Although there is no agreement about the origins of Freemasonry, one long-held belief is that it originated in England and Scotland during the early Renaissance with the cathedral building guilds.
Originally the guilds were formed to help their members gain employment and to uphold standards of craftsmanship. Various skill levels were distinguished, among other ways, through the use of secret handshakes and symbols. In addition to learning the craft, members of the guilds also received esoteric knowledge, which in turn attracted non-craftsmen members to the guilds. These members became known as “non-operative” or “speculative” masons; gradually, with the decline in cathedral building, speculative masons took prominence in and eventual control of the organization. Drawing on the past, these individuals, who started to call themselves Freemasons, incorporated ritual and symbolic language, mostly relating to the building trades and specifically to the building of King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem.
After the creation of the Grand Lodge of England, in 1717, Freemasons unified and regulated themselves. The Grand Lodge of England, known as the Mother Lodge of the World, is the Masonic body that, therefore, “recognizes” other national Masonic Grand Lodges. The English Masonic Constitution of 1723 declared that Freemasons should not prevent others from joining the fraternity based upon the perspective member's nationality, race, or religion.
Freemasonry began admitting Jews as members in the mid-eighteenth century, first in England and then later in the Netherlands, France, Germany, and other countries. Nevertheless, European Freemasons tended to be ambivalent about who they allowed to join their organization. In some countries and in some locations, Masons allowed Jews to join their lodges. Other countries and other lodges, however, took deliberate steps to reject Jews from becoming members. The antisemitism that some Jews experienced while trying to join fraternal lodges was one reason for the creation of Jewish fraternal organizations, such as B'nai B'rith. German Jews founded the Berlin branch in 1885.
Most German Masonic lodges and their members affiliated with three Grand Lodges located in Prussia and known collectively as the “Old Prussian Grand Lodges.” These Grand Lodges and their subordinate lodges deliberately excluded non-Christians from membership. By 1922, they accounted for 70 percent of all Masons in Germany and numbered about 47,000 men. Six other Grand Lodges in Germany, including their subordinate lodges, were known as “Humanitarian” Lodges, because they accepted Jewish and Muslim males as well as Christians. Thus, a German Jew had to apply to a Humanitarian Lodge if he wanted to have any chance of joining a German Masonic lodge. In 1928, the Humanitarian Lodges had 24,000 members, and less than 3,000 of these were Jews.
Right-wing, conservative political leaders in Europe began to link Jews with Freemasons in the eighteenth century. Conservatives and Catholic clerics initially painted the Freemasons as hostile to religion and to the accepted aristocratic and clerical order. Since Masonic lodges were generally located in the larger cities of western Europe and England, where the majority of west European Jews lived, a rural distrust of an urban influence helped to cement the link between Jews and Freemasons. Conservatives and clerics throughout Europe blamed the coming of the French Revolution as well as all of its excesses, in part, on perceptions of a liberal, anti-clerical, and anti-aristocratic philosophy of the Freemasons.
During the nineteenth century, both antisemites and those opposed to Freemasonry argued that Jews manipulated Masonic ideology and international connections for nefarious purposes. They charged that Freemasons operated as front men for the Jews who preferred to remain inconspicuous and that the perceived Masonic belief in racial equality and human progress was a tool to serve Jewish interests, including the establishment of Jewish emancipation.
Among the most vociferous proponents of this thesis were conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church and members of the aristocracies in western and central Europe. French monarchists blamed the Jews and Freemasons for creating the Third Republic, where Jews enjoyed equal rights, aristocrats lost their special privileges, and the Catholic Church was, after 1905, separated from the state. Pope Leo XIII branded Freemasonry an enemy of “religion and society”: in his 1884 encyclical Humanum Genus, Leo claimed that Freemasons wanted to replace a Kingdom of God on earth by a kingdom of Satan under Freemason control. In 1894, the notorious French antisemite, Edouard Drumont, lent his support to an anti-Masonic world congress in Italy.
In Russia, the infamous racist forgery Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion (1905) linked Jews and Masons in a conspiracy to control the world, by charging that the lodges were in the service of the “Elders of Zion.” After World War I, antisemites translated the Protocols into many languages, including English. In the United States, the influential and popular industrialist Henry Ford sponsored and supported the Protocols allegations.
After World War I, right-wing German nationalists and antisemites in Weimar Germany claimed that Jews and Freemasons had conspired to provoke and prolong the war in order to bleed and destroy the aristocratic Empires of Germany, Russia, and Austria and to install Jewish domination by establishing constitutional democracy or Bolshevism. Antisemites continued to spread the idea that Jews would achieve world domination through Freemasonry. Pan-Germans and racists such as Alfred Rosenberg, one of Hitler's followers in the Nazi Party, Erich Ludendorff, the Chief of the German Army's General Staff during World War I, and Ludendorff's wife, Mathilda, played prominent roles in disseminating anti-Masonic propaganda.
In 1922, Rosenberg published Das Verbrechen der Freimaurerei: Judentum, Jesuitismus, Deutsches Christentum (The Crime of Freemasonry: Jewry, Jesuitism, and German Christianity). Five years later, Ludendorff published Vernichtung der Freimaurerei durch Enthüllung ihrer Geheimnisse (Exterminating Freemasonry by Revealing its Secrets), in which he alleged that Freemason initiation and rituals trained the Christian members to be “artificial” Jews and condemned Masonic support of Jewish emancipation for bringing “alien” influences into German culture.
In his political testament, Mein Kampf (1925), Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler repeated the charge that the Jews used Freemasonry to achieve their political ends: “To strengthen his [i.e., the Jew's] political position, he tries to tear down the racial and civil barriers which for a time continue to restrain him at every step. To this end he fights with all the tenacity innate in him for religious tolerance—and in Freemasonry, which has succumbed to him completely, he has an excellent instrument with which to fight for his aims and put them across. The governing circles and the higher strata of the political and economic bourgeoisie are brought into his nets by the strings of Freemasonry, and never need to suspect what is happening.”