Warrant for Genocide.
by Norman Cohn.
Harper & Row. 296 pp. $6.95.

The myth of the Jewish world conspiracy is not an exhilarating topic of research; prolonged exposure to the kind of literature that has grown up around it can engender bad dreams and mild hallucinations. There is some occasional relief, but usually of the black humor variety.

I first met Norman Cohn in the cellars of the Wiener Library in London, and after many long days and some particularly depressing research in the Revue des Societés sécretes we exchanged anecdotes about the Chief Rabbis of Koenigsberg and Liegnitz who, according to one writer of the 1880’s, were really field marshals in disguise in charge of Jewish army corps about to attack Russia. Or about the assertion in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion that the subways of modern cities had been constructed to make it possible for the Jews one day to blow the Gentile capitals sky high.

Norman Cohn’s fascinating work deals with a myth so remote from all reality that there is a strong temptation to dismiss it as a madman’s phantasmagoria and therefore of no political consequence. Nor is it widely known today: it is, the author says, a rare thing to meet someone under forty who has even heard of the strange world of the Elders of Zion. But not so very long ago the Protocols, the chef d’oeuvre of this myth, was the most widely-read book in the world after the Bible. And not all those who believed in it were madmen and fanatics. It was for a while very much part of the Zeitgeist of the period immediately after World War I—as a scrutiny of Winston Churchill’s speeches or John Buchan’s novels (to give but two illustrations) will amply show. It is a mistake to assume that the only writers who matter are those whom the educated in their saner moments can take seriously. As the author says, “There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious.” In certain historical situations such an underworld captivates millions of otherwise sane people, becomes a political force, and changes the course of history.

What Cohn shows in this absorbing study is that the most deadly form of anti-Semitism, that which aims at and results in genocide, has little to do with real conflicts between living people or even with racial prejudice as such (“traditional anti-Semitism”); it is a secularized version of the medieval belief that the Jews are in league with the devil, and that all Jews form a conspiratorial body bent on ruining and dominating the rest of mankind.

In its modern form this conspiracy theory of history was first propounded in the multi-volume work of the Abbé Barruel on the French Revolution; he argued that Jacobinism was a conspiracy of secret societies, some of them dating back to the 14th century. Essentially, this was an attack on the Freemasons and the Illuminati, a small contemporary German sect. Only subsequently did the Jews become part of this amalgam, the charge being that they had benefited from the revolution but had not participated in its preparation.

Barruel’s pioneering study triggered an entire literature along the same lines in many lands—particularly in France, but also, not insignificantly, in Germany and Russia. Gougenot des Moussaux and Meurin, Goedsche and Osman Bey, Lutostansky and Brafman—these writers have faded into obscurity, but it was their historical role to give birth to the most famous forgery of all, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The earliest version of the Protocols was published in St. Petersburg in 1903 in an anti-Semitic newspaper; it went through several editions, but by and large it was ignored until 1918-19, when it was exported first to Germany and then to the rest of the world.

The document consists of twenty-four lectures said to have been delivered at a secret meeting of the leaders of world Jewry (there are conflicting versions as to how these secret plans to dominate the world came into the hands of the anti-Semites who published it). These are presented as a blueprint worked out by the leaders of the Jewish people during the centuries of its dispersion and submitted to the Council of Elders by Theodor Herzl at the time of the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897. (Other versions attribute it to Ahad Ha’am, still others to the anti-Zionist Alliance Israélite.) All versions agree, however, on certain central points: that only the rule of a despot can ensure order in society; that might is right; that it is gold which governs human society; that only the “Elders of Zion” are qualified to rule the world. To achieve these aims, discontent and unrest are to be fostered everywhere. Liberal ideas are to be propagated, the aristocracy destroyed, industry is to be concentrated in giant monopolies. Frequent wars are to be fomented, leading to permanent economic chaos. Atheism, luxury, depravity, are to be encouraged and religious faith undermined—all of this in order gradually to turn the Gentiles into unthinking, submissive beasts. If these stratagems should not avail, if the whole of Europe should unite against the Jews, the “Elders” could still call on America, China, and Japan to realize their ambitions. The peoples of Europe could be infected with horrible diseases and, as a last resort, the subway stations of the world capitals could be blown up. Lastly, the Protocols describe the coming messianic age in which Judaism will rule the whole world. (Though I cannot present these blueprints in more detail here, it should be noted in passing that they bear some resemblance to Hitler’s ideas about the future ideal society—as developed in his Table Talk—and to a lesser extent, to other forms of 20th-century totalitarian rule.)



The real origins of the Protocols have been the subject of much conjecture; Mr. Cohn, having gone over the whole ground, reaches the conclusion that they were fabricated in France around 1895 by a group of Tsarist secret police officers on the basis of Maurice Joly’s pamphlet against Napoleon III and certain other sources. This much has been broadly known since 1921, when the London Times (after initially accepting the Protocols at face value) realized the document was a forgery. Norman Cohn shows that the truth is probably more complex than was originally thought and that the Protocols was not simply an attempt to attack Jews and “revolutionaries.” Internal dissension and rivalries within the Tsarist government and even within the Okhrana, its secret police, may have played a role. There was also apparently an attempt to denigrate Witte, then a rising force in Russian politics and the representative of “industrial capitalism.” However, the search for the real authors and their intentions is of less importance than the question, what made millions believe them?

The great success of the Protocols must be seen against the background of the war of 1914-18 and its aftermath. To most people the war had come as a bolt from the blue; the vast slaughter, the unprecedented material destruction, were utterly senseless. Millions found themselves adrift in a world which no longer seemed to have any certainties. A scapegoat—some sort of hidden explanation—had to be found for the suffering and the disorder. Was it not suspicious that Jews suddenly appeared in prominent positions all over Russia and Germany? The conspiracy theory of history has at all times found fervent believers, especially, of course, in times of crisis, and it did so very readily in the disturbed Europe of the 1920’s and 30’s. In Germany, Russian emigres acquainted the leadership of the young Nazi party with the contents of the Protocols, which of course confirmed all of Hitler’s feelings about the Jews, dating from his days in Vienna. In America, Henry Ford (among others) helped to popularize the document. But it was no longer the traditional anti-Semitism that was involved: as pictured in the Protocols, the Jews were not merely objects of contempt, agents of social decomposition. They now appeared as a world danger, made more powerful by their international connections, and aiming to establish their rule everywhere. Hence it was not enough to exclude them from public life—they had to be utterly destroyed. The Protocols were not like those old-fashioned anti-Semitic pamphlets which called for limiting Jewish influence in one field or another; they were an appeal for a radical final solution, a “warrant for genocide.” They became part and parcel of Nazi doctrine and of the ideology of other Fascist movements. Indeed, they are still sold (and presumably read) in some of the darker recesses of the European capitals and in the United States, and they have gained some currency in recent years in such countries as Mexico and Egypt. Not long ago, in fact, a new edition was published in Pakistan.



The main part of Professor Cohn’s book is an attempt to trace the origins of the myth of the Jewish world conspiracy over the last hundred and fifty years. In the final section—the most important but also the most debatable—he attempts to analyze its deeper psychological roots. To the anti-Semite, Cohn says, the figure of the Jew has a dual symbolism; he is, first of all, the “bad son”—because of his rebellion against the Church—and, secondly, the “bad father.” Out of his own destructive impulses and deep-seated sense of guilt, the fanatical anti-Semite creates a father figure of monstrous cruelty, projecting onto the bad father all his own forbidden impulses. In Freud’s view, the oldest and deadliest charge against the Jews—the charge of deicide—had only one meaning—parricide. For Cohn, however, the second part of this hypothesis—the Jew as “bad father” in the psychic drama of the anti-Semite—is even more important. Does not the very title of the Protocols signify that they are father figures—fantasied as drawing off the lifeblood of nations, driving them to torment and death? Were not the Orthodox Jews of Eastern Europe, with their strange attire and long beards, treated with particular cruelty by the Nazis? The deepest fear of the anti-Semite is that the Jews are poisoners or themselves constitute a sort of poison.

In Cohn’s rendition, the myth of the Jewish world conspiracy thus answers certain deep emotional needs of those who harbor an abnormal degree of fear and hatred of the parental figure. In clinical terms it could be defined as a paranoiac form of schizophrenia, a condition of unrestricted aggressive destructiveness under the spell of delusion. Though the individuals within any group of fanatical anti-Semites may well exist within the general bounds of reality—“Most of them are not even fanatics and the fanatics are far from mad—yet it is perfectly true that the group as a whole behaves like a paranoiac in the grip of his delusion.”

These arguments are interesting and often highly suggestive, and some of them certainly ought to be pursued further. But sooner or later the student of anti-Semitism is likely to raise a number of objections—some of them methodological, others concerning the very substance of the argument. Professor Cohn is occasionally inclined to deal with anti-Semitism and the conspiracy myth as one complex. But before the 19th century the two were by no means identical, and in the contemporary world there are several conspiratorial delusions to be found in different areas of the political spectrum that have nothing to do with the Jews. Anti-Semitism before the 19th century can certainly not be explained as a paranoiac form of schizophrenia; in the ancient world, for instance, it differed little from other forms of xenophobia.

During the last fifty years psychoanalysis has had an enormous impact on the arts, on literature, on some of the social sciences, and, of course, on medical psychology. But the attempts it has stimulated to explain social movements and trends, and even historical personalities, have had meager results—and not for want of trying. Even the few notable exceptions usually mentioned in this context have not exactly revolutionized our understanding of historical processes. The analytical examination of an individual is a long, drawn-out, and difficult process, not always successful even with abundant clinical material at the disposal of the analyst. Is it possible, then, to draw any real benefit from the analysis of groups of people distant in time and place? Though the practitioner trained in psychoanalytic techniques can no doubt identify syndromes that may escape those not steeped in the teaching of Freud and his successors, these insights have been, at best, useful tools in the historian’s hand; they do not by themselves constitute a new historical approach.

Of the questions that will continue to bother the student of history after reading Professor Cohn, I want to single out two. The first concerns his concept of the splitting of the father image into a “good” and a “bad” father, and the consequent transformation of the Jews into “bad fathers,” “castrating, torturing, cannibalistic, all-powerful, beside whom even the harshest real parents appear powerless.” A father figure implies a close relationship and a position of authority vis-à-vis the child, as well as the ability to inflict punishment. But does this apply to the medieval Jew, living in a ghetto, remote from all but a few Christians, distrusted and despised? A Rothschild could be transformed without undue difficulty into an all-powerful being, but as far as the medieval Jew is concerned, the distance between reality and fantasy seems too great. Even the weakest father is big and strong in the eyes of a small child, while the Jews were few and powerless. Hence the “bad father” label seems oddly inappropriate to the Jews. But even if it fit better, would it prove anything except that anti-Semitism can be expressed in the concepts and language of psychoanalysis? This may be a matter of satisfaction to analysts, but what help is it to the historian whose task it is to try and understand why a certain group of people behaved in one way, and not another, at a given time and place? The concept of unconscious negative projection may well represent a certain reality; but how are we to explain the fact that the same mechanism did not have similar results for the Jews elsewhere in other times, or that other minorities have fared so differently in history?

Which brings up another weakness in Professor Cohn’s argument. The insights of psychoanalysis are not restricted to specific cultures, eras, and societies. If Freud’s theory of repression is tenable, Malinowski argued, it should be borne out by research among the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands. If the Oedipus complex is a reality, its absence among some matrilineal societies of New Guinea could be adduced as proof. But anti-Semitism is found only in Christian civilization and in the Christian tradition, and even there with great variations in intensity; there is no phenomenon similar to late 19th- and 20th-century anti-Semitism in other civilizations and societies. How are we to explain this on the basis of psychoanalysis alone, without calling into question the whole issue of sexual and aggressive instincts, their transformation into character traits and cultural directives, which, after all, are central pillars of orthodox psychoanalysis? Traditional anti-Semitism was usually (but not always) concerned with the place and the function of Jews in society. Early writers on anti-Semitism, like Bernard Lazare, thought that with social change, anti-Semitism would disappear and with it probably also the Jews. Norman Cohn rightly says that there is also an anti-Semitism which exists almost regardless of the situation of Jews in society. But there is a relationship between these two forms of anti-Semitism; perhaps one ought to find out more about how and in what circumstances the one turns into the other, before trying to establish the general laws of anti-Semitism.

That the murder of six million Jews should have given a tremendous impetus to the study of anti-Semitism in our time needs no explanation. The memory of the holocaust is still fresh; it is easier now to understand what happened in Europe than it will be for future generations, but whether today’s perspective helps to understand earlier forms of anti-Semitism is far less certain. It is a matter of interest and regret how few non-Jews have given attention to the history and the sources of anti-Semitism. Much of Jewish writing on the subject is apologetic, not scientific, in character; there is a tendency to regard all and any criticism of individual Jews and of Jews as a collective as anti-Semitic in character, and to reject it a priori. This tendency is only natural in the light of recent history, but it is not the best guide to an understanding of the sources of anti-Semitism throughout the ages. Sometimes one feels that the writings of the early Zionist ideologists (Pinsker, for instance) are undeservedly ignored. They were unsophisticated by the standards of modern social psychology, but whether our present-day body of knowledge is really that much more impressive, is a moot point.

The study of anti-Semitism—as of human nature in general—is an uphill struggle, and there is no reason to assume that there will ever be a clear, unequivocal, and universally valid answer. As Lewis Namier wrote on the subject: “Understand and explain the problem as much as you may, there remains a hard, insoluble core, incomprehensible and inexplicable.” And Namier was second to none in his enthusiasm for the application of psychoanalytical insight to history.



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