This overlong and rather boring pamphlet doesn't need much introduction. Norman Cohn called it a "warrant for genocide". Hitler thought it was "terrifying". The judge at the Berne Trial of 1933-35 called it "laughable nonsense". The writer and rabbi Joseph Teluskin was less amused: "Thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, of Jews have died because of this infamous forgery".
The Protocols are said to have surfaced in antisemitic circles in Paris in the late 1890s, and they first appeared in print in Russia in 1903. It has long been recognised that the pamphlet was compiled by the Tsarist secret police and that its ultimate source was Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, a satirical work published in 1864 by Maurice Joly, a right-wing French lawyer. Joly's book was not anti-Jewish in character: the antisemitic element in the Protocols appears to derive from a book called Biarritz published by one Hermann Goedsche in 1868. By the time that the Protocols became internationally known in the years following the First World War, they ought to have been well past their sell-by date.
The underlying thesis of the Protocols is straightforward enough. The Jews want to install a "Sovereign Lord of all the World" based in Europe to rule over humanity. A significant part of the tract is given over to a description of how the worldwide Jewish state would be run, from the operation of the law courts to tax policy. Not that any of this would happen soon, of course. It would take time, "perhaps even a whole century". The Jews, however, had not been idle in the meantime. They had brought about the French Revolution, they controlled the press, and they were responsible for the theories of Darwin, Nietzsche and Marx. You thought that the Freemasons were the real rulers of the world? Turns out they're just a catspaw for the Jews. All this was tediously familiar stuff even back then. Dark rumours of a global Jewish conspiracy had gained currency in the late 19th century, and the content of the Protocols is anything but revealing.
Some of what the Protocols have to say can be described as fairly straightforward Machiavellianism. Political freedom is impossible and despotism is a necessity. Inequality is natural, the common people are to be regarded with contempt, and a ruler must not try to behave morally. More interestingly, however, much of the world-view of the supposed authors is fairly clearly that of the Christian Counter-Enlightenment. The Protocols present, as clear as day, the ideology of Maurice Joly and the Tsar's spooks, not that of contemporary European Jews. The reader learns that "the chaotic licence of liberalism" leads to national weakness and that popular government degenerates into chaos. Socialism, materialistic capitalism, universal education, universal suffrage and constitutional government are Bad. The same is true of the "aristocracy of [the Jewish] educated class headed by the aristocracy of money", which have displaced the "natural and genealogical aristocracy" of the gentiles.
These are the sentiments of royalist Christian counterrevolutionaries. Sometimes, the writers barely attempt to hide their political-religious outlook, almost forgetting who they are pretending to be. "The holy unction of the Lord's Anointed has fallen from the heads of kings in the eye of the people, and when we also robbed them of their faith in God the might of power was flung upon the streets into the place of public proprietorship and was seized by us". It is a strange type of Jewish subversive who writes nostalgically about theocratic kingship and equates the decline of Christian faith with a debasing of the political order. The Protocols are bog-standard propaganda of the 19th century reactionary right. The outlook that you find in them is the sort of stuff that you might expect to hear from an exiled French aristocrat in a bar in London circa 1794, with some pseudo-Jewish racism against the "goyim" thrown in. In matters of detail, it looks like a significant part of the text has been taken directly from Joly's attack on the policies of the vulgar faux-emperor and usurper Napoleon III, who had died in 1873.
One is almost disappointed that the forgers didn't do their homework more diligently. What kind of Jews are supposed to have written this stuff? They don't use Jewish terminology, not even clumsy fake Yiddishisms. They pose as religious Jews who believe in God and the Jewish religion - yet they talk in naturalistic terms, refer to the Hindu deity Vishnu, use the un-Jewish phrase "King of the Jews", and studiously avoid quoting from the Bible and the Talmud.
There are no specifics, no detailed discussion of timescales or process. There is a dearth of references to specific countries and specific steps that the conspirators are going to take to advance their designs. Most glaringly of all, the Protocols signally fail to predict the greatest catastrophe of their time, the First World War. One might almost ask why they have fooled so many people for so long, but the answer is quite obvious: they tell their readers what they want to hear.
Additional Note: I have been made aware that the theory that the Protocols were forged in the 1890s by the Paris office of the Okhrana has been called into question. Caesare Di Michelis has argued in The Non-Existent Manuscript that they were composed in antisemitic circles in Russia circa 1902.