MAITLAND — Until his death on Jan. 3, 2005, William Erwin “Will” Eisner was one of the nation’s most respected comics writer and artists, who gave us The Spirit character and comic book, and the man who was considered to have played a leading role in establishing the graphic novel as a form of literature through his “A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories.”
It’s no surprise the comics community pays lasting tribute to Eisner’s work through the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, or “Eisners”, to recognize yearly achievements in the comics medium.
What may be less known is something else Eisner created: the graphic illustrations that make up “The Plot,” an entirely different way of using the medium than what The Spirit offered in his fantastical crime fighting adventures.
“The Plot” is now a special traveling exhibit being made possible through the Will Eisner Estate and the Anti-Defamation League, which was founded in 1913 to stop the defamation of the Jewish people.
“The Plot” looks back at a dark and often terrifying chapter of world history, one that starts with the Secret Police in Russia, and goes right on up to Hitler’s rise in Germany, and his campaign of annihilation against the Jews — and beyond to modern day.
What “The Plot” details, through its illustrations so common to anyone who has ever read a graphic novel, is the secret story behind the creation of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a book that oddly enough started out as a satirical piece by a French satirist against Napoleon and the French government, and was insidiously morphed into a deadly weapon against Jews. As the exhibit notes, a campaign of hate often starts with a lie directed at a particular group, and builds ominously from there.
“Whenever one group of people is taught to hate another, a lie is created to inflame the hatred and justify a plot,” the exhibit notes.
And hence, the chilling true story behind “The Plot.”
The exhibit is now being shown at the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida in Maitland, now through March 20. Just looking at the first few illustrations in the exhibit, and it’s clear that what Eisner created has a lot less to do with the wild and comical adventures of The Spirit than it does with Art Spiegelman’s astonishing graphic novel “Maus,” which recounts the Nazi persecution of the Jews through the story of a young artist who asks his father to recollect what he endured in Germany during the Second World II — including surviving the concentration camps before relocating to New York City. Anyone who thinks illustrations are the wrong medium for telling a story as harrowing as the Holocaust has not seen Spiegelman’s “Maus” — or “The Plot.”
Eisner, the Holocaust Center notes, “was deeply concerned about the resilience of anti-Semitism and the persistence of the conspiracy theory that Jews have a plan to control the world.”
These ugly theories were set down in a book that got printed across the globe, called “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” But the entire book was a fake, designed as much for political purposes as it was to promote anti-Semitism — a story that Eisner decided to tell in 2003 when he produced the exhibit that became “The Plot.”
“Applying his talent and creativity to further expose the notorious anti-Semitic treatise as a forgery,” the Holocaust Center notes, Eisner created this exhibit “with a goal toward educating all, but especially younger generations.”
It’s hard to imagine any age group couldn’t relate to this grim story.
“The Plot” traces the origins of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which blamed the world’s problems on Jews, to Russia in 1894, under Tsar Nicholas II. Even then, Eisner notes, efforts to divert attention from national problems often started with finding a convenient scapegoat — and Jews were frequently easy targets.
“In order to maintain the appearance of stability, Nicholas II engaged in a policy of suppression and later on supported pogroms against Jews,” the exhibit notes.
One of the Tsar’s government agents, Pytor Ivanovich Rachovsky, who was associated with the Secret Police, came up with a plan to further divert attention away from the Tsar’s failings. He discovered a book by the French satirist Maurice Joly, which poked fun at the reign of Napoleon III and the French government — and which made no mention whatsoever of Jewish people.
Rachovsky copied Joly’s book, but took out the references to the French and instead made it look like a Jewish plot to destroy western civilization. It was an attempt to defeat the Bolshevik-led political movement, which aimed to modernize Russia, by suggesting this was just an effort by Jews to control the Russian people.
As Rachovsky says in one of the illustrations, “What if there appeared a document proving that modernization was part of a Jewish plot?”
And so “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was born.
The book would spread well beyond the shores of Russia at the turn of the century. It arrived in Germany in 1919, just as Adolph Hitler was starting his political rise, and he adopted “The Protocols” as early as 1923 in his efforts to gain political control in Germany.
In 1920, automobile industrialist Henry Ford published an American version of the book.
“By the early 1920s, copies of ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ began to appear across Europe and the Middle East,” the exhibit notes. “European versions blamed Jews for the rise and spread of Bolshevism, while the Arabs of Palestine and Syria used ‘The Protocols’ to stir up resentment against Jewish settlers.”
And as the exhibit also demonstrates, if anyone thinks the book and its hateful message are 90-year old history …. think again.
“The Plot” is an exhibit that works on several different levels. It demonstrates that graphic illustrations are a potent and highly effective way to recount tragedies in modern history.
It’s also a strong and vivid reminder that ethnic and religious hate can destroy the lives of millions.
And it’s a reminder as well that nothing stops a campaign of lies quite as effectively as exposing it.
The Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida is at 851 N. Maitland Ave. in Maitland. Call 407-628-0555 to learn more, or visit Holocaust Memorial Center.
Contact us at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.