300 Years of Freemasons

The true secret

By Austrian National Library

Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

Zwei Freimaurer (1740) by Johann Joachim KaendlerAustrian National Library

Beginnings in

England around 1700: The country had not long previously gone through an extended period of religious wars between Catholics and Protestants and a struggle for power between the King and Parliament. The reduction of antagonism was helped along by a new spirit of camaraderie encompassing both the middle classes and the liberal aristocracy. One of the new meeting grounds was marked by particularly strict admission rules, the Freemason lodges. Rituals and symbols were adopted from the mediaeval stonemasons, who were organised in lodges. According to tradition, four lodges in London founded a Grand Lodge on 24 June 1717, the constitutive act of Freemasonry.

Tempel mit einem Medaillon des Kaisers Franz Stephan von Lothringen (around 1780) by Jac. MercorusAustrian National Library

An idea

In the 1730s, Freemasonry spread across the continent, adapting to societies still largely characterised by the aristocracy. It was above all aristocratic diplomats who extended their networks in the lodges. For a short time even Franz Stephan, Maria Theresa’s future husband, was a member of the Masons. He was admitted to the Masons in The Hague in 1731, and was soon afterwards raised to the status of Master in England. Although nothing more is known about his career as a Mason, the English Masons were now able to boast a powerful claimant to the throne amongst their number. 

Die Zauberflöte (1794) by Joseph SchafferAustrian National Library

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Mozart joined the Vienna “Zur Wohltätigkeit” lodge in 1784 but also attended the “Zur Wahren Eintracht” lodge. He was so impressed by the Freemasons that he also persuaded his father Leopold and Joseph Haydn to join the society. Mozart developed a considerable commitment, both in social and musical terms and dedicated a number of his works to the Freemasons. His probably most famous opera "The Magic Flute" was not part of it, but was often interpreted in connection with Freemasonry. The copper engravings from the year 1794, shown in the exhibition, are the oldest scenes of the "Magic Flute", which have been preserved.

Angelo Soliman (1750) by Johann Gottfried Haid and Johann Nepomuk SteinerAustrian National Library

“Court Moor” and Freemason

Angelo Soliman was enslaved as a child in Africa and carried off to Europe. He became a servant with princely families and, due to his extensive knowledge of languages, even became a tutor to princes. At the age of 60, Soliman was admitted to the Vienna “Zur Wahren Eintracht” lodge and after four weeks was raised to the degree of Master.

While he was able to meet his employer Prince Wenzel of Liechtenstein as a brother in the sense of ceremonial equality within the lodge, the strict differences of rank continued outside: Soliman always walked behind the coach that brought the prince back to the palace where both lived.


SchärpeAustrian National Library

Work in secret

In 1785, the rapid growth of Freemasonry was brought to an end by a decree by Joseph II. to curb the proliferation of alchemists and mystics amongst the Freemasons.

In 1789, revolution broke out in France, many considered the Freemasons as the mastermind behind it. In the 1790s Freemasonry in Austria was stopped under Emperor Franz II.. The revolution in 1848 was crushed and Freemasonry remained prohibited in the Austrian Crown Lands. However, following the Compromise of 1867, Hungary was given a more liberal association law and the authorities were not permitted to send inspectors to association meetings. For this reason, Austrian Freemasons founded lodges beyond the border, in Sopron and Bratislava, while in Vienna they only ran unpolitical clubs.

Julius Tandler (1931-07-11) by Lothar RübeltAustrian National Library

The New Age

After the First World War, Freemasons were once again permitted to found lodges in Austria, and the number of members multiplied. It was an age of new beginnings in difficult economic conditions. Many representatives of “Red Vienna” were Freemasons, although the organisation was regarded with scepticism by the social democrats. However, politicians such as Julius Tandler and Ferdinand Hanusch regarded their projects as the implementation of old Masonic ideas – care for children and the struggle for human rights.

Eröffnung des Esperantomuseums (1931)Austrian National Library

The New Age

There were also important Freemasons amongst the Conservatives, such as the long-standing head of the National Library, Josef Bick.

In his person, however, there were numerous contradictions of the time. In the 1920s, for example, he was concerned about the international orientation of the library (he opened the Esperanto Museum), but he was also a member of the anti-Semitic and anti-Semitic "German community”. In 1921 he was admitted to the Viennese lodge "Fortschritt", to help some brothers to make the lodges "free from Jews".

Weltfreimaurerei, Weltrevolution, Weltrepublik (1919) by Friedrich WichtlAustrian National Library

Prohibited and persecuted

The enemies of the Freemasons did not rest during the interwar period either. They blamed the Freemasons for all kinds of disasters – the October Revolution, the collapse of the monarchies, the economic crisis. The opposition came increasingly from the nationalist camp, which opposed Freemasonry above all because it felt it had been subverted by the Jews.


Der Mordprozeß gegen den Juden Bauer […] (1931)Austrian National Library

“The murder
trial against the Jew Bauer”

Spring 1931 saw a sensational murder trial against the merchant Gustav Bauer. The clerical and nationalist newspapers claimed that Bauer's acquittal was above all due to the fact that there were connections to the Masons. Walter Riehl, mentioned on the poster as a speaker, was one of the key figures of early Austrian National Socialism.

Following the “Anschluss” in 1938, Austrian Freemasons were also persecuted by the National Socialists. In particular, the Jews and the outspoken enemies of the regime amongst the Masons were deported and murdered.


Herbert Prikopa (1964) by ScheidlAustrian National Library

after 1945

Cultural life in post-war Austria was dominated by the after-effects of National Socialism and a conservative Catholicism. In these difficult conditions, Freemasonry once again experienced a heyday. Above all writers, journalists, actors and theatre directors joined the society in order to be able to meet each other in the lodges, far removed from party intrigue and ideology. Particularly many Freemasons were active in the new medium of television, shaping it with courageous programmes and innovative broadcasting formats.

Alexander Giese als Großmeister (1988) by Herbert StepanAustrian National Library

Freemasonry after 1945

Alexander Giese, who can be recognized as a freemason by a sash, jewels, apron, white gloves and the gavel. was the Grand Master of the Grand-Lodge of Austria from 1975 to 1987 and until the retirement of the ORF-Television, where he, among other things, forced cultural reporting.

Ausstellungsplakat - Detail (2017)Austrian National Library

The Freemasons – Who are they really?

With their rituals, symbols and strict admission rules, the Freemasons have fired the imagination for 300 years. Their opponents denounced them as a powerful international secret society that controls the fate of mankind. In fact, Freemasonry is one of the oldest and most famous brotherhoods, and promotes ethical values and the aims of the Enlightenment. It is to be found almost everywhere in the world, but is divided into various systems and groupings. Only in Austria there are 78 lodges with around 3,500 members.

Ausstellungsplakat "300 Jahre Freimaurer" (2017) by Österreichische NationalbibliothekAustrian National Library

"The true secret" from June 23 at the State Hall

“300 Years of Freemasons” tells the story of this mysterious movement in over 150 unique exhibits from national and international collections. It is on view from June 23 at the State Hall of the Austrian National Library.

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Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

Project Management and Editorial Services: Heidrun Kubart, Thomas Zauner

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