This Weimar campaign poster (“The Wire Puller,” 1924) depicts an antisemitic caricature of a Jew with a manipulative personality, urging workers to vote for the Nationalist Party.

In 1919, Erich Ludendorff, one of Germany’s top military leaders, announced that Jews were one of several groups responsible for the nation’s defeat. By 1922, he was focusing almost entirely on Jews as “the enemy.” He wrote, “The supreme government of the Jewish people was working hand in hand with France and England. Perhaps it was leading them both.”1 As proof, he cited the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a document supposedly containing the minutes of a secret meeting of Jewish leaders—the so-called “Elders of Zion”—held at the turn of the twentieth century. At that supposed meeting, the “Elders” allegedly plotted to take over the world. 

In fact, the Protocols is a forgery; Russian secret police wrote it in the early 1900s to incite hatred against Jews. At the time, few people paid much attention to the document, but after World War I, it became a worldwide sensation. Many believed that the Protocols explained seemingly “inexplicable” events—the war, the economic crises that followed the war, the revolutions in Russia and central Europe, even epidemics. Myths regarding a “Jewish conspiracy” had been around for centuries, but the Protocols gave them new life, even after the document was exposed as a hoax in 1921. For many people, the war and the earthshaking events that followed it confirmed the Protocols’ authenticity, no matter what evidence was offered to the contrary. 

In August 1921, the Times of London showed how the authors of the Protocols had copied long passages from several fictional works to create the document. As a result of that exposé, the British company that originally published the English version of the Protocols refused to print or distribute additional copies, and some newspapers no longer gave the document publicity. But neither action damaged the popularity of the Protocols. In recent years, studies have shown that efforts to debunk a lie often leave people more convinced than ever that the lie is true.2

In every country, the Protocols attracted a following long after the Times exposé. A Japanese edition was published in 1924. The next year, an Arabic translation appeared. The patriarch of Jerusalem (the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Palestine) urged church members to buy the book. Henry Ford, the American automobile manufacturer, went even further. In 1920, he serialized the document in a weekly newspaper he owned and then published dozens of articles and books based on its contents. Although Ford later withdrew his support for the Protocols as part of the settlement of a lawsuit against him, the damage was done. Hundreds of antisemites in the United States continued to publish and distribute the document long after Ford stopped doing so.

In the 1920s, Germany’s 500,000 Jews accounted for less than 1% of the total population of about 61 million. Yet by focusing on Jews as “the enemy,” antisemites made it seem as if Jews were everywhere and were responsible for everything that went wrong in the nation. Ludendorff and others spread the lie that Jews were responsible for the "stab in the back” at the end of the war, the Treaty of Versailles, the Communist Party, and the founding of the Weimar Republic. Therefore, according to this view, the first step in “saving” Germany from a “Jewish conspiracy” must be the destruction of the Weimar Republic. A number of extremist groups hired thugs and organized private armies to kill supporters of the republic.3

The main target for many extremist groups was Germany’s foreign minister, Walter Rathenau, a wealthy Jewish businessman, writer, and thinker. During the war, he worked for the German War Ministry to ensure that the military had enough food and other resources. Without his efforts, Germany would probably have lost the war much sooner. Yet many Germans were outraged when he was appointed foreign minister in 1922. Never before had a Jew held such an important position in the German government. 

On the morning of June 24, 1922, Rathenau was murdered on his way to work. The two gunmen and their co-conspirators were military veterans who belonged to extreme nationalist groups. In July, the police finally closed in on them and killed one of the assassins; the other committed suicide. The government then brought the 13 surviving conspirators to trial. The men did not deny that they had murdered Rathenau but insisted that the killing was justified because they believed Rathenau was a so-called “Elder of Zion.”

Citations

  • 1 : Quoted in Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (London: Serif Books, 1967), 149.
  • 2 : Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions,” Political Behavior 32, no. 2 (June 2010): 303–30.
  • 3 : Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin, 2003), 150.
  • 4 : Nyhan and Refler, "'When Corrections Fail: The Persistence," 303–30.

    Connection Questions

    1. What claims about Jews did the Protocols of the Elders of Zion make? What accounted for the popularity of the Protocols, even after the document had been exposed as a lie and a forgery? 
    2. In recent years, studies have shown that efforts to debunk a lie often leave more people convinced of its truth.4 How difficult is it to “undo” a lie? Why do people sometimes find it easier to believe an outrageous lie than a simple truth?
    3. A conspiracy theory is the belief that a group is secretly responsible for a circumstance or event. In what ways is the Protocols a conspiracy theory? Why might conspiracy theories be hard to refute? 
    4. Which do you think is more significant: (a) that Walter Rathenau, a Jew, was appointed to a high-ranking position in Germany’s government, or (b) that Rathenau was murdered after he achieved this position? What do these two facts tell us about the position of Jews in the Weimar Republic?

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