The godfather of the conspiracy theory of the French Revolution was an ex-Jesuit priest called Augustin Barruel. In 1797, Barruel published Mémoires pour servir à l'Histoire du Jacobinisme, a work which ranks second only to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the ranks of conspiracy literature. Barruel laid out a vast and expansive narrative of conspiracy in which he blamed the ills of the age on secularist philosophers, the Freemasons and the Illuminati. These conspirators, whose roots went back to the Knights Templar and the ancient heresy of Manichaeism, had been working to undermine the Church, the State and society as a whole.
This was nonsense, but it was widely circulated and highly influential nonsense - the Loose Change of its day. It was read extensively, and it remained in print well into the 20th century. It was joined on the bookshelves of Europe's reactionary right by John Robison's impressively titled Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe (1797) and Johann August von Starck's Triumph of Philosophy (1803), both of which were works in a similar vein. (One notable omission from this list of counterrevolutionary littérateurs is Joseph de Maistre, whose views on secret societies were surprisingly moderate.) A rather more sober and judicious work, Memoirs of the Secret Societies of the South of Italy by Jakob Bartholdy, appeared in 1821, but by then it was far too late.
In 1806, an important milestone in the history of conspiracism was passed when a correspondent (supposedly a captain in Napoleon's armies called Simonini) wrote to Barruel asking him why he hadn't given his attention to the "Jewish sect", which had created the Masons and the Illuminati in the first place and was aiming at world domination. The day of paranoid antisemitism was not yet at hand, however, and it was not until 1878 that the letter was published and reached a wider audience.
Aside from the ill-fated Illuminati, the first real conspiratorial societies were those which appeared in Italy in the 1790s - but these had nothing to do with the paranoid fantasies of Barruel and his follows. The Italian secret societies sprang up after the French Revolution and were directed against the French revolutionary régime that was imposing its rule on the Italian peninsula. In France itself, as the First Republic turned into the First Empire, Freemasonry became a respectable part of the authoritarian conservative Napoleonic regime, and was patronised by the Bonaparte dynasty. Something similar was the case in Italy. Nor did the fall of Napoleon turn the French Freemasons into subversives: they hurried to restore the fleur-de-lys to their crest - then removed it again when Napoleon returned from Elba, then put it back on again after Waterloo.
The Restoration era that followed the defeat of Napoleon (1815-1830) was the heyday of conspiratorialism, especially when a series of revolutions broke out in the early 1820s. No less a person than Prince Metternich accepted the conspiracy theory of the secret societies. But the societies still didn't actually do much. Aside from the Freemasons, the best known secret society was perhaps the famous Carbonari, who had emerged in Napoleonic times. This Italian organisation seems to have developed, in a similar manner to the Freemasons, from an earlier, apolitical networks of societies in France, where it bore the name of the Charbonnerie. The Carbonari became entangled in the later mythology of the Italian Risorgimento, but their power and importance seem to have been somewhat exaggerated. They played a part in fomenting political change in Italy at the end of the Napoleonic Wars and in the disturbances of the 1820s, but their role was more limited and problematic than the conspiratorial myth would suggest.
Part of the problem is that the influence of secret societies in European politics has been exaggerated not only by nervous rulers and policemen, who feared the societies' subversive potential, but also by liberals and radicals, who sympathised with the societies and supported the principles which they allegedly stood for. This tendency has, for example, coloured assessments of the left-wing legend Philippe Buonarroti (1761-1837), who conspired with Gracchus Babeuf in the 1790s and went on to form a society known as the Sublimes Maîtres Parfaits which had some similarities to the Illuminati. Buonarroti was a schemer and self-publicist who deceived himself as much as anyone else that secret societies were or could be a force for radical political change. The flames of conspiratorialism were also fanned by the revelations of grasses like Johannes Wit von Dörring and Alexandre Andryane.
Roberts does not seek to take his dense and detailed narrative beyond the end of the golden age of secret societies in the Restoration era. Had he continued on to the second half of the 19th century, he might have elucidated the origins and spread of the Jewish conspiracy theory, which was subsequently linked, in the first half of the 20th century, with the rise of Communism.
Even today, there are those who see Masonic (or Jewish, or Communist) conspiracies everywhere. In recent years, the closest that the real world has come to a bona fide Masonic plot was the P2 scandal in Italy. P2 (Propaganda Due) was a rogue Masonic lodge led by an unsavoury ex-fascist called Licio Gelli. In the 1970s, Gelli expanded P2's membership by recruiting large swathes of the Italian political, business and military élite - including a younger Silvio Berlusconi - before the lodge was discovered and broken up in 1981. You can still find people frothing over how "the military and security infrastructure of a G7 country [was] co-opted by a single Masonic lodge".
Well, yes and no. P2 was undoubtedly a sinister organisation. Gelli had an authoritarian right-wing political agenda, and he and other lodge members were implicated in major scandals, notably the Banco Ambrosiano affair and collusion between state agencies and neofascist terrorists. This is what a Masonic conspiracy should look like, one might think. On the other hand, the importance of P2 as a single institution diminishes somewhat when it is seen in the broader context of the rather unstable and corrupt political scene of 1970s Italy. Gelli, moreover, never succeeded in realising his designs. His connections didn't stop his lodge from being discovered and exposed, and he has ended his days as a convicted criminal and a social pariah. The membership list of P2 was long and impressive, but it has plausibly been suggested that most of the brethren, in time-honoured Masonic fashion, saw the organisation essentially as a forum for schmoozing with other bigshots and boosting their own careers and businesses. It seems unlikely that the members as a whole were engaged in conspiring to fulfill Gelli's neofascist agenda, not least because they included politicians from the socialist and social democratic political parties.
We may close by remembering that the best known recent appearance of the ideas that the book discusses comes in the 1988 Hamas Charter:
The Zionist invasion is a vicious invasion. It does not refrain from resorting to all methods, using all evil and contemptible ways to achieve its end. It relies greatly in its infiltration and espionage operations on the secret organizations it gave rise to, such as the Freemasons, the Rotary and Lions clubs, and other sabotage groups. All these organizations, whether secret or open, work in the interest of Zionism and according to its instructions. They aim at undermining societies, destroying values, corrupting consciences, deteriorating character and annihilating Islam. It is behind the drug trade and alcoholism in all its kinds so as to facilitate its control and expansion.
Paranoia, it seems, dies hard. Conspiracism never goes out of fashion.