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Conspiracy Theory Book of the Month #5: Secret Societies and Subversive Movements

Webster’s 1924 book like the Protocols of Zion quickly became a core text of antisemitic conspiracism

(Illustration: CW)

While the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is one of the most influential and reprinted books in the history of 20th century conspiracy theories, its initial release went almost completely unnoticed. Plagiarized by an unknown author or authors from a variety of sources, the fiercely antisemitic document was first published in Russian in an ultranationalist newspaper in 1903. The Russian text found its way to the United States and Europe after the First World War, and was published in English in 1920.

But those early printings weren’t a word-for-word translation of its prose, which is ungainly and not especially compelling. Instead, cranks and fascist ideologues used it as the jumping off point for their own theories about Jewish control of banking and politics. The best known and most impactful in the US was Henry Ford’s newspaper The Dearborn Independent, which liberally quoted from the Protocols in its 91-part series of articles The International Jew in the early 1920’s, giving the text huge exposure and eventually earning Ford fans in the growing Nazi Party.

Across the Atlantic, British authors were also using excerpts and quotes from the document – which had already been debunked as a forgery – to tell their own story about the encroaching danger of Jewish power. One in particular, written by a novelist-turned-fascist, would have a huge impact on how the west would see both the Protocols in particular and Jews in general.

In writing a series of articles called The Jewish Peril, British socialite Nesta Helen Webster leapt from a middling hobby as a romance novelist to becoming one of the most important and prolific voices in the British fascist movement of the interwar years. Webster took the vague proclamations and conspiracy theories of the Protocols and adapted them into a durable story that struck a chord among right-wingers afraid of what they saw as Great Britain being led into another “Jewish” war against Germany.

Webster’s 1924 book Secret Societies and Subversive Movements made the Protocols so popular that both texts became cemented in 20th century lore as among the pillars of antisemitism and conspiracy theorizing. A century later, they both remain there, cited by generations of cranks and public pseudo-intellectuals who repackage the theories already reassembled in Secret Societies for their own ends – and the detriment of everyone else.

The Fascist Socialite

Born in 1876 and having spent much of her early life traveling, Webster’s early novels displayed both a feminist streak and an almost obsessive view of the French Revolution not as something that came out of desperation for change, but out of a grand design by sinister forces to drive free people toward slavery. Her role as she saw it was to educate the masses on the “real” history and the sinister forces manipulating world events for their own ends.

Those “sinister forces” would quickly be revealed as the same ones driving virtually every other “secret history” of world events – powerful Jewish bankers. In 1920, Webster began writing a series of articles called The Jewish Peril for the conservative-leaning daily paper the London Post, which took aspects of the Protocols and rewrote them based around Webster’s extant theories about the French Revolution and the peril of communism. A year later, she published much of her “research” as World Revolution: The Plot Against Civilization, which included the Protocols as part of a vast conspiracy theory by the Illuminati to impose socialism on the slumbering masses.

But it was 1924’s Secret Societies and Subversive Movements that put Webster at the very top of the growing group of ardently pro-fascist, anti-communist, deeply antisemitic and conspiratorial writers working in the UK and the US to stop what they feared was a looming Bolshevik takeover of the world.

Here again Webster initially focuses on the French Revolution, writing in the book’s preface that she intends to “trace its origins from the first century of the Christian era,” this time through the supposed links between Freemasonry, the Illuminati, the occult, and numerous hidden forces manipulating world events. Like many other authors of the genre, Webster disclaims any link to antisemitism, writing that she will “indicate the role of the Jews only where it is clearly detected.”

And like many authors of the genre, this attempt to provide cover through conspiracy theories about just “some Jews” not “the Jews” completely fails. In Webster’s vast “onslaught not only on Christianity but on all social and moral order,” the Jews play a critical role – one they wrote down themselves in their Protocols, which she liberally quotes from. Webster views Jews as having essentially created antisemitism, have carried out a “campaign of vilification” against Jesus, and created the Illuminati in 1776 as a perfect vessel with which to carry out their generations of sorcery and secrecy. Ultimately, the century after the French Revolution saw Freemasonry, under the control of powerful Jewish interests, spread to virtually every nation of the world. Its influence could be found in almost every recent religious movement, professional society, nationalist revival, and most especially in the specter of socialism.

Finally, Webster abandons any pretense of opposing antisemitism, and the last chapter of her book circles back to her earlier laundering of the Protocols. Reusing the title “The Jewish Peril” to end the book, she calls “the Jewish Power” “the most important problem with which the world is confronted” and writes at length on the danger of unchecked Jewish power and the need for people to understand the danger of secrecy and sorcery on the future of the west. And it was a future that was looking grimmer by the day as another war with Germany loomed.

Future Revolutions

Written during a time of massive upheaval in England after the Great War, Secret Societies was a great success, and was reprinted several times within a few years. Webster herself would continue at a prolific clip, writing several more books on her purported “world revolution” and extolling the virtues of fascism as the only antidote to socialism. But as it became apparent that armed confrontation with Hitler’s Germany was inevitable, her fortunes – and that of the entire British fascist movement – turned. Her last work in the genre was the little-read 1938 pamphlet Germany and England, where she claims that Jewish interests were driving a peaceful Nazi Germany to a war with England that “no people of any country wish for except Bolsheviks and Jews.”

While Webster herself faded into relative obscurity, her work didn’t. The idea of a vast socialist/Illuminati/Masonic/Jewish conspiracy driving the world toward global government and the destruction of Christianity was hugely appealing to a wide range of groups in the postwar scramble for power and influence. Her work on fascism became popular among British neo-Nazis, UFO groups, Catholic traditionalists, and the explicitly antisemitic Social Credit movement in Canada. The John Birch Society routinely recommended and sold Webster’s books, and Secret Societies became especially influential in the American patriot and militia movements, where Webster was seen as an early truth-teller exposing the machinations of the New World Order.

But Webster’s most infamous brush with modern fame came in 1991, when televangelist and 700 Club founder Pat Robertson was discovered to have liberally quoted from Secret Societies in his New York Times bestseller The New World Order. Citing Secret Societies and other classic conspiracy theorist books, Robertson lays out the “behind-the-scenes Establishment” plot to enslave the United States through “a one-world government where the control of money is in the hands of one or more privately owned, but government-chartered central banks.”

He quickly lands on the German-Jewish Rothschild family as the kingpins of this plot, claiming they “controlled” the Holy Roman Empire free city of Frankfurt, were charter members of the Bavarian Illuminati, and served as the bridge between occultism and Freemasonry. All of this was almost directly inspired by Nesta Webster’s work laundering the Protocols in her early 1920’s books, and in particular, the Judeo/Masonic conspiracy laid out in Secret Societies.

Ultimately, Robertson’s sourcing came to light and sparked a years-long controversy. When confronted by Jewish organizations and multiple media outlets as having used a deeply antisemitic book that in turn used the most antisemitic book in modern history as a primary source, Robertson eventually issued a statement. He claimed he wrote the book as a warning of the United Nations intending to “make Israel its next target,” and that any references to “international bankers” and Jewish families like the Rothschilds controlling central banking were not meant to be antisemitic.

It was a denial befitting Webster herself, who wrote almost the same thing in Secret Societies and Subversive Movements. Then as now, it was hard to believe.

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Mike Rothschild
Mike Rothschild
Journalist and expert focused on the rise and spread of conspiracy theories, he is the author of the first complete book on the QAnon conspiracy movement, "The Storm is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything", and his newest book is "Jewish Space Lasers: The Rothschilds and 200 Years of Conspiracy Theories". In addition to his writing and interviews, Mike has worked as an expert witness in cases related to QAnon and the 2020 Election, testified to  U.S. Congress on the danger of election fraud disinformation, and submitted written testimony to the January 6th Select Committee on the role of QAnon in the Capitol attack.
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