Eisner puts straight an anti-semitic slander
The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of ZionBy Will Eisner
Introduction by Umberto Eco
W. W. Norton & Co., USD 19.95
I would wager that few Eye readers have read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a 1905 manuscript falsely outlining the Zionist conspiracy to dominate the world. Written by Mathieu Golovinski, an opportunistic Czarist functionary exiled in Paris, it was conceived by conservative elements within the Russian government to discredit liberal Jews who represented a modernist movement in their society. Fraudulently assuming the voice of rapacious Jewish leaders, it became one of the most infamous anti-Semitic documents ever published. Although it is widely recognised not only as fake but as having been slavishly plagiarised from the 1864 book The Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu by Maurice Joly, and a 1868 novel Biarritz by Hermann Goedsche (about how the twelve tribes of Israel plotted to conquer the world), it has been the cornerstone of anti-Semitic policies, including Adolf Hitler’s.
I first learned about The Protocols when as a teenager I read that in the 1920s Henry Ford published Protocol instalments, called The International Jew, in his newspaper The Dearborn Independent, despite knowing that the original document was untrue. Ford never hid his deep prejudices against Jews or high admiration for Hitler.
Will Eisner, who revolutionised comics in the 1940s with his anti-superhero The Spirit and in the 1970s helped to popularise the graphic novel, had grown up in a Depression-era Jewish family that experienced American anti-Semitism. Like most Jews, he heard about The Protocols but never actually read a copy. Yet a few years before he died (in January 2005 at the age of 87) he found an English edition and learned that it was also being netcast in Arabic by Radio Islam. Eisner was so appalled that he began to research a graphic history about The Protocols with the hope of exposing the slander once and for all. Published a few months after his death, The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was his last major graphic work. Given its gravity, regrettably it is not his finest.
Eisner’s The Plot is ostensibly a ‘Protocols For Beginners’, an illustrated summary of the document’s origins that dramatically begins with the suicide of Joly, who originally published The Dialogue in Hell as an attack on the reign of French dictator Napoleon III (Charles Louis Napoleon) and an examination of how Dialogue was the precursor for The Protocols. The narrative then addresses the travails of the Russian Czar as he attempts to modernise Russia while some of his aides conspire to derail these plans by manufacturing a falsehood that Jews were behind Modernism for their own greedy ends. A section is devoted to Golovinski, originally hired by the Czar’s secret police to write false documents maligning enemies of the regime; he ultimately pieces The Protocols together from Joly’s Dialogue. Eisner then concisely addresses the document’s consequences, and flows into how quickly some major newspapers both reported its truthfulness and how some ultimately repudiated it as well.
Eisner’s main thrust is not this historical summary, which seems rather simplistic in places, but a comparison of Joly’s and Golovinski’s manuscripts, excerpts of which he publishes side by side. For those like me who have never read the document, these excerpts are the high point of The Plot. Sadly, the more tedious aspect of the book is what follows. After Eisner lays out all the conclusive evidence concerning The Protocols’ fabrication, he shows how time and time again they are taken seriously. With dozens of editions published throughout the world, some as recently as 2003, Eisner laments that the lie never seems to die. (In fact, peppered through the visual narrative are actual covers of many international editions.) The problem here is not Eisner’s polemical stance, but his ham-fisted, curiously naive methodology. He is so breathlessly dumbfounded that The Protocols have any credibility whatsoever that his frustration turns into flawed exposition. Towards the end of the book he includes himself as a leader of his own personal crusade, and in one section he confronts members of the Christian Defense League protesting against Jews in San Diego while distributing Henry Ford’s The International Jew. He depicts himself as so frustrated by their ignorance that he screams ‘the book is a fake’. The demonstrators call him a ‘promoter of Jews’ and march away. Eisner’s frustration and anger never evolves into anything more dramatic or profound than this shrill scream.
Moreover, although he is master of pen and ink, Eisner rendered this book predominantly in grey watercolour tones, which diminishes its overall graphic strength. His characterisations of Golovinski and even the demonstrators mentioned above come off as unnecessarily gross stereotypes. Overly exaggerated facial expressions and contorted body language are paradoxically more in keeping with the tone of the original Protocols than a book that intends to expose such venal caricature.
Nonetheless, that Eisner attacked this subject at all must be roundly applauded. He is right to be angered by anti-Semitism and the fact that The Protocols continue to perpetrate and enflame hatred. In The Plot’s penultimate scene a character asks Eisner: ‘We can finally say that this is the end of The Protocols of Zion, eh?’ He answers with a jubilant ‘finally, finally!!’ Ironically, ham-fistedly, yet perhaps honestly, the last image in the book shows a bomb exploding in a synagogue. The success and failure of this book is that Eisner’s moral is all too clear.