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  • Exits from the Enlightenment: Masonic Routes
  • Margaret Jacob (bio)

In the forty years from 1780 to 1820, vast, indeed revolutionary changes, unleashing powerful reactions, occurred throughout the Western world. By the 1820s in Britain, Belgium and parts of northern France, industrial development had begun in earnest. Everywhere, from Philadelphia to Moscow, the effects of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars had hardened new ideologies, and the legacy of the Enlightenment had been claimed by liberals, only to be repudiated by conservatives. More than any other form of sociability, the Masonic lodges came to be associated retrospectively—but irretrievably—with enlightened ideals: cosmopolitanism, relative equality for the literate and prosperous, secular fraternity, and humanitarianism. Yet, as we are about to see in the essays presented here, in the period after 1780 Freemasonry also exhibited porosity toward the local settings wherein lodges developed. The abstractions of Masonic idealism found in constitutions, rituals, and orations coincided with other contemporary social and political issues: nationalism in Germany, class and caste tensions in Russia, and in France the cult of feminine domesticity and the concomitant pressure from women to venture increasingly into the public arena.

In Germany, the lodges, as presented by Robert Beachy, evolved into sites for the expression of regional or national feeling, for a retreat from the cosmopolitan ideals of their eighteenth-century founding. In France, women’s lodges, revived around 1800, simultaneously extolled domesticity and, as Janet Burke demonstrates, signaled a new round in the continuing struggle for women’s equality. None of this porosity toward the issues of the day saved Freemasonry from its nineteenth-century detractors who simultaneously cast a cold eye on the spirit and legacy of les philosophes. The twentieth-century effects of that hostility directly bear upon the timing of the publication of one of these essays.

Never did Continental Europeans exit the legacy of the Enlightenment as dramatically or as symbolically as when the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933. Seven years later, when the German army swept across the Low Countries and much of France, the legacy of Western liberalism was undermined there too. Further to the east, Stalinist Russia also took a dim view of organizations not under the immediate purview of the state. But the Nazis were systematic in their search for the remnants of liberal-minded organizations, real or imagined. Part of the underpinning of all fascist [End Page 251] ideologies in this century has been the belief in the existence of a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy. Because of the historical impact of that belief, Robert Beachy’s essay is based upon archives that became available only after 1989.

By 1940 at home and abroad, the Nazis worked tirelessly to confiscate the records of their feared and hated enemies: Jewish organizations, liberal institutes, left-wing political parties, and the archives of the Masonic lodges. In 1945, many of those records then fell into Russian hands. As Patricia Grimsted has shown, the Moscow archives, now housed at the Center for the Preservation of Historico-Documentary Collections (TsKhIDK), contain records from all over Western Europe. They were confiscated under the personal orders of Larentii Beria, Stalin’s deputy premier for security affairs. As the Russian 59th Army advanced westward, it found what the Germans had themselves plundered from the countries they had occupied. Indeed, an entire research institute had been set up in Berlin to examine the documentary proof of collusion and conspiracy. As the Allied armies came closer, desperate efforts were made to hide and preserve this valuable cache. Thus began the long and tortured story of how so many Western European documents, a significant number Masonic, landed in the Soviet Union and remain in present-day Russia. To complicate matters further, at the height of the Cold War in 1957, some of the Moscow material was returned to East Germany as a gesture of postwar solidarity. 1

Some 65 meters (sic) of French material remain in Moscow. For four decades the cache assembled in 1945–46 and sent to Moscow had been hidden away.2 One of the largest Masonic fonds (no. 1412) has over 14,000 files covering the years after 1761, with material in them from inter...

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pp. 251-254
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