How do secret societies stay so secret?

Secret societies: busybody or conspirator?

Secret societies operate in secret and do not want their existence to be noticed. What are their goals? And what is it about conspiracy theories?

Allegedly they wanted to kill the Pope, usurp world domination and were responsible for the French Revolution - and these are only a few examples of the supposed dark machinations of the Illuminati Order. To this day, the secret society is the subject of numerous novels, films and documentaries. And there are still legends and conspiracy theories surrounding the "enlightened", because that is what the Latin word "Illuminati" means.

Why is it always assumed that secret societies have a hand in major events in world history? And what goals are they actually pursuing?

Values ​​and goals can vary greatly depending on the secret society. "It ranges from religious to political and economic to esoteric world views," says Marian Füssel, Professor of Early Modern History and the History of Science at the University of Göttingen. The first secret societies emerged as communities that rebelled against an absolutist government or at least wanted to do something that was forbidden. So at the end of the 18th century the Illuminati strove for free science and enlightenment.

"In the 18th century, starting in England, there was a real boom in secret societies," says Füssel. "The Freemasons were originally builders and architects who first met in pubs to discuss issues across the various classes." Her ideals to this day are freedom, equality, brotherhood, tolerance and humanity - not catchphrases that were particularly widespread at the time. In order to be able to freely exchange their opinions, they met in back rooms, later in their own rooms and houses.

A great deal is known today about the organization and rituals of the Masons. But how did the secret society manage to keep information from leaking out? "The members swear an oath by which they commit themselves to secrecy," explains Marian Füssel. Often there are different levels of secrecy. New members do not find out everything yet. But those who have proven themselves to be trustworthy will be initiated more deeply.

Secret societies like the Freemasons try to keep certain information circulating only to a certain group of people. It is more complicated with secret societies that even hide their existence. "If an organization really wants to remain secret, this is almost only possible through face-to-face communication," says Füssel with certainty. Particularly when making contact for the first time, caution is required: does the other person actually represent the same values? Some also used encrypted messages or secret characters.

The age of the internet has not changed anything in terms of secure communication. "However, conspiracy theories have experienced a new upswing since the spread of the Internet," says Professor Füssel. "Often a whole conspiracy soup is mixed together. Often connections between groups are suspected that do not want to have anything to do with each other." Some secret societies were accused of wielding power worldwide, above all the Illuminati. But that's an exaggeration. "People need simple explanations. And since these organizations carry out their activities in secret, they offer a lot of scope for speculation," says Marian Füssel.

Whether and how many secret societies exist worldwide today is also pure speculation. "Maybe we will know in 20 or 30 years," speculates the history expert.

Example 1: Freemason

The Freemasons were founded at the beginning of the 18th century from the guilds of builders and architects. The secret society spread across Europe and is organized in local groups, so-called lodges. According to the five ideals of freedom, equality, brotherhood, tolerance and humanity, they unite people of all social classes and beliefs. Although the members have committed themselves to secrecy, some rituals of the Freemasons are known and can even be found in many libraries. The prominent members included some American presidents, but also the architect Gustave Eiffel as well as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

With their enlightened thinking and acting, the Freemasons contributed to an open society and free science, as we are currently experiencing in the western world. Today they appear, among other things, in connection with charitable institutions. So they organize many tables where the needy can buy cheap food.

Example 2: Illuminati

Fearing that the Rosicrucians would recruit his best students, the philosopher Adam Weishaupt founded the Illuminati (Latin: "The Enlightened") in Ingolstadt in 1776. His aim was to give the budding scholars access to literature critical of the church. So at first the Illuminati were a kind of intellectual reading group. However, the secret society grew rapidly and also gained prominent members such as Adolf Freiherr Knigge. At its heyday, the Illuminati numbered around 1,500 members. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also joined them - but supposedly only to scout them.

After it became known, the order was finally banned and smashed in 1785. Attempts were made again and again to revive the secret society. But without success.

Example 3: Ku Klux Klan

Compared to the Freemasons and Illuminati, the Ku Klux Klan - KKK for short - does not represent any democratic, educational goals, but fought with violence for the re-enslavement of blacks in America after the American Civil War. In disguise, they mainly attacked former slaves at night, burned down houses, became violent, kidnapped and murdered. The leadership of the KKK increasingly lost control, so that even after the self-dissolution in 1871, numerous other attacks were carried out.

In 1915 the Ku Klux Klan was revived. After the Second World War, the United States began to fight the Klan in a targeted manner, clearing up numerous attacks and murders. Today the Ku Klux Klan is estimated to have several thousand followers and has seen a new influx since the election of US President Barack Obama.