Evil Genius

By Alex Joffe
Thursday, February 23, 2012

Very little anti-Semitic literature is new; most of its tropes seem ageless, continually recombined and updated by haters reacting only dimly to their actual circumstances. Few anti-Semitic works exhibit literary or lesser, sociological gifts. The one exception is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

What we know as the Protocols was created in late 19th-century Czarist Russia from French prototypes and purports to be the minutes of a meeting at which Jewish 'elders' laid out their comprehensive plan for world domination. The text is deviously adaptable to dramatically differing circumstances spanning the three centuries from its creation until today. No other anti-Semitic myth has spoken so insinuatingly to the political left and right, to societies as fundamentally contrasting as those of Europe and the Middle East. Nor has any other such text been so widely studied.

Three new books examine the Protocols. Two scholarly works, The Global Impact of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, edited by Esther Webman, and The Paranoid Apocalypse: A Hundred Year Retrospective on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, edited by Richard Landes and Steven T. Katz, analyze the text's origins, spread, and influence. In Colombia during the 1930s and 1940s, the Protocols were introduced by Jesuits and used by the right against liberals, who were accused of belonging to a Judeo-Masonic conspiracy. In South Africa, the Protocols made the predictable shift from radical-right to radical-Islamist text. The Protocols play a role in the conspiracy theories of Lyndon LaRouche, neo-Nazis, 9/11 Truthers, and the Nation of Islam, to name only a few.

We can now chart the impact of the Protocols on anti-Semitism in places like Turkey, where it is promoted by right-wing nationalists lately aligned with Islamists, or even places without Jews, like Japan, where right-wing circles developed a fascination with Jews and "revelations" of Jewish control were tinged with respect, even admiration. A perhaps-more-benign version is the current Korean vogue for Talmud, another variation of Secrets of Success of a Small, Dispersed People.

But explaining the intellectual and sensual appeal of the Protocols is difficult for academics, who frequently resort to vague constructs like "secular religion." Fortunately, Umberto Eco's novel The Prague Cemetery has filled the void with the panache and cunning we would expect from the singular historian of symbols and author of Foucault's Pendulum. The protagonist of Prague Cemetery—Simone Simonini, a Piedmontese forger, agent provocateur and, ultimately, author of the Protocolsis fictional. But all the other characters are factual, brought to life from historical texts by Eco's imagination.

Simonini is genuinely animated by his hatredsespecially of Jews, a sentiment he learned at his grandfather's knee. He is also the ultimate opportunist. He uses his gifts for forgery, conspiracy, and bomb-building to satisfy his own cupidity and gluttony; along the way, he will serve any master. He is enlisted by the Jesuits and their enemies, Italian nationalists and monarchists, the French, Prussians, and Russians to spin tales and plots that stoke the history and hatreds of the 19th century and prefigure Europe's 20th-century cataclysm.

These tales and plots come to a point around anti-Semitism. At the direction of his employers, Simonini spins all the contradictory anti-Semitic variations, harmonizing them into fictions that illuminate the "higher truth" about the Jews. They also serve higher purposesSimonini's pursuit of pleasure and his masters' efforts to manipulate the masses.

The known history of the Protocols continually overlays Eco's imaginary one. Simonini winds his way through a 19th century depicted in lavish historical and gastronomic detail by a peerless scholar. Garibaldi and Dreyfus appear as pawns. Jews move up and down the pantheon of villains according to the needs of the day. The fictional Simoninias Eco imagines him in consultation with real anti-Semitic authors like Maurice Joly and Hermann Goedschemoves from the anti-Semitism of the socialist Paris Commune to the late 19th-century anti-Semitism of the right. Finally, his pursuit of what he calls the "Universal Form of every possible conspiracy" reaches its culmination in his authorship of the grand unified anti-Semitism of the Protocols.

The evil genius of the Protocols is that it successfully unites the otherwise-mutually-exclusive fears of pre-modern, industrial, and post-modern worlds. In the Protocols, Jews devise capitalism and industrializationbut also Socialism and Communism. Domination-seeking Jews are easily transferred from their original venue, the crumbling kingdoms and fractious nation-states of 19th-century Europe, to 20th-century America or 21st-century anywhere.

That these contradictions should have had such purchase testifies not only to the genius of Simonini's historical counterparts but the rapacity of the secret services and other political conspiracists dishing up fantasies to the masses and the psychological needs of masses themselves, who moved from religiosity to secularism and nihilism within mere decades.

There are ironies. Animated by the Protocols' Jewish aspirations to world domination, Nazis and Communists came perilously close to achieving the same. The Protocols' Jewish schemes for press control have been implemented by the Jews' enemies. The Protocols depicted Jewish Socialism; Socialists now rail against Jewish capital. The Protocols is not simply mythology but a veritable all-purpose totalitarian's handbook.

The Protocols are also a Mobius strip of inspiration and repetition: Denial equals not just confirmation but renewal. Almost from the beginning, scholars and statesmen have tried to expunge the work and break the chain. But they have failed; and today's scholars, despite their industry, seem unlikely to do better.

Simonini himself points to one way out. Bored with life after having delivered the Protocols, his masterpiece, to the Russians, he undertakes one final mission for the French; he will perpetrate one finale outrage and, thus, provide himself with one final opportunity to feel. So Simonini, carrying a bomb, makes his way into the tunnels that will become the Paris Undergroundand disappears. The thread is finally cut, and the anonymous narrator begins to extract himself from Simonini's web.

In this way, perhaps Eco's turning the Protocols from mythology to fiction is a necessary step in disarming it.

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