Many thanks to WB Herbert Hönigsmann, Past Master of Kosmos Lodge, Vienna, Austria; Grand Representative of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Washington Near the Grand Lodge of Austria for this submission.
Chapter 1: The Early Period (1742-1793)
Only 25 years after the founding of the United Grand Lodge of London and Winchester, the Lodge “Aux Trois Canons” was consecrated in Vienna by a Lodge from the then German Breslau in mid-September 1742. It was, however, closed only six months later by order of Empress Maria Theresa I.
Her husband Francis Stefan of Lorraine, (later the German Emperor Francis I), was unable to prevent the closing even though he himself was a Mason, having been initiated out of diplomatic reasons in 1731 in the Netherlands in a British Deputation Lodge—this even before the English royals! This was a deliberate political act to ensure the spread of Freemasonry on the European continent at the highest possible level. However, Francis I was never to be realized as a member of an Austrian Lodge (only his son Joseph II, mentioned it in a letter to a German lodge).
Although the papal excommunication in Austria had no effect, Maria Theresa particularly feared Masonry as a vehicle for foreign influence. The police raids, in which members of lodges were taken into custody, were due merely to a court intrigue inspired by jealousy, but nevertheless they scared people off—both within the Austrian monarchy and outside.
In 1754 a recognized Lodge was formed by accredited diplomats in Vienna, the Hanoverian Deputation Lodge “Aux Trois Cœrs” (the three hearts) with several Brethren of the original Lodge “Aux Trois Canons” numbered within its ranks. In addition in 1770 there were the famous Lodges: “The Three Eagles,” “To Hope,” as well as the well-known Lodge “To Holy Joseph”—all consecrated in Vienna.
Freemasonry was in a phase of explosive growth at the time, recruiting members particularly among high-ranking and aristocratic figures and artists. There were also well-documented efforts to persuade Maria Theresa’s successor, Joseph II, to join the organization. He originally was very receptive to Freemasonry, and very favorably inclined towards it.
Away from the capital and throughout the Habsburg Empire there were other Lodges as early as 1730 in the then Austrian Netherlands, Bohemia, Transylvania, Galicia, Hungary, Croatia, and in Lombardy. On today’s Austrian soil, the Berlin-based Grand Lodge formed the First Provincial Lodge of Austria in 1777 in Vienna followed by several lodges in Innsbruck, Graz, Linz, Klagenfurt, and Salzburg one year later.
Famous well beyond the country’s borders was the Viennese lodge “To True Harmony,” which existed from 1781 to 1785. Worshipful Master Ignatius von Born developed an excellent scientific academy and made To True Harmony a significant institution for all the other European countries were Freemasonry had already established itself.
The works presented and publications on the Lodges were very intensive, scientific, and socio-political in nature. The members assisted the emperor in dispelling prejudice, combating superstition, and peeling away dogmatic views to provide a scientific foundation for the Enlightenment Era. Many of these works opposed clerical arrogance and the parasitic monastic system.
On April 24, 1784 under Emperor Joseph II, the first Grand National Lodge of Austria was constituted, marking the liberation from submission to foreign obediences and an internal cleansing of harmful elements. 63 lodges with about 20,000 members were involved. The composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn, as well as many other artists and scientists of secular and spiritual nobility were former Brethren.
Representatives of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy met under a Masonic banner on an equal footing—something absolutely unthinkable in the formerly secular world.
Sadly the Craft in that time also attracted charlatans, alchemists, and mystics to their ranks. This fact alone caused Joseph II to reduce the number of consecrated Lodges on December 11, 1785 down to two. This was the start of Freemasonry’s decline.
Finally in 1793 Emperor Franz II forced the last two Viennese lodges to extinguish their lights, not least due to strengthened relations with the Vatican and from fear of the intrusion French-inspired revolutionaries. On January 2, 1795 he finally released the so-called “Criminal Edict” that banned all secret societies. This edict was effective until 1918.
Chapter 2: From the 19th Century to World War I
During the 19th century it was the national rather than the social revolution which stood in the foreground. Politicians like Lajos Kossuth and Giuseppe Garibaldi pitched themselves with the Habsburg independence movements founded in Hungary and Italy.
It was only through the momentous defeat of the Austrians by the Prussian army at Königgrätz (Hradec Králové) in 1866 that the power of the central government in Vienna was so weakened that they had to agree to the “compromise” with Hungary one year later.
The subsequent dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary shared only interests in foreign policy, the army, and finances. For the remaining legislation, the two halves of the empire were completely autonomous, with even the transportation of goods within the Empire attracting a tax.
The liberal Hungarian Associations Act enabled the establishment of Lodges that finally formed the Symbolic Grand Lodge of Hungary. After 1850, several Lodges were founded in Hungary that were strongly influenced by the French Grand Orient. Austrian Freemasons moved to Hungary, where they set up the so-called “border Lodges.” Even so, there was continuing and sharp public debate about Freemasonry in Austria itself.
The liberal-minded, a not insignificant public fraction, saw the ideas of Freemasonry as an opportunity to solve the growing problem of nationality. In 1869 the non-political association “Humanitas” was founded in Vienna. In 1871 the first Austrian “Border Lodge,” Lodge “Humanitas” arose in Hungary. Three years later followed the Lodge “Future,” then the “Socrates” and “Pioneer” Lodges just to name a few. My own lodge Kosmos Lodge was established in 1907.
In Vienna all of these lodges met as “non-political or humanitarian organizations.” To complete Ritual work, the Brethren travelled several times a year across the nearby border to Pressburg/Pozsony, which is now Bratislava, Sopron/Ödenburg, and Neudörfl/Lajtaszentmiklós.
Chapter 3: Between the Wars
The collapse of the Habsburg Empire after World War I in 1918 made possible the establishment of the Grand Lodge of Vienna, founded by 14 former border Lodges. From 1919 to 1938 Grand Master Richard Schlesinger was ruling. He guaranteed a pacifistic, humanistic, internationalist, and, in contrast to the German Grand Lodges, pro-European spirit.
During his office, there was vigorous activity in the fields of charity, popular education, and social welfare. However, the Freemasons also tried to use the international networks to bring about reconciliation with the victors, and Schlesinger worked towards domestic reconciliation between political opponents.
Particularly well-known is the peace movement that emerged at the time, centered on our Nobel Prize for Peace recipient Brother Alfred Hermann Fried. The European political heritage of Brother Fried was continued by Brother Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, whose Pan-European Union was supported until 1938 by the Grand Lodge of Vienna.
At its peak, there were 2,000 members in 24 lodges working together with community institutions such as the Austrian Peace Society, the League for Human Rights, and the Ethical Community. From 1919 to 1938 the “Viennese Freemasons Newspaper” was even sold to the public or could be easily found in coffee houses.
In 1930 the Grand Lodge of Vienna received recognition by the United Grand Lodge of England, but previously the German Grand Lodges had withdrawn their recognition because they disliked the Jewish and Francophile influences, and because the Viennese had significantly supported the establishment of the Scottish Rite in Berlin as well as the Symbolic Grand Lodge of Germany in Hamburg. These establishments were much too aligned with a very pro-European feeling. Austrians established the Lodge “Lux Orientis” in Shanghai, China under the auspices of the Grand Lodge of Vienna. This lodge existed until 1947.
In 1933 under pressure from the autocratic rule by the newly founded “Austrian Cooperate State,” the Lodges lost many of their members. By mid-1937 their exact number was only 1,167—yet they still admitted a few new ones. Police spies watched the Craft closely; public officials were forced to resign. However, the Grand Lodge of Vienna itself was neither forbidden nor hunted.
As part of the “Anschluss” to Nazi-Germany in March 1938 the remaining Lodges were finally extinguished. Their meeting house at Dorotheergasse 12 was partially plundered and Grand Master Schlesinger was imprisoned. He died soon afterwards. Approximately 100 Brethren were murdered in the Nazi concentration camps. Around 600 took refuge in states that granted asylum. The Deputy Grand Master Altmann from my Lodge immigrated to the United States where he established our daughter lodge, Humanitas.
Chapter 4: After World War II Until Now
At the first meeting after the end of the World War II in Vienna, exactly 48 Brethren (out of the more than 2,000 former members) came together to breathe new life into the Craft. This figure shows how fundamental the break in tradition had been. The main objective of the meeting was consolidation, with support from U.S. General Mark Clark who was Supreme Commander of American forces in Austria and a member of the Scottish Rite 32nd Degree.
The first ritual meeting was held on October 20, 1945 in Klagenfurt, Carinthia with the help of British Army members. The same year in Vienna, Karl Doppler, also Deputy Grand Master before 1938, became the new Austrian Grand Master and convened an assembly of former Lodge members. As such, Austrian Freemasonry may have been arguably the first victim of Nazi terror, but also the first organization that resurrected.
Doppler and his successor Scheichlbauer did outstanding work in re-establishing Freemasonry and founding the Grand Lodge of Austria. Support of Jewish Brethren in exile was particularly important for renewing recognition by the United Grand Lodge of England in 1952. The English and their obediences in amity laid great value on the Austrians clearly recognizing the principles of the ancient and pure Freemasonry, as defined in the “Aims and Relationships of the Craft” in 1938.
In May 1969 the English-speaking Sarastro Lodge was founded, and in 1980 in the French-speaking Aux Trois Canons Lodge was founded.
HGM Kurt Baresch was in negotiation for 15 years with the Austrian Cardinal König over normalizing relationships with the Roman Catholic Church, which resulted in a modification of the Code of Canon Law on 26 November 1983, ending the excommunication which had been automatic until then.
Chapter 5: Austrian Freemasonry of Today
The 274 years of Freemasonry in Austria and its changing fate have left their mark on the quality of our organization. Public education in the tradition of Enlightenment, attention to social policy, and demanding philosophical and esoteric work, are the characteristics of the debates through essays, which are important in Austria. Our independent view of the ritual gives us a special position for spreading Freemasonry in regions where a tight Christian straitjacket would be seen as an obstacle.
Besides the strict structures of our organization and constitution, this way of working and specifically the essays “Baustück,” which means “building blocks,” is an important element of the Austrian style. Equally important are the private (but not secret) nature of the organization and the self-effacing public image, which are part of the appropriate restraint and low-key approach to the public. In this way, we arouse positive interest by making ourselves special.
Our admission procedure is particularly stringent and high-quality, with charity an important but not decisive characteristic, in contrast to PR work which is often misunderstood elsewhere. We still have a continuous development. Today there are 79 Lodges in Austria with a total of 3,700 members. They are based in all regional capitals and even in smaller towns. As a special feature Austrian Lodges are not numbered.
Particularly notable is Austria’s work in restoring or introducing Freemasonry to Eastern Europe. This has led to Austria being frequently described as a model of correct Masonic missionary work, and we are constantly being called on for this, including supporting quality assurance in existing systems. With Austrian involvement between 1997 and 2009 the Grand Lodges of Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Ukraine, and Slovakia were established. This is not only true for blue Masonry, but also for the higher degrees.