Freemasonry is back on the world’s agenda. It’s hard to believe that at the start of the third decade of the 21st century, there are large numbers of people who can fear, of all things, an order comprised largely of retired elderly folk that has for years been attempting to recruit new members, with only partial success. But the return of old phobias is one of the characteristics of the present era.
At demonstrations and in discussion groups of conspiracy theory, proponents are once again citing the Masons as the source of all the world’s evil. Posts and comments on the web contain fictitious lists of political leaders and billionaires who are supposedly members of the order. They’re said to be “pulling the strings” of the coronavirus crisis, political polarization in the United States and more. The QAnon conspiracy, which has millions of adherents in America and elsewhere, claims to reveal the existence of a network of Freemason pedophiles whose tentacles reach into Hollywood, Washington and Silicon Valley.
Hostility and suspiciousness toward elites, toward Jews and toward foreigners are not surprising political phenomena. But where does the anti-Freemasonry anxiety come from? To understand the roots of this phobia, we need to go back 230 years, to the final decade of the 18th century – one of history’s most dramatic periods. At the start of the decade, almost all European countries were still ruled by monarchs, and civilization rested on social structures dating back to the Middle Ages. But within a few years, the continent had become unrecognizable.
In Paris the regime of terror rose and fell, and the king of France was decapitated; vast kingdoms buckled and surrendered to Napoleon’s armies; the 1,000-year-old Holy Roman Empire was on the brink of collapse. Europe was pulled into the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars with no end in sight. Societal structures that had persisted for centuries split apart in an instant.
Even now, more than 200 years later, historians are divided over the causes of the fateful events of that period. Many of those who lived through those times also sought answers, but they wanted simple ones. Confronted by the spectacle of kings falling and empires breaking apart, they believed that a hidden hand was pulling the strings. In Europe, theories began to spread calling for the “curtain to be lifted” and for the true power that was driving history to be unveiled.
The most popular notion at the time was put forward in a book by John Robison, an English scientist, titled, “Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, Carried On in The Secret Meetings of Freemasons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies.” Almost concurrently, the same allegations were circulated by a French priest, Augustin Barruel.
This was an early version of the conspiracy theory. Robison and Barruel each maintained that a worldwide plot existed to depose the monarchy and the state religion, and that the planning of those events had actually begun decades before the revolution. The conspirators included philosophers and Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire and Diderot, but no less, the Freemasons and the secret order of the Illuminati, which in reality was a small, insignificant society that operated for a few years in Bavaria.
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According to the conspiracy-theory advocates, these orders worked behind the scenes to mislead the masses through lies and manipulation, and they had instigated people to rise up against their beloved monarch and to rebel against the very foundations of society.
The conspiracy theories had no basis in fact, of course. The Masonic lodges were not revolutionary – indeed, many of their members were aristocrats. It’s even possible that Louis XVI, the executed French king, was a Freemason. In any event, the theory was disseminated quickly in numberless pamphlets and essays. Within a few years, it had become one of the most widespread and most popular explanations for the French Revolution. At the turn of 19th century, conspiracy-theory advocates also began accusing the Jews of being involved in a plot to upend the world. In the century that followed, additional elements were added to the story, which henceforth encompassed the Rothschild family, for example, and afterward also the “Elders of Zion,” who were supposedly the leaders of the Jews who sowed chaos among the nations of Europe.
What is noteworthy, though, is that the same theory is still with us to this very day. In the 20th century, the Nazis and the fascists persecuted the Freemasons and viewed them as a tool of Judaism. Although those two movements were defeated and discredited, even today there are many who blame the Freemasons and the Illuminati for all the world’s ills. Some also add reptilian aliens and Bill Gates and G-5 technology. But at bottom, the narrative is not in principle different from the one that originated at the time of the French Revolution.
Pluralism and radicalism
The stubborn obsession with Freemasons is probably related to the fact that few people know what the order actually does. On the one hand, the organization is built around secrecy shrouded in mystery; on the other hand, it has no express political goal and transcends national boundaries. In the lodges, centuries-old ceremonies are held in which the brothers wear embroidered aprons and bear titles relating to a complex hierarchy. This has spawned a glut of bizarre theories, holding that the true activities of Freemasonry are devil worship, homosexual orgies or the propagation of radical political ideas.
But Freemasonry is not a religion, nor is it an economic corporation or a political party. In practice, Masonic lodges can be imagined as something like a youth movement for middle-aged men.
But it wasn’t always like that. A book published in Britain this past summer – “The Craft: How the Freemasons Made the Modern World” – maintains that the order played a crucial role in history. The author, John Dickie, is not a proponent of conspiracy theories old or new, but a historian at University College, London, who bases his work on meticulous research. Dickie maintains that although the Freemasons’ lodges were not established for political purposes, in the 18th century they played a significant role in promoting the ideas of the Enlightenment: liberalism, democracy and skepticism. What made the order a social power of consequence was the fact that it and other groups were frameworks in which men from different classes met and exchanged ideas relatively freely. They promoted religious tolerance, pluralism and freedom of conscience, and created an effective network to transmit ideas between countries.
Dickie’s argument is not new. It is based in part on the ideas of the historian François Furet, who maintained as early as the 1970s that the Freemasons’ lodges were the model that underlay the Jacobin Club, the radical force in the French Revolution. Furet’s thesis is controversial, but many historians believe that the Masonic lodges were one framework that made possible the dissemination of radical ideas. The lodges didn’t pull the strings behind the French Revolution, but they acted as something of a laboratory for the development of institutions of civil society.
One way or the other, even if the Freemasons did wield significant influence on the historical developments of the 18th century, a particularly wild imagination is needed to deduce that these lodges have an impact on events in our time. Still, if conspiracy theories hadn’t been concocted about them, the order might have been completely forgotten.