Longtime ancient astronaut theorist Erich von Däniken has a new book out this week called The Gods Never Left Us. However, it is being published by New Page Books, which has banned me from receiving review copies, so I am not able to review the book yet. I would be willing to bet, however, that I could completely make up a review based on von Däniken’s past work and no one would ever notice the difference. At the rate he churns them out, there can’t really be that much original material in any given book. This is especially likely since his next new book, Impossible Truths, is due out in January. The only thing special about The Gods Never Left Us is that it is being marketed as a direct sequel to Chariots of the Gods. And here, silly me, I thought his previous three dozen books on the same theme were sequels. The book description is unintentionally hilarious: “Can’t they leave us alone? And what makes it so difficult for us to acknowledge the existence of these extraterrestrials? That is what this book deals with.” Yes, why can’t they seem to leave poor old von Däniken alone? After all, he’s only gotten 34 volumes out of the “mystery.”
Since I can’t review the book today, I thought I’d discuss another interesting question, and one I’ve touched on indirectly in the past: How the Habsburgs invented modern Freemason conspiracy theories. It’s a fascinating story of how political expediency created an enduring modern myth that refused to die.
As most of you know, the Freemasons did not start out as an all-powerful secret society possessed of ancient secrets and magical powers. Instead, they grew out of local trade guilds for stonemasons, gradually expanding membership to non-stonemasons, with various lodges slowly coming together to form larger regional, national, and international organizations between roughly 1600 and 1750. By the early 1700s, Freemasons like Andrew Michael Ramsey were creating elaborate fictional histories for the organization, involving a fictitious continuity of tradition not from stonemasons but from medieval chivalric orders such as the Knights of St. John. “Our Order [was] founded in remote antiquity, and renewed in the Holy Land by our ancestors in order to recall the memory of the most sublime truths among the pleasures of society,” Ramsay said in 1737.
Shortly thereafter, Masonry spread into the Habsburg territories, which were partially contained within the Holy Roman Empire. Lodges sprang up across the Austrian archduchy, though Empress Maria Theresa ordered the Vienna lodge closed, over the objections of her husband, the Emperor, who was a member. She could do that because she was the reigning archduchess of Austria, while her husband was “only” the nominal Holy Roman Emperor, with no jurisdiction. Basically, the government concluded that having an international brotherhood that officially supported Protestantism and liberalism in the heart of a Catholic monarchy was subversive. But this was an anomaly. Soon, aristocrats from around the Empire were joining up, as did luminaries like Mozart and Haydn. Not long after, the next emperor, Joseph II, was rumored to have become a Freemason himself (he didn’t—he thought it silly), and he appointed Freemasons to key positions in his cabinet during his ten years as sole monarch, from 1780 to 1790. Note carefully that these are the same years when the Freemasons supposedly were in charge of creating the United States as goddess empire. Apparently, they weren’t too busy to also be running Austria and Holy Roman Empire as enlightened despotism in the complete opposite vein of everything “their” democratic America allegedly stood for. I supposed there was a shared pursuit of liberal reform, but that was about it.
Near the end of his reign, however, he had begun to restrict Masonic activity, limiting membership and requiring all meetings to be approved by local authorities. This was a power play to try to control the influence of the nobility, which had found Masonry as a useful way to network to advance their political agenda, in marked contrast to other countries, where Masonry had a more middle class and revolutionary character. A ledger of lectures registered with the government shows that basically they sat around contemplating occult topics like “Secrets of the Egyptians” and whether Jesus had been a Mason. By the end of the 1780s, Vienna had 16 of Europe’s total of 300 Masonic lodges, more than 5% of the total in just one city! Freemasonry might have become an accepted part of the functioning of the Habsburg state, except for one thing: the French Revolution.
When the Revolution came to France in 1789, monarchical Europe reacted with horror, and they quickly conflated revolution with liberalism of any kind. Freemasonry was seen as part of the secret network of liberals working to destroy conservative monarchies. In Hungary, one of the Habsburgs’ domains outside of the Holy Roman Empire, the Freemasons and Protestants had teamed up in 1790-1791 to try to force Leopold II, then the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Hungary, to accept a liberal constitution that would have fundamentally reorganized the relationship of governors to governed. This action was inspired by France, but in a much more limited way. It would not have created a people’s republic but rather a reorganized monarchy that devolved power from the King to the nobles. Though the scheme ended in a generally unfruitful compromise, the Freemasons had come to be seen as disloyal to the Crown.
Meanwhile some of Leopold’s proteges and appointees had started communicating with French revolutionaries and plotting revolution in the Empire. Because of the nexus between Masons and the aristocratic circles, Masonry and revolutionary politics became conflated, even though Masonry itself was not revolutionary. Even this wasn’t enough to launch a full reaction against Masonry, at least not until the relatively liberal Leopold II had the misfortune to die in 1790, leading to the ascension of the more conservative Francis II, who gradually curdled into a reactionary over his long reign.
Francis hated Revolutionary France and loathed Napoleon, and he took it (correctly) as a personal defeat that he had to marry his daughter to the French Emperor. He also was deeply upset that Napoleon’s upending of Europe had resulted in the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. He had saved his imperial rank only by raising the archduchy of Austria to the status of an Empire by following the precedent of Napoleon’s own assumption of empire in France.
Just as other European countries had started to ban Masonry—England shut it down in 1799—the Habsburgs turned on Masonry. Francis II, now Francis I of Austria, and his conservative advisors developed a series of arguments for why Freemasonry had become an arm of Revolutionary agitation. Basically, it boiled down to this: (a) Masonry promoted Deism because it was nondenominational, which was in direct conflict with Francis’s embrace of his role as Catholicism’s champion against godless France. (b) Masonry promoted liberal ideas, which directly threatened conservative monarchy. (c) Freemasonry gave cover to nationalist agitators who could undermine the territorial integrity of the multinational Austrian Empire. (d) Masonry, being international, also promoted international cooperation among anarchists, agitators, liberals, and other unsavory anti-Catholic and anti-monarchical types. As you can see, these reasons were not inherent in Masonry itself but rather in the collapse of liberal monarchy—enlightened despotism—in the fires of Revolution, when monarchy and conservatism became inseparably intertwined.
The irony is that many Freemasons in the Habsburg lands were actually pro-monarchist and Habsburg loyalists.
The result was that Francis patronized intellectuals who made anti-Masonic noises. When the French tried to resuscitate the reputation of the Masons at the end of the Napoleonic period, the Austrians wanted nothing to do with it. The country’s greatest historian, Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, operating quite clearly in support of his imperial master’s will (he was a privy counselor of the Empire), produced the greatest Masonic conspiracy theory of them all. In 1818, he decided to take the Freemasons at their word that they were the descendants of medieval knights and decided that because they were the successors of the Knights Templar, they were consequently Gnostic idol worshipers who were responsible for fomenting the Revolution and setting Europe ablaze. He further claimed that the Freemasons had the Holy Grail, inherited from the Templars, but that this Grail was an unholy mockery, a krater in the form of Baphomet’s idolatrous head. By arguing so strongly that the Templar-Freemasons were world-historic actors of both conspiracy and unparalleled power, his view of the Masons became, basically, the occult view of Masonry that, recast in positive terms, is still the standard.
Austria maintained a ban on Masonry through the nineteenth century, though the Hungarian half of the monarchy legalized the craft.
Despite the Habsburgs’ antipathy to Masonry, fringe historians never could quite wrap their heads around the idea. Indeed, many have gone out of their way to try to argue that the Habsburgs are secretly in league with the Freemasons. The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail alleged that someone named Archduke Johann Stefan, Emperor Franz Joseph’s cousin, secretly funded the sinister renovations at Renne-le-Chateau in honor of the Holy Bloodline of Mary Magdalene. “Bank statements subsequently revealed that [Father] Sauniere and the archduke had opened consecutive accounts on the same day, and that the latter had made a substantial sum over to the former.” In a later edition, they alleged that he paid 20,000 francs per year. There is no archduke who went by Johann Stefan. Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince allege that it was really Archduke Johann Salvator (a.k.a. John Orth) who visited annually, and this fact was taken, ultimately, from René Descadeillas’s Mythologie du Trésor de Rennes and greatly exaggerated from a one-time visit in 1889 to a years-long event. Basically, in Mythologie it was explained that in reality Johann Salvator told French police that he had gotten lost on the way to Spain and stumbled upon Rennes-le-Chateau by mistake. His visit was of interest to French Republican police because his recently deceased cousin, Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria-Este, was the widow of the pretender to the French throne. Church officials later said that the consecutive bank accounts occurred because Sauniere had talked Johann Salvator into helping to finance a retirement home for priests, another scam in the priest’s long history of them.
Worse, J. R. Church, the author of Guardians of the Grail, wrote this mixed-up, ahistorical nonsense: “The Habsburg dynasty which ruled the Holy Roman Empire since the 19th century, is the direct lineage of the Merovingian bloodline. The Habsburgs are reputed to be the family of the Holy Grail offspring of Mary Magdalene.”
They sure had a funny way of showing it to the Templar “protectors” of the Grail secret.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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