest contemporary surge in Islam, whether it is feeding into the founding charter of Hamas or being serialised on Egyptian TV. The power of the Protocols in the Muslim world is hardly surprising, since there are many similarities between the situation of newly-industrialising autocratic Orthodox autocratic Russia in which the Protocols arose and much of contemporary Islam, with the unsettling changes of modernisation affecting societies which orient themselves according to religious framings and ruled by various flavours of autocracy.
This is why the Islamic analogues of fascism are also so strong. Comparing the Nazis and the jihadis, they have in common their atavism, their glorification of violence and heroic ethos, their status-anxiety, their program of domination. All of which makes them twins in Jew-hatred.
A mindset that the Protocols appeal to powerfully. After all, if one has a program of domination oneself, it is easy to ascribe a similar program to others.
There are also historical links: Bernard Lewis noted the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda in the Middle East before 1945. The original leader of the Palestinian cause was a strong supporter of Hitler and a co-collaborator in the Holocaust. Lewis also points out (p.228,n25) that a prominent Nazi propagandist Johann von Leers, author of The Criminal Nature of the Jew, fled to Egypt, converted to Islam and worked for Nasser as a propagandist: one of a range of Nazi officials who found refuge in Egypt after the War.
That the Protocols has had such a career in Islam is not a minor point, given its demonstrated capacity to inspire mass murder. To be—as Cohn’s title and last words proclaim—a warrant for genocide.
More broadly, the history of the Protocols, particularly in Germany, shows how a delusion can take hold of masses of people, including highly educated folk in a modern society, if what is being pushed matches the will to believe. Cohn’s lucid, revealing work of scholarship, done with a very effective light touch, has continuing lessons for us all.