From Conspirators to Contactees: Part 1, The World of Conspiracy Theories

Roger Sandell
Magonia 5, 1980

Due to the influence of the Internet, conspiracy theorizing is now more widespread than ever. This series of articles outlines the historical background in which modern conspiracies first arose.

The idea that the contemporary world is controlled by vast, unsuspected conspiratorial organisations, is one which is chiefly broadcast by obscure groups and individuals, via duplicated or cheaply printed journals. To an outsider the ideas advanced by conspiracy seem bizarre indeed.   đź”»
To take a few examples:
Gary Allen, the John Birch society’s leading commentator, believes the USSR is secretly controlled by the Rockefeller family [1];

Carl Oglesby, a former chairperson of the American New-Left group, Students for a Democratic Society, argues that the US political assassinations of the 1960s and the Watergate crisis were part of a gigantic struggle for control of the USA between New York bankers and Texas oilmen [2];

Nesta H. Webster, the 1920s writer who originated much of modern conspiracy theorizing, claimed that modern revolutionary movements are manipulated by a centuries-old occult conspiracy originating with the mediaeval Knights Templar and the Order of Assassins [3];

Walter Bowart, an American journalist, believes that the CIA controls the USA by means of a secret army of zombie agents who have been submitted to mind controlling operations [4];

The anonymous author of The Gemstone File, an alleged secret history of modern America distributed by underground bookshops here and in the USA, claims that the Vietnam war was fought to preserve the monopoly of the world heroin market by Aristotle Onassis [5]

Clearly, the ideas of the conspiracy theorists bear little relationship to generally accepted ideas of world events. Some of them seem so absurd as to cast doubt on the sanity of their advocates. However, the conspiracist tradition is not simply the product of isolated paranoids, but has a long political history.

The story of conspiracy theorizing starts on the 1790s. The French Revolution, because of its totally unprecedented nature, had an impact it is hard to conceive of today. Suddenly, all over Europe, the whole fabric of society seemed threatened, and existing ideas seemed inadequate to explain what had happened. In England the results included official repression, and a sudden growth of cults based on the apocalyptic passages of the Bible. [6]

Another result was the appearance in 1797 of books entitled Memoires pour Servir a l’Histoire du Jacobinisme by Augustin du Barruel, a French priest, and Proofs of a Conspiracy Against all Religions and Governments, by John Robison, a Scottish mathematician. Both these books offered a simple explanation for the French Revolution: the French monarchy fell as a result of a conspiracy hatched by the Freemasons and similar secret societies. Both Barruel and Robison focussed on one particular name – that of the Illuminati. [7]

This group was a secret society founded in Bavaria in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt (left), a university professor. Its aim was to spread the 18th century Enlightenment doctrines of human equality and rationality, and it attracted a fairly wide following, until it was suppressed by the Bavarian authorities in 1785. However, according to Barruel and Robison the illuminati had not ceased to exist in 1785 but had merely gone underground. The leaders of the French Revolution were Freemasons and Illuminati, or their agents and dupes, carrying out a secret plot to overthrow Europe’s monarchies and the Christian religion.

What was the truth behind these ideas? Modern Freemasonry had originated in England in the early 18th century, and from there had spread to Europe. In both England and France its oath and regulations enjoined loyalty to church and state, and its membership included members of the Royal Families of both Britain and France, as well as Protestant and catholic clergy. It is possible to find evidence of political activity by 18th century Lodges, but this is localized and certainly not evidence of a radical conspiracy. (In fact early English and French Masonry seems to have been influenced by the Jacobites, supporters of the exiled Catholic Stuart claimant to the British throne.)

The opening stages of the French Revolution were accompanied by hopes of a new spirit of cooperation between social classes, and some masons hailed this spirit as a vindication of the Masonic ideals of human brotherhood. However, as the Revolution progressed its victims included prominent Masons, and the destruction of the French aristocracy brought Masonic activity in France to a virtual halt.

In spite of these facts the ideas of Robison and Barruel soon gained quite a wide following. Some writers twisted them into even stranger versions. One pamphlet of the 1790s claimed that the Masons were the descendants of the mediaeval Knights Templar, and that the French Revolution was revenge for the persecution of the Templars by the French monarchy, four hundred years before.

The Revolution was followed by the Napoleon Wars, and the fall of Napoleon was followed by the restoration of reactionary regimes across Europe In this climate of repression, radicals in various countries chose to organize themselves into bodies with passwords, initiation rituals, and secret meetings. In Italy in the 1820s the ideal of Italian unity was nourished by the Carbonari or Charcoal Burners, a secret society which like Freemasonry made grandiose claims to great antiquity. In 19th century Russia and Ireland secret societies became focal points for anti-government activities. Even in England the early trade unions practiced Masonic-type oaths and initiations.

As a result the spectre of international conspiracy continued to haunt the defenders of the established order. In 1820 Count Metternich, the Austrian statesman, called for an international conference to discuss means of combating the secret societies. In 1852 Disraeli, the future Prime Minister, could write of the antiquity and malevolence of the societies in these words:

“The origin of the secret societies that prevail in Europe is very remote. It is probable that they were originally confederations of conquered races organized in great measure by the abrogated hierarchies … the two characteristics of these confederations which now cover Europe like a network, are war against property and a hatred of the Semitic revelation [i.e. Christianity]. These are the legacies of their founders; a propriety despoiled and the servants of altars that have been overthrown.”

Taxil described the appearance of Satan at Masonic rituals – apparently he took the form of a crocodile and played the piano – and the secret laboratories under Gibraltar where demons manufactured plague germs to wipe out Catholic Europe

By the second half of the 19th century a sinister new element was entering the world of the conspiracy theorists. A German novel of 1868, Biarritz by Herman Goedesche, describes how the heroes hide in the Jewish cemetery in Prague, and witness a secret meeting between the devil and the Elders of the twelve Jewish tribes. At the meeting those present describe how the Jews are to use their money and influence to make themselves rulers of the world. (As we shall see, this is by no means the last example of a thriller writer drawing on conspiracy theories for their plots.) [8]

By the mid-19th century the Jews – non-Christian, urban, and only recently liberated from civic disabilities – were in several countries coming to be seen as the major enemy by the rural-based forces of reaction and clericalism. As Biarritz shows, this antisemitism combined the mediaeval ideas of the Jew as Satan’s ally, with the idea of the evil secret society manipulating political events. However, such ideas were not the sole preserve of trashy novelists. By 1893 it was possible for the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Mauritius to end a denunciation of Freemasonry by claiming that the Masons were simply the tools of the Jews, and in his final words horrifyingly to anticipate Hitler: “Do not hope, O Jews. to be able to escape the calamity that threatens you … we do not wish to be the slaves of the Jews … we shall forget our political differences to stand firm against the enemies of God. Victory is certain.”

At the same time in France the grotesque hoaxes of Leo Taxil found a ready audience amongst the clergy. Taxil, who claimed to be a Masonic defector, described the personal appearance of Satan at Masonic rituals – apparently he took the form of a crocodile and played the piano – and the secret laboratories under Gibraltar where demons manufactured plague germs to wipe out Catholic Europe. Taxil turned out to be an anticlericist who concocted his tales to expose the gullibility of his opponents.

It was in Tsarist Russia where modern antisemitism reached its definitive form. The failure of the revolt of 1905 was followed by officially encouraged pogroms and antisemitic propaganda, notably a document entitled The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. According to its publisher Sergei Nilus, a landowner who became a religious maniac after losing his fortune, this book was the secret minutes of a meeting of Jewish leaders to plan world domination. The plan involved the encouragement of vice and atheism to depolarize Europe, and the use of revolutionary movements and financial manipulation to bring about the final collapse of national governments and their replacement by a Jewish world empire. This work, in reality a forgery by the Russian secret police, was taken seriously by the Tsar himself, and soon became a favourite text of the Russian ultra-right. As we shall see later it was to exert a malevolent influence far beyond Russia.

Although Russia was unique in pre-1914 Europe in the extent to which antisemitism and belief in conspiracies received official sanction, the same ideas were prevalent in many other places. While the Dreyfus case rocked turn of the century France, right-wingers proclaimed that the crisis was the work of ‘The Syndicate’, a sinister force envisioned as an alliance of Jews, Masons, radicals and German agents. [7]

In Britain the early twentieth century was a period of social crisis. Mounting international tension and the revolt of labour, women and Ireland challenged the fabric of society. One result of this (outlined in other articles in MUFOB and Magonia) was the outbreak of panics centred on spies, foreign invasions and mystery airships. Another was the increased popularity of antisemitic and conspiratorial ideas. An extremely popular thriller of this period, When it was Dark by Guy Thorne, describes the plot of a Jewish millionaire to destroy Christianity by manufacturing fake archaeological data on the life of Jesus. [10] Rudyard Kipling’s historical novel for children, Puck of Pook’s Hill includes a scene in which Jewish moneylenders of mediaeval Europe meet to plan the continent’s destiny. Even radical propaganda against the Boer War developed antisemitic overtones in some cases describing the war as the work of Jewish financiers.

The years 1914 to 1020 saw world war followed by revolution and unrest across Europe. As the old order crumbled its defenders, like the victims of the French Revolution, looked to conspiracy theories for an explanation of what was happening. Copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were distributed to soldiers of the Tsarist armies in the Russian Civil War. Field Marshal Ludendorf, the Kaiser’s warlord, blamed the collapse of Germany on a conspiracy of Jews, Freemasons and Jesuits.
England was by no means immune to these attitudes; journals frequently expressed suspicions concerning the ‘Hidden Hand’ that was allegedly sabotaging the war effort. When the Russian Revolution arrived an official Foreign Office report included remarks that the Bolsheviks were ‘International Jews’. Just how widely these beliefs were accepted can be seen from the first chapter of John Buchan’s famous thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps. Colonel Scudder, the secret agent, explains that behind every major company in Europe there is a “Jew in a wheelchair with a face like a rattlesnake”, and that the cause of World War I is that “the Jew has his knife into the Russian Empire”.

One of the major disseminators of conspiracy theory in this era, and a great influence on later theorizing, was Nesta H. Webster (right), author of World Revolution; the Plot Against Civilisation and Secret Societies and Subversive Movements, published in the 1920s. In these books the themes of previous conspiracy theorists are put together in an extraordinary synthesis. The ultimate origin of twentieth-century revolutionary movements is alleged to be a mediaeval sect of fanatical Moslems known as the Order of Assassins. The Assassins succeeded in subverting the crusading Knights Templar who brought their ideas back to Europe, where they formed the basis of Freemasonry. The Masons and Weishaupt’s Illuminati had led the French and Bolshevik revolutions. Socialists, the IRA and other radical movements were controlled by the same Satanic conspirators, together with their more recent allies the Zionists and the German General Staff.

It is a further indication of the mental climate of the period that Mrs Webster was invited to lecture to groups of Army officers on more than one occasion, and that in 1920 a leading MP writing on Bolshevism could claim that: “This conspiracy against civilisation [dates] from the days of Weishaupt … as a modern historian Mrs Webster has so ably shown, it played a recognisable role on the French Revolution.” [11]The author of those words was Winston Churchill.

As the Red Army emerged victorious from the Russian Civil War, the Tzarist ?migr?s scattered to many countries. Some of them formed focal points for the distribution of antisemitic propaganda. Their efforts fell on receptive ground. In American, Henry ford was sufficiently impressed to hire a team of detectives to attempt to track down the Elders of Zion. In Britain the Protocols were taken seriously by the most respected sections of the press. In 1920 The Times editorialised: “Have we, by straining every fibre of our national body, escaped a Pax Germanicus only to fall into a Pax Judaica. The Elders of Zion, as represented in their Protocols, are by no means kinder taskmasters than William II and his henchmen”. (It is only fair to add that the following years The Times published a series of articles exposing the fraudulent nature of the Protocols.)

In Germany their publication gave a considerable boost to the embryonic Nazi Party. The results of antisemitism in Germany meant that the type of ideas dealt with in this article became largely the preserve of the openly Nazi groups, like the National Front in Britain [12]. However the last few years seem to have seen a revival in conspiracy theorising. One source of this seems to have been the conflict between traditionalists and liberals in the Roman Catholic church. Opponents of church reform have in some countries like France, disseminated anti-Masonic and antisemitic propaganda of the nineteenth century variety, and claimed that Masons have taken over the Church.

However the main source of modern conspiracy theorising is the USA. This is hardly surprising. The political assassinations of the 1960s left many unanswered questions; the Watergate scandal revealed a network of criminal conspiracy extending into the White House, and was followed by revelations about the CIA concerning the use of illegal drugs, assassination plots and deals with gangsters that seemed as fantastic as the strangest ideas of the conspiracy theorists. Jimmy Carter, whose election had seemed to promise a break from this political underworld, turned out to be a member of the Trilateral Commission, a semi-secret club of politicians and wealthy men, sponsored by the Rockefellers. [13]

Many different groups have responded to these events with conspiratorial interpretations. The John Birch Society, once purely an extreme anti-Communist organisation, has discovered the works of Nesta Webster and earlier conspiracy theorists such as Barruel and Robison. The Society now proclaims Communism to be the creation of international bankers, and the Triliateral Commission to be the latest face of the Illuminati. On the Left some writers have abandoned traditional socialist ideas of how society functions in favour of an analysis of American society that sees it controlled by intelligence agencies and super-capitalists. [14] Robert Alton Wilson’s Illuminatus, a bizarre science fiction novel incorporating left and right wing conspiracy lore has become a bestseller.

Such is the world of conspiracy theorising; a world which as we shall see in the second part of this study, has several surprising links with ufology

1. Gary Allen, None Dare Call it Treason, 76 Press, California, 1971. The Rockefeller File ibid., 1976
2. Carl Oglesby, The Yankee-Cowboy War, Sheed Andrews, Kansas City, 1976.
3. Nesta H. Webster. Secret Societies and Subversive Movements. Constable, London. 1924.
4. Walter Bowart, Operation Mind Control, Fontana, London. 1976.
5. Anon. The Gemstone File. Privately printed, London, 1976.
6. J Harrison. The Second Coming, Routlege and Kegan Paul, London, 1978.
7. The data on eighteenth and nineteenth century secret societies in this article is taken largely from: J. M. Roberts, The Mythology of the Secret Societies, Paladin, 1974.
8. Most of this article’s material on antisemitism comes from: Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide, Eyre and Spottiswood, London, 1971.
9. Barbara Tuchman, The Proud Tower.
Claude Cockburn, Best Sellers.
11. Sunday Herald, 8 February 1920.
12. The role of conspiracy theories in national front ideology is described in: Michael Billig, Fascists, Harcourt Brace, London, 1978.
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, chapter 20. Longmans, 1980
14. For left-wing conspiratorial interpretations of American political assassinations, see: Yazijian and Blumenthal, Government by Gunplay, Signet, NY, 1976. Similar interpretations of Watergate and some criticisms from a traditional left viewpoint can be found in: Steve Weissman: Big Brother and the Holding Company, Ramparts Press, California, 1974