Roots of twentieth century conspiracy theory

The source of two conspiracy claims of the twentieth century, the Revue internationale des Sociétés Sècretes, began publication in 1912 in Paris. [Edited by L’abbé Ernest Jouin (1844-1932).] In the July 1914 VIII issue, p. 12, the accusation was made that the Sarajevo assassination2was an anti-catholic, anti-papal plot. Later on p. 702 appears the claim that Lenin belonged to a secret masonic lodge in Switzerland.

Nesta H. Webster’s 1924 Secret societies and subversive movements, reprinted 1964, World Revolution, The plot against civilization, London 1921, and other books — all reprinted well into the late twentieth century — trace all revolutionary upheavals to the Bavarian Illuminati. Her Surrender of an Empire, London 1931, identify Wafd, Sinn Fein, Zionism and Bolshevism as all the same threat.

Nineteenth century conspiracy theories:

Disraeli is typical of his contemporaries when he expresses the widely held mythology of conspiracies in his novels, specifically Lothair, exploiting the mid-century excitement over an apparent Roman Catholic resurgance in England, the closing days of the Italian Risorgimento, and the overthrow of Rome’s temporal power.

Disraeli also expressed his concerns in Lord George Bentink, A Political Biography London: 1852, pp. 553-4 and in 1856 he warned the House of Commons about secret societies in France, Italy and Germany [Hansard, H. of C. debates, III series, cxliii, 773-1, 14 July 1856] Later at the annual dinner of the Royal and Central Bucks Agricultural Association at Aylesbury, 20 September 1876, he warned again of the danger of secret societies responsible for the Serbian attack on Turkey.

Between 1789 and 1848 there was almost everywhere in Europe a great general acceleration of social and political change, a spread of certain common institutions in the place of particular and local ones, and a generalising of certain ideas which may loosely be called liberal. Educated and conservative men raised in the tradition of Christianity, with its stress on individual rsponsibility and the independence of the will, found conspiracy theories plausible as an explanation of such change: it must have come about, they thought, because somebody planned it so.”

“With the notable exception of some masonic historians and a few Italians excavating the roots of the Risorgimento the whole subject of secret societies was neglected as an area for serious investigation until twenty or thirty years ago. Because the historian passed by, the charlatan, the axe-grinder and the paranoic long had the field to themselves.”

The full flower of this mythology, 1815 to 1848 occured after the secret societies ceased to be an effective political factor.

Early anti-masonry:

Political suspicion in a 1676 flysheet extends to freemasons: “Modern Green-ribbon’d Caball, together with the Ancient Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross; the Hermetick Adepti, and the Company of Accepted Masons” [AQC, xlv, 1935, p. 312]A London fly-sheet of 1698, addressed ‘to all Godly people’ warned believers that membership of the Craft might endanger their salvation, ‘For this devillish sect are Meeters in secret which swere against all without their Following. They are the Anti-Christ which was to come leading them from Fear of God. For how should they meet in secret places and with secret Signs taking care that none observe them to do the Work of God; are not these the Ways of Evil-dom?” [Early Masonic Pamphlets, ed. D. Knoop, G.P. Jones and D. Hamer (Manchester, 1945),

Harassment of Freemasonry by Cardinal Fleury appears to be a personal and temporary preoccupation motivated by suspicion of court intrigue.

F. Sbigoli, Tommaso Crudeli e i primi framassoni in Firenze (Milan, 1884): anti-clerical tendencies of Florentine masonry lead to incarceration of one of the lodge members by the Inquisition in 1739.
The Bull of 1738 issued by Clement XII (1730-1740) was never officially received by the Neopolitan government. [p. 72] It was also never legally received in France and never submitted to the Parlament of Paris for registration [p. 66]

The story that Benedict XIV was a freemason appears in a 1752 pamphlet criticising the Bull of 1738.

Papal Bulls of the 1700s condemning Freemasonry did not evoke wide spread enthusiasm and support from secular authority and clergy continued to belong to lodges. [p. 79]

“The elements of anti-masonry, though often present together, were still distinct and political suspicion arose only in special, local circumstances or from a general conservatism, rooted in Roman Law traditions, about the undesirability of private association except under close public regulation.” [p. 85]

Les Franc-Maçons écrasés, suite du livre intitulé, l’Ordre des Francs-Maçons trahi, traduit du latin (Amsterdam, 1747) attributed to the Abbé Larudan

Freemasonry Crushed, sequel to The Order of Freemasonry Betrayed, translated from Latin, contained the main theme that dominated political criticism of the Craft for the next quarter century. The accusations: the doctrine of Freemasonry is equality and liberty; it was founded by Cromwell (the Levellers conspired against the Protector’s life because he wished to change their name to that of freemasons); the avowed goals of rebuilding the social order actually mask the true goal—the subordination of mankind to the ordering of natural law and natural distinctions alone; and a dangerous toleration in religion.

Eighteenth century roots:

“In sheer numbers, there have probably never been so many secret sects and societies in Europe as between 1750 and 1789.” [p. 90] Some came from [continental] Freemasonry being degenerate or schismatic, Some were independant or in opposition to Freemasonry. Some were lodges that were unwittingly overtaken by politic partisans. Regardless of their roots, many adopted the ritual and organization of Freemasonry.

There were three well known tendencies of the eighteenth century that were important influences on secret societies of the period. The first was a movement of thought summed up as “The Enlightenment,” a rationalizing, secularizing tendency. This led men to mainstream Freemasonry.

The second was a tendency to “enlightened despotism,” where the state began to interfer much more then previous with the traditional structure of society—in ways that a growing number of people found threatening, either to rank and privilege or to status and values. This benefited forms of Freemasonry which emphasized ancient nobility or transmission of ancient wisdom.

The third tendency was the growth of irrationalism. In part a reaction against both practical reforming rationalism and Enlightenment attitude, it had also other, older sources. “At its margins, too, lay religious exaltation, pietism and the enduring fascination of the lingering dream of a mystical—or even magical—approach to nature’s secrets.” [p. 92] the theosophic movement and Cagliostro’s “Egyptian” masonry for example. “Occultism rubbed shoulders with pseudo -science.” [p. 93]

The introduction of Scottish Freemasonry and pseudo-masonry and near-masonry into Germany coincided with a reaction against the Enlightenment. This lead to the eventual development of a legend connecting Freemasonry with the mediaeval Templars and a proliferation of grades and degrees of initiation.

Once thought of as the spiritual founder of the Scottish Rite, Chevalier Andrew Michael Ramsay (1696-1743) was admitted to a London lodge in 1730. As Grand Orator for the Grand Lodge of France, he gave a speech before that Grand lodge on 24 March 1737 [now known to have been on 27 December 1736], in which he referred to legendary masonic origins in the Crusades. Author of Apology for the Free and Accepted Masons, in 1736, he died in 1743 at St. Germain-en-Laye. Biographies of him include A Chérel, Un aventurier religieux au xviii siècle, André-Michel Ramsay (Paris 1926) Chevallier, Les ducs, pp. 144-54 [pp. 35-37]

Core of Rosicrucianism was a tradition of pietism and mysticism. Cross-fertilization between Freemasonry and explorers of the occult and mysticism attracted those alarmed by tendencies of the Enlightenment. The Order of Gold and Rosicrucians first appears in 1767.

Martinism, a name derived from the author of Des ereurs et de la vérité (1775), Louis Claude de Saint-Martin. Saint-Martin was a disciple of adventurer and seer, Martines de Pasqually who wrote the incomplete, Traité de Réintégration. Swedenborgian in view, Christian in origin, theurgic or magical in its implications, Martinism first appeared in the south of France in the 1750s under the name of Juges Ecossais. By 1760 it appeared in Paris, now known as the Elus Cohens. Martinist doctrines were carried into Freemasonry and increased the confusion as to what constituted Freemasonry. Martinism also popularized the general classification of seekers after revelations as ‘illuminés’, a term that was to take on a far different meaning in the next century. Mesmer’s Order of Universal Harmony, Cagliostro’s Egyptian Rite, a new system of Clermont (1758) etc. [pp. 103-105]

Karl Gotthelf, Baron Hund, 1755 introduced a new Scottish Rite to Germany, rectified masonry, after 1764 to be known as the “Strict Observance”. They termed the English system of Freemasonry the ‘Late Observance.’ It was allegedly directed by unknown Superiors, appealed to German national pride and attracted the non-nobility.”On top of the network of orthodox masonic lodges had been built first the higher grades of Scottish rite lodges and then, on them, the Strict Observance, which had now fragmented into what were virtually a number of separate systems.” [p. 112]
John Augustus Starck joined Hund, claiming alchemical knowledge and a lineal descent, not from the Knights Templars, but from the Clerics of that Order, the true custodians of its secrets. A union was formalized in 1772 at Kohlo, where Hund’s dominance began to wain while Starck’s occult and hermetic ideology grew. [pp. 107-09]

Bode had been an early adherent of the Strict Observance and later made a notorious and unsuccessful visit to Paris, where he hoped to combat the mystical and theurgic tide in French masonry and turn the French lodges back towards a concern with greater social utility. He went back to Germany very disillusioned, but his visit was subsequently used by anti-masonic writers (see below) as evidence of international masonic conspiracy to bring about the French Revolution. Dittfurth was already a member of the Illuminati before the Convent opened. [The Convent of Wolfenbüttel, called in 1777 to settle internal issues of the Strict Observance, resulted in the secession of Starck and his followers]. [footnote, pp. 113-4]

Le Forestier’s Les Illuminés de Bavière et la franc-maçonnerie allemande, remains the fundamental study of the subject. For more on Bode and Dittfurth, see Le Forestier, Les Illuminés, pp. 361-2, 664-7 and 637-42.

The Illuminati of Bavaria

Weishaupt was promised the chair of natural and canon law held for ninety years by Jesuits but then, after their dissolution in 1773, vacant. “His specific original impulse may have been a desire to combat the clandestine and enduring influence of former Jesuits within the university; he rapidly rationalized difficulties growing out of his own rashness and taste for intrigue as the product of obscurantism and soon envisaged wider purposes for his society” [p. 120]

The illuminati, promoting the principles of egalitarianism and rationalism. began as a meeting of only five members; in 1779 it had ‘colonies’ in four other Bavarian cities and numbered fifty-four. [Le Forestier p. 44]. Their library of books on republicanism, natural rights and the ideas of Rousseau, though not easily available in Bavaria, were common enough elsewhere.

Weishaupt joined a Strict Observance lodge in 1777 to use its ritual to maintain the interest of the Illuminati members as well as to use the lodge structure for recruiting further members. By mid-1782 the order had about three hundred members, in Germany, Austria, Italy, Grenoble, Lyon and Strasbourg, and later to Bohemia, Milan and Hungary. “Only in France did the Illuminati meet with no success; the Grand Orient was wary of the mysterious new order, as it had been of the Strict Observance, and if, as was later alleged, an attempt was made to penetrate it, it certainly failed.” [p. 125]

Adolph Franz, Baron Von Knigge had been a freemason, and had attempted to join a Rosicrucian lodge before being recruited to the Illuminati in Frankfurt in 1780. Knigge was more attracted to the mysterious and mystical than to Weishaupt’s rationalist idealism. A new set of subdivisions or grades required that the higher levels were only achieved by freemasons. At its peak in 1784 Le Forestier is able to identify 650 adepts. [p. 126]

Weishaupt deplored the quasi-religious forms and in July 1784 Knigge left the Illuminati. By this time other members had begun to talk and suspician was aroused both within the Strict Observance and the public at large. On June 23, 1784 the Bavarian Elector, Karl Theodor, published an edict forbidding his subjects to be members of secret or unauthorized associations. This was not specifically directed at the Illuminati but they suspended their meetings. Although Weishaupt approached the Elector and revealed most of its secrets, on March 2, 1785 another edict was published, this time condemning freemasons and illuminati explicitly. Weishaupt had already fled. In 1786 Franz Xavier von Zwack’s lodgings were raided (he had left Bavaria) and hundreds of papers were seized and published the following year as Einige Originalschriften des Illuminaten Ordens, Weche bei dem gewesenen Regierungsrath Zwack durch vorgenommene Hausvisitation zu Landshut den 11 und 12 Oktober 1786 vorefunden warden (Munich, 1787).

Weishaupt defended himself with his Apologie der Illuminaten in 1786 and two further volumes the following year. Further papers confiscated in the raid were published: Nachtrag von Weiteren Originalschriften(Munich, 1787). Knigge published his account in 1788: Philo’s endliche Erklärung und Antwort (Hanover, 1788).

In August 16 1787 a further Bavarian electoral edict prescribed the death penalty for recruiting for the Illuminati. [The Elector of Bavaria was a prince of the Holy Roman Empire with the right to participate in the election of the emperor (German king). Originally seven electors, the office in Bavaria was created in 1623 and abolished in 1778. The system disappeared with the abolition of the empire in 1806.]

Mirabeau’s three visits to Berlin between January and September 1786, and his sympathetic remarks regarding the Illuminati’s struggle against the Jesuits, lead to accusations that he had joined the Illuminati and had recruited the Grand Orient of France’s Grand Master, the Duke of Orléans.

Opposition to rationalism and reform was noisy even in the 1770s. One consequence of this was the foundation at Basle in 1780 of a secret ‘Deutsche Christumsgesellschaft’ in defense of Christian truths.

Jesuit complicity was a common thread in both accusations by Illuminatus and in anti-illuminatus writings in the 1789s.

A brief chronology of the French Revolution
February 1787 : Assembly of “notables” called by Charles-Alexandre de Calonne
May 5, 1789 : Estates-General met at Versaille
July 14, 1789 : Parisian mob seized the Bastille.
Aug 4, 1789 : National Assembly abolished feudal regime and tithe
Aug 26, 1789 : Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen
Oct 5, 1789 : Paris mob marched on Versaille, brought King to Paris.
June 20, 1791 : Louis XVI tried to flee country.
April 20, 1791 : France declared war on Prussia and Austria.
Aug 10, 1792 : revolutionaries occupied Tuileries, imprisoned the royal family.
Jan 21, 1793 : Louise XVI executed.
Sept 5, 1793 : Reign of Terror (to July 27, 1794) by Committee of Public Safety
July 27, 1794 : (9 Thermidor II) “White Terror” coup against Jacobins and Robespierre by National Convention
Oct. 5, 1795 : Napoleon crushes Royalist attempt to seize power in Paris.
Nov, 1795 : Directory established (until Nov 9, 1799)
Nov. 9, 1799 : (Coup of 18-19 Brumaire VIII) Napoleon proclaimed end of the revolution and instituted Consulate

“…the fallacy that to identify the [French] Revolution as a general process permits the inference that there must be a single general cause which explains it.” They seem to make simple sense of very involved processes and, above all, provide an explanation which still attributes responsibility to human agents and can therefore provide a release for fear, indignation and moral outrage.” “Plot theories of history prosper because of the need for such a release. [p. 149]

Long before interpreting the events of the French Revolution and assigning cause and responsibility, the ‘facts’ must be scrutinized with care.

“It was well known, for example, that the Duke of Brunswick was the head of the Strict Observance; when therefore, the Duke of Brunswick accepted defeat at Valmy in 1792 and so readily withdrew the allied army under his command, thus sparing a revolutionary France an almost certain defeat, the inference seemed to many people clear that a masonic understanding was at work between the two sides. The basic flaw in this inference lay in its premise, never questioned, that the duke was in each case the same great Germanic masonic dignitary; unfortunately, he was not. The two were uncle and nephew. This level of elementary confusion and inaccuracy is typical and must constantly be born in mind. From the start it vitiates many of the ‘facts’ alleged about freemasonry’s part in the Revolution.” [p. 154]

G. Martin suggests that nearly five-sixths of the Third Estate were masons, but he wrote as a mason, proud to accept the charge of masonic responsibility for the Revolution and exaggerated manifestations of it. See the review by A. Mathiez, Annales historique de la Révolution française, 1926.
“This, however, by no means implies that all freemasons, even if they favoured the Revolution, approved of its effect on the life of the lodges. In Mayenne, for example, a lodge at Laval listened to one of its members pronouncing a eulogy of the States-General in early July 1789. Afterwards, another mason who was present opposed the reception of the text in the archives on the grounds that such a speech was a political act and therefore foreign to the principles of freemasonry. His view was taken sufficiently seriously for the matter to be referred to the Grand Orient for adjudication—and the objector’s point of view was subsequently upheld.” [p. 156 (Bouton and Lepage, p. 92.)]

The circulars distributed to the lodges by the Grand Orient from 1788 to 1792 stress a masonic caution in public affairs and debate while demonstrating the Grand Orient moved with opinion, rather than ahead of it. [p. 157]

During the Terror both regimental and civil lodges disappeared and did not reappear until after Brumaire. [p.158]

“The eighteenth century mind, outside of England and North America, found it very difficult to grapple with the new world of political organisation whose most striking expression was the new invention of the political ‘club’. People saw in the very existence of these new and unfamiliar bodies a sinister pattern. The Club Breton, for example, the source of the later and more famous Jacobin Club, was originally built (as its name suggests) around the Breton deputies who came to the States-General. Later, this fact seemed much less interesting to some people than the parallel fact that its original membership had been almost entirely masonic. One of its outstanding early leaders, Le Chapelier, was a well known freemason. It was recalled later that many of the Breton deputies had played an outstanding part in the pre-revolutionary struggles of the Breton Provincial Estates which in some ways had pre-figured, as if in rehearsal, the troubles of the States-General. It was de Kerengal, a freemason and a member of this group, who in the night of 4 August joined with d’Aiguillon (another freemason), to propose the abolition of feudalism.” [pp. 158-9]

The Cercle Social, founded by Freemasons Nicolas de Bonneville, the author of Les Jésuites chassés de la Maçonnerie, and the Abbé Fauchet, ceased to meet after July 1791. It was a forum for the discussion of egalitarian and revolutionary views. [p 159]

Fauchet went to the guillotine with the leaders of the Gironde in October 1793. Bonneville’s friendship with Bode allowed later anti-masons to assert he was an Illuminati.

“Freemasonry, inevitably, reflected the concerns and ideas of the society which had produced it.” [p. 163]

Any facts identifying Freemasonry with the Revolution evaporate after 1789. Orléans’ motives are easily explained by personal ambition; he resigned his Grand Mastership in 1793 and ended on the scaffold. Lafayette, after Varennes, was out of step with the Revolution and Mirabeau’s Notes to the Court demonstrate his allegence to the throne — and he may not have been a mason at all.

The contribution of freemasons can be seen in the early, and short lived, work of the National Assembly: philanthropic, libertarian, egalitarian and constitutionally progressive. But if there was a masonic plot, it backfired terribly: emigration drained membership from many lodges during the 1780s and by 1792 few lodges were active. Freemasons, on the whole constitutionalists, were labeled reactionary and unpatriotic, and later aristocratic. In 1792 a former Grand Master of the Templars, the Duc de Cossé-Brissac was lynched at Versailles, and in Orléans the lodges were sacked by sans-culottes in 1793. [p. 166]

From Thermidor (July 27, 1794) until the beginning of the Directory (Nov, 1795) there does not appear to have been any masonic activity.

The first post-Revolutionary attack on Freemasonry, by Abbé Antoine Estève Baissie, L’esprit de la Franc-maçonnerie dévoilé, relativement au danger qu”elle renferme (Rome, 1790) does not actually accuse freemasonry of engineering the Revolution but, one reference to the Cromwell theory aside, sticks to religious arguments.

The short book, Le voile levé pour les curieux ou les secrets de la Révolution révelés à l’aide de la franc-maçonnerie, Abbé François Lefranc (1791) may well be the first attack that explicitly blames the freemasons for the French Revolution of 1789-90. This book traces the roots of Freemasonry back to the French Protestant sect, the Socinians. Lefranc was a literary associate of Augustin Barruel (1741/10/02 – 1820/10/05) and Superior of the Eudiste Order, conspicuous in their opposition to Jansenism. [p. 170]

In December 1789 Cagliostro was arrested in Rome by the Inquisition. His confessions of alleged secrets of the Templars, the Strict Observance and the Illuminati’s plans to overthrow the Bourbons and attack the Papacy fuelled further anti-masonic publications.

A later book by Lefranc, Conjuration centre la religion catholique (Paris, 1792) shows the popular general confusion between Freemasonry, Martinism, Rosicrucianism and other secret sects. He also identifies Robespierre as being a freemason although there is no evidence of this fact. [p. 177]

The legend of Templar vengence was presented in 1796 in an anti-Jesuit version: de Molay was supposed to have founded four lodges, one in Edinburgh; they were associated with the Assassins and the Old Man of the Mountain; they supported Cromwell and were among the Superiors of the Society of Jesus; they were behind Cagliostro and Swedenborg; and they had stormed the Bastille. A thread of anglophobia and a claim that the conspiracy was ongoing was promoted through such persons as Charles Louis Cadet-Gassicourt (1769-1821) who was first in the field to produce such a wide ranging general conspiracy theory. See Le tombeau de Jacque Molay ou le secret des conspirateurs, à ceux qui veulent tout savoir… (Paris, An IV [1796]), Charles Louis Cadet-Gassicour.

Augustin de Barruel (b. 1741-Oct. 5, 1820) author of Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du jacobinisme, first published in 1797 and later to be the blueprint for twentieth century conspiracy mythology. The same year an English translation appeared in London. His many errors and confusions, and his reliance on the Originalschriften, were irrelevent to the welding together of Freemasonry and the Illuminati with the secret society mythology. [p. 195]

Much of his third volume is partially drawn from notes supplied by Starck who was also attempting to provide justification for his own involvement. But Barruel was not interested in any separation of blame and included none of Starck’s notes on the blamelessness of Freemasonry before the Illuminati infiltrated it. In his simplifications, Barruel overlooks evidence of distinctions within Freemasonry that would have strengthened his case; for a theologan he was careless about ideological and doctrinal distinctions and wrote nonsense about Swedenborg and the Martinists; he mistranscribes and misreports; he cribs, uncritically, stories which to anyone with any knowledge of the events, would undermine his argument; he is clearly ignorant of many well known facts and relies on private information without attempting to confirm it. [p. 199]

Joseph de Maistre, an active freemason and student of mysticism, wrote a long, unpublished refutation of Barruel, exploiting his poor logic and exposing his errors of fact. Later, in his Les Soirées de St Petersbourg (Lyon, 1874). II pp. 265 ff., he was to attack individual Illuminati for their revolutionary acts but he always excluded mainstream Freemasonry from any blame. [p. 297]

The Monthly Review, [January-April 1798, p. 510.] pointed out that ‘of the Abbé Barruel’s three conspiracies, Anti-Christian, Anti-monarchial, Anti-social, each successive one has been brought forward with diminishing evidence and decreasing plausability.’ [p. 200]

Refutations soon began to appear for there were many alive who could testify personally to his assertions; the most celebrated is that of J.J. Mounier, De l’inflence attribuée aux Philosophes, aux francs-maçons et aux illuminees sur la Révolution de France (Tübingen, 1801) [p. 200]

The Philosophes—any of the literary figures of eighteenth century France who were inspired by René Descartes, the skepicism of the Libertins, or freethinkers, and the popularization of science by Bernard de Fontenelle — was dominated by Voltaire and Montesquieu; they were united in a conviction of the supremacy of human reason.

After the French Revolution ruling classes across Europe began repressive police action against all clubs and societies. This tended to drive freemasons into hostility to their government and sympathy with the Revolution.

There was a great outcry in the 1790s in England against Jacobins, soon a synonym for revolutionaries. The educated English classes though did not accept the mythology of secret societies. [p. 206]

The ideologically opposite Edmund Burke virtually ignored the topic, only mentioning the Illuminati, in Reflections, in a footnote (Cambridge, 1912), [p.58]

The Report of the Committee of Secrecy [15 March 1799.] to the English House of Commons advised that systematic conspiracies by secret societies was to be feared, but did not mention Philosophes, Illuminati or freemasons. The English feared secret societies such as the United Irishmen, but freemasons were specifically excluded from the Unlawful Societies Act of 1799. [p. 208]

“In 1791 came what seems to have been the first published statement outside France of the link between intellectual and political revolution and secret societies, a pamphlet by the former Illuminatus, Eckartshusen: Über die Gefahr, die dem Thronen, dem Staaten und dem Christenhume dem gänzlichen Verfall drohet, durch das falsche Sistem der Leutigen Aufklärung und die kechen Anmasoungen sogennanter Philosophen, geheimer Gesellschaften und Sekten. (Munich, 1910)

L.A. Hoffmann founded the anti-illuminati Weiner Zeitschrift in 1791, in which Johann Georg Ritter von Zimmermann (1728-95), a Swiss doctor and author, contributed anti-masonic pieces. He created the conservative secret society ‘The Association’ in reply to the great Jacobin conspiracy that collapsed with Leopold II’s death (1737-92).

In 1794 a “plot” was discovered. Four groups of discontented persons were meeting in Hungary and Vienna for discussion and the distribution of anti-feudal reform propaganda. One member, Martinovics, had founded two secret societies both demonstrating Illuminati and masonic influences. Upon his arrest in 1794 he became a key informant. This incident confirmed the dangers of systematic secret societies in the ruling classes of the Habsburg dominions.

Johann August Starck (1741-1816) precipitated the crypto-Catholic accusations against the Strict Observance and the alleged Jesuit plot to undermine Protestantism. In 1787, Starck’s break from Hund complete, he published a 1200 page reply to his critics: Über Kryptokatholicismus, Proselytenmacherey, Jesuitismus, geheime Gesellschaften, (Frankfurt and Leipzig). In it he also sees the Illuminati as the cause of the French Revolution. Articles in Eudämonia, some ascribed to Starck, continued the theme that the Illuminati were still at work and plotting to stifle the sale of Barruel’s book in Germany. In 1797 an imperial decree in Austria suppressed this and similar journals. Starcke viewed Knigge as the source of the Illuminati’s evil nature, not Weishaupt. [p. 218] In 1803 Starck published the Triumph der Philosophie im 18 Jahrhundert, a complete account of his conspiracy theory starting with the Greek philosophers and working his way through mediaeval heresies up to the Aufklärung and Illuminati.

The Babeuf conspiracy and Buonarroti
Babeuf’s abortive plot would be forgotten except for Buonarroti’s 1828 Conspiracy of Equals. The plot itself had no impact but Buonarroti’s book provided fuel to the mythology. Buonarroti’s would later build a career as the Grand Old Man of secret societies, advising republican revolutionaries in Italy right down to a young Mazzini.

Filippo Giuseppe Maria Ludovico Buonarroti (1761-1837), although he achieved nothing, did more to give reality to the spectre of the universal conspiracy. Born of a noble family in Pisa, he early expressed egalitarian views and in April 1790 began publishing the short lived Giornale Patriottico di Corsica in Corsica. This was the first Italian language newspaper to support the French Revolution. It appears that he was a freemason and may have joined an Illuminati-influenced lodge in 1786. He was escorted off the island in June of 1791 in reaction to his anti-clerical work as director of the island’s administration of ecclesiastical affairs and national lands appropriated from the Church. He was briefly jailed in Tuscany and returned to Corsica in July.

He made his second visit to Paris in 1793, where he denounced Paoli to the Convention and was rewarded for his long revolutionary services by a special decree of nationalization as a French citizen on May 25th. [p. 230]

He was closely allied with Robespierre’s admirers and his notions of revolution clearly contained a large element of economic egalitarianism. [p. 231] Early in 1794 he was posted to Oneglia as administrator where he was courted by Italian refugees and Jacobins from the other Italian states. He was already experiencing local opposition when the events of Thermidor removed his friends in Paris from office. He was recalled to Paris in March 1795 and locked up in the Plessis prison where he met “Gracchus” Babeuf (b. 1760). Babeuf and Buonarroti were in jail together from March to October 1795.

On two occasions Babeuf sought membership in masonic lodges but was not successful. [M. Dommanget, ‘Babeuf et la franc-maçonnerie’ in Sur Babeuf et la conjuration des égaux (Paris, 1970), pp. 60-8.] He earned a living as a Paris journalist when the revolution came; later attacked Mirabeau; after Thermidor he attacked the still Robespierrist Commune of Paris. [p. 233-4]

The Directory of 1795 revealed that France was now to be ruled by the well-to-do, prompting much outraged egalitarian sentiment. Babeuf and Buonarroti, agreeing on the merits of Robespierre’s ideas, also adopted Buonarroti’s understanding of the conspiratorial techniques needed to fight a determined government. The Babeuf conspiracy, the Society of the Panthéon, discussed egalitarian ideas and published a newspaper, the Tribun du Peuple, throughout France.

In February 1796 the police of the Directory silenced the Tribun. The society ceased to meet but Babeuf formed a smaller ‘comité insurrecteur’. Their manifesto, drafted by Sylvain Maréchal, called for the restoration of the unimplemented Constitution of 1793. Another objective was the penetration of the army, police and governmental machine through the work of twelve revolutionary agents, a plan that was almost immediately revealed to the authorities by an informer. On May 8, 1796 two hundred arrests were made; Babeuf and one other were executed, Buonarroti was imprisoned after the trial in February 1797.

It is possible that Maréchal was the informer, it is also possible he was a freemason and linked to the Bavarian Illuminati. [p. 236] There are few if any records, and no coherent account until Buonarroti’s book, thirty years later. “It had then been forgotten that Babeuf’s own evidence at his trial and after is flagrently opposed to any masonic interpretation of what he had done.” [p. 237] [G. Pariset, ‘Babeuvisme et Maçonnerie’, in Mélanges offerts à M. Charles Andler par ses amis et ses él’eves(Strasbourg, 1924) p. 270]

Between 1800 and 1814 there was a pause in the development of the secret society mythology. A great deal of conspiracy went on, but it was closely observed and rooted out by the authorities. During the waning of the Napoleonic régime there were new developments as well as the inflating of Buonarroti’s career.

“Under the Consulate there was little evidence that masonic forms might be used as pretexts for the assembly of discontented ex-Jacobins. It cannot have amounted to much, because although Bonaparte’s first instinct had been to suppress masonry, he soon decided to use it instead. This delighted masons anxious for his patronage in order to re-establish the public respectability of the Craft.” [pp. 252-3]

Italy’s thirteen political divisions were importantly different from each other in government, administration and economy. The influence of the French Revolution, prior to 1796, was felt through propaganda and cultural interconnections. After the French armies broke into the penninsula the influence was more direct.

One of the most important of the royalist organizations of the early 1800s, the Chevaliers de la Foi, was founded by Ferdinand de Bertier and other royalists who had been members of the Congrégation. Bertier joined a masonic lodge to make use of their ritual and appears to have been much influenced by Barruel although his goals were totally at variance with those of traditional masonry and Barruel’s legendary conspiritors. [pp. 257-8]

The organization prospered, although royalist émigrés were unsure if the group’s interest was with the Bourbons or the Pope.

What the Chevaliers seemed to have done was to have provided by adopting the legendary techniques and methods of the secret societies an instrument for the restoration of the moral order as effective as those which were believed to have overthrown it. Their example reinforced the widespread readiness to believe in the importance of conspiracy and clandestine organization as political techniques. [p. 259]

Left wing and republican opposition to Napoleon — old Jacobins, “salon” republicans or intellectual “Idéologues, and disgusted soldiers — provide the backdrop for several abortive attempts to overthrow Napoleon: Moreau, the Cadoudal plot of 1804, General Malet’s and other royalist conspirators’ attempted coup of 1808 and another royalist plot in 1813. [p. 260-1]

Without Buonarroti the link from ‘Jacobin” conspiracies of the 1790s to the bogymen of the Restoration is almost non-existent. Most accounts are based on his reminiscences to Alexandre Philippe Andryane (1797-1863), published as Mémoires d’un prisonnier d’etat (Paris, 1838-9) and Souvenirs de Genève (Paris, 1839). [p. 327]

“Seemingly, he organized a Philadelphe group within a masonic lodge to which he belonged, the Amis Sincères. The Prefect, Capelle, became suspicious, and it is he who has provided the only evidence in contemporary official records that Buonarroti was a serious figure in the secret societies at this time.” [p. 264]

Although Capelle reported regularly between 1802 and 1813 to the authorities in Paris, they did not take his reports seriously since they were based on hearsay.

What may be termed the first international political secret society, the Sublimes Maîtres Parfaits, was founded by Buonarroti, perhaps in 1808. Only freemasons were admitted to it. “It represented the abandonment of the idea of a coup in favour of an attempt to build a new community within a corrupt society which would eventually destroy it by undermining it at every point.” [. 266]

“The Elect were aware that they were to work for a republican form of government; only the Areopagites knew that the final aim of the society was social egalitarianism, and the means to it the abolition of private property.” [p. 266]

“Whether this society had any importance in conspiracy against Napoleon is doubtful. It has been connected with the republican opposition because the first members of the Sublimes Maîtres Parfaits seem to have been Philadelphes of neo-Jacobin and anti-Bonapartist origins. Given how little we know of the Philadelphes, though, this does not take us far. If we infer a deliberate attempt to take over masonic lodges we have an Illuminati parallel, and this seems a reasonable inference. But from the start Buonarroti had in mind a new conception, co-ordinating and directing secret societies all over Europe. This was to be carried out through the ‘Grand Firmament’, the directing body whose name may have been taken from the Philadelphes. Still with this aim, the Sublimes Maîtres Parfaits survived the Restoration, being re-organized in 1818 under the name of the Monde (whose notebook is the main source of our information about its organization and ideas), and built up its connexions with almost every secret society in Western Europe. Thus, for the first time, reality was given to the myth of the great conspiracy. In the 1820s, when the society was discovered, this became public knowledge.” [p. 267]

“Paradoxically, whatever suspicions the police had of them, the Sublimes Maîtres Parfaits cannot be shown to have done anything at all that mattered beyond this, especially before 1815.” “No one has yet shown….that the Sublimes Maîtres Parfaits did anything positive of significance except (later) to strengthen Metternich’s hand by being discovered. All that mattered was that they existed.” [pp. 267-8]

The name Philadephes was a fairly common name for unrelated and disparate social groups and societies in the eighteenth century. [p. 268]

The ‘littérateur’ Charles Nodier (b. 1780) asserted the dangers of republican secret societies. His Histoire des sociétés secrèttes de l’armée (1815), published anonymously, was greeted with respect. Buonarroti’s involvement though is at best plausible and inferential. [p. 262] Although the Philadelphes were a reality, Nodier is not creditable, for example claiming to have spent twelve years in the army when in fact he never soldiered. [p. 269] References abound to the Philadelphes’ origins of the Charbonnerie, while the Cadoudel conspiracy and the Malet plot assert the Philadelphes as a continuing element in opposition to Bonaparte. But all in all, “it is almost impossible to separate fact and fiction in Nodier.” [p. 273]

Barruel received a letter from a correspondent in Italy, in 1806, chastising him for neglecting the influence of the Jewish ’sect’. This letter did not appear in print until 1878 as ‘Les souvenirs du P. Grivel sur les PP. Barruel et Feller’, Le Contemporain, July, 1878. This was the introduction of antisemitism into the anti-masonic legend. [p. 274-5]

“The best evidence, perhaps, that Italian Freemasonry was a political nullity is the appearance of other secret societies, the Spilla Nera, the Knights of the Sun, the Society of Universal Regeneration, the Decisi, the Centri, the Adelfi, the Guelfi and the Carbonari. [pp. 280-1] There were others and there were also a number of different groups using the same names. They were, in the main, anti-French or anti-Napoleonic. The Adelfi or Filadelfi may have been in communication with Buonarroti’s Sublimes Maîtres Parfaits and French Templar lodges.

“The carbonari must be placed with the freemasons, Jesuits and Illuminati as the greatest contributors to the mythology of the secret societies” [p. 283]

Their origins are obscure but they may have sprang from the Raggi or Lega Nera of the late 1790s. “It has been asserted that it was suspicion directed towards the Charbonnerie as a possibly counter-revolutionary organization during the Terror that in fact turned the interests of some of its members for the first time towards politics. Nodier suggested that it was awareness that masonic lodges would not do as vehicles for conspiracy which led plotters to seek to use the Charbonnerie for this purpose.” [p. 284]

Pierre Joseph Briot, a republican and proponent of a united and independent Italy, was invited to Naples by Joseph Napoleon where he met Lucien Bonaparte and Saliceti. This may be the origins of the first Carbonari lodges in 1808. Many of the French officials in Naples supported and encouraged the growth of local patriotism. The carbonari drew its members from a wide range of anti-Napoleonic feeling, at one extreme those seeking a Bourbon Restoration, at the other, a growing middle and upper class progressive republicanism. This disparate membership created an ambiguous history. “We can only be fairly sure that by 1814 the political attitudes of the Carbonari boiled down to a generalised anti-French sentiment… and a broad disposition to favour constitutionalism.” Some Carbonari also favoured the unification of Italy. If there were Illuminati elements, they were not remarked by contemporaries. [p. 288]

There also appeared a number of clandestine masonic lodges, breaking away from regular Freemasonry and coalescing with elements of dissident Scottish Rite lodges. Sòriga, in Le Società segreta, claims that some of these organized the Carbonari as a political instrument. [p. 286]

Although there is no evidence that the British in Sicily utilized clandestine organizations,the persistant fear that they sought to annex the island was promoted by Sòrega. [p. 287]

After 1819 another anti-Muratist, pro-Bourbon society was heard of, the Calderari, which is said to have denounced Freemasonry, Jansenists, materialists, economists and the Illuminat1 (Memoirs of the Secret Societies of the South of Italy, p. 71) [p. 293]

In 1811 the Savoyard, Joseph de Maistre asessed the political significance of the secret societies. “His only qualification of the innocence of Freemasonry was commonsense: if Freemasonry served the Revolution, it dd so per accidens. It was an association of clubs, many of whose members sumpathized with the Revolution (though this was not a function of their masonry). They were, therefore, likely to use the organization to which they belonged as a natural channel or framework for their activity in forming revolutionary clubs. [Derminghem, Joseph de Maistre mystique, pp. 88-90] [p. 295]

De Maistre provides a full scale refutation of Barruel’s book, denouncing it for errors of fact and simple bad logic. This refutation has been preserved among his papers.

During the Restoration, from 1815 to 1825, the secret societies became respectable as “the admired precursors of the nation-makers of the later nineteenth century, a role which exaggerated their effect and distorted their nature almost as much as the conservative slanders and misapprehensions” [p. 300]

Metternich’s fear of the secret societies appears in many of his writings. (Memoirs of Prince Metternich, London: 1881. III p. 453.) [p. 301]

“International affairs had been injected with an ideological issue, or rather, a series of issues: natural rights against prescription, nationality dynasticism, liberty versus order, contract versus status, the past versus the future.” [p. 306] The end of fighting in Europe brought economic and social dislocation leading to Luddism, emigration and disturbances. A disposition to look for explanations in conspiracy simplified governmental response.

It is impossible to determine the number of discontented Italians belonging to secret societies. Opponents and members were equally anxious to exaggerate, and there is no complete list of the names of societies. [p. 307] Many agents and informers were unreliable, either publicity seekers, swindlers or adventurers. Often the result was unwise action; one example was the Austrian pursuit of freemasons in Lombardy in 1814 at a moment when many of them were actively sympathetic to the restored régime (R. J. Rath. The Provisional Austrian Régime, p. 193) [p. 311]

According to Francovich, the first reference to the Carbonari in the Tuscan police archives is in 1814 [p. 309]

Other societies, the Congregazione Cattolica e Apostolica Romana and the Consistoriali, were feared but never exposed and never did anything. In Germany the Tugendbund, an anti-Napoleonic movement, had no practical importance in the Restoration, yet Metternich believed it responsible for student unrest and the murder of the journalist Kotzebue in 1819. [p. 313]

There was also a specifically Bonapartist secret society, the Chevaliers de la Liberté. Republicans, disaffected by Napoleon, supported the Bourbon régime through L’Union, founded by Joseph Philippe Étienne Rey in 1816, and specific masonic lodges such as the Parisian Loge de amis de la verité. This lodge reinvented itself as the ‘Haute Vente’ of a new Charbonnerie. Some members were not republicans but wanted to bring in Napoleon II, or crown the Duc d’Orléans (son of the former Grand Master of French freemasonry). Their sum total effect was only to focus public attention on the mythology of secret societies and by 1823 the society was moribund, replaced in the public imagination by the Chevaliers de la Foi. [p. 321-2]

In the 1820s, secret societies such as L’épingle noire, Patriotes de 1816, Vatours de Bonaparte, Chevaliers du soliel, Patriotes européen réhd, La régéneration universelle, and others, achieved nothing other than reinforcing the plot theory of history. No less than nine major conspiracies were detected in seven months. Conservatives feared these societies and liberals were prepared to exaggerate their importance. [p. 316-7]

“By 1871 a federal German Empire based on universal suffrage and a united, constitutional Italy both existed; France was a republic. Such achievements were for fifty years the goals of German, Italian and French radicals and the secret societies contributed virtually nothing to them.” [p. 317]

Buonarroti’s achievements in co-ordinating the secret societies of different countries were largely formal and meant little in practice. [p. 325] His ‘Great Firmament’, Metternick’s fears aside, probably never consisted of more than himself and one or two others, and never directed events. [p. 325]

One of the most celebrated informers of the period, Johannes Wit von Dörring cofessed to both Italian and German authorities and then published his memoirs. [p. 326] “He explained, it is true, that he had never been formally received in any secret society except by virtue of passing into its membership as a freemason.” (Lemmi. pp. 31-2) [p. 327]

The 1822 arrest of an associate of Buonarroti, Alexandre Andryane, by the Milanese police did more than any other single event to substantiate and inflate official fear of secret societies in this period. [p. 327] (Androyane, Mémoires d’un prisonnier d’etat, Paris: 1838-9. Souvenirs de Genève, Paris: 1839) Androyane carried papers that revealed Buonarroti’s web of secret societies, giving life to the spectre of one great force behind all the separate manifestations of Europe’s revolution.

The Tuscan informer, Giuseppe Valtancoli, was a specialist in masonic rituals. He reported on the Carbonari and Guelfismo as well as the Sublimes Maîtres Parfaits though he thought they were called Adelfia. [p. 330] He also reported on the masonic rites which had remained separate from the Napoleonic structure such as the Old Scottish Templars. This mixture of ritual and conspiracy was familiar to a public prepared by Barruel and Lombard to accept the possibility of an illuminati threat. Wit’s memoirs stressed this link between nineteenth century political conspiracies grounded on some reality with the mythologies of the previous century. “The new ‘facts’ joined other evidence to become sources themselves, not merely for positive history of the secret societies (though historians have done much with such materials but also for its mythology.” [p. 331]

“Wit , Valtancoli and others fed it for the future by providing those familiar with the sensational literature of the proceding twenty years with material confirming it. There were, after all, confessions by men who had been deeply involved in the events they described. This had a cumulative effect. The reinforcement which the informers and spies gave to the myth was sometimes effective at a very high level indeed. So was the unhappy Androyane’s evidence, and so at one further remove, were the untiring and practically ineffective labours of Buonarroti.” [p. 331]

“Almost everywhere, the danger was exaggerated and essentially sporadic and disjoint conspiracy was misread as evidence of the existence of central co-ordinated direction.” [p. 331]

“The paradoxes and curious reversals in the growth of the mythology are very striking. Successful police action against the societies increased the authorities’ alarm because of what they discovered. Papal condemnation led to greater fear of them though it probably cut deeply into their popular support. Their practical failures, among them those of Buonarroti (surely the most inflated of bogies) helped the survival and strengthening of old fears of the ever present danger the societies were supposed to embody. As the continuing popularity of Barruel and the transmission of his tradition through such writers as Lombard de Langres shows, the mass of new details exposed by the receding of the revolutionary wave found an accepted structure of interpretation readily at hand. That much of the new data was baseless did not make it less acceptable and influential.” [p. 334]

There was also a growth in publications aiming to satisfy a commercial demand for the inside story and explanation of Europe’s turmoil. “Most of its expression testify to the enduring sources of the myth’s strength: the ideas of secrecy, subversion, hidden superiors, ancient historical roots which offered keys to rapid, accelerating and inexplicable change.” [p. 334]

Jakob Levi Bartholdy (17779-1825) published one of the first objective analysis of the secret societies, Memoires of the Secret Societies of the South of Italy in London in 1821. Unfortunately the public only remembered his sensational details confirming their worst fears, while glossing over the reasoned argument that these societies were, in the main, harmless and fading away. [p. 337]

By the mid-1820s there were books that damned the secret societies and others that praised them and legitimised them as precursors of liberalism and republicanism. One of the earliest attempts to place them in what was to evolve into the myth of the Risorgiment was L’Italie au dix-neuvième siècle, published anonymously by Francesco S. Salfi as early as 1821. [p. 338]

“…liberals began to integrate the story of the secret societies with the advance of liberty…” [p. 339]

Buonarroti arrived in Brusels in 1824 where he stayed until 1830, meeting his circle of old friends and fellow-exiles every day in a café. He moved to Paris in 1830 where he died in 1837. This period he spent encouraging other conspirators. What he actually was doing is unclear although he was closely involved with “M’ in 1824-5 and a remodelled Sublimes Maîtres Parfaits now called Le Monde. [p. 341]

Buonarroti fed the mythology with the publication of his Conspiration pour l’Egalité in 1828, in which he celebrated the leaders of secret societies of the previous century. This book became the textbook for the communist movement in the 1830s and forties. It also confirmed the fears that many held that the secret societies were not merely seeking liberal reform but were deeply subversive of all social order. [p. 343] Buonarroti’s obsession with forms and rituals based on masonic, Illuminati and Rosecrusion traditions could not but suggest a direct continuity between these movements and his societies. [p. 343]

Mazzini, friend of Buonarroti, one time Carbonari and mason, became disillusioned with secret societies after 1831 and formed Giovine Italy, a clearly nationalistic society. [p. 344]

“Buonarroti was the ultimate source of enormous quantities of alarming information which came eventually into the hands of the authorities and helped to keep alive the fears of men like Metternich. Paradoxically, then, there was after all a continuity in the secret societies, just as their critics had always said, though it resulted in no effective action against the existing order and was imposed largely by one man. Nevertheless, that was enough for the myth to pass to the next generation, in which Louis Blanc could seriously state (and be believed) that Buonarroti was the heart of revolutionary Europe in those years. Such reality as there was in this claim was a mythical reality woven from illusion and self-deception.” [p. 346]

The flow of literature has never stopped. From the cynical L. de la Hodde, Histoire des sociétés secrètes st du parti républicain de 1830 à 1848 (Paris, 1850) to the sincere C. Jannet, Les sociétés secrètes, there are many examples of the determination to force historical data into a predetermined frame, even when there is no special reason to do so. [p. 348]

“All these fears rest on simplifying, dramatising visions of politics. In the background there is still a belief in hidden manipulation. Those who hold them have abandoned some of the stage machinery, but the plot is the same.” [p. 349]

“All human institutions can be described in terms of function, mythologies as much as any other. They are all responses to a need to master reality.” [p. 349]

“…we deal with a mythology which even at its height was denounced on rational and empirical grounds and is clearly nonsense. Why then, were such ideas effective? Why are books embodying them still finding audiences?” [p. 350]




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