In the 1780s, the Illuminati tried to promote a political conspiracy. They were quickly discovered and liquidated by the Bavarian police.
by Massimo Introvigne
As we mentioned in the previous articles, the Bavarian Illuminati, founded by Weishaupt as a small organization in a provincial university, grew into a substantial Masonic body, and recruited princes and famous intellectuals thanks to the organizational skills of Knigge. Of course, moderate intellectuals and princes were not informed about Weishaupt’s radical political ideas. And yet revolution, at least a cultural revolution against the religious and political establishment, was mentioned in the lodges of the Illuminati. And some reported it to the princes and the police.
Originally, internecine struggles within German Freemasonry created opposition to the Illuminati. These struggles found expression in the European Masonic “Convent” held in Wilhelmsbad in 1782, which opposed the mystical-occult and the rationalist currents of Freemasonry. The Illuminati believed they had been successful in escaping being condemned by the Convent, and they even took advantage of it to recruit into their ranks an important Masonic personality, Johann Joachim Christoph Bode (1731–1793). However, the very success of the Illuminati continued to generate envy and resentment. The external attacks created a climate of internal suspicion. Weishaupt, who was always afraid that his deputies were trying to take his place, ended up breaking with Knigge, who in July 1784 definitively abandoned the order to which he had given its final Masonic form.
By now, what were mere intra-Masonic disputes had turned into complaints against the Illuminati to the Duke of Bavaria. The latter, on June 22, 1784, issued an edict prohibiting all secret associations and societies not expressly authorized by the government. The Illuminati suspended their work in Bavaria but also sent a petition to the sovereign on February 24, 1785, claiming they had been the victims of a misunderstanding. Duke Karl Theodor responded with a new edict of March 2, 1785, in which he specified that the prohibition specifically concerned Freemasonry and the Order of the Illuminati.
In the meantime, as often happens in such cases, “apostate” ex-members came forward to denounce the order, including two Catholic priests, theologian Vitus Renner (1760–1837) and historian Johann Sulpitius Cossandey (1762–1842), and court councilor Joseph von Utzschneider (1763–1840) and literary censor Georg Grünberger (1749–1820). The quartet spoke of the high ranks of the Illuminati, of which they were not part, on hearsay. Cossandey’s claim that in the higher grades the legitimacy of Christianity and monarchy was seriously questioned, however, was not false. The “apostates” also provided a list of twenty-five Bavarian members of the Illuminati.
On July 10, 1785, the incident of the lightning strike I have mentioned in a previous article occurred. The natural event killed a member of the Illuminati and Catholic priest, Johann Jakob Lang (or Lanz), in whose pockets were found an instruction encouraging the clandestine continuation of the order’s activities after the prohibition, and a list of further names. This led to the first arrests of Illuminati, involving canon Jakob Anton Hertel (1760–1841), marquis Constius de Constanzo (or Costanzo, 1765–1835) and count Ludwig Alexander Savioli-Corbelli (1767–1841), while the already mentioned Zwack was also put under investigation.
Eventually, only Hertel remained in prison. Constanzo and Savioli-Corbelli got away with exile in their native Italy, where the generous Bavarian government even gave them a pension in recognition of past services. Weishaupt was fired by his university and escaped to Regensburg, one of the free cities of the Empire, governed by a Senate jealous of its independence, thus putting himself beyond the reach of the Bavarian police. Knigge, who was no longer a member of the order, went from one Protestant state to another, but was careful not to set foot in Bavaria again.
The worst, for the Illuminati, came in October 1786. The Bavarian police finally raided the house of Zwack in Munich. Zwack had been warned in time and had left Bavaria. However, he had no time to hide or destroy an extensive documentation on the Illuminati, from which the police learned who founded and directed them, a subject on which the authorities had until then fairly vague information. The police also seized several letters from Weishaupt to Zwack and an incomplete, but extensive, collection of notebooks and instructions from the Order.
The inventory compiled by the Bavarian police also included documents that were quite compromising for Zwack, including notes praising suicide and atheism, the plan for founding a women’s initiatory order, instructions on how to prepare invisible ink, false seals, and poisons. One of the poisons was the famous aqua tofana, invented by the adventurer Alessandro di Cagliostro (1743 or 1749–1795), who reportedly obtained it from the fat of pigs fed with arsenic. On a different note, the police found among Zwack’s documents three different instructions on how to procure abortions, and one on how to raise in women “furor uterinus,” i.e., an uncontrollable sexual desire. The latter documents probably had nothing to do with the Illuminati, but the use of poisons was mentioned in letters from Weishaupt.
The government instructed the four “apostates” to prepare the essential documents found at Zwack’s for publication. On March 26, 1787, four hundred pages of Einige Originalschriften des Illuminaten Ordens (“Some Original Writings of the Order of the Illuminati”) were published in Munich, and made a huge impression throughout Germany and abroad. The Duke ordered the arrest of Massenhausen, who no longer played a significant role in the Order, but had founded it in 1776 together with Weishaupt. The Duke also asked the Senate of Regensburg to arrest Weishaupt and extradite him to Bavaria. But a member of the Illuminati, Duke Ernst II of Saxony-Gotha, came to his rescue, and avoided a conflict between Regensburg and the Duke of Bavaria. On August 11, 1767, Ernst II appointed Weishaupt as an attaché at his embassy in Regensburg, thus granting him a passport and diplomatic immunity.
The police also discovered the name of another high initiate of the Illuminati, Thomas Franz Maria Bassus von Sandersdorf (1742–1815), a Swiss citizen and the mayor of Tirano, a town then in the Grisons and now in Italy, but who had a Bavarian title and an estate in Sandersdorf, in Bavaria. The police raided Bassus’s residence in Sandersdorf on May 5, 1787. They did not find Bassus, but discovered another important collection of Illuminati documents, which the Swiss was keeping there on behalf of Weishaupt. The Duke had these texts published in record time in Munich as Nachtrag von weiteren Originalschriften, welche die Illuminatensekte überhaupt (“Supplement to the Original Writings Relating to the Cult of the Illuminati,” 1787).
The Duke also reiterated the prohibition of Illuminati, and asked his judges to punish them with jail penalties. They were not very severe. Massenhausen got off with the four months of preventive prison he had already served and with the exclusion for the present and the future from any public office in Bavaria. Bassus turned himself in, in December 1787, trying to regain possession of his considerable Bavarian assets. He actually recovered them, and got off with a reprimand after a month and a half of preventive prison. Canon Hertel, after three years of imprisonment, was released on May 10, 1788, after being severely admonished to sever all relations with the order. He promised to do so, and was given back his property, less the cost of the trial against him. The Order of the Illuminati of Bavaria as an organization was sentenced to death by the Duke’s prohibition, but no member was executed, and the highest jail penalty imposed to an initiate was three years.
Lodges outside of Bavaria were not directly affected by the Duke’s edict, but deemed it wise to suspend their activities. Bode alone continued a version of the Order known as the Illuminati of Saxony, and confined to the first degrees. It was not very successful, and probably ceased to operate in 1790.
A Protestant pastor from Leipzig, Karl Friedrich Bahrdt (1741–1792), created a six-degree system called the “German Union,” and managed to interest Knigge for a moment by presenting his creation as a “continuation” of the Illuminati. However, Bahrdt was an adventurer, driven out of several German states for his dissolute conduct and swindles where he had tried to sell bogus Masonic degrees. When his past wrongdoings emerged, the German Union quickly collapsed in 1790.
With the death of Bode in 1793 the Illuminati of Bavaria also died, although the Bavarian police received false reports of alleged revivals well into the 1810s. The leaders of the Illuminati survived for a long time. Weishaupt, who did not feel safe in Regensburg despite the long defenses of the Illuminati he had published, moved to Gotha, where he became a friend of Duchess Charlotte of Saxe-Meiningen (1751–1827), the wife of Duke Ernst II, who was called “the Red Duchess” for her revolutionary and pro-French ideas. After the Napoleonic storm, the new Kingdom of Bavaria will somehow reconcile with Weishaupt, and in 1808 will appoint him a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences, with the right to a modest pension.
The old “Spartacus” Weishaupt, while continuing to publish philosophical writings that nobody read, where he defended Kant, was even reconciled with the Catholic Church and was instrumental in building a place of worship for the Catholic minority of Gotha. He died, almost forgotten, in 1830.
As for Knigge, appointed by intercession of Goethe by an admirer of the latter, the Elector of Hanover George III (1738–1820, who was simultaneously King of England), superintendent of schools in Bremen, he died in 1796 without repudiating his radical political ideas, after having increased his now modest income by publishing humorous and adventure novels.
How important were the Bavarian Illuminati? Among a plethora of similar esoteric organizations in late 19th-century Europe, they had little success in their pre-Masonic phase spanning 1776 to 1780. However, they established themselves as a major German and international obedience in their second, Masonic phase that lasted from 1781 to 1787, with the Illuminati of Saxony as an appendage continuing until 1790.
In a way, it is not incorrect to state that there was an “Illuminati conspiracy.” Theirs was a secret society where to the new or lesser adepts was not revealed the truth about either the origins or the purposes of the order. Its secret purpose was to promote the most radical ideas of the Enlightenment, including replacing Christianity with deism and monarchies with republics, not by means of an armed revolution, which the leaders judged premature and beyond their means, but by infiltrating members of the Illuminati into government positions of some German states. As a conspiracy, it was remarkably unsuccessful. Rather amateurish revolutionaries, the Illuminati were quickly discovered by the Bavarian police. Culturally, they exerted some real influence on the German Masonic lodges but they also found there critics and enemies.
The Illuminati would have remained an order known only to scholars of esoteric societies in 18th-century Europe, had not they been singled out by moral entrepreneurs as the hidden promoters and leaders of the French Revolution. We will see how this happened in the next article of our series.