The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
Will Eisner, writer/artist
W.W. Norton, 2005
160 pages, hardcover
Originally written on February 20th, 2005 for publication by The Comics Journal
This is a sad book. Sad not simply for the passing of its author mere months before its publication, nor for the tragic legacy of hatred it depicts, but rather for the confluence of the two: One of the greatest cartoonists in history felt compelled by circumstance to spend the last years of his long and illustrious life chronicling, in The Plot and its revisionist-Dickensian predecessor Fagin the Jew, vicious calumnies against his ethnicity and religion, slanders and lies that by now should have been exposed, renounced and ridiculed out of public discourse for good.
But we’re meeting the new boss now, and he looks familiar. When an English prince feels perfectly comfortable attending a costume party in Nazi drag (and moreover when none of his friends appear to find this objectionable); when the nomenclature of Hitlerism is routinely, provocatively, deliberately (and often exclusively) applied to the descendents of its victims (as when paleocon talking head Pat Buchanan used a thinly veiled Anglicization of “ein volk, ein reich, ein Fuhrer” to lay the blame for the second Iraq war on “Israel, Sharon, Likud”; to say nothing of “Zionazi” and “Jeningrad”); when the progressive magazine AdBusters points out the Jews in a list of influential neoconservatives (they were denoted with dots rather than tiny Stars of David; thank heaven for small favors); when former CIA agent Michael Scheuer, author of the well-received anti-administration tome Imperial Hubris alleges that Americans’ support for Israel is the result of “probably the most successful covert action program in the history of man,” and suggests that the Holocaust Museum is being used to guilt the United States into support for the Jewish state as part of this program; when the state-run media and state-approved clerics of American “allies” from Egypt to Saudi Arabia routinely recycle the hoariest blood-libel horror stories; when the University of Bielefeld polls Germans to find that over 60% of them are “sick of” hearing about the Holocaust–one can understand Eisner’s preoccupation.
For as The Plot demonstrates, anti-Semitism rarely shows its face without hiding behind a nominally political mask. The real and (far more often) imagined crimes of the neocons or Israel are simply the latest societal safety valve for Jew-hatred: the White Russians saw Jews behind the Bolsheviks, the Communists saw Jews behind the capitalists, the capitalists saw Jews behind the Communists, the fascists saw Jews behind Versailles, the Klan saw Jews behind the blacks, and on and on and on. The irrational belief in the nigh-mystically conspiratorial character of Jews throughout history–a belief that found its most infamous articulation in the fraudulent handbook of Jewish world domination, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion–is always finding new venues for expression. That legitimate criticism of, say, Israeli intransigence or neocon utopianism and overreach gets caught and drowned in its undertow is simply another of its disastrous consequences.
The fungible nature of the Jewish Conspiracy’s particulars is shown from the start by Eisner, who spends a sizeable portion of the book detailing the origins of The Protocols in an anti-Napoleon III tract by writer Maurice Joly. Joly is depicted as a three-time loser, constantly in trouble with the French authorities and all the more assured of his words’ power because of it. In an effort to cloak his criticism of the Emperor, he took what he believed to be Napoleon III’s cynical, might-makes-right viewpoints into the mouth of Machiavelli and published them in a book entitled The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu. It’s a rather gross misreading of Old Nick (one of the few political philosophers in history worth a damn), and it certainly doesn’t fool the government, which imprisons him. His trial contains one of the finer images in the book: Joly, eyes aflame with righteousness, refusing to admit the book is an attack on the Emperor. It’s a more effective image by far than the one on the subsequent page, where in Eisner’s trademark pantomime style Joly proclaims, one hand on heart and the other aloft, “IF THE READER SEES A RELATIONSHIP TO THE INFAMY OF THE EMPEROR, AM I TO BLAME?” At moments like these the deadpan clarity of another major recent graphic novel about a bearded radical, Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, might have been helpful.
This same critique applies to the writing. Eisner is admittedly crafting a polemic here, and as such is largely unconcerned with a “realistic” portrayal of the conversations that led to the story’s key events. But this can play havoc believability, even ones in which Eisner himself plays a role. Is his 2001 argument with a group of anti-Jew student radicals autobiographical or fictional? Their strangely Edward G. Robinson-esque dialogue (“There’s a Jew in every major government post of the Western world, see?” “Yeah, their plan is laid out in the “Protocols,” see?), and their open and transparent lambasting of “the Jews” (as opposed “Zionists” or “Likudniks” or “neocons,” far less problematic for P.R.) makes this unclear. There are a few footnotes to clear up some questions about the historical accuracy of the story’s events, but we’re not in From Hell or Louis Riel territory here. And obvious fudges, such as the cop who says he arrested Joly on almost a half-dozen occasions, needlessly obscure the fundamental truth of the book.
But Eisner’s penchant for broad caricature isn’t always a drawback. Rarely if ever has his gift for drawing shlubby schemers has been so deftly applied as it is here, where an almost never-ending succession of shlubby schemers create and perpetuate the Protocols fraud, first by plagiarizing Joly’s Dialogue, then by passing it off as an authentic minutes of a meeting of world Jewry and introducing it into the halls of power. These are shitty little men, who spend their shitty little lives in the service of shitty little rulers and ideologies, and who almost in spite of themselves created a fraud that outlived them and their overlords, a fraud whose destructive power is tragically ironic considering the pettiness of its origins.
The ability of central forger Mathieu Golovinski to disregard the truth in the service of his latest boss, whoever that might be, would be hilarious if it weren’t so nauseating. Eisner depicts him as being passed almost literally from hand to hand by a string of tsarist apparatchiks as Golovinski and his appointed quest to pin the problems of Russia on the Jews falls in and out of favor; it’s a clever conceit that suggests the mutable relationship to truth and loyalty ascribed by The Protocols to the Jews was in fact far more applicable to their enemies. In the end, Eisner reveals, this son of disgraced aristocrats, who created The Protocols in order to dissuade the tsar from liberalizing and had them published through a White Russian court mystic, wound up working for Trotsky. White may turn Red, but Jew-hatred is forever.
The rest of the book follows the journey of The Protocols around the world, from movement to movement, ever ready to adapt itself to a new political viewpoint. This despite being exposed as a transparent forgery as early as 1921. This event is detailed in the book’s central and critical passage, where a reporter from The Times of London (the spitting image of Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes, Eisner’s caricature is just a bit too on the nose) receives a side-by-side comparison of Joly’s original and Golovinski’s forgery from a Russian refugee. Eisner reprints long passages of text to demonstrate just how clear the plagiarism is, and the pages eschew all but the barest of cartooning in favor of getting the point across. Indeed, at the bottom of one page, the refugee asks the reporter incredulously, “Do you mean to go through all the 23 protocols, Graves?” It’s overkill, reminiscent of playing a first-person shooter and using the biggest gun in your arsenal to shoot an adversary you could just as easily knock out with a slingshot–but that’s Eisner’s mission. He wants to destroy this thing. And since he kicks off the passage with an article expressing belief in The Protocols written by no less a personage than Winston Churchill, we afford him that indulgence.
And from the moment the Times debunks it right up until the present-day Russian government certifies its fraudulence, character after character asserts optimistically that The Protocols have been destroyed. But time after time news of its demise is greatly exaggerated. What might be the book’s most devastating use of sequential art has almost nothing to do with Eisner himself–it’s the appearance, on page after page, of the covers of the latest translations and publications of The Protocols–from Russia, Germany, France, Brazil, Poland, Argentina, Egypt, England, Japan, Syria, Russia again, depicting Jews as spiders, snakes, octopi, faceless hordes, bloody-handed manipulators, partners with Death, Satan himself. In seeming response, when Eisner himself enters the story, we hardly see his face. With his hat pulled low and his back to the reader, he’s a man whose personal identity is being lost in the stream of historical hatred. When he confronts members of “an ethnic student association” (it’s to his credit that he refused to single out the ethnicity in question) who are handing out copies of The Protocols, he’s left standing in a literal fog, shoulders slumped, unable to penetrate their assertion that The Protocols, whatever their provenance, do indeed reflect the nature of the Jew. (“Fake but accurate,” some might call them.) It’s a mirroring of the image that opens the book: Maurice Joly, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, face down on his desk, gunsmoke rising into the air, a black background providing no anchor for the image and leaving Joly afloat. It’s a comparison present in the writing as well, wherein Eisner expresses nearly as much certainty as Joly regarding the power of his book; of course, Eisner is self-aware enough to undercut this certainty not just with the litany of anti-Semitic attacks that closes the book, but by constructing these parallels between himself and Joly in the first place.
Eisner’s faith in comics was nearly religious itself. He died optimistic that his final graphic novel would “drive yet another nail into the coffin” of his subject. And yet, in the face of this many-headed monster, even an eternal optimist like Eisner blinked. This is a sad book.