Sunday, January 16, 2005

Warrant for Genocide by Norman Cohn

I located and read this one on Ideofact's recommendation. It is a detailed history of Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I haven't the stomach to give a detailed synopsis: suffice it to say that the hunger for illusion was and remains a formidable force in politics and culture.

What is the Protocols? A collection of lectures and directives that read like no business minutes I've ever heard of: a plan for world domination by disrupting commerce, culture, morals, and religion.

The cultural/political environment the book grew from was the reaction to "the growing forces of nationalism, liberalism, democracy, and secularism" in the middle to late 1800's. At first the greatest villains were supposed to be the Freemasons, with Jews in the background, but ultra-rightists in Russia and Germany seized on the idea that Jews were the manipulators of it all. As royal houses (isn't the king ordained by God?) collapsed those who clung to the older ideas noticed that (among others) Jews benefited from the "rights of man." The Russians in particular were eager to get rid of Jews, and the directors of the pogroms tried to inspire the soldiers with what antisemitic literature they could find or concoct. In Italy the Masons were active in the struggle for national unity and the deprecation of the temporal power of the Pope and thus the Freemasons must be agents of Satan, right? And since the Jews were also presumably the enemies of God, there must be a conspiracy between them, right? Never mind that the Jews were hardly prominent in the Freemasons . . .

The literary antecedents of Protocols were various. From early years some church fathers held that the Antichrist would be a Jew. From "the first crusade onwards Jews were presented as children of the Devil, agents employed by Satan for the express purpose of combating Christianity and harming Christians." One Hermann Goedsche, caught using forged letters to frame political enemies, retired to work on a newspaper and write novels. One of his novels, Biarritz, contained a chapter describing a secret meeting in a cemetery of a group of Jews who come to worship the Devil, receive instruction, and describe the various ways they are manipulating the economy, culture, and politics in order to ruin everyone else and gain control themselves. This chapter, excerpted into a pamphlet by Russian antisemites, morphed into a document called The Rabbi's Speech which by 1881 was being treated as a genuine work.

From France, Gougenot des Mousseaux wrote Le Juif which tied the old superstitions about Jews and Satan with kabbalah and near future events. From Chabauty came the idea that there had been a single Jewish conspiracy since the start of the Dispersion. Italian Jesuits tried to "discredit Freemasonry by presenting it as part of the Jewish world-conspiracy." (The Catholic church did not cover itself with glory during this period.) From (apparently) Serbia Osman-Bey wrote World Conquest by the Jews which claimed to have stolen documents which revealed the great conspiracy and the great campaign against Russia, and which called for the extermination of the Jews.

The most direct literary source is a deeply ironic one: the Dialoge aux Enfers entre Montesquieu et Machiavel by Maurice Joly, written as a dialog between Montesquieu (champion for liberalism) and Machiavelli (champion of cynical despotism) to criticize the regime of Napoleon III.

Moreover, something of Joly's insights even survived when the Dialoge aux Enfers was transformed into the Protocols; that is one reason--though as we shall see, not the only reason--why the Protocols often seem to forecast twentieth century authoritarianism. But that after all is a poor kind of immortality; and there is a cruel irony in the fact that a brilliant but long-forgotten defense of liberalism should have provided the basis for an atrociously written piece of reactionary balderdash which has swept the world.

Joly's pamphlet is indeed an admirable work, incisive, ruthlessly logical, beautifully constructed. The debate is opened by Montesquieu, who argues that in the present age the enlightened ideas of liberalism have made despotism, which was always immoral, impractical as well. Machiavelli replies with such eloquence and at such length that he dominates the rest of the pamphlet. The mass of the people, he insists, are simply incapable of governing themselves. Normally they are inert and are only too happy to be ruled by a strong man; while if something happens to arouse them they show unlimited capacity for senseless violence--and then they need a strong man to control them. Politics have never had anything to do with morality; and as for practicability, it has never been so easy as now to impose despotic rule. A modern ruler need only pretend to observe the forms of legality, he need only allow his people only the merest semblance of self-government--and he will have not the slightest difficulty in attaining and exercising absolute power. People readily acquiesce in any decision which they imagine to have been their own; therefore the ruler has only to refer all questions to a popular assembly--having first, of course, arranged that the assembly shall give the decision he requires. The forces that might oppose his will can be dealt with easily enough: the press can be censored, political opponents can be watched by the police. Neither the power of the Church nor financial problems need be feared. So long as the prince dazzles the people with his prestige and by winning military victories he can be sure of their support.

Cohn traces the actual author of the Protocols to someone in the employ of the Russian spy director in France (and secret police administrator), Pytor Ivanovich Rachkovsky. He thinks that "Joly's satire on Napoleon III was transformed by de Cyon into a satire on Witte (a political opponent) which was then transformed under Rachkovsky's guidance into the Protocols of the Elders of Zion." This crudely written work began to appear in Russia, first serialized in a newspaper and later appearing in booklets. Sergey Nilus, a "mystical" monk popular in the household of the Tsar, wrote The Great in the Small, the third edition of which (produced especially for Nicholas II) contains the Protocols; and Nilus' version became the definitive one. The "Black Hundreds" who urged on the pogroms and exterminations that inspired Hitler, and later the "White Russian" royalists, seized on this book, and made sure that soldiers had important parts read to them (there were lots of illiterate soldiers in the Russian army) to inspire them to kill Jews.

So much for the origins of the book. I have no heart to describe how it spread, how it found advocates around the world (including Henry Ford), how the Nazis embraced it, how even a forgery trial failed to dampen enthusiasm for it (though the Times printed a retraction of an earlier positive review).

And I'm sickened to see the Protocols treated as gospel (almost like the Koran) among the Arabs, and see the same kind of grim claims of conspiracy with Jews controlling the Americans (instead of European parliaments)--this time by leftists (Cynthia McKinney, Michael Ruppert and many others) instead of rightists--and growing random violence against Jews showing up again in the West.

As for Warrant for Genocide: Cohn is a good writer. The topic is deeply depressing, and rather specialized. If you want the origins of the Protocols, my thumbnail sketch is probably adequate for you. If you want all the details, by all means read the book.

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