Sunday, January 10, 2010

Warrant for Genocide (1)

Having recently treated myself to a Norman Cohn book I had not previously read, I decided it was past time to treat myself to the pleasure of probably his most famous work, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy And the Protocols of the Elders Of Zion and found myself completely engaged by his lucid, ironic and enthralling scholarly dissection of murderous hatred, deceit and paranoia.

Cohn starts by noting that, while Jews made up only some of the victims of Nazism, nevertheless, they were hunted with particular intensity (Pp xi-xii). He also notes that the Protocols remain a live and noxious fantasy in the world.

He briefly deals with the medieval precursors:
The propagation of such views by the clergy, century after century, gradually but decisively influenced the attitude of the laity. If Judaism, with its profound sense of election and elaborate system of taboos, tended in any case to make Jews a people apart, Christian teaching and preaching ensured that they would be treated simply as strangers but as most dangerous enemies (p.26).
One of the striking themes in Warrant for Genocide concerning Western Jew-hatred in general, and the history of the Protocols in particular, is how often Catholic and Orthodox priests (and ex-priests) figure as disseminators of Jew-hatred. The role of religion (in this case various forms of Christianity) as a way of binding people together by defining them against some Other, and of priests as “gatekeepers of righteousness” policing the boundary between the in-community and the defined-against, is quite clear.

Which is not to say that is the only role Christian priests play: Father Men, an Orthodox priest, denounced the revival of the Protocols in post-Soviet Russia from the pulpit and was later founded murdered (p.xv). Such heroism provides some counterbalance but the reality is, if you repeatedly declare some category of people’s existence profoundly morally problematic, you do not get to wash your hands of the predictable consequences of that.

Another enduring theme in Warrant for Genocide is how tied up modern Jew-hatred was with the pressures of modernity. Modernity created a socially and physically mobile, industrializing, urbanizing, mass society with all sorts of status-anxieties. The patterns of Jew-hatred—as Cohn makes clear—make little or no sense in terms of the actual situations of Jews. They make a great deal of sense in terms of the pressures on, and concerns of, the disseminators of hate and, when what they disseminated resonated, their audiences. (There are certain similarities between the situation in commercialising and industrialising Europe as the Europe of the C11th-C13th, when Christian Jew-hatred reached particular intensity.)

As humans, we are also cognitively pre-disposed to see things in terms of motive and intention. So taking actual social patterns and concerns and then casting them in terms of conspiracy, hidden control and maleficent intent could be very persuasive. (As it still is, of course.)

As such, Jew-hatred in particular could be an aid to political forces. While there was some left anti-Semitism (p.28), Jew-hatred was more commonly a tool for those who opposed liberal, democratic, socialist and revolutionary movements: all those committed to change away from the comforting certainties of the past (real or imagined). Particularly as Jews often did support liberal and democratic forces, since the offered legal equality: support for socialism, and particularly revolutionary movements, tended to be confined more to non-religious Jews (p.132).
Calling conspiracy
A book published 1797 by a French priest Abbe Barruel arguing that the French Revolution was created by a vast, decades-long conspiracy by Freemasons and the Illuminati set in motion the “discovery” of world-conspiracies. The book—whose thesis seems to have been stolen from Scottish mathematician John Robison—was a best-seller, translated into English, Polish, Italian, Spanish and Russian, making its author a rich man (Pp30-1).

Napoleon’s 1806 assembling of a group of Jewish scholars and rabbis which he called “the Great Sanhedrin” to support his rule and policies created a pretext on which congenial framings could be hung. The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church proclaimed:
Today he proposes to reunite the Jews whom God’s wrath had scattered over the face of the earth, to urge them on to overthrow the Church of Christ and to proclaim a false messiah in his own person (p.34).
The Freemason-Illuminati world-conspiracy, in a letter authored by a somewhat mysterious “Simonini” that did the rounds as sort of early samizdat, became transmuted into a Jewish world-conspiracy, despite the lack of Jews involved in the French Revolution (or the Illuminati, or the Freemasons)

In 1868, a royalist journalist and novelist, Hermann Goedesche, writing under the pseudonym Sir John Retcliffe, published a novel Biarritz in which a group of Jews meet at night in a cemetery to report on the progress of their conspiracy against Christendom to draw the power and wealth of the world into Jewish hands. Jewish emancipation was a live issue in German politics, and the novel’s sensationalism clearly pandered to anxieties concerning such an overturning of the Christian social order (Pp 38ff), as had a previous piece in a Catholic journal in 1862 that alleged a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy against the existing social order (Pp37-8).

The chapter from the novel was, from 1872 onwards, published as a series of pamphlets in Russia, but treated as the report of an actual event. Versions then appeared in Prague and Paris (Pp41-2). Transmuted into The Rabbi’s Speech (a copy of which Cohn includes in an appendix), it enjoyed a burgeoning career in anti-Semitic circles (Pp42ff). Eventually, along with The Protocols, a version became a prescribed text for schools in Nazi Germany (p.45).

In 1869, a book alleging that the world was falling into the hands of Satan-worshippers labelled “kabbalistic Jews” was published by Gougenot des Mousseaux, thereby reprising (and, indeed, modernising) the medieval framing of Jews as the people of devil. This was in the midst of bitter Catholic-masonic disputes, where Catholic writers classed Freemasonry (which had increasingly become associated with secularism, republicanism and liberal reform) as Satanic. A burgeoning world-conspiracy literature arose, with the Jews as central figures associated with Satan and Antichrist (in true medieval style) but with lots of modern concerns and constructions added in (Pp46ff).

It is a striking feature of Jew-hatred—noted again and again—that accusations never die, they just get recycled. This is, of course, a sign of how much such accusations are driven by the logics, framings and concerns of their accusers—in particular, the characterisation of the accused as wicked Others—and how unconnected they are to the realities of the accused.

It may be farcical that a fictitious scene from a novel becomes a “real” event, and that forged letters added as “proof” in various pamphlets and books, became “real” evidence. But the hate, and the anxieties that it pandered to, were, alas, very real: the will to believe was strong. Jesuit writers in Italy, for example, published articles against the Judaeo-masonic conspiracy in the journal La civilta cattolica while French priest Mgr Jouin was to be honoured by two successive Popes for his life-long struggle against the same, entirely mythical, conspiracy (p.58). The effort the Catholic Church put into promoting Jew-hatred in the C19th and early C20th is very much part of the context that leads to the The Protocols being given credence and, indeed, the Holocaust itself. Thus, a Catholic Archbishop (Mgr Meurin, of Port-Louis, Mauritius) published in 1893 a book that alleged that Masonry was the key instrument of a Jewish conspiracy for world-domination. It seems to have been an inspiration for the Protocols themselves, which drew heavily on late C19th French anti-Semitic writings (Pp54ff).

If Catholic France was the intellectual centre of anti-Semitism, Orthodox Russia was its emotional heartland. Almost one third of all the world’s Jews (about 5m) lived in the “Pale of Settlement”. Russia was the last remaining major absolute monarchy, where the pressures of modernisation were particularly acute and threatening. Harassed by the government for their adherence to a hated religion throughout the C19th by the Orthodox government (committed to the union of throne and altar), this intensified after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. The last two Tsars, Alexander III and Nicholas II, were avid anti-Semites and intensified official harassment, to the extent that about 100,000 Jews emigrated each year (mostly to the US). One of Alexander III’s ministers, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, was believed to be aiming for one third of Jews to assimilate (i.e. Christianise), one third to emigrate and the rest to die of hunger as his aimed-for “solution” (The Anguish of the Jews, Pp189-90).

The literature of Jewish world-conspiracy grew in Russia, becoming particularly intense from the 1880s. The violent opposition to the autocracy, which killed Tsar Alexander II, drew a counter-reaction that focused particularly on the already despised Jews. This, in turn, drove a small number of Jews into revolutionary circles who then became “proof” of the original claims of Jewish conspiratorial maleficence (Pp57-9).

Cohn takes us through this literature, full of fantasy, hatred and pandering shysters as well as true believers. One such shyster, Osman Bey, in an anti-Semitic piece using the “hook” of the assassination of Alexander II, made explicit what was implied by so much of this literature:
The Alliance Israelite Universelle can be destroyed only through the complete extermination of the Jewish race (p.65)
It is in this milieu of burgeoning Jewish-conspiracy literature from various (particularly French) Catholic writers, the odd German and a range of writers with an audience of socially reactionary Orthodox Russians that the Protocols took form. The Protocols followed the conspiratorial and pseudo-historical framework set out in Osman Bey’s 1875 World Conquest by the Jews, being a series of lectures by “Elders of Zion” setting out the progress of their conspiracy (p.66). Cohn sets out the main themes in the Protocols:
… a critique of liberalism, an analysis of the methods by which world-domination is to be achieved by the Jews; and a description of the world-state which is to be established (p.67).
Reading through Cohn’s summary of the contents of the Protocols (Pp67-72), one is struck by their psychological cleverness (or, at least, power). What they do is they turn all sorts of confronting social changes into intended actions. This plays directly into the human cognitive bias towards seeing intention and motive in actions (Aristotelian physics and metaphysics were built on it, for example: nor is it entirely absent from Marxism and Marxist analysis). Something that is particularly powerful regarding social phenomena: even highly educated people can easily slip into treating what is far better explained by common incentives and signalling as some sort of conspiracy. Whether this psychological power was genuine cleverness or not is a fascinating question: it surely does much to explain why the Protocols have been such a runaway publishing success since their first appearance.

The Protocols arrive
The Protocols first appeared in the St Petersburg newspaper Znamya (the Banner) in August-September 1903. The editor, P. A. Krushevan, was a notorious antisemite who had few months previously instigated a progrom in Kishniev in Bessarabia that had killed 45 Jews, injured more than 400 and destroyed 1300 Jewish shops and homes. The source of the Protocols was not revealed, merely that the document had originally been in French.

From October 1905 onwards, Krushevan was busy organising the Union of the Russian People aka Black Hundreds as a response to the 1905 Revolution. In December, the book form of the Protocols was submitted to the censor immediately approved and published under the (revealing) title of The Root of Our Troubles. It was republished in 1906 under the (even more chilling) title The Enemies of the Human Race, and in further editions (Pp72-3).

At one level, it may seem hard for us to enter into the mindset of the conspiratorial anti-Semite. At another, not so hard: it is not such a leap to the sort of conspiracy theory Naomi Klein peddles against “neoliberals” in The Shock Doctrine, for example. After all, much that bothered Russian (and other) anti-Semites also bothers Klein and her audience—internationalisation of commerce, spread of commercial values, undermining of cultural “authenticity”. Milton Friedman was even Jewish and Israel is a thoroughly Jewish hate-object (indeed, hated for being specifically Jewish).

But one can also see overlapping dynamics between anti-Semitism in general and anti-queer politics and activism. Queers, like Jews, are “people who should not exist”. Since they “should not exist”, they are outside the normal parameters in which “real/proper people” are understood, so who knows what strange (and, of course, malefic) corrupting powers and capacities they may have? Moreover, queers, like Jews, are a small minority. If they are not some great threatening source of corruption, then activism against them is simply a large majority monstrously bullying a small and vulnerable minority. They “must be” threatening to justify such avid denunciation and action.

Above all, such activism is about defending cognitive framings people are committed to which that the existence of Jews and queers threaten. Given a choice between adjusting the framing and devaluing the humanity of those whose existence is confronting for such framings, the more strongly one is committed to the framing, the stronger the urge to strip the existentially inconvenient of their humanity and thus “save” the framing. Christianity in general, and Catholicism and Orthodoxy in particular, provide very strong framings that are more than up to the task. As, for that matter, does Islam (which does have a dhimmi place for Jews: but Jews as equals and, even more, Jews as militarily successful against believers, are not acceptable): or Orthodox Judaism regarding queers.

While The Root of Our Troubles and The Enemies of the Human Race were cheap pamphlets, the Protocols were also inserted in the third edition of mystical writer Sergey Nilus’s The Great and the Small: Antichrist considered as an imminent political possibility which also came out in December 1905. This version of the Protocols had numerous references to French events and personalities. The Great and the Small was the sort of mystical book Tsar Nicholas II loved to read. Indeed, Nilus was in favour at the imperial court and, even before the 1905 edition of The Great and the Small was published, the Metropolitan of Moscow ordered its version of the Protocols be read in every church in Moscow (all 368 of them), which was done on 16 October 1905, reprinted in the Moscovskia Vedemosti newspaper. Further editions of The Great and the Small were published in 1911 and 1912. But it was from the 1917 version in He is Near, At the Door … Here Comes the Antichrist and the Reign of the Devil on Earth that the Protocols became a global force.

The connection to medieval anti-Semitism is patent, as is the connection to counter-revolutionary politics. The power of the will to believe involved is nicely illustrated by the varied (and contradictory) sources the various versions of the Protocols gave for how come such explosive documents came to be in the hands of avowed enemies of the Jews. Even who precisely the “Elders” were was disputed (Pp74ff).

That it became necessary to prove that such a “ludicrous and transparent forgery” was such illustrates the will to believe in the “revealed” conspiracy and the respectability of concern with the “Jewish problem”. Sober and serious folk took the Protocols seriously when it first hit the world stage (including, famously, a London Times editorial of 8 May 1920). But this interlude was not, for anyone paying attention, a very long one. On 18 August 1921, The Times published a piece which demonstrated that the Protocols were largely copied from an anti-Napoleon III pamphlet by Maurice Joly first published in Brussels in 1864: over 160 passages or about two-fifths of the Protocols are plagiarised from Joly’s pamphlet (p.82). (Cohn includes an appendix which puts extracts from both publications side-by-side which demonstrates quite clearly the Protocols were adapted from the earlier publication.)

Joly’s pamphlet was a dialogue between Montesquieu (representing liberalism) and Machiavelli (representing cynical despotism). Joly was apparently quite perceptive about both the social pressures leading to revolutionary politics (whether of the right or the left) and the dynamics of authoritarian government (Pp80-81). What Joly put into the mouth of Machiavelli, the author of Protocols put into the mouths of the Elders of Zion, apart from some of the Montesquieu passages, which turn the Jews into the authors of liberalism. There are also passages extolling a landed aristocracy and monarchical authority which set very ill with what the Elders are allegedly on about: Cohn suggests they point to the purposes of the forgery and, along with its somewhat confused structure, to its apparently somewhat hurried concoction (Pp82-3).

(This review will be concluded in my next post.)

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