First World War and Freemasonry

WBro Martin Papenheim presented in the last regular meeting a very interesting lecture about the Freemasonry during the First World War. You can find an excerpt here.

The First World War, whose beginning 100 years before we commemorate in this year 2014, had a tremendous impact on the memory of the Western countries, even more than the Second World War. The First World War, called in England and France the Great War,  finished a long rivalry between the Western countries on the one side and Germany, Austria on the other one. It deeply changed the structures of the societies. The old semi-feudal order was substituted by a society of masses. The political landscape of Europe saw the end of the Osmanic and the Austrian Empire and the beginning of the Soviet Union.

The First World War began, in the heads of the generals – as a traditional short war and ended as a long during one with an unknown number of dead and of the use of giant masses of weapons and material, among them for the first time tanks and submarines. It saw big movements, as in Belgium and Eastern Europe, but also unexpected trench-wars as in Verdun.

The War had also considerable impacts on the Freemasonry in Europe.  Although officially the British and German Freemasonry were un-political, all European Freemasons engaged in  supporting their mother country. For example, in 1914 ”The Freemason“ published a recruitment advisement and British Freemasonry created new charities. The patriotic atmosphere was universal. Since the First World War the US lodges have the national flag in their lodge room. The stars on so-called service flags symbolized the engagement of brethren in the troops. On both sides of the front field lodges had their regular meetings, although at least the US Grand Lodges hesitated to establish field lodges (http://skirret.com/papers/freemasonry_and_WWI.html ) 21 German field lodges are known.

Their were also lodges for prisoners. Two were formed for English masons under the jurisdiction of the Grand Orient of the Netherlands in Groningen 1915 and The Hague 1918. Two lodges of instruction for prisoners existed in Yozgat and Afium Karasia, Turkey (http://www.freemasonrytoday.com/features/freemasonry-world-war-i-john-hamill; http://www.freemasons-freemasonry.com/prisoner.html ).

Their were also masonic associations where masons could meet: New Zealand Troops formed two Masonic Associations . The first one was active around the South Coast of England and Freemason soldiers were encouraged to join and also visit local lodges. Approximately 1500 men joined the association.The other Association was formed in Egypt and Palestine. This group was much smaller as the troops were in constant action against the Turks and Germans. This group called itself the NZEF Masonic Association in Egypt and Palestine. It had about 116 members and held meetings in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine (http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=197999&page=3 )

But more important was the impact of the War on the nature of Freemasonry. The international masonic relations were destroyed. Until 1915 The UGLE hindered any attempt to discriminate brethren belonging to the enemies  or having been born as citizens these states. In 1915 they were not excluded but were asked to stay away from Lodge meetings until the end of the war. German Grandloges hat cut their international relations with the grand lodges of the allies just after the war, while the UGLE hesitated to make this step until 1916. After the war Freemasonry was heavily attacked by the right wing general Ludendorff and his wife Mathilde. Freemasonry became the conspiracy group which together with jesuits, jews and the international finance was planning the control of the world. This conspiracy theory became very popular in Germany. But curious enough the three, traditionally conservative Prussian Grand Lodges developed an anti-international, völkisch type of Freemasonry. In 1930 The Symbolische Großloge von Deutschland was founded as a liberal counterpart to this nationalist conservative type of freemasonry.

But the war had also another effect: Freemasons remembered their duty for peace and harmony. Already in 1907 masonic meetings for World Peace and Harmony had been established and continued after the war. For the wartime itself besides the cautious politics of the UGLE one has to mention the meeting of some grandloges of the Entente and of states remained neutral which met in Paris on the 28 to 20 June 1917 and discussed the possibilities to establish peace. The representative of the Grand Orient de France favored the idea of the necessity of the European alliance of Germany, France and England and a general disarmament. This was the first time that the idea of the League of Nations was developed. The latter plan by Wilson was not influenced by this masonic project, but it is an honour for Freemasonry to have formulated this idea during the war. The Italian and the French Freemasonry by the way were strongly attacked by the fascists and the right-wing nationalist to have favored this idea (Hans-Hermann Höhmann, Freimaurerei, Analysen, Überlegungen, Perspektiven, Bremen 2011, 55ff.; Art. Weltkrieg, in: Eugen Lennhoff, Oskar Posner, Dieter A. Binder, Internationales Freimaurerlexikon, Münvhrn 2000, 896ff.).

After the war up to 1939 especially Freemasons from Southern Germany  and France regularly met  – during this time of growing nationalist tendencies in Germany – for fighting for peace and harmony, especially between France and Germany. From 1921 to 1932 the Association Maçonnique Internationale, founded by the Suisse Grand Lodge Alpina organized conferences which also discussed questions of the human rights and of peace ( http://freimaurer-wiki.de/index.php/Association_Ma%C3%A7onnique_Internationale ).

But of course the dead of the First World War, we commemorate today, rest the most important part of this terrible history.  Grand Lodges and Lodges in Great Britain have listed their victims on roles of honour, that of the Grand Lodge of England with 3064 names, which seems to me a number much to low. In Queen Street a peace memorial was inaugurated in 1933 (http://www.masonicgreatwarproject.org.uk/ ).

But it is not only their death: Those who have been military conflicts know that these deeply influence the whole personality and even if the soldier is not wounded physically the war wounds his heart and that of his beloved. The First World War with its 9.500000 military victims, among them also many from the colonies, plus the civilians, has left its traces in the heart of Europe. They should be a warning to strengthen our efforts for peace and harmony as some freemasons have already begun this task during the War itself.

The Library and Museum of Freemasonry, London, has organized an exhibition on : English Freemasonry and the First World War, September 15, 2014 – Marc 6, 2015. A catalogue can be ordered.