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ERC Securing Europe, Fighting its enemies, 1815-1914


The Lure of the Conspiracy: From the Russian Okhrana to Erdoğan’s Rhetoric

‘Whenever one group of people is taught to hate another, a lie is created to inflame the hatred and justify a plot,’ reads the opening to Will Eisner’s graphic novel The Plot (2005). The lure of the conspiracy, in other words, is employed to bring groups of people together to act against others. Eisner depicts the antisemitic conspiracy thinking that underlay the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Drawing from two decades of personal research, Eisner illustrates how the Paris department of the Russian secret service masterminded this plot and first published it in 1905. Even though The Times exposed it as a fake in 1921, the forged documents continued to be used as ‘proof’ of a Jewish conspiracy geared at world domination. A pageant of historical figures, from Tsar Nicholas II to Adolf Hitler, took recourse to the forgery. A recent Egyptian blockbuster demonstrates that the Protocols still feed the imagination, indicated as well, in a completely different manner, by the late Umberto Eco’s dazzling The Prague Cemetery.

The Russian Okhrana and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion
The Protocols of Zion. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Protocols of Zion. Source: Wikimedia Commons

As Eisner describes, the Russian Okhrana used contemporary novels in its creation of the Protocols, most notably Maurice Joly’s 1864 political satire Dialogues in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu. The Okhrana’s Parisian office, under command of Pyotr Rachkovsky, created the forgery out of fear that the Tsar would be influenced too much by his advisor, the liberal modernist Sergei Witte. The mistrusting Rachkovsky argued that modernisation would ignite revolts, and started thinking about plans to stop Witte. ‘What if there appeared a document proving that modernisation was a part of a Jewish plot?’, he wondered. Such a plot, Rachovsky thought, would provide ‘absolute evidence of a threat the Tsar could not ignore’.

Within the Okhrana, such practices to alter the truth in favour of its (political) interests were characteristic of propaganda divisions and penetration operations. The Parisian office was specialised in operations and detective work aimed at terminating (Russian) revolutionary movements as well as provoking plots to influence (international) politics. Rachkovsky himself masterminded and orchestrated the most illuminous plans to reach both goals at the same time.

How the Okhrana paved the way for the Dual Alliance

During the late 1880s, Rachkovsky put in much behind-the-scenes effort to stimulate a Franco-Russian alliance in reaction to the Triple Alliance. Franco-Russian cooperation seemed impossible as long as France was giving political asylum to revolutionary enemies of the Tsar. Therefore, the Russian Regime had to be convinced of the French Sûreté’s willingness to crack down on revolutionaries. Rachkovsky thus wanted to bring the Sûreté in a position where it would have to act. Only then an alliance would become a possibility, he figured. Therefore, in 1890, together with his most priced agent provocateur Landesen, Rachkovsky plotted a ‘scheme’ for the assassination of Tsar Alexander III.

10W Photo 2

Pyotr Rachkovsky. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The two agents gathered about twenty-five actual and eager revolutionaries in a retreat near Paris to construct bombs. After enough explosives had been produced and all men were ready to use them in Russia, the weapons would be distributed and all conspirators received written instructions on their roles. While readied for departure and waiting for Landesen to show up, the Sûreté arrested the group after a tip off from Rachkovsky. The provocation was successfully turned into a high-profile news event: the revolutionaries were imprisoned or expelled, the trial alerted the French public of the terrorist dangers and the Sûreté got credit for rounding up subversives.

Most importantly, the relation between the Russian regime and French government received a boost. ‘At last! So France has a government at last!’, the Tsar supposedly exclaimed when he was informed of the demolition of the revolutionary plot. Negotiations between both countries started shortly after and resulted in the political and military Dual Franco-Russian Alliance. What had started as a shared plan of two secret agents, ended in the formation of a political bloc. A secret service had created a lie and thereby instigated a plot that helped alter international relations, very much like in Eisner’s opening lines. The security services and governments involved bought into the ‘urgent threat’ of revolutionary agitation and adopted comparable anti-revolutionary outlooks on the basis of pure provocations.

Conspiracies and Interests

In our day and age, conspiracies still permeate politics of dichotomization. Turkish President Recep T. Erdoğan, for example, has mastered the lure of conspiracies to serve his own interests. After a terrorist attack killed over a hundred people in Ankara on 11 October 2015, he quickly accused the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and Syrian Kurds. After ISIS actually claimed to be behind the attack, Erdoğan again argued that the Kurds had to be involved as well. Another attack in Ankara in which a car bomb killed 28 people on 17 February last, was followed by the President’s accusation of the US-supported Syrian Kurdish People’s Defence Units (YPG) supposedly aided by the PKK. Erdoğan’s blaming of the Kurds served several political ends. The conspiracy rhetoric contained a clear message to the United States and Russia, who both ally with YPG against ISIS and refuse to consider it a terrorist organisation. Furthermore, the conspirational framing serves as a legitimization of the Turkish military’s oppression of Syrian Kurds. On the level of international diplomacy, the conspiracy backs official attempts to exclude the YPG’s political arm from the Syrian peace negotiations in Geneva. ‘Just as al-Qaida or [ISIS] do not have seats at the table, the YPG (…) cannot have one,’ Turkish Prime Minister Davutoğlu has argued.

The Turkish government’s reactions to the recent attacks indicates how certain events, within hours after transpiring, are framed in ways that suit official (international) interests. The conspiracy is so alluring because it functions as a clarification of past events that otherwise can hardly be explained. For all their artificiality, conspiracies are also physically reflected in the world that surrounds us. Nowadays you can cross the Seine in downtown Paris on the Pont Alexandre-III, a bridge created to honour the Dual pact. When you traverse the waters below, you should perhaps remember Rachkovsky, remember the intrigues that preceded this monumental bridge, and, shifting your thoughts, ponder how the powerful can alter the truth through conspirational plots that serve specific interests.

Pont Alexandre III in Paris. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pont Alexandre III in Paris. Source: Wikimedia Commons