In 1903, Znamya (‘Banner’), a far-right newspaper based in the Russian empire’s capital of St Petersburg, began serialising a document. Titled The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, it purported to be the minutes from 24 (other versions state 27) highly secretive meetings.


The shocking contents spoke of an international Jewish plot to create a world government by covertly manipulating liberalism and socialism. Yet it was all fiction – and not only that, it plagiarised an earlier source.

Nevertheless, the Protocols, and the deadly myth it propagated, had devastating consequences for the 20th century. From influencing industrial magnates like Henry Ford to being a major factor in the rise of Adolf Hitler, the Protocols was a source of corroboration for those with existing, paranoid antisemitic outlooks.

The conspiracy theory: there was an international Jewish plot to take over the world

The Protocols advanced the idea that an international cabal of Jewish leaders and Freemasons had drawn up a plan to infiltrate the world’s political, financial and cultural institutions with the aim of paving the way for a single world state under their hegemony.

Presented in the form of minutes captured at a series of meetings, the motive behind the Protocols was to imbue its dark fantasy with the semblance of official business to make it seem credible.

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What is the source of the theory?

According to historian Pamela S Nadell, professor of history and Jewish studies at American University in Washington DC, the notion of a worldwide Jewish plot is linked to a pogrom in 1903. That April, antisemitic violence erupted in Kishinev, in the Russian empire’s Bessarabian Governate (located mostly in present-day Moldova and partly in Ukraine), resulting in the deaths of 49 Jews and injury to hundreds more.

Although pogroms were hardly uncommon in 19th and early 20th century tsarist Russia, Kishinev sparked outrage around the world and raised awareness of the Romanov empire’s proclivity for antisemitic atrocities.

“The idea that so many different places from America [and] across Europe would denounce this horror shocked Russian nationalists, who believed that the only group that could have orchestrated something like this [the international condemnation] had to have been the Jews,” says Nadell.

The antisemitic propaganda filling the Kishinev newspaper of journalist Pavel Krushevan helped instigate the Kishinev Pogrom in the spring of 1903. That fall, the Protocols made their debut in his St Petersburg newspaper, Znamya. Krushevan either wrote them on his own or with the help of others.

The reasons why the theory took hold

Nadell explains that the roots of antisemitism can be traced back centuries and that hatred and suspicion of Jews had become endemic throughout medieval Europe. Christian belief that a Jewish conspiracy was responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was widespread and led to them being accused of despicable things.

“Jews [were] stereotyped in dangerous ways,” she says, pointing out that the charge of ‘blood libel’, was among the most notorious and enduring accusations levied at them by Christians.

The earliest charge of blood libel in medieval Europe took place in Norwich, England, in 1144 when local Jews were falsely accused of the violent death of a young apprentice. Though now refuted, Thomas of Monmouth wrote that the boy’s murder had been part of a sacral rite whereby “Jewish leaders would meet to cast lots to choose the place for the coming year’s victim. So, it’s almost the first intimation of some kind of Jewish international conspiracy,” explains Nadell.

However, she asserts that the Protocols poses something “different” because “[it’s] written in the modern period”.

Beyond ultranationalist circles, the text initially made little impact within Russia. But that changed with the October Revolution of 1917, when the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd (now St Petersburg).

Beyond ultranationalist circles, the text initially made little impact within Russia. But that changed with the October Revolution of 1917

Disgruntled tsarists and reactionaries of every stripe were horrified by the nascent Soviet regime, and this spawned what Nadell describes as “one of the most enduring antisemitic myths of the 20th century”: ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’.

The presence of Jews – the most prominent being Leon Trotsky – among the Bolshevik leadership was pounced upon as proof of their supposed complicity in the destruction of Russia’s old order.

As the Protocols had accused the Jews of having “masterminded the French Revolution”, says Nadell, so Russian nationalists saw the prospect of world revolution championed by Lenin as “Bolshevism … fulfilling the prophecy of the Protocols”.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in 1920s America

Both during and after the Russian Civil War, nationalist exiles took the Protocols with them, bringing the conspiracy theory to Western Europe and the United States.

In 1919, Rev. George A Simons – who had spent more than a decade at the Methodist Episcopal Church in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) – appeared before the US Senate’s Overman Committee – which had been established to investigate possible German and Bolshevik subversion within the country – to testify on the events in Russia, whereupon he drew a ‘distinction’ between Jews and Russians.

He asserted that “only 16 of 388 [members of the Soviet government] were real Russians,” says Nadell. “We know that his information was false, but the Senate was really worried that there was going to be a Bolshevik revolution in America”.

It was amid such hysteria that the Protocols found fertile ground – and among its most enthusiastic adherents was the industrialist, Henry Ford. A year after the committee, the automobile pioneer used his recently acquired newspaper The Dearborn Independent to peddle antisemitism.

Amid such hysteria the Protocols found fertile ground – and among its most enthusiastic adherents was the industrialist, Henry Ford

On 22 May 1920, Ford’s weekly featured the headline: “The International Jew: The World’s Problem” on its front page and launched a 91-week series of antisemitic articles. “The series does exactly what the Protocols did,” explains Nadell. “In fact, it republishes parts of the Protocols … and talks about how the Jews are achieving their goals by manipulating the economy, by manipulating the press and by being the power behind the throne”.

Ford’s public crusade inspired far right demagogues like Adolf Hitler. In 1923, months before the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, Hitler was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune and expressed his admiration for “Heinrich Ford”.

As Nadell points out, this was around the time that Ford was contemplating running for the White House. “Hitler says that if he could, he would send some of his shock troops to the United States to help Ford in his presidential campaign,” she notes.

More than two decades later, as the full horrors of the Holocaust were coming to light, an organisation called the Christian Nationalist Crusade was republishing the Protocols and [Ford’s] The International Jew in the US. The latter had never been copyrighted and its pernicious message continued to be disseminated after the downfall of Hitler’s ‘thousand-year Reich’.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion: the evidence that debunks the theory

The Protocols was exposed as a fake soon after its resurgence during the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.

In 1921, Philip Graves, a journalist for London newspaper The Times, revealed the document not only to be a hoax, but a plagiarism of Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, by the French writer Maurice Joly. Published in 1864, this satire was in fact a critique of Napoleon III’s authoritarian rule.

“[Joly’s book] never mentioned the Jews,” explains Nadell. “What [Krushevan] did was lift it from there and then insert the Jews – and actually The Times published a comparison side by side”.

In 1933, the United Jewish Communities of Switzerland and the Jewish Community of Bern sued the antisemitic Swiss National Front for disseminating the Protocols. Two years later, a Swiss judge, declared the Protocols “ridiculous nonsense” and ruled that they were a forgery.

“Even though [it has] been debunked over and over again … people still continue to believe it,” says Nadell.

Since the end of the Second World War, the Protocols has spread across the Middle East and continues to be sold in book shops in several nations around the world. Even as recently as 2002, Nadell points out, Egyptian satellite television developed a 41-part miniseries based on the Protocols.

Furthermore, she emphasises that the myth of a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world remains potent, with the rise of the internet and the echo chambers of social media helping to spread the conspiracy.

The abuse directed at the likes of the Hungarian-born, Jewish philanthropist, George Soros – spuriously accused by conspiracists of everything from having orchestrated the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, to being the mastermind behind Europe’s migrant crisis – as well as the backlash against the concept of globalism, is ‘the heir’ to the perceived internationalist menace that so obsessed antisemites like Ford.

“This is a conspiracy theory that helped fuel the Holocaust,” Nadell concludes, “this is a conspiracy theory that has had horrific ramifications”.


Professor Pamela S Nadell is an American historian, researcher, and author focusing on Jewish history. Former President of the Association for Jewish Studies, she currently holds the Patrick Clendenen Chair in Women's and Gender history at American University. She was speaking to Rob Attar on the Conspiracy: the Protocols of the Elders of Zion episode, part of our Conspiracy podcast series


Danny BirdStaff Writer, BBC History Magazine

Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Magazine. Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Magazine and previously held the same role on BBC History Revealed. He joined the brand in 2022. Fascinated with the past since childhood, Danny completed his History BA at the University of Sheffield, developing a special interest in the Spanish Civil War and the Paris Commune. He subsequently gained his History MA from University College London, studying at its School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)