Finding a decent Masonic program at random on Amazon Prime's leviathan on-demand streaming service is frequently an exercise in futility, given the abundance of lurid video nonsense about our fraternity choking the marketplace. But I stumbled into an outstanding documentary last week - Nazis vs. Freemasons: the Robbing of the Lodges (La Mémoire Volée des Francs-Maçons).
(NOTE: The Amazon version is dubbed into English and also has English subtitles for the French interviews. The title listed on Amazon is ‘Nazis and the Freemasons’ but the onscreen title on the program itself is ‘Nazis vs. the Freemasons.’ And yes I know, that Nazi swastika in the poster above is backwards - not my artwork.)
Over the last few decades, much attention has been given to the far sexier topic of art treasures stolen by the invading forces of the Nazi regime as they tore across Europe. But it's difficult to find much when it comes to the subject of their sacking of Masonic temples in Germany and in the occupied countries. Few historians outside of the fraternity are even aware this was done, and almost no one even talked about it before the mid-1980s or so.
Of course, there was Hitler's well-known philosophy that the Freemasons and the Jews were in cahoots to "take over the world," and that "all Jews are Freemasons; all Freemasons are Jews." So there was a direct anti-semitic aspect to the destruction of the lodges. Then there was the longstanding European claim that French Masons had started the French Revolution, and that Masons had essentially designed and controlled the entire government of France's Third Republic in the late 19th century.
A certain clot of influential Nazis like Alfred Rosenberg (one of the chief architects of Nazi ideology and its top "racial theorist") and SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler had their own reasons for wanting their hands on Masonic archives. Rosenberg created an entire institute for pursuing cultural, historical and anthropological "proofs" of Nazism's racial theories and especially the "Judeo-Masonic Conspiracy." His Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (or ERR) had an entire division devoted just to Masonic archives. Meanwhile, Himmler really was a full-throated devotee of occultism, and had a longstanding inkling that the secretive Masons really might be secretly hiding the the secrets to Life, the Universe and Everything in our secretive secret secrets.
Once Hitler came to power and shuttered Germany's lodges, the ERR set up their Masonic division in the basement of Berlin's largest former Masonic Temple, while upstairs was turned into the national headquarters of the SS. They made odd housemates: Rosenberg's ERR and Himmler's SS were in direct competition with each other to see who could confiscate more cultural and artistic treasures.
Rosenberg stored the ERR's loot at Neuschwanstein Castle, while Himmler's best finds got hauled off to Wewelsburg Castle, which became his own virtual crypto-religious shrine for the SS' most elite officers. But the invading Germans weren't just interested in stripping expensive Masonic decor or spooky props. They also gutted Masonic libraries wherever they found them. By the end of the war, Himmler had amassed the world's largest library of esoteric books made up of more than 13,000 stolen volumes from across Europe. A huge portion of them came from Masonic libraries.
Most of all, the Nazis desperately wanted the detailed membership records from the various grand lodges and lodge secretaries (along with trade unions and other voluntary associations) from every country they advanced into. The Nazis removed Masonic records and libraries across France, Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands, Poland, the Baltic States, Greece, and Italy.
Those records - frequently consisting of lodge petitions and other personal information - were a treasure trove for the Gestapo and other security forces and their quislings for tracking down men through their Masonic memberships, sponsors, occupations, known residences, spouses and families, and much more. France's various competing grand lodges, whether male, female or co-Masonic, made no idealogical difference to the Nazi security apparatus. Notions of regularity that Masons might obsess over were meaningless distinctions, and every grand lodge and individual lodge room was looted, regardless of whose it was. The files and confiscated libraries were ultimately sent back to Berlin where the Gestapo, the SS, and their cooperative collaborators pored over them. This was the way that an estimated 250,000 Freemasons wound up being systematically arrested and sent to the camps throughout Europe.
Because of U.S. and British bombing campaigns on Berlin as early as 1942, the archives began getting shipped eastward into Poland and Czechoslovakia by the Nazis to avoid destruction - only to be captured when the Russians marched in from the opposite direction. Russia's Red Army were the first of the allied forces to roll into Berlin and seize control of the Nazi's centralized record keeping infrastructure. But the story didn't conclude in 1945. When the war ended, the Masonic records never returned.
The Soviets under Stalin were every bit as obsessive about spying on private citizens as their defeated Nazi enemies had been, and just as ruthless when it came to stuffing their ideological foes into the dark hole of the gulags. The leaders of the Russian Revolution and their successors had been every bit as anti-Masonic as Hitler's Germany, for many of the very same reasons, just without the grim efficiency. So Stalin was happy to capitalize on the Nazi's diligence - those very same Masonic records were packed up from Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia and shipped farther eastward as fast as the Russians could find boxcars and trucks. And they remained behind the Iron Curtain for the duration of the Cold War. Because the Soviets had taken all of the former Nazi territories east of Berlin, all of those former Masons still alive throughout the Warsaw Pact countries could still be traced by Moscow through their old lodge records.
All of this is partially why this very topic today brings out heated fights in, for instance, Italy, when government prosecutors periodically demand that grand lodges turn over their membership records in their regular-as-clockwork anti-Mafia investigations. European Masons have the past as a grim example of how their own private information can be used against them, and it's a large part of the reason they aren't as publicly showy over their Masonic memberships as we are in the U.S. The wartime experience is also why European Masons on the continent are far less consumed by discussions of regularity and recognition at the local lodge level — they know from experience that the enemies and persecutors and would-be destroyers of our fraternity make no such distinctions.
Another reason for Moscow's desire to pore over the Masonic archives was strategic, once the Cold War was in full swing. A large proportion of the military and political leaders of the Allied forces, the post-war Marshall Plan administrators and officers, and leading NATO figures were Freemasons. Many of them were quite public about it (especially the Americans), so the Russians clung to the Masonic information in case it could be used for their own purposes. After Stalin's death, that particular obsession fell by the wayside, but the lost Masonic archives simply disappeared into the massive maw of Soviet bureaucratic detritus.
Think of the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
It wasn't until 1999 after the fall of the USSR that those decades-old Masonic archives began turning up in forgotten warehouses dotted all across the fallen Soviet empire. That was thanks to the detective work of the redoubtable Patricia Grimsted, an American historian who has specialized in investigating confiscated Nazi treasures, files and other lost cultural material. She is quite literally the hero of this detective story.
This video was originally a French program, but dubbed into English. At 51 minutes, it would make an excellent presentation for a lodge's Masonic education. It features Pierre Mollier, the Director of the Grand Orient de France's incredible Museum of Freemasonry in Paris; historians Andre Combs and Sophie Coeure; Philippe Charuel, Grand Master of the Grande Loge de France; Marc Menschaert, Grand Master of the Grand Orient de Belgique; Philippe Gugliemi, Past GM of the Grand Orient de France; and Patricia Grimsted, whose dogged investigation of Nazi plunder over the years led to the ultimate return of these archives.