Commentary Magazine

Jews and Freemasons in Europe: 1723-1939, by Jacob Katz

Conspiracy Myth

Jews and Freemasons in Europe, 1723-1939.
by Jacob Katz.
Harvard. 293 pp. $11.00

This book suffers from a highly inappropriate title. Viewed as a study of Jews and Freemasons in Europe, it would be inadequate and indeed misleading; but substitute “Germany” for “Europe” and many of its faults drop away. Some two thirds of the book are concerned with the attempts of German Jews to secure acceptance by the Masonic lodges, as a means to getting themselves accepted by German society as a whole. This story has never been systematically investigated before. Jacob Katz, a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University (where he also serves as rector), has devoted years of patient research to unraveling it, and the result is an original contribution to modern Jewish history. The remainder of the book is devoted to the myth of the world-conspiracy of Jews and Freemasons. The myth, to be sure, was an international one, but its inclusion does not give the book a truly European scope; for even in these chapters Professor Katz’s attention remains concentrated on developments in Germany. In effect what we have here is a study of German Jews and German Freemasons.

The Freemasons originated in England in the first quarter of the 18th century; in 1717 an overall executive, known as the Grand Lodge, was set up in London. The principle of the Order was one of universal tolerance; the constitution was designed to encourage the various Christian bodies in Britain—Anglican, Roman Catholic, Free Church, Presbyterian, and the rest—to transcend their differences in a spirit of mutual good-will. When English Jews applied to join, the principle of tolerance was extended to them too; by 1740 Jews not only belonged to but held high office in the Order. However, when the Order spread to Germany it changed its nature. There, Freemasonry soon came to be regarded as a specifically Christian institution, in which Jews ought to have no place; and in the course of the 18th century the authorized German lodges effectively excluded Jews from membership. But for Jews, membership in a lodge offered a prospect of entry into German society—and this at a time when some Jews were beginning to want such an entry. To meet their needs, various unauthorized orders—i.e., orders of Masonic type but not connected with any of the German Grand Lodges—came into being, with the avowed purpose of accepting both Jews and Christians.

One of the livelier chapters in the book deals with the Order of Asiatic Brethren, otherwise known as the Brethren of St. John the Apostle from Asia in Europe. This unauthorized order was founded in Vienna in 1780-81 by two impoverished and unscrupulous Bavarian noblemen, the brothers von Ecker und Eckhoffen, and was built up with the help of a young Jew named Ephraim Hirschfeld. The ideology reflected the purpose of the organization, for it was a syncretism of theosophic doctrines of Christian origin with Kabbalistic ideas supplied by Hirschfeld. Yet, while care was taken not to offend the susceptibilities of the Christian members, the Jews found themselves obliged ceremonially to eat pork with milk. The order nevertheless recruited many Jewish members—mostly bankers and merchants yearning to mix with the minor aristocrats, army officers, and court officials who made up the Christian membership. But whatever acceptance the Jews achieved was short-lived, even in this marginal organization. When the headquarters moved to Schleswig, the leaders came under pressure to expel the Jewish members. In the end Hirschfeld himself, who had been the main source of spiritual nourishment for the order, was driven out, while the von Eckers took to writing anti-Semitic pamphlets.



With the French Revolution the situation of the Jews changed, but far less in Germany than in France itself. Whereas French Jews were admitted into the Masonic lodges, German Jews in general were not. Instead, they turned to the Grand Lodge in Paris (the Grand Orient) for authorization to found a special lodge at Frankfurt. And although in theory this lodge was supposed to have both Jewish and Christian members, in practice the Christians were either Frenchmen or else Germans who had thrown in their lot with Napoleon. The new lodge was not recognized by other German lodges; and in Frankfurt itself, in the very year (1811) when the citizens were compelled by French pressure to grant civil rights to Jews, the lodges expressly adopted a constitution which limited membership to Christians. After Napoleon’s fall the “Jewish lodge” secured a new authorization, from the Mother Lodge in London—but the only consequence was that relations between London and the other German lodges became strained. As for the “Jewish lodge,” it became almost wholly Jewish, unrecognized in Germany and utterly isolated. In this it mirrored the situation of German Jewry in those years, when Jews were being progressively excluded from public life and even from student societies in the universities.

Once the old social order, with its rigidly distinct estates, had disintegrated, Jews had to be granted political citizenship. But at the same time, as Professor Katz shrewdly remarks, “the tendency to break down barriers on the political and legal plane produced the reaction of withdrawal behind firmer barriers on the intimate, social plane.” This is the heart of the matter, and the main theme of the book; for in the Masonic lodges this reaction found particularly vivid expression. In the end, the barriers proved practically unreachable. It is true that between the 1830’s and the 1870’s lodges in some parts of Germany, such as Saxony and Hamburg, did open their doors to a few Jews. But even during this period of relative liberalism the Prussian lodges, under the direct patronage and guidance of the House of Hohenzollern, held out; and with the revival of anti-Semitism from the 1870’s onward, even lodges which had accepted Jews expelled them.



The chapters dealing with the real relations between German Jews and German Freemasons are the best in the book. Those dealing with the myth of the Judeo-Masonic conspiracy are in every way less satisfactory. In part, this results from Professor Katz’s over-whelming preoccupation with German developments. For the idea that Jews and Freemasons were united in a conspiracy to secure world-domination for themselves originated not in Germany but in France. Professor Katz recognizes this fact, but he fails to draw the obvious conclusions. To understand how the myth achieved credibility and popularity, it would be necessary to examine the relations between Jews and Freemasons in 19th-century France. French Freemasons really did play a leading part in the anti-clerical movement, they really were deeply involved in the struggle between Church and State for the control of education. Jews were prominent among French Freemasons; how far did these Jews become active political opponents of the Church? In a book on Jews and Freemasons in Europe this question should surely have been examined in detail.

But then, Professor Katz never seems at home when dealing with France, and the passages he devotes to that country are full of errors. The names of the two founding fathers of modern French anti-Semitism, Des Mousseaux and Chabauty, are misspelled throughout. Moreover, Des Mousseaux is described as a “Catholic theologian,” whereas in reality he was a layman with no qualifications in theology. The abbé Chabauty is made to reside in “the Poiton district” instead of in Poitou. The 20th-century anti-Semitic publicist Jouin is described as “a professing Catholic”; this is correct, but it would surely have been more to the point to mention that he was a Monsignor (no less!), and curé of the church of St. Augustin in Paris. This casual, not to say careless, approach to things French even extends to the language: the quotations from French texts in the notes abound in misspellings.

When Professor Katz traces the influence of the myth in Germany from 1920 onward he is on safer ground. The story has often been told before, but that is no reason for not telling it again. The dissemination of the myth in its most influential form, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is a truly extraordinary episode, which still deserves to be better known than it is. Nevertheless, one may doubt whether Professor Katz puts the emphasis in quite the right places. According to him, once the slogan “Jews and Freemasons” was adopted by the Nazis it “constituted the means of persuasion for the liquidation of the Freemasons and the physical extermination of the Jews.” But did it?

It is true that Hitler and Rosenberg had a lot to say about the Judeo-Masonic conspiracy; also, that under the Third Reich the Order was suppressed. But the Order was suppressed in the Soviet Union too, very soon after the Bolshevik Revolution; and Lenin, whatever his faults, was no addict of the Protocols. The fact is that no totalitarian state, whatever its ideology, could tolerate the existence of such an organization outside its own control. Moreover, although one branch of the Nazi security service did concern itself with Masonic affairs, individual Freemasons were not persecuted.

As for the Jews, it may be doubted whether the slogan “Freemasons and Jews” had much to do with their fate either. The myth of the Judeo-Masonic world-conspiracy was simply one variant of the myth of the Jewish world-conspiracy, and not the most important. The fantasy that most compulsively obsessed Hitler’s mind was of a conspiracy of Jews and Communists, including Russian Communists. And that, no doubt, is why the German Freemasons emerged almost unscathed after the colossal killings which nearly destroyed European Jewry and which decimated the civilian population of the Soviet Union.


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