Why you should care
Because there’s nothing new about fake news.
When he wasn’t writing romance novels under the alias Sir John Retcliffe, Hermann Goedsche worked for the Prussian secret police as an agent provocateur. His duties? Peeking into envelopes at a Silesian post office — where he served as a mail clerk — and forging letters to set up the crown’s political adversaries.
Though his mail fraud was designed to send pro-democracy advocates to prison, or worse, the most devastating lines Goedsche ever wrote had nothing to do with espionage. Instead, they were composed for one of his shoddiest books.
Goedsche’s 1868 novel Biarritz is replete with plagiarism, like plots lifted from Alexandre Dumas’ Giuseppe Balsamo (1848), which follows an occultist conspiracy set during the French Revolution. In Biarritz, Goedsche includes a chapter called “At the Jewish Cemetery in Prague,” in which he writes about a different kind of conspiracy, hatched by representatives of the 12 tribes of Israel. In his tale, Zionists meet at midnight, and a rabbi’s speech details a plot to take over the world. The diabolical plan? Creeping takeovers of international finance, media and labor.
William Brustein, a professor at West Virginia University who wrote Roots of Hate: Anti-Semitism in Europe Before the Holocaust, is sure a Zionist conspiracy theory was floating around long before Biarritz. “There are threads of it dating back to the 18th century,” he says. But it’s thought that Goedsche’s rendition is the earliest surviving material that details such a plot so explicitly.
Unlike in years past, those who believe in things like the Protocols, and would like us to believe in them as well, cannot get to us uncontested.
Richard S. Levy, University of Illinois
Around the time of Goedsche’s death in 1878, the rabbi’s speech from Biarritz was being passed around as a leaflet. “It was disconnected from the novel [and therefore] freed from any indication it was fictional,” says Richard S. Levy of the University of Illinois, author of Antisemitism: Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution. Decades after this fragment began masquerading as a historical text, a new document arrived on the scene, doubling down on the Zionist conspiracy theory.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion emerged around 1903. The text — probably of Russian origin — was like the “rabbi’s speech” reproductions in that it was designed to appear as if it had been written by actual Jewish conspirators. Also like Biarritz, the text includes blatant plagiarism, notably from Maurice Joly’s 1864 satire Dialogues in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu. Follow-up editions of Protocols appeared with commentaries arguing that the text was a legitimate historical document. Many of these additions referenced and included Goedsche’s fictional rabbi’s speech as supporting evidence.
In 1921, the Times of London debunked the document, calling it a “literary forgery” based on the easily observed connections between Protocols and works like Biarritz. But Brustein notes how the Times’ rebuttal of Protocols came on page 13, after the front page simply asked “Could there be proof to these claims?”
The mainstream press’s ultimate rejection of Protocols didn’t matter to some, though. Between 1920 and 1922, Henry Ford ran excerpts from the hoax document in his Dearborn Independent newspaper. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Ford also financed the printing of 500,000 copies of Protocols. Such publications kept the Zionist conspiracy theory percolating throughout the 1920s until it eventually boiled over, in Germany.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote that Protocols “with terrifying certainty reveals the nature and activity of the Jewish people.” Nora Levin, the late Holocaust historian, claimed Hitler used Protocols as a “manual in his war to exterminate Jews.” Levy disagrees. He says evidence that Protocols directly influenced Nazi decision makers is “flimsy.” Brustein’s stance rests between these opinions — he believes that the Zionist conspiracy theory wasn’t the only driving force behind the Nazis’ persecution of Jews, but he’s confident that it served an important role in shaping the Third Reich’s narrative and was used to advance the “final solution.”
After Hitler died, and the horrors of the Holocaust were exposed, Protocols and Goedsche’s rabbi’s speech waned in popularity. But they didn’t disappear. Today those texts are easily available online; there are thousands of references to them on Stormfront, which the Southern Poverty Law Center suggests might be the most popular white nationalist forum in the world. And in 2014 David Duke, one-time Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, appealed for help publishing his own illustrated version of Protocols.
Just as the contents of Protocols and Biarritz are alive today, so too are the methods that saw these theories reach their peak popularity in Nazi Germany. Goedsche’s words morphed from fantasy into evidence for a fringe theory, before being endorsed by powerful politicians. “There are similarities between this and what we see today,” says Brustein, referencing the “fake news” that starts on Facebook and ends in a world leader’s tweet. Levy, on the other hand, sees a key difference: “Unlike in years past, those who believe in things like the Protocols, and would like us to believe in them as well, cannot get to us uncontested,” he says. “So I sleep easy.”
Brustein is less optimistic. He’s concerned that today’s “alternative facts” might be taken even more seriously after they have undergone an “aging process,” just like Biarritz. So while fake news may be dangerous today, he says it’s nothing compared to what could happen once it becomes fake history.