The only way of dispelling the myth of the Illuminati is to tell their real story. It starts with an Enlightenment secret society in Bavaria.
by Massimo Introvigne
Article 1 of 9.
Did you say Illuminati? Today, the word immediately evokes a secret society aimed at controlling the world through “the new world order,” “the great reset,” and perhaps microchips implanted through COVID-19 vaccines. Bill Gates, George Soros, Bill Clinton, and Joe Biden are accused of being part of the Illuminati, although—as we will see later in this series—there are also those who believe that Donald Trump is also a member. Those, including many in the QAnon network, who claim that Illuminati controls everything often also create problems for religious and spiritual liberty, since inoffensive esoteric movements of all kinds are associated with the Illuminati, and denounced as involved in criminal activities and sinister plans.
The reality is not uninteresting, but much less flamboyant. Apart from a few recent organizations that would sell you for a fee a card certifying that you are a member of the Illuminati in good standing, for scholars of esotericism “Illuminati” refers to two movements, both defunct, the 19th-century Illuminati of Bavaria, and the 20th-century World League of the Illuminati founded by German esotericists Leopold Engel and Theodor Reuss.
These two organizations are in their own way interesting, but never changed the course of human history nor did they control the world. The myth of the all-powerful Illuminati is not recent. In fact, it dates back to the French Revolution. One way of debunking the myth is to reconstruct the real history of the Illuminati.
All subsequent legends about the Illuminati originate from the Illuminati of Bavaria. Their name was connected with the French word “illuminisme,” which deserves a linguistic analysis. In French, the word “illuminisme” was used in the 17th century with a negative sense, to indicate ecstatic and excessive forms of Catholic or Protestant mysticism. In the 18th century, it also designated mystical and esoteric currents connected with the less rationalist part of Freemasonry. In Italian, the word “illuminismo” was born with the inherent ambiguity it maintains today. It designated both the “illuministi,” i.e., those following the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and the “illuminati,” i.e., those who were part of esoteric orders. French language uses “les Lumières” for the philosophical Enlightenment and “illuminisme” for mysticism and esotericism.
One problem is that in the 18th century Enlightenment and “Illuminisme” coexisted side by side, in the same organizations and often in the minds of the same persons. The Illuminati of Bavaria provides an eloquent example of this.
Contrary to what many thinks, the Illuminati of Bavaria are not a mysterious organization. We know almost everything about them thanks to the doctoral dissertation written in 1914 in Paris by René Le Forestier (1868–1951), a future professor of German studies and an eminent historian of Freemasonry, and published in the same year by the Paris publishing house Hachette as Les Illuminés de Bavière et la franc-maçonnerie allemande. Most of the documents he quoted from archives, except some lost during two world wars, have been subsequently published by German scholars, and are easily available.
In his work of over seven hundred pages, Le Forestier gives an account of his exploration of German archives, where almost everything was preserved with Teutonic precision. When a member of the Illuminati of Bavaria, the Catholic priest Johann Jakob Lang (according to another spelling “Lanz,” 1735–1785), died struck by lightning on July 10, 1785, the police drew up, and archivists preserved, even an exact inventory of what was in his pockets. So fastidious was Le Forestier’s work that later historians have been able to add only a few details, although they have not always accepted his interpretations.
The Bavaria of the second half of the eighteenth century, a Catholic Duchy (the dukes-electors would take the title of kings only in 1805) in a predominantly Protestant Germany, was where in Europe the spirit of the Catholic Reformation and the Baroque age was best preserved. Education and culture were dominated by the Society of Jesus, and the former Jesuits remained influential even after the Papal suppression of their order in 1773. The Dukes resisted the reforms initiated in neighboring Austria, although the latter was also Catholic, and the influence of the Catholic Church remained pervasive.
Trying to preserve this situation, the Catholic Church erected a barrier against the Enlightenment. Many books by Enlightenment philosophers, which circulated freely in the rest of Germany, were banned in Bavaria. The protest against the Catholic Church and the dukes happened mostly in the universities, where a number of professors were sensitive to Enlightenment ideas. In turn, students kept often in contact, particularly through the college fraternities that at this time began to gain importance, with their colleagues in the Protestant German states.
In a provincial university, Ingolstadt, a brilliant young legal scholar who was a former student of the Jesuits, Adam Weishaupt (1748–1830), became professor of law at the age of 25, and dean of the Faculty of Law at 27. Such a rapid career triggered envy, and malicious tongues insinuated that it was due to Weishaupt’s ability to ingratiate himself with influential government figures through flattery.
The professor, who cautiously manifested Enlightenment ideas, and in 1773 publicly applauded the suppression by the Pope of the order of his former mentors, the Jesuits, attributed this criticism to a plot by reactionary Catholics. However, he was worried that rumors might compromise his re-election as dean. A few colleagues told him about the possibility of protecting himself by joining a secret society that was comparatively new to Southern Germany and reputed to help its members, Freemasonry. What he learned about Freemasonry did not enthuse Weishaupt, who considered he should rather establish his own secret society. The decisive factor was a meeting with an eighteen-year-old student of his, Anton von Massenhausen (1758–1815), who familiarized Weishaupt with the “secret” working of college fraternities, and suggested he could model a society including both students and professors on these.
On May 1, 1776, Weishaupt gathered Massenhausen and three other students in his office, and founded an order that he called by its Latin name of Illuminati (the term “of Bavaria” would later be added to distinguish it from the broader phenomenon of the “illuminisme”). Although it counted only five members, the order was already divided into an “areopagus,” consisting of Weishaupt, Massenhausen, and another student, Max Merz (1758–1807), whose members knew the order was a brand-new creation, and a circle of “novices” who were left to believe that the Illuminati had instead centuries of history, existed outside of Ingolstadt, and had mysterious leaders above the professor of law.
Each member took a name derived from history and mythology: Weishaupt became “Spartacus,” and Massenhausen “Ajax.” It was Massenhausen, who had moved to the University of Munich, who recruited new members for the Illuminati in the Bavarian capital. Among the first was a nobleman who was preparing for a diplomatic career, Franz Xavier von Zwack (1756–1843). He soon replaced Massenhausen, who according to Weishaupt was too busy chasing women, in the role of right-hand man of the leader. Indeed, Zwack quickly probed more effective than Massenhausen. Weishaupt himself visited the other universities of the Duchy, and by 1778 the membership had grown to twenty-seven, grouped into five lodges.
These were, for the most part, students, little more than boys. Adults in Bavaria had other concerns. In 1777, Duke-Elector Maximilian III Joseph (1727–1777) died without an heir, thereby extinguishing the Wittelsbach dynasty. The closest heir was Karl Theodor (1724–1799), Elector of the Palatinate, who thus united Palatinate and Bavaria under a single ruler. However, the neighboring state became too large for Austria, which asserted its claims to several Bavarian fiefdoms and triggered the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778–1779). The conflict ended with the Treaty of Teschen (May 13, 1779), by which Austria obtained most of the territorial concessions it had requested.
Karl Theodor, a “foreign” sovereign little loved by his subjects, governed relying on the Catholic Church and on a privileged relationship with the Holy See, which earned him little sympathy among both the German Protestant princes and the Enlightenment intellectuals of Bavaria. Some of them will become Illuminati or, at least, fellow travelers of Weishaupt.