The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a document describing a plan to achieve Jewish global domination, supposedly produced by an international Jewish conspiracy. The overwhelming majority of historians in the United States and Europe strongly believe the Protocols to be a forgery produced by the Tsarist Russian secret police, the Okhranka.
It is widely considered to mark the beginning of the tradition of conspiracy theory literature, such as "None Dare Call it Conspiracy" and "Conspirators Hierarchy: the Committee of 300". The Protocols, which draw on popular anti-Semitic notions which have their roots in medieval Europe from the time of the Crusades, are simultaneously the most notorious and most successful work of modern anti-Semitism.
The conceptual inspiration for the Protocols can be traced back to the time of the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century. At that time, a French Jesuit named Abbé Barruel, representing reactionary elements opposed to the revolution, published in 1797 a treatise blaming the Revolution on a secret conspiracy operating through the Order of Freemasons, called the Illuminati. French nobility at the time was heavily Masonic. Barruel was influenced by a Scottish Mason and professor of natural philosophy named John Robison who in 1798, published a book called Proofs of a Conspiracy which charged the Illuminati of conspiring to destroy all the governments and religions of Europe. In his treatise, Barruel did not himself blame the Jews, who were emancipated as a result of the Revolution. However, in 1806, Barruel circulated a forged letter, probably sent to him by members of the state police opposed to Napoleon Bonaparte's liberal policy toward the Jews, calling attention to the alleged part of the Jews in the conspiracy he had earlier attributed to the Masons. This belief that there exists an international Jewish conspiracy reappeared later on in various countries of 19th century Europe.
The direct predecessor of the Protocols can be found in the pamphlet "Dialogues in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu", published by the non-Jewish French satirist Maurice Joly in 1864. In his "Dialogues", which make no mention of the Jews, Joly attacked the political ambitions of the emperor Napoleon III using the imagery of a diabolical plot in Hell. The "Dialogues" were caught by the French authorities soon after their publication and Joly was tried and sentenced to prison for his pamphlet.
Joly's "Dialogues", while intended as a political satire, soon fell into the hands of a German anti-Semite named Hermann Goedsche writing under the name of Sir John Retcliffe. Goedsche was a postal clerk and a spy for the Prussian secret police. He had been forced to leave postal work due to his part in forging evidence in the prosecution against the Democratic leader Benedict Waldeck in 1849. Goedsche adapted Joly's "Dialogues" into a mythical tale of a Jewish conspiracy as part of a series of novels entitled "Biarritz", which appeared in 1868. In a chapter called "The Jewish Cemetery in Prague and the Council of Representatives of the Twelve Tribes of Israel", he spins the fantasy of a secret centennial rabbinical conference which meets at midnight and whose purpose is to review the past hundred years and to make plans for the next century.
Goedsche's plagiary of Joly's "Dialogues" soon found its way to Russia. It was translated into Russian in 1872, and a consolidation of the "council of representatives" under the name "Rabbi's Speech" appeared in Russian in 1891. These works no doubt furnished the Russian secret police (Okhranka) with a means to strengthen the position of the weak Tsar Nicholas II and discredit the reforms of the liberals who sympathized with the Jews. During the Dreyfus affair of 1893-1895, agents of the Okhranka in Paris redacted the earlier works of Joly and Goedsche into a new edition which they called the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion". The manuscript of the Protocols was brought to Russia in 1895 and was printed privately in 1897.
The Protocols did not become public until 1905, when Russia's defeat in the Russo-Japanese War was blamed on the Jews. The next year a revolution led to Russia's first constitution and institution of the Duma. In the wake of these events, the reactionary "Union of the Russian Nation" or Black Hundreds organization sought to incite popular feeling against the Jews, whom they blamed for the Revolution and the Constitution as well as losing the war.
The Protocols were part of a propaganda campaign which accompanied the pogroms of 1905 inspired by the Okhranka. A variant text of the Protocols was published by George Butmi in 1906 and again in 1907. The edition of 1906 was found among the Tsar's collection, even though he had publicly denounced the work as a forgery. In later editions, Nilus claimed that the Protocols had been read secretly at the First Zionist Congress at Basel in 1897, while Butmi in his edition wrote that they had no connection with the new Zionist movement, but rather were part of a Masonic conspiracy.
In the failed war for independence following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the reactionary White Armies made extensive use of the Protocols to incite widespread slaughters of Jews. Anarchist Nestor Makhno in the Ukraine was unjustly accused of killing Jews; in fact he hung several White army generals who had been attacking Jews. At the same time, Russian emigrants brought the Protocols to western Europe, where the Nilus edition served as the basis for many translations, starting in 1920.
Just after its appearance in London in 1920, Lucien Wolf exposed the Protocols as a plagiary of the earlier work of Joly and Goedsche, in a pamphlet of the Jewish Board of Deputies. The following year, in 1921, the story of the forgery was published in a series of articles in The Times by Philip Grave, the paper's correspondent in Constantinople. A whole book documenting the forgery was also published in the same year in America by Herman Bernstein. Nevertheless, the Protocols continued to circulate widely. They were even sponsored by Henry Ford (using his newspaper the "Dearborn Independent") in the United States until 1927, and formed an important part of the Nazis' justification for the Holocaust.
The libels that the Jews used blood of Christian children for the Feast of Passover, poisoned the wells and spread the plague, were pretexts for the wholesale destruction of Jewish communities throughout Europe. Tales were circulated among the masses of secret rabbinical conferences whose aim was to subjugate and exterminate the Christians, and motifs like these are found in early antisemitic literature.
Many Arab governments fund the publication of new printings of the protocols, and teach them in their schools as historical fact. See Arabs and anti-Semitism for more information. The publication of this document has also seen a resurgence in Russia and other republics of the former Soviet Union among the new generation of national socialists. It is also distributed in the United States by some Palestinian student groups on college campuses, and by Louis Farrakhan's "Nation of Islam".
The document is generally accepted as truthful in large parts of Asia and South America. In Japan, where many people regard the Protocols as genuine, there have even been "self-help" books published, where admiration for the Jewish conspiracy portrayed in the Protocols is expressed, and suggesting that the Japanese should attempt to emulate it to become as powerful as the Jews, or more so.
Egypt, which is bound by a 1979 treaty to prevent "incitement" against Israel, ran a month-long showing of Horse Without a Horseman, a television drama based on the fabricated "Protocols" in November 2002.
In Greece the Protocols have had multiple publications in recent decades along with various commentary depending on who published the book and what is their point of view. The anti-Semitic minority party Hrisi Aygi ("Golden Dawn") consider the book to be a true document and distribute their edition to their members. Other minor groups that believe in its authenticity have claimed that the book does not depict the way that all Jews think and act but only of those belonging to an alleged secret elite of Zionists. The book is popular among those interested in conspiracy theories though most of them consider it to be a false document. It has often been declared a major influence to every other book concerning conspiracy theories. Some recent editions proclaim that the "Jews" as depicted in the Protocols are used as a cover identity for other conspirators (insert whichever "elite" group you like here). Other editions study its great influence in Anti-Semitism during the previous century. Other editions compare and contrast the Protocols to Joli's "Dialogues" trying to prove its influence by them.