The Myth of Freemasonic Conspiracy

I had breakfast with the Freemasons a few months ago. Three of my friends and I were driving through Wayzata and stopped at the local lodge for an all-you-can-eat breakfast. In their brightly lit dining hall, a smiling round man in plain clothes (and, to my disappointment, not a hooded cloak) served us food. We ate over paper placemats with an illustration showing men dressed in elaborate robes standing on steps of a staircase. Each step was a degree of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, and at the top was “Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret.” The old gentleman next to us asked us how we liked Minnesota. On our way out, I saw an unfamiliar portrait of George Washington wearing all black, a pendant, and what looked like a smock with odd symbols embroidered on it. The Wayzata Masons were perfectly nice, but I felt like there was some dark secret hidden from view. What was it? Who were these people with whom I’d had French toast and orange juice?


This is a story about a secret society, German politics, and the Holocaust, but it’s moral is as much about modern America and every other industrial society: be careful where you point your assumptions. Freemasonry in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Germany – the subject of this paper – drew from Germans the same kind of suspicions I had of the Wayzata Lodge. But Germans’ suspicions had much more serious consequences. By the 1920s and ’30s, many Germans suspected, much as I did of the Wayzata Masons, that the Freemasons were hiding some insidious secret. Schoolchildren in Hitler’s regime read books accusing Freemasons of colluding with Jews to take down the world order. That was utterly untrue, above all because most Freemasons were as antisemitic as the rest of interwar Germany. Most of Germany’s Masonic lodges didn’t even accept Jewish members. But the general public still amalgamated Jews with Masonry. Even though there was no conspiracy, even though the Freemasons were just a fraternal organization, antisemitic slander fused Masons with the “Jewish problem,” excluded them, and, sent them to concentration camps. Historian Chris Thomas recently argued that persecution of Freemasons was another hypocrisy of the Nazi regime. Indeed, it shows the ad hoc character of Nazi hate, but we can’t fully understand that hate without looking beyond the Nazis.i We need to understand the centuries-long histories of antisemitism and Freemasonry that led to the 1930s. Suspicion surrounding Freemasonry mixed with antisemitism in the growing confusion of Modernity to bond Jews and Freemasons in the eyes of German people and governments from Wilhelm to Hitler.


A 1935 Nazi propaganda poster accusing Jews and Freemasons of orchestrating modern European revolutions

Freemasonry came to German lands from England in the eighteenth century. Its members, who were mostly members of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, had secret meetings and initiation ceremonies in their local lodges. Each local lodge belonged to a particular Grand Lodge like the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) or the Grand Orient de France (GOdF). It was a hierarchical civil religion and the lodges were its chapels. In them, members worshipped rational science. The building of the pyramids and Solomon’s Temple represented Masonry’s highest values: the achievement of mankind through understanding of geometry and natural laws. Freemasons believed the universe was understandable, that it obeyed certain rules in a predictable way. These ideas were based on Newtonian science popular in England at Freemasonry’s conception (J. T. Desaguliers, a former assistant to Newton, was one of the first Grand Masters). But Masonic philosophy went beyond science. It had a God, the “Great Architect,” who had designed the universe, its laws, and a moral order. That all men were created equal, for example, was an axiom of that Masonic morality. But it was all symbolically connected somehow to Geometry, natural laws, and science. Men could live morally and successfully, they could build their own Temples of Solomon, if they studied their world through the principles of Enlightenment science.ii


As elegant and profound as the philosophy seems, it caused bitter argument among Masons in the centuries after its establishment. All Masons had to believe in a Great Architect, but who was he? The Christian Protestant Christian God? A non-denominational metaphor? Could Jews be Masons? And if the Masons excluded anyone, could they claim to be upholding their own egalitarian principles? These questions would devil German Freemasons in the modern age.


From at least the early nineteenth century Masonic lodges in German-speaking states struggled with the Jewish question. Some Masons thought the order’s values dictated they accept people of all religions. Other Masons insisted the order ought to be exclusively Christian. Beginning in the early 1800s, lodges in most German-speaking states, but not in Prussia, started allowing Jews visiting membership. Jews were allowed to belong to a lodge without being full members. But in Prussia, Crown Prince Wilhelm, forbade the three Prussian Grand Lodges from accepting Jewish members in any capacity.iii It’s important to note here that Wilhelm wouldn’t have made such an order if it weren’t politically necessary. That the Prince had to make the order evidences both that Prussian Freemasons were people of consequence to the royal family (aristocrats and bourgeoisie), and that they feared Jews entering their social networks.


By 1848, German authors had distributed a handful of pamphlets accusing Jews and Freemasons of wrongdoing. Dr. Johann Christian Ehrmann of Frankfurt, in 1816 wrote one of the first, titled (in German) Jewry in Masonry; a Warning to all German Lodges, in which he argued Jews were using Freemasonry as institutional protection for suspicious activities. Ehrmann was a mason. Ironically, he was also an important influence, direct or indirect, on nineteenth and twentieth century anti-Masonry. As Jacob Katz shows in his detailed history of European Jews and Freemasons, Ehrmann’s attacks can be traced, by citation or by plagiarized passages, up through the bibliographies of European anti-Masonry. French author E. H. Chabouty, who published antisemitic anti-Masonic works between 1869 and ’75, borrowed heavily from his contemporary Frenchman, Gougenot de Mousseaux, who had himself taken material from a German writer, Eduard Emil Eckert who had copied Ehrmann’s argument, sources, and certain passages.iv de Mousseaux and Chabouty published their work in France and beyond. So even though Ehrmann wasn’t well-received at his publishing, he was revived in the widely distributed exhortations of de Mousseaux and Chabouty. The anxiety Ehrmann and other Masons had about Jews in their lodges contributed to the spread of the image of Freemasonry as an institution corrupted by Jews (even though that’s not quite what Ehrmann intended). Ehrmann had accidentally given a lot of steam to both antisemitism and anti-Masonism.


German Freemasons weren’t uniformly prejudiced towards Jews. Ehrman and others wouldn’t have complained in the first place if there hadn’t been some Masons who wanted to accept Jews. By the eve of German unification in 1871, lodges accepted Jews in every German state except for Prussia, which remained strictly Christian by Wilhelm’s mandate.v But, as early as 1882, non-Masonic institutions failed to distinguish tolerant from prejudiced lodges (or judaized from pure, for those who preferred a more prejudiced connotation). In 1882 at the first international antisemitic conference, a member of the Hungarian Parliament, Gyözö Istoczy, presented a manifesto containing a paragraph on Freemasonry as a Jewish conspiracy. As Katz guesses, Istoczy learned what he knew about the imagined Freemason-Jewish conspiracy from his French antisemite associates who had likely read de Mousseaux or Chabouty. In other words, Istoczy’s ideas of Freemasonry probably came indirectly from Johann Ehrmann. But somewhere along the line, Ehrmann’s message had been miscommunicated. Ehrmann had tried to protect Masonry from a perceived Jewish threat, but for Istoczy, Masonry was the Jewish threat. German delegates to the antisemitism conference insisted that it couldn’t be the case, since some German Grand Lodges didn’t even accept Jewish members. Istoczy heeded the Germans’ criticism and, in his manifesto’s final draft, distinguished between lodges that accepted and lodges that excluded Still, the incident shows that non-Masons were enough in the dark about Masonry that they could erroneously lump Jews together with Freemasons in one slanderous thought. There would be more of that to come.


All this was happening while modernity was speeding up in Europe. Cities were becoming denser and more connected in a complex web of industrial economies, and, importantly, Jews were becoming more visible. In the mid- to late nineteenth century, Jews in Germany, once very recently an outcast, impoverished group, suddenly seemed to be successful and everywhere. As Jerrold Siegel argues in his study of bourgeois life in Modern Europe, Jews’ nationlessness – the dispersal of Jewish people across the continent – made them good “network people.” Because Jewish people had connections to other Jewish people in other countries, they were more likely to have access to “networks of means” – information networks, market networks, and state institutions. These networks were a critical part of bourgeois existence. They’re what brought the European bourgeoisie wealth and power, Siegel argues.vii If that’s so, then European Jews were uniquely situated to join the bourgeoisie.


Indeed, Jews moved quickly into many parts of middle and upper class life in Germany. Jewish enrollment in universities grew very quickly relative to enrollment overall. And Jews became successful merchants and businessmen.viii This is not to say Jewish poverty disappeared. In fact, it could be important that Bourgeois Germans still saw poor Jews in the street. Maybe the bourgeois German was galled that the people wedging their way into his class seemed to be the very impoverished outsiders who, less than a lifetime ago, had all lived in the city’s ghetto. That helps explain why Freemasons strongly resisted Jewish integration in the late nineteenth century. Even in the Royal York Grand Lodge of Germany, the only of the Germany’s three grand lodges to officially accept Jews before 1900, there were just a handful of Jewish members in lodges of hundreds. And after 1880, members of the Royal York denied almost every Jew’s request for membership.ix Rising antisemitism among German Freemasons was a symptom of modernity.


There was a tense balance between tolerance and exclusion of Jews in the lodges of the 1880s and ’90s. And as antisemitism swelled, Masons lost that balance. Frustrated with the lodges they belonged to, some Berlin Jews founded a German chapter of the American Jewish fraternity, B’nai B’rith in 1887. B’nai B’rith wasn’t affiliated with Freemasonry, but it was the same kind of fraternity. In Germany, it was an alternative society for Jews fed up with Masonic exclusion. By 1890, B’nai B’rith had lodges in several German cities and its membership had passed 3,000.x Also, in 1892 Hermann Settegast, a Grand Master of the Royal York, left his order to found a new Grand Lodge who’s explicit purpose would be tolerating Jews. The move caused backlash among the established Grand Lodges. One Mason would accuse Settegast’s lodge of “alarming mass production of Jewish Masons.”xi Around 1892, Masonry’s Jewish question was as contested as ever, and the sides in the Jewish debate were clearly drawn.


Yet as much as German Freemasonry was splitting into identifiable camps of pro-Jew and anti-Jew, it seems German non-Masons didn’t care. Like Gyözö Istoczy, they started putting Freemasons, antisemitic or not, into one category. Part of this must have to do with the cloud of secrecy surrounding the lodges. Non-Masons sometimes expressed suspicion and resent at the esoteric lodges. Resenting Masons while at the same time not knowing much about their lodges’ inner workings, it was easy for outsiders to make broad, negative generalizations. At the same time, the Masons lost the Kaiser. Wilhelm II didn’t manage the Grand Lodges as had his father, Wilhelm I. And Wilhelm II cared so little about the political importance of the non-Jewish or the Jewish Grand Lodges, that he accepted birthday greetings from controversial Settegast in 1894. If he had cared what the other Grand Lodges thought, the move would have been a political gaffe.xii


Further, German Masonry’s demographic shifted as Wilhelm II took the throne. Maybe as an effect or maybe part of the cause of the Kaiser’s turning his back on the Masons, the aristocracy left the Grand Lodges, leaving mostly middle class members. It follows that the Freemasons no longer comprised the nation’s politically important elite, because Wilhelm II didn’t pay Masonry much attention. He didn’t, as had his father, need to make mandates to please the Masons. To the Kaiser and to the country’s most powerful, one Mason was the same as another, and none of them were particularly special. There was not an antisemitic Mason and a progressive Mason. There was just a Mason.xiii


By the end of World War I, German Freemasons had fallen into political obscurity. Then came the really incendiary conspiracy theories. A book called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, first written in Russia by an unknown author in 1903, accused Jews of secretly plotting world domination using Freemasonry as a cover. Interestingly, Katz proposes Protocols has enough of the same ideas as Chabouty’s to have been influenced by Chabouty’s work.xiv Translated into several languages, including English and German, Protocols, owed its success in Germany to Masonry’s political obscurity and to antisemitism that only grew more after World War Ixv Because many of them were antisemitic, Germans were ready to receive the prejudiced sentiments in Protocols. Because non-Masons knew little about Masonry, they could believe the slander in Protocols, if only for lack of a counterargument.


When Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, he had to target Masonry partly because, as Chris Thomas observes, Masonry stood for everything the Nazis didn’t, Masons stood for fraternity and equality; The Nazis stood for racial purification.xvi But not all Masons did stand for fraternity and equality and, in fact, some lodges followed antisemitic principles compatible with Nazism. There’s something here Thomas doesn’t examine. Even though they might have gotten along with some Masons, the Nazis had to persecute Masons because the lodges and Jews were inextricably molded in the eyes of the German people. Few non-Masons had made the distinction between antisemitic and tolerant Masons since the nineteenth century. And to a generation that had read Protocols and others, Freemasonry was a bunch of Jews who might have been planning to take over the world. Hitler made German schools use Protocols as a textbook, and distributed propaganda villainizing Jews and Freemasons as two parts of the same insidious anti-German plot.xvii To some extent, Hitler needed the conspiracy theories to convince the German people that the Jews were a danger to society.


The problem for the Nazi Party in the 1930s was that the military needed men and the bureaucracy needed employees. Freemasons were perfect. They were well-to-do educated middle class men who even wanted to join the Party. Many were even willing to sign a document denouncing their Masonic lodges. Further, Masons looking to join the Party proved they weren’t Jews or Jewish sympathizers and that they were first loyal to Germany. Yet the party still turned them away.xviii It’s as if the Nazis were bound by contract to condemn the Freemasons. The contract was Protocols and a general misunderstanding of Freemasonry. The Nazis couldn’t back down. If the they changed their policy to let all Freemasons join the Party, they might have shown the public how arbitrary and poorly-grounded their mission for racial purity was. So instead, Freemasons went to concentration camps.


We can trace the causes of that effect back more than a century. For the Nazis to persecute the Freemasons, Freemasons and Jews had to be roped together by works like Protocols. Before that, non-Masons had to be suspicious already of what they couldn’t see behind lodge doors. Also, non-Masons had to ignore that there was a difference between tolerant and antisemitic Masonic lodges. That part pretty much accomplished itself, since Freemasonry was, by design, a secret organization. It was easy for Germans to believe whatever they read because they couldn’t find out much else. It’s also very important that Freemasons themselves were publicly disapproving of their order’s acceptance of Jews. Statements of Masons like Johann Ehrmann, given enough years to be interpreted and misinterpreted, ended up helping convince antisemites that Jewry had somehow corrupted Masonry. Prejudice within the lodges spawned prejudice directed at the lodges. For any of that prejudice to happen in the first place, there had to be the growing antisemitism that was a symptom of Modern Germany. This can’t be an exhaustive list of the pieces of German anti-Masonism, but these are the necessary causes.


The morning I had breakfast with the Wayzata Freemasons, I left their lodge disappointed. They were too normal, and too nice. I wanted to know what went on in their secret meetings, what their sacred symbols meant, and what dark, culty things they did behind closed doors. But let’s parse the situation with Occam’s razor. Ruling out crazy conspiracy theories, there really isn’t anything dark about the Freemasons in Wayzata. Just like there wasn’t a Masonic conspiracy in twentieth century Germany. But Germans imagined there was. And it caused pain and misunderstanding. In Germany, something resembling my simple curiosity about the Masons, multiplied by millions and mixed into the frantic pot of antisemitism and modernizing Germany, tied Jews and Freemasons in a doomed tangle.


David Meyerson, “The Myth of Freemasonic Conspiracy,” May 2013, was originally a term paper for Rudy Koshar’s Modern European history class at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.


i Chris Thomas tracks how Nazi bureaucracy struggled with and repeatedly compromised on the Freemason question before 1939, see Chris Thomas, “Defining ‘Freemason’: Compromise, Pragmatism, and German Lodge Members in the NSDAP.” German Studies Review 35, no. 3: 587-605 (2012). See also Doris Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust, (Plymouth, UK: Rowman and Littlefield), 24.

ii I’m here relying on 1) a quote from the work of James Anderson and J. T. Desaguliers, two early English Freemasons who tried to explain the significance of Freemasonry in Modern and Ancient society, and 2) William Weisberger’s treatment of those authors in his book on Masonry’s connection to the enlightenment. See Lionel Vibert (ed.), Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723 (Washington: Masonic Service Association, 1924), 32-35 and 39-44 as quoted in William Weisberger, Speculative Freemasonry and the Enlightenment, (New York: Columbia University, 1993), 28 – 29. See also Chapter II, speculative Freemasonry in early Hanoverian London.

<a “_edn3″>iiiGStAPK Berlin-Dahlem, Rep. 77, Tit. 859, no. 13, ‘Kabinetts-Order an den Minister des Inneren vom 18.8.1857, betreffend den Zutritt von Nichtchristen in den Freimaurerlogen, Verha ¨ltnis der Preußischen Maçonnerie zum Christenthum’ as cited in S-L Hoffmann,  “Brothers or Strangers? Jews and Freemasons in Nineteenth-century Germany,” German History 18, no. 2 (June 2000): 151.

iv Jacob Katz, Jews and Freemasons in Europe 1723 – 1939 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970) 67-69, also Chapter X “The source of ‘Jews and Freemasons,’” 149.

v Hoffmann, 151.

vi Evidently there was such a thing as an international antisemitic conference. See Katz, 163.

vii Jerrold Seigel, Modernity and Bourgeois Life (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012) Esp. Chapter 11, “Jews as Bourgeois and Network People.”

viii Ibid, 402.

ix Hoffman, 158.

x Katz, 164.

xi Hoffman, 158.

xii Katz, 168.

xiii Thomas.

xiv Katz, 179.

xv The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, translated to English by Victor E. Marsden in (English version and German version both published in 1919), accessed April 29, 2013, <>.

xvi Thomas.

xvii “Juden – Freimauerei,” Poster no. 64 in “Erblehre und Rassenkunde” Verlag fuer nationale Literatur, Stuttgart, 1935, public domain image on Wikimedia Commons, accessed April 30, 2013, <>.

xviii Ibid.