Encompassing everything from antisemitism to belief in shapeshifting lizards, the New World Order theories are wide-ranging and historic. Emerging out of the enlightenment battle for reason, the ideas have become possibly the quintessential conspiracy theory. They are seen prominently in this very moment as American President Donald Trump proclaims himself the victim of deep-state fraud. Yet, how did these ideas come to find themselves embedded in popular culture? How can they be so widely believed?
The New World Order is a story of religious war and genocide, one that has fed into both oppressive movements and ongoing efforts to quell rationality and reason. It might very well be one of the most dangerous ideas ever conceived.
The origins of belief in the Illuminati as an all-powerful group pulling the strings of governments and populations alike goes back to the French Revolution and ruling class opposition to the overthrow of the monarchy. The success of the revolution led to widespread fears that the working class were on the verge of rebellion across Europe, with many believing it impossible that the lower orders had gained sufficient agency to act against “their betters”. The likes of the French publicist and Jesuit priest Augustin Barruel and British physicist and mathematician John Robison instead proposed that the revolution had come via the shadowy hand of the Illuminati and Freemasons.
Arising during the 16th and 17th centuries, Freemasonry has long been accused of Satanic practices by critics, often through a misunderstanding of its symbols and rituals. Secret by nature, historically insular lodges led to all manner of speculation through humanity’s own inquisitiveness and tendency to think the worst. These claims were rarely able to be combatted by the masons, wishing to adhere to their codes of silence. Given the fraternal nature of the movement, with prominent men being selected by invite, it is easy to believe that the group was working covertly to ensure they remained in positions of political power. However, Freemasonry is not a single movement, with many lodges being independent and with unique goals and traditions, not working as a unified body. Equally, membership has spanned all political ideologies throughout its existence. Yet, despite all this, when a society took a downward turn, eyes quickly turned in their direction. Catholics were banned from Freemasonry in 1738 and adhering to the promotion of rationalism and Protestantism, their existence fed into Europe’s religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants.
From the Masonic movement sprung the Illuminati. This group was a secret society that was founded in Upper Bavaria, Germany, in 1776. It was a grouping of liberal enlightenment thinkers who believed in freedom of thought, republicanism, secularism and gender equality. Its membership was recruited from lodges across Bavaria and sought to teach the values of rationality. The group was broken up by the Bavarian government who feared that they were acting as subversives and intended to overthrow both the monarchy and Catholicism in Bavaria.
In 1797–98, two books were published that claimed to have exposed a conspiracy, Mémoires pour servir à l’Histoire du Jacobinisme (Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism) by Barruel and Proofs of a Conspiracy by Robison.
Barruel’s book claimed that the French Revolution was a deliberate plot to not only seize France but overthrow monarchism, aristocracy and Christianity throughout Europe, replacing the established order with one of reason that was without God. In themes that have survived for over 200 years, he claimed that this plot was orchestrated by a clandestine coalition of intellectuals, Jacobins, Freemasons and a still existing Illuminati. Barruel makes it straightforward in his work that his objection to the Illuminati was that they taught rationality, and he saw it as a threat to his religion. It is not hard to see modern interpretations surrounding anti-intellectualism, “cultural Marxism” and “The Great Replacement” in the theories. In another echo of today, Barruel’s work presented the author as a neutral party, despite being a Jesuit priest. The book contained a wealth of “evidence” presented as fact, with out of context quotes and half-truths creating an illusion of objective reason.
Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism was a sensation, allowing the ruling classes and those who stood against the revolution and its ideals to reject self-analysis and blame for the events in France and, instead, shift responsibility onto groups they already considered enemies. For others, it offered a simple explanation for the very complex political and social issues that were running through European society. Edmund Burke, for example, the philosophical founder of modern conservatism, supported Barruel’s findings, stating that he was “delighted” with the book.
“I have known myself, personally, five of your principal conspirators; and I can undertake to say from my own certain knowledge, that as far back as the year 1773, they were busy in the plot you have so well described, and in the manner, and on the principle you have so truly represented. To this, I can speak as a witness.”
The anti-revolution movement was soon awash with others taking up the mantle of Barruel, new accounts of the “conspiracy” only adding weight to the claims in the popular consciousness. The more the theory was discussed, the more that it appeared to have validity. John Robison’s Proofs of a Conspiracy, or more precisely Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the secret meetings of Freemasons, Illuminati and Reading Societies, was one such book inspired by Barruel.
The book, like Barruel, attacked Freemasonry and proclaimed that a still existing Illuminati was an unseen hand behind the French Revolution. However, the book also contains unique material and ideas, with one of the primary sources being the Scottish Benedictine Monk and secret agent Alexander Horn. Horn anonymously attacked the revolution from a Catholic standpoint, seeing it as undermining the role of the Holy Roman Empire. In an early example of politics and the New World Order conspiracy theory crossing into politics, Horn met with the Tory government of Pitt the Younger, speaking extensively with the then Earl Spencer and using this connection to acquire rare books and manuscripts from Spencer’s private collection.
Showing the influence of the commentary on the alleged actions of the Illuminati, the Reverend G. W. Snyder sent a copy of Robison’s book to George Washington, then having just recently left the office of President. Writing in Mount Vernon on October 24, 1798, Washington said that he did not believe that the likes of Freemasonry were engaged in an organised plot.
“Revd Sir: I have your favor of the 17th. instant before me; and my only motive to trouble you with the receipt of this letter, is to explain, and correct a mistake which I perceive the hurry in which I am obliged, often, to write letters, have led you into.
It was not my intention to doubt that, the Doctrines of the Illuminati, and principles of Jacobinism had not spread in the United States. On the contrary, no one is more truly satisfied of this fact than I am.
The idea that I meant to convey, was, that I did not believe that the Lodges of Free Masons in this Country had, as Societies, endeavoured to propagate the diabolical tenets of the first, or pernicious principles of the latter (if they are susceptible of separation). That Individuals of them may have done it, or that the founder, or instrument employed to found, the Democratic Societies in the United States, may have had these objects; and actually had a separation of the People from their Government in view, is too evident to be questioned.
My occupations are such, that but little leisure is allowed me to read News Papers, or Books of any kind; the reading of letters, and preparing answers, absorb much of my time. With respect, etc.”
The ideas of Barruel and Robison fed into pre-existing apocalypse narratives and were seized upon by extremist Christian groups throughout the Victorian age. With their interpretation of the bible suggesting that the antichrist will be served by a single government and one world language, their ideas developed to include accusations that the New World Order was the work of Satan. Through the ages, this figure of the antichrist has been identified as anyone the movement stood opposed to. Current contenders include Barack Obama, the President of the UN, the leaders of the EU, the leaders of ISIS and even Pope Francis.
However, the books and belief in all-powerful secret societies with the ability to shape world events had even further unintended consequences, even beyond being co-opted by protestant evangelicalism. Staggeringly, that being individuals actually attempting to set up such societies.
In 1877, the British imperialist, businessman and politician Cecil Rhodes advocated for the British Empire reannexing the United States. Seeing the US as a rising superpower, Rhodes believed that a union between the two would bring about a state so powerful that all others must fall under its sway, leading to essential one world government and world peace by consequence. To bring about this plan, Rhodes wished to start his own secret society to promote “the extension of British rule throughout the world” and “the foundation of so great a Power as to render wars impossible, and promote the best interests of humanity.”
Rhodes would go on to promote ideas of British exceptionalism throughout his life. He claimed that the imposition of British hegemony throughout the world would lead to “the cessation of all wars, and one language”. The best way of ensuring those goals was met would be the retention of enormous wealth in the hands of a secret elite.
“The only thing feasible to carry out this idea is a secret society gradually absorbing the wealth of the world [“and human minds of the higher order”] to be devoted to such an object.”
In 1903, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were first published in Russia. The book took the themes of secret cabals that had been made famous by the likes of Barruel and Robison and put them in an antisemitic context, suggesting that it was, in fact, Jews who were behind everything, including Freemasonry and the Illuminati. The book, supposedly the minutes of a meeting between prominent Jewish figures, was debunked as a fraud. It was written by the Russian-French writer, journalist and political activist Matvei Golovinski at the behest of the Okhrana, the secret police force of Imperial Russia. It largely plagiarised The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu which had satirised Napoleon III. As Barruel and Robison’s work had sought to undermine the values of the French Revolution, the Okhrana intended their own propaganda to undermine the Russian Revolution of 1905.
Not to be confused with the victorious Russian Revolution of 1917, the 1905 rising instead set the board for what was to come, allowing Bolshevism to take centre stage as the opposing force to the tyranny of the House of Romanov. Lenin would describe events as “The Great Dress Rehearsal” for the revolution of 1917 and believed that without the events of 1905 “victory of the October Revolution in 1917 would have been impossible.”
Jews had long been marginalised and made scapegoats for the ills of society throughout Europe, with pogroms and other antisemitic violence being commonplace for centuries. In Russia, 4% of the population was Jewish yet they were not allowed to acquire land outside of cities and towns, had legal restrictions on education, were essentially barred from many professions and were denied the right to vote for municipal councillors. Over 3,000 Jews would be killed in massacres by forces loyal to the Tsar during the events of 1905.
Despite being debunked as a fake, it was too late to stop The Protocols of the Elders of Zion spreading throughout Europe. The book fed into existing prejudices about Jews and reinforced belief that the chaos of world events was, in fact, being controlled with unseen hands. The blame for the misfortune of readers in the 1920s and 1930s was directed at minorities, socialists and “deviants”, not governments and institutions. The book was seized upon by the rising fascist movement, with far-right conspiracy theorists such as Nesta Helen Webster and Edith Starr Miller pushing the ideas in Britain and America.
These fascist theorists suggested that the unseen hands of Freemasons and the Illuminati , controlled by Jews, had pulled the strings of world events to create chaos. They were deeply ingrained in the leadership of Western democracy and Russian Bolshevism, setting the two powers against each other so that the Jews might remain in control no matter what happened. With many prominent communists being Jewish and the West already engaged in the first Red Scare as they tried to quell their own Bolshevist movements, the claims rang true with many. Fascist movements saw a swell of support across Europe, and few readers will need to be told what happened next.
The carnage of the Holocaust meant that it was no longer socially acceptable to blame the Jews for the world’s problems in polite society and the New World Order theory developed new boogeymen. From aliens to shapeshifting lizards standing as euphemisms and new ideas surrounding Muslims, immigrants, “white genocide” and a “gay agenda”, the ethos of the theory remains the same — to blame shadowy others for the world’s problems. Of course, that is not to say that the millennia-old tradition blaming the Jews doesn’t yet still thrive, with white supremacist groups frequently replacing the entire Jewish people with stand-in accusations against the likes of the Rothschild family and George Soros.
Into the mix comes the rise of evangelical Protestantism as a political force in the United States, coupled with increasingly right-wing rhetoric both in the American media and online spaces. The likes of David Icke in the UK and Alex Jones in the US have merely taken ideas that have been circulating for centuries and spun them for new audiences, making a lot of money in the process. The rise of the QAnon cult shows that these ideas remain a deadly threat to human life.
Fascism is always coupled with feelings of disenfranchisement, many adherents feeling a sense of disconnect from the political sphere. Frequently downtrodden, these believers are often suffering the effects of a divided and unequal society. They lack education, money and resources that they see in others. The far-right offers them an outlet for their anger, all be it misplaced. So too, the New World Order provides explanations. It washes away complex matters of sociology and economics and instead creates a victim narrative for the believer, providing an illusionary abuser to direct and control their anger and frustration toward.
Believers will create echo chambers of adherence, highlighting stories and theories that would seem to support their belief with a fervour often comparable to the extremes of religion. Refugees become evidence of “white genocide”, Joe Biden becomes portrayed as a “socialist” despite sitting comfortably right of centre, calls for religious tolerance become attacks on Christianity. Fighting this fight gives those who believe a sense of doing what is righteous, thinking that they are the heirs of the crusaders and our grandparents who fought the real evils of fascism. To those who feel they have been given little from society, the feelings can finally give them an intoxicating sense of being empowered at last.
Initially developing as a Catholic reaction to the enlightenment values of the French Revolution, the New World Order theory was utilised to explain the complex sociological issues that had led to the uprising, allowing ruling elites to shift blame for the loss of power onto their enemies. They fed into the existing tensions between Catholicism and Protestantism, ancient fears of the Godless and prejudices against Freemasonry. This theme would be utilised again by the Imperial House of Russia to combat the rising tide of anti-monarchism before the 1905 revolution. Combined with antisemitism, the idea became associated with racial hatred, adding Jews and other minorities into the coalition of forces who were supposedly working to bring down monarchy, Christianity and the existing social order.
While the theories come from a place of social superiority, racism and political expedience, these ideas were only reinforced by the authentic views of individuals such as Cecil Rhodes. Ironically, with Rhodes speaking from a colonial and imperial perspective, he was likely to have been fully supportive of efforts against Bolshevism. However, these “well-intentioned” public statements in support of secret societies and one world governments indeed found some favour in establishment circles, to many they merely confirmed the claims of Barruel, Robison and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Standing as a supreme example and warning around the politics of fear, the New World Order theory has, in many respects, achieved its goals. Rejecting the values of reason and tolerance, it stands as an affront to the ideals of the enlightenment — secularism, freedom of thought and democracy. Successfully convincing followers that they, in fact, stand for those things, it is a master of double-speak, presenting fascism as liberty. From a singular rant against the liberal values of the French Revolution, the work of Augustin Barruel has transcended culture, being presented as established fact in all manner of TV shows, video games and movies. Belief in the theory is almost becoming commonplace. Utilised by strong-man politicians as a mythical threat only they can protect us from, the danger of the New World Order lays not in any “truth” behind the claims, but rather the risk is in its weaponisation by individuals with agendas. Ones that are proven by history to be motivated by the worst instincts of human nature.
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