"Anyone who knows how difficult it is to keep a secret among three men - particularly if they are married - knows how absurd is the idea of a worldwide secret conspiracy consciously controlling all mankind by its financial power; in real, clear analysis."
Such was the admirably rational opinion of Sir Oswald Mosley on the conspiracy theories of his own day. Sadly, we are not all as level-headed as the blackshirted baronet, and conspiracy theories of all kinds continue to thrive. Nor are they merely the preserve of frothing political extremists or young single men blogging from their bedsits. It is said that 36% of Americans think that 9/11 was an inside job. In recent years, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion have been endorsed by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Egyptian press. You can even buy a book written by a British Member of Paliament and Under-Secretary of State explaining that Dr David Kelly was murdered for speaking out of turn about Saddam's WMDs.
The urge to ascribe simple causes to complex events; the urge to personalise and to anthropomorphise; the tendency to see patterns where none exist; the desire to find an identifiable enemy; the pleasure of feeling that one is privy to hidden truths - as long as humankind labours under these psychological limitations, conspiracy theories will always be with us.
J.M.Roberts' study concentrates on a particular genre of conspiracy theories: those involving secret societies from the 18th century onwards. This is a particularly rich historical vein, and one that continues to be mined by quite a few people today. Roberts makes the point that the wild and deluded ideas that he discusses were once taken seriously by sober and intelligent statesmen like Benjamin Disraeli, not to mention several popes.
The best known of the secret societies was and is Freemasonry. As is well know, the Masonic movement originated in lodges of working stonemasons in the middle ages, but by the 17th century it was evolving into a gentlemen's social society. This new form of Masonry originated in Scotland, and by 1717 the United Grand Lodge of England had been founded. The movement spread extensively in continental Europe, notably in France. For most of the eighteenth century, it appears to have been a club for bored men with large incomes, many of whom had conventional religious views and no great interest in fomenting political change. Indeed, some of them seem to have seen the craft as a bulwark of conservatism. The secrets of the lodges were quickly revealed by defectors. There was, it seemed, nothing to see here.
In fact, Freemasonry had attracted suspicion and speculation from the start. Why were these guys meeting together in secret and binding themselves with blood-curdling oaths? What exactly were they getting up to behind closed doors and away from the presence of women? The first rumours began to circulate that Masons favoured radical progressive reform of society and that the upper echelons of the order guarded secrets of which rank-and-file members were kept in ignorance. There was some hostility to the movement from civil authorities. In 1738, Masonry was officially condemned by the Catholic Church for the first time, in a bull of Pope Clement XII. Anti-Masonry, however, was not a particularly potent force. There was no real concerted effort on the part of Europe's ruling classes to put down the fraternity - unsurprisingly, since not a few of them were members of it - and Clement XII's bull was widely ignored. In the earlier part of the 18th century, there was no anti-Masonic persecution and no widely believed Masonic conspiracy theory.
Things started to change in the latter part of the century. The Masonic community saw a growth in "Scottish" or "red" Freemasonry, which awarded exotic titles and degrees unknown to orthodox "blue" lodges (the "Scottish" appellation was a misnomer, incidentally). There was a great growth in quasi-Masonic and schismatic Masonic groups, such as the German order known as the Strict Observance. In addition, Freemasonry had become associated with two entirely different organisations. The first was the mediaeval Knights Templar, who had been the victims of an earlier conspiracy theory promoted by King Philip IV of France. The second was the 17th century esoteric Christian movement known as Rosicrucianism. Public opinion was turning sceptical. The brethren were getting out of their depth.
A turning point came in 1784-5, with the collapse of a society called the Order of the Illuminati. This group had been founded in 1776 in Bavaria, and its leader was an academic called Adam Weishaupt. Its political and religious outlook was genuinely radical and subversive, and it sought to infiltrate and merge itself with Freemasonry. When it was finally banned and broken up by the Bavarian authorities, the link was established and confirmed in the public mind between secret societies, Freemasonry and political subversion. At the same time, ideas were current on the left that right-wingers, including members of the Jesuit order (which had recently been disbanded by the Pope), were themselves seeking to use secret societies to reimpose conservative theocratic rule.
But this was just an aperitif. It was the earthquake and deluge of the French Revolution that guaranteed the Masons and their brethren a lasting place in the pantheon of conspiracist paranoia. The idea that the Revolution was the doing of secret societies quickly attained widespread currency, and in some circles the idea remains tenacious right down to the present day. To be sure, a number of leading figures in the Revolution were Masons, and Masonic-type societies had probably provided a useful network of contacts and a means of disseminating liberal ideas. But it can safely be said that there was no conspiracy. In the period before 1789, Freemasonry was in decline and its membership was still somewhat aristocratic. When the Revolution started kicking off, the movement was suspected in some quarters of being dangerously conservative. In all, the brethren were hit hard by the Revolution. If it really was a Masonic plot, it was one that backfired spectacularly.
Go to Part 2