"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.
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.