Archive amassed by Germany’s Nazis sheds light on Masonic history

Curators combing through a vast historic archive of Freemasonry in Europe amassed by the Nazis in their wartime anti-Masonic purge say they believe there are still secrets to be unearthed.

A book bearing a stamp (bottom R) of the National Socialist regime
A book bearing a stamp (bottom R) of the National Socialist regime on display during an exhibition of a historic archive of Freemasonry in Europe amassed by the Nazis at the Poznan University Library in Poznan. (Photo by JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP)

From insight into women’s Masonic lodges to the musical scores used in closed ceremonies, the trove — housed in an old university library in western Poland — has already shed light on a little known history.

But more work remains to be done to fully examine all the 80,000 items that date from the 17th century to the pre-World War II period.

“It is one of the biggest Masonic archives in Europe,” said curator Iuliana Grazynska, who has just started working on dozens of boxes of papers within it that have not yet been properly categorised.

“It still holds mysteries,” she told AFP, of the collection which curators began going through decades ago and is held at the UAM library in the city of Poznan.

Initially tolerated by the Nazis, Freemasons became the subject of regime conspiracy theories in the 1930s, seen as liberal intellectuals whose secretive circles could become centres of opposition.

A square (bottom) and a compass, symbols of Freemasonry, are displayed on a book

A square (bottom) and a compass, symbols of Freemasonry, are displayed on a book during the exhibition, which brings together around 80,000 items ranging from the 17th century to the first years of the 20th centuries. (Photo by JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP)

Lodges were broken up and their members imprisoned and killed both in Germany and elsewhere as Nazi troops advanced during WWII.

The collection was put together under the orders of top Nazi henchman and SS chief Heinrich Himmler and is composed of many smaller archives from European Masonic lodges that were seized by the Nazis.

It is seen by researchers as a precious repository of the history of the day-to-day activities of lodges across Europe, ranging from the menus for celebrations to educational texts.

‘Mine of information’
Fine prints, copies of speeches and membership lists of Masonic lodges in Germany and beyond feature in the archive. Some documents still bear Nazi stamps.

“The Nazis hated the Freemasons,” Andrzej Karpowicz, who managed the collection for three decades, told AFP.

Swords of the Freemasons on display at the exhibition. (Photo by JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP)

Nazi ideology, he said, was inherently “anti-Masonic” because of its anti-intellectual, anti-elite tendencies.

The library puts some select items on show, including the first edition of the earliest Masonic constitution written in 1723, six years after the first lodge was created in England.

“It’s one of our proudest possessions,” Grazynska said.

The oldest documents in the collection are prints from the 17th century relating to the Rosicrucians — an esoteric spiritual movement seen as a precursor to the Freemasons whose symbol was a crucifix with a rose at its centre.

During the war, as Allied bombing intensified, the collection was moved from Germany for safekeeping and broken up into three parts — two were taken to what is now Poland and one to the Czech Republic.

Masonic collars are seen next to book shelves at the Poznan University Library in western Poland.

Masonic collars are seen next to book shelves at the Poznan University Library in western Poland. (Photo by JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP)

The section left in the town of Slawa Slaska in Poland was seized by Polish authorities in 1945, while the others were taken by the Red Army.

In 1959, the Polish Masonic collection was formally established as an archive and curators began studying it — at that time, Freemasonry was banned in the country under Communism.

The collection is open to researchers and other visitors, who have included representatives of German Masonic lodges wanting to recover their pre-war history.

It is “a mine of information in which you can dig at will,” said Karpowicz.


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Beckmann self-portrait breaks German auction record

A self-portrait by expressionist artist Max Beckmann smashed the record price for a painting sold at auction in Germany, when it was put before buyers in Berlin on Thursday.

Beckmann self-portrait breaks German auction record

As the hammer came down, the highest bid for Beckmann’s “Selbstbildnis gelb-rosa” (Self-Portrait Yellow-Pink) stood at 20 million euros ($21 million).

Beckmann’s work, which features the artist during his Dutch exile from Nazi Germany, is widely considered a masterpiece.

The sum was “the highest price that has ever been offered for a painting”, auctioneer Markus Krause told the room to applause.

Including fees, the price of the self-portrait will come to €23.2 million, according to the auction house Grisebach.

The previous German record was set in 2018 by another of Beckmann’s works, “Die Ägypterin” (The Egyptian Woman), which fetched €4.7 million.

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The record price for a painting by the artist was set in 2017 when his work “Hölle der Vögel” (Bird’s Hell) — among Beckmann’s most important anti-Nazi statements  – sold at Christie’s in London in 2017 for £36 million.

Beckmann’s self-portrait was initially a gift to his wife Mathilde, known as Quappi, who kept it until her death in 1986. The picture had been in a private Swiss collection for decades, and not shown in public since the mid-1990s.

The painting was displayed behind glass at a public preview ahead of the auction to guard against vandalism by climate activists who have recently been targeting artworks.

Beckmann (1884-1950) enjoyed massive acclaim in Germany during his lifetime, with top dealers placing his work with private collectors and major institutions.

That was until the Nazi regime labelled his daring, politically charged art “degenerate” and removed his paintings from German museums in 1937.

READ ALSO: Germany returns final Nazi-looted artwork from pensioner’s trove

Professionally thwarted and increasingly under threat, Beckmann left for Amsterdam, where he lived in self-exile for a decade before moving to the United States.

Beckmann would ultimately die in New York at the age of 66, of a heart attack on a sidewalk on his way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Paintings by Beckmann, now considered one of the most important artists of the 20th century, have exploded in value in recent decades.

The most paid for an artwork this year was $195 million, for an iconic portrait of Marilyn Monroe by American pop art visionary Andy Warhol.

The bumper price tag is the second largest all-time behind Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”, which sold in 2017 for $450.3 million.