First published in 1915, “The Thirty-Nine Steps” remains Scottish author John Buchan’s most celebrated novel. The first of five adventure tales featuring the dashing South African engineer Richard Hannay, “The Thirty-Nine Steps” was written and published only one year after the outbreak of the First World War. Interestingly, the novel initially suggests — then cryptically retracts — the notion of a Jewish hand driving events leading up to the conflict: particularly, the assassination of a Balkan head of state.Was Buchan furtively attempting to tell the reader something about the real reasons behind the First World War? He certainly would have been in a position to know: over the course of his life, he served as a British soldier, barrister, member of parliament and imperial statesman.
In an opening dedication to a friend, one Thomas Arthur Nelson, Buchan refers to the wartime era in which he lived as a time “when the wildest fictions are so much less improbable than the facts”:
“My dear Tommy, You and I have long cherished an affection for that elementary type of tale which Americans call the ‘dime novel’ and which we know as the ‘shocker’ – the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible. During an illness last winter I exhausted my store of those aids to cheerfulness, and was driven to write one for myself. This little volume is the result, and I should like to put your name on it in memory of our long friendship, in the days when the wildest fictions are so much less improbable than the facts.”
Was Buchan trying to tell the reader something in the last line of his dedication, where he explicitly refers to secret truths stranger than the fiction featured in his adventure stories?
In the first chapter, the protagonist, Hannay, is told by a mysterious stranger of an “international conspiracy” aimed at turning the armies of Russia and Germany against one another. The conflict will be precipitated, explains the stranger, by the assassination of the Greek prime minister, Karolides. The stranger, who later turns out to be Franklin Scudder, a British agent, goes on to tell Hannay that “the Jew” — who “hates Russia worse than hell” — is behind the plot:
“I am giving you what he told me as well as I could make it out. Away behind all the governments and the armies there was a big subterranean movement going on, engineered by very dangerous people. He had come on it by accident; it fascinated him; he went further; and then got caught. I gathered that most of the people in it were the sort of educated anarchists that make revolutions, but that beside them there were financiers who were playing for money.
“A clever man can make big profits on a falling market, and it suited the book of both classes to set Europe by the ears. He told me some queer things that explained a lot that had puzzled me — things that happened in the Balkan War, how one state suddenly came out on top, why alliances were made and broken, why certain men disappeared, and where the sinews of war came from. The aim of the whole conspiracy was to get Russia and Germany at loggerheads. When I asked why, he said that the anarchist lot thought it would give them their chance.
“Everything would be in the melting-pot, and they looked to see a new world emerge. The capitalists would rake in the shekels, and make fortunes by buying up wreckage. Capital, he said, had no conscience and no fatherland; besides, the Jew was behind it, and the Jew hated Russia worse than hell. ‘Do you wonder?’ he cried. ‘For three hundred years they have been persecuted, and this is the return match for the pogroms. The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the back stairs to find him.
“‘Take any big Teutonic business concern. If you have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von Und zu Something, an elegant young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English. But he cuts no ice. If your business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow and the manners of a hog. He is the German business man that gives your English papers the shakes. But if you’re on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little, white-faced Jew in a bath-chair, with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the empire of the Tzar because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.”
Later, in the book’s fourth chapter, Hannay learns — from a notebook hidden by Scudder, now dead — that the earlier warnings of a Jewish plot had been mere “eye-wash,” or nonsense. The real culprits, Hannay discovers, are in fact an evil German secret society called the “Black Stone,” bent on destroying England. Yet, cryptically, Hannay notes that the “first yarn” — i.e., the warning of a Jewish plot — had been “in a queer way true also in spirit”:
“All his yarns about the Balkans and the Jew-anarchists and the Foreign Office conference were eye-wash, and so was [Greek PM] Karolides. And yet not quite, as you shall hear. I had staked everything on my belief in his story and had been let down; here was his book telling me a different tale, and instead of being once-bit-twice-shy, I believed it absolutely. Why? I don’t know. It rang desperately true, and the first yarn, if you understand me, had been in a queer way true also in spirit.”
The story then takes Hannay into the Scottish highlands where he evades sinister pursuers and races to foil the plot — which, sure enough, turns out to be the work of German agents. There are no more “Jewish conspiracy” references, all of which are confined to the first four chapters — especially chapter one — of the book. But given Buchan’s initial references to a Jewish plot, along with the cryptically-written subsequent retraction, is it possible that Buchan was trying to tell the reader something about the secret causes of Europe’s “Great War”?
Bear in mind that the book was written only one year into the First World War — which was itself triggered by the assassination of a Balkan head of state, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Some researchers have suggested — with a good deal of evidence — that the First World War was in fact engineered by Jewish Zionist conspirators in order to facilitate, with the blessing of Britain, the future state of Israel in the Arab Middle East after the destruction of the Ottoman Caliphate.
After all, it was in 1917 — when England was at the nadir of its fortunes in its war against Germany — that Britain’s Lord Balfour gave his famous promise to the Jewish Lord Rothschild, noting that “His Majesty’s Government view with favor” the establishment of a national homeland for the Jews in Palestine.
Buchan certainly traveled in the circles that would be privy to such information: over the course of his life, he served as a barrister, member of parliament and imperial statesman. In his first major appointment in 1901, Buchan was made private secretary to Lord Milner, then high commissioner for South Africa.
During the First World War, he worked as a newspaper correspondent in France, an intelligence officer and later as Director of Information for the British government. He subsequently authored Nelson’s History of the War and became president of the Scottish History Society. In 1935, he was appointed the fifteenth Governor-General of Canada.
The novel, now considered a classic, has been adapted numerous times since its publication almost a century ago. These include a 1935 film adaptation by Alfred Hitchcok, a 1959 color remake and a third film version in 1978. Within recent years, a comic theatrical adaptation of the tale has played in theaters in both London and New York. All these adaptations, however, depart substantially from Buchan’s original story, and none of them refer to Scudder’s initial warnings of an “international Jewish plot” aimed at setting Europe ablaze. The same omission can also be found in the “audio-book” version of the story, in which actors read the parts of characters. Remarkably, the same oversight is found yet again in the book’s “plot summary” as it appears on popular online resource Wikipedia, which refers only to the existence of an “anarchist plot” to destabilize Europe:
“Richard Hannay, the protagonist and narrator, an expatriated Scot, returns from a long stay in Southern Africa to his new home, a flat in London. One night he is buttonholed by a stranger, a well-traveled American, who claims to be in fear for his life. The man appears to know of an anarchist plot to destabilize Europe, beginning with a plan to assassinate the Greek Premier, Karolides, during his forthcoming visit to London.”
Nowhere in the Wikipedia article, as in the many film and other adaptations of the story, is anything mentioned anything about a “Jewish” plot — despite the fact that Scudder’s allegations of such a plot are central to the narrative in the book’s opening chapters. The question begs itself, then: has there been an intentional effort — on the part of movie-makers and publishers — to omit the reference? After all, allegations of “Jewish plots” cannot be made today without fear of reprisal. Was Buchan, too — even in his time — trying to tell the reader something subtly, so as to avoid possible retaliation by the plotters?
Meanwhile, even more adaptations of the book are in the offing. In 2008, Penguin Books adapted the story as “interactive fiction,” entitled “The 21 Steps.” There have also been reports that a new remake of the Hitchcok version by director Robert Towne is being planned for release in 2009. Why so many different adaptations of the same story, anyway? Does it represent an effort to keep people from reading the original novel, with its explicit references to Jewish conspiracy?
Decide for yourself — besides being a possible clue into the true reasons for the First World War, Buchan’s original “Thirty-Nine Steps” makes for a great read. The full text of the roughly 100-page adventure story can be found at: