The journal Ritual, Secrecy and Civil Society Volume 6/Spring 2019 included a fascinating paper by Denis LeFabvre about a group of starry-eyed Masons who created the 'Universal League of Freemasons' - a global association of lodges that began in 1905 to help affect the spread of Esperanto, a newly-created, neutral and purportedly "universal" language. But their ultimate dreams were much greater than that. They hoped that a universal language combined with a universal fraternity would ultimately save the world.
Esperanto is mostly a strange curiosity these days (pre-Star Trek William Shatner starred in the first notable movie ever made in the language, Incubus in 1966, proving he could overact and chew scenery in any language), but it had its enthusiastic supporters in an earlier age.
Esperanto was created in the 1870s and 80s by a linguist and Polish Jew named L.L. Zamenhoff using elements of Russian, German, English, French, Polish, Hebrew, plus Greek and Latin. His goal was to create an easy to learn and adopt second language that would transcend all national borders, tribal and cultural divisions. His ultimate hope was that Esperanto would be adopted as the new lingua franca for diplomacy, science, commerce and international understanding, and ultimately end, or at least defuse, the dangers of fervent nationalism that had so torn Europe apart for so long. His dream was born in reality, because those very divisions would plague Europe and kill millions for another 70 years. He himself had been raised in the Jewish ghetto and was surrounded on all sides by people who spoke numerous different languages and were in constant conflict. He saw the two issues linked together - that misunderstanding your neighbors' words often led to violent misunderstandings on a much larger scale. Rinse and repeat.
Zamenhof initially called his language Lingvo internacia ('international language') and attempted to publish a book in Russia to introduce it to the public in the mid-1880s. When the Russian government prevented its initial publication, author Leo Tolstoy became a public supporter and the authorities at last relented.
The book was published under the pseudonym of 'Doktoro Esperanto' ('Doctor Hopeful'), and the growing fan base for the language soon began to call it Esperanto instead. It had a slow but steady increase in popularity over the next three decades, and Zamenhof was even nominated for the Nobel Peace prize in 1910.
|7th International Esperanto Congress in Antwerp, Belgium - 1907|
Zamenhoff wasn't a lone dreamer, and the horrors of World War I between 1914-18 ushered in a new sense of commitment to find drastic ways to prevent such future devastations from ever happening again.
Zamenhoff died while the war still raged, but after hostilities ended in 1918, an awful lot of people came to agree with his point of view – that if only stubborn nationalism and artificial divisions could be licked, countries would stop shooting at each other. Esperanto became a sensation. In fact, the newly established League of Nations came within one vote of adopting Esperanto as their official diplomatic language.
At the same time, some Esperanto utopianists and other advocates sought ways to incorporate Freemasonry and its philosophy of universal brotherhood as one of several ways to unite the people of Europe and the world to prevent future wars. Originally formed in 1905 as 'Esperanto Masona,' ('Hopeful Masonry') the creators of the UFL - Universala Framasona Ligo (Universal League of Freemasons) believed Esperanto, combined with the universal brotherhood of Freemasonry, could ultimately unite the entire world in brotherhood and finally bring global peace.
The first practical mission of the UFL was to break through Freemasonry's own artificially erected barriers of recognition and regularity and accusations of clandestinism so that Masons could enjoy fellowship with each another in a non-tyled Masonic environment, all without breaking their respective obligations. The notion was that Freemasons could meet informally from all different jurisdictions and obediences and find that they shared much more in common with one another than what divided them.
But the harsh realities of the 1930s and the rapid rise of fascism in Germany, Spain and Italy, the atrocities and deprivations of Communism in Soviet Russia, along with the brutal spread of the Japanese Empire in the East, briefly brought the UFL's lofty dreams to a halt. In Mein Kampf, Hitler had declared that 'Esperatism' was a tool of the dreaded world-wide 'Jewish-Masonic Conspiracy.' During the WWII, only the Swiss group of the UFL remained active and their headquarters remained in Geneva.
|Bust of Zamenhoff in Budapest|
Both the Nazis and Josef Stalin's Russia persecuted and killed advocates for Esperanto. Zamenhof himself died of a heart attack in 1917, but he and his wife Klara Silbernik raised three children, a son, Adam, and two daughters, Sofia and Lidia. All three children were murdered in the Holocaust.
Nevertheless, there are still some 2 million people around the world today who speak or read Esperanto, and it's commonly known enough in pop culture that it even appeared in a Simpsons episode. The Internet has breathed new life into the spread of the language, and some foreign language programs teach Esperanto first as a stepping stone for then teaching more difficult languages. It's a simple one to master with few basic grammar rules that have no irregular exceptions, and advocates say teaching it to toddlers makes mastering many other languages later in life much faster. They regard Esperanto almost as the next step after learning the basic alphabet.
The Universal League of Freemasons didn't die after WWII, but very few Masons know about it these days. While you may never have heard of it, this was not some insignificant little discussion club — at their peak, the Universal League of Freemasons was spread into 72 countries with upwards of 12,000 members worldwide.
Back in the 1960’s and 70’s the UFL generated an uproar in mainstream U.S. grand lodges who condemned the organization as clandestine because its members associated with irregular and unrecognized, clandestine Masons. There was an American group of the UFL founded by Harvey Newton Brown, who was also a major force behind bringing awareness to mainstream Masons about Prince Hall Freemasonry. Harvey Brown was a powerful advocate for broaching the artificial divisions of regularity and recognition among the world's Freemasons, so naturally he was treated by many American Masons like he had horns and a forked tail sprouting from his body.
Interestingly, California's own Past Grand Secretary and 2014 PGM, John L. Cooper III (photo) was the last official Secretary for the American wing of the UFL in the 1980s when he was forced by the GL of California to drop out of it.
The U.S group died soon afterwards, but John wrote his own paper about them.
See 'The Universal .League of Freemasons: A Twentieth Century Experiment in Masonic Dialogue.'
Although they were pretty free-wheeling in their makeup, the UFL nevertheless restricted their membership to male Masons for a variety of practical reasons — not the least of which being that they knew accepting female Masons into the group would kill it in the cradle among even the most progressive-minded jurisdictions throughout the 20th century. At their World Congress in Berlin in 1992, the UFL voted to also include female and co-Masons for the first time. But they were already diminishing in popularity.
After the UFL faded, the international research group The Philalethes Society took on this same sort of role in the 1980s and 90s after the UFL disappeared, and they frequently invited "irregular and unrecognized" Masons to participate in their conferences and contribute to its magazine. PSOC presidents and editors Allen E. Roberts and later, Nelson King were both strong advocates of encouraging these types of cooperation, participation, education and understanding. It was this sort of informal Masonic interaction that both promoted Prince Hall recognition and stirred up a major brouhaha in the early 2000s in Minnesota over recognizing multiple French grand lodges.
In truth, the Internet did what the UFL couldn't do by the end of the 20th century. Masons from every jurisdiction — regular, recognized or not — began to communicate through online BBS systems, instant messages, chat rooms and forums, much to the chagrin and frustration of grand masters everywhere.
Those freewheeling years of the CompuServe Masonry Forum and the later PSOC (Philalethes Society) Mailing List did more to advance international communication, understanding and scholarship between mutually unrecognized Masons all over the world than anything in the previous 275 years. Issues like Prince Hall recognition, almost the entire basis for so-called 'traditional observance' and 'European concept' lodges and practices, 'Chambers of Reflection,' and much more that are commonplace topics today would not exist had it not been for those early resources.
If you believe Internet websites, the Universal League of Freemasons still hangs on today. Last updated in 2011, there appear to be groups in Switzerland, Germany, Italy and Canada.
Meanwhile, Denis LeFabvre's paper in Ritual, Secrecy and Civil Society is a fascinating snapshot of these early UFL Masons who gallantly – albeit naively – attempted to use their fraternalism to achieve what politics, religion and traditional avenues of diplomacy could not. And it helps to explain some of the differing attitudes about Freemasonry's role in society between what we in the U.S. and the wider "regular, recognized" Masonic world practice, versus the very politically- and policy-minded attitudes in unrecognized obediences like the Grand Orient de France that developed in Europe. Those differences in philosophies about Freemasonry's proper role in the world and society didn't grow out of a vacuum, and this paper goes a long way in putting that into its proper perspective.
As I said, John Cooper's paper on the ULF is also well worth reading. He poignantly ended it with a quotation from Socrates to Meno in about 400 B.C., that appeared in the December, 1972, issue of the U.S. Group of the ULF's Newsletter, La Heroldo:
“That we shall be better and braver and less helpless if we think that we ought to enquire, than we should have been if we indulged in the idle fancy that there was no knowing and no use in seeking to know what we do not know; that is a theme upon which I am ready to fight, in word and deed, to the utmost of my power.”