When a Mafia suspect called Joseph Miceli Crimi led police, in March 1981, to an office safe in Castiglion Fibocchi, near Arezzo, which contained the names of prominent Italians and documents linking them to a series of dubious and highly confidential deals, the stability of the entire country came under threat. So, too, did the international institution of Freemasonry. The 962 people listed all belonged to a secret Masonic lodge, called Propaganda 2, and as Italian Freemasonry fell into disrepute, so the ripples of self-questioning spread outwards, to other Masonic brotherhoods. In France, there is now open discussion about Masonry’s close ties to the Socialists and speculation as to the part influential Masons played in the 1981 Elections. (The current French Grand Master is Air Force General Jacques Mitterrand, the President’s brother.) In America, it is widely known that 17 Presidents, including Ford and Reagan, have been Masons. The dollar bill bears not only the likeness of George Washington, who was initiated into Masonry in 1752, but the all-seeing eye, its symbol. Yet the precise nature of the Masonic bonds, the rituals exacted of its members, and indeed the very origins of the society, remain remarkably little explored.
It was fashionable among Masons in the 18th century to claim that Masonic roots were to be found among the Druids or the Essenes, Jewish monks of the pre-Christian era. Historians are more cautious, tracing the beginnings of the movement to the wandering, skilled stonemasons of the Gothic age, who needed some way of identifying each other and some unifying guild to protect their qualifications, though they allow that its philosophy and rituals draw heavily on far earlier sources – Hinduism and the Kabbala, for instance. What is certain is that as far as England was concerned Freemasonry in its modern form was born when the gentry – though quite who this gentry was is again not clear – first perceived in the Medieval Christian guild of masons a potential base for a fraternity of like-minded people, sharing the same semi-religious, semi-philosophical views and willing to use the vehicle of a secret society to help each other advance in the world. The first English gentleman to join an English lodge is said to have been Elias Ashmole, the antiquarian who founded the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. That was in 1646.
By the early years of the 18th century the old guild aspect of Freemasonry was largely gone: in its place stood a highly conservative, increasingly fashionable network of lodges, each of which met regularly to talk, initiate new members and reaffirm the Masonic ritual. Secrecy, an essential element of the Masonic atmosphere, was guaranteed by formal oaths, backed up by penalties; respectability by inviting royal protectors to become figureheads. (Queen Elizabeth II is the present Grand Patroness.) The year 1717 marked the foundation of the British Grand Lodge, out of four merged London lodges, and in the course of the century the rituals took permanent shape around the legend of King Solomon’s Temple, while the Masonic message crossed the Channel to France, probably borne there by Jacobite exiles. In Britain the middle and professional classes have provided the society’s main support ever since the period of consolidation.
Stephen Knight’s The Brotherhood is a natural successor to an earlier work on Jack the Ripper, in which Knight set out to show how the five prostitutes murdered in the East End of London in 1888 were the victims of an insane Freemason who inflicted on their bodies injuries of a ritualistic Masonic nature and how the whole affair was covered up by a Masonic Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. The book is based on interviews with many hundreds of past and present Masons, who were often surprisingly frank in their conversations, particularly the ‘dissidents’ among them who want to ‘stop the rot’ which they see pervading the society. The picture that emerges is of a highly successful club of over six hundred thousand British members, organised in 9003 lodges, and ranked in 33 degrees, from ‘entered apprentice’ (first), to ‘Knight of the Pelican and Eagle and Sovereign Prince Rose Croix of Heredom’ (18th), up to ‘Grand Inquisitor’ (33rd), the great majority of them inspired to join by a desire for the cosiness that all fraternities bring. ‘All the top-notch people in the community, or parish or whatever’, as one man put it. The secret aspects, the rituals, the vocabulary, the Masonic signs (a handshake, or feet arranged ‘on the square – your body thus being considered an emblem of your mind, and your feet of the rectitude of your actions’), seem unimportant compared with the sense of camaraderie.
Strongholds of Masons are to be found among architects, bankers, doctors and prison officers, in the Ambulance and Fire Services, and in the Church of England, which, despite an incompatibility of dogma, continues to tolerate a loose marriage of the two. The City of London has the highest density of Masons anywhere, with merchant banks, insurance companies, Inns of Court and the Guildhall all having Freemasons in high positions. Sixty-five Lord Mayors since 1905 have been Masons. The Baltic Exchange, the Bank of England and Lloyd’s all have their own temples. For most of these Masons the point of belonging seems to be no more than to acquire sympathetic and helpful friends and the qualification no greater than that of having been to the right school or belonged to the right regiment. It becomes a more significant association only where membership appears to ensure promotion, or immunity from the law. A large part of Stephen Knight’s book is an attempt to prove that there exist today in British society definite areas – the law, and in particular the Police – where to be a Mason can be a determining element in a man’s career: in the Police, by the late Sixties, it had ‘become hard for non-Masons to obtain promotion above Superintendent in the uniformed branch, and above sergeant in the CID’. Preferment and a blind eye turned to laziness are among the perks that evidently come with Brotherhood. In Birmingham, a policeman and former Mason, deeply disturbed by what he saw as a system of promotion geared principally to the interests of Masons, told Knight that his two deputies, ‘shockers at their job’, had reached their position only because they were Masons. In London, a Chief Constable testified that ‘Masonry still has some controlling influence,’ while a Detective Sergeant admitted that ‘I’ve seen Masonry used for rotten things in the Force in recent years.’ Knight devotes a chapter to Operation Countryman, the biggest investigation ever conducted into police corruption in Britain, alleging that the police malpractice which sparked it off was caused by Masonry, in that a Commissioner of the City of London Police during the Seventies had been ‘corrupted and unduly influenced by Masonry’. In support of his case, Knight traces the careers of a number of unreliable policemen who are also Masons through the echelons of the Force, to positions where they could commit crimes without detection. It’s strong stuff, but soberly presented. For all the unavoidable anonymity of his best witnesses, Knight manages to present a plausible and disturbing picture.
When he comes to the section in his book dealing with Italy and P2, however, Knight takes off on a different note. Gone is the reliance on interviews, the careful chronicling of events and episodes. In its place there is an almost messianic fervour, building in tension and hyperbole page by page. The title of this section, ‘The KGB Connection’, should perhaps be warning enough. The P2 Lodge, so Knight believes, was from the beginning a ‘KGB-sponsored programme aimed at destabilising Italy, weakening Nato’s southern flank, sweeping the Communists into power in Italy and sending resultant shock waves thoughout the Western world’. Licio Gelli, the ‘puppeteer’, Venerable Master of the P2 Lodge, who in the space of a decade recruited the 962 important people and manipulated them according to the dictates of the KGB, was threatening not only ‘national security but the roots of Western strength in Southern Europe and the Middle East’, while holding ‘successive governments ... in his pocket’. When the Police came to examine the identities of the men on the list they found no Communists among them, which, Knight maintains, only goes to show that they were running the entire operation in the first place.
There have inevitably been writers in recent times who have looked at P2 and Italy, dwelt on the possible political implications of the Masons, and worried about what might happen in England, given that there are some six times as many British Masons as there are Italian ones, though the two countries have roughly speaking the same total population. Basing most of his conclusions on a 14-page typewritten document by a British diplomat whom he code-names ‘Chinaman’, Knight has chosen to join the alarmist bandwaggon: Freemasonry, he warns, is liable to become an ideal KGB tool for the destabilisation of the United Kingdom: ‘Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB when the P2 plot was hatched ... diverts ever more funds towards KGB activities in the West, the exploitation of Freemasonry included.’
What, in point of fact, was the nature of P2 and how does it fit into the wider Masonic world? There have been an enormous number of books published on every facet of the affair inside Italy, and an excellent account of the collapse of the Ambrosiano Bank, the financial heart of what Italians call piduismo, was produced at the beginning of the autumn by Rupert Cornwell, who was Financial Times correspondent in Rome at the time. Larry Gurwin’s The Calvi Affair rehearses the now familiar story, adding flesh to the personalities and including a number of interesting and bizarre anecdotes about the participants. But he does at least reserve judgment on who and what was behind it all.
Italian Freemasonry acquired international respectability later than most Grand Lodges, not least because the proximity of the Vatican ensured a constant, disapproving eye. In 1884 Pope Leo XIII declared that Freemasonry belonged to the ‘Kingdom of Satan’, and that point of view has been supported, if not phrased in quite the same way, by Pope John Paul II. So wary were the Anglo-Saxons of Latin Freemasonry that it was not until 1973 (just about the time that P2 was really getting into its stride) that the British hierarchy chose to pay it full respect. Even so, there remains a very basic difference between the two branches: the Italians have always liked to discuss politics and religion in their lodges, using them as private clubs for frank conversation, while the British consider a number of sensitive subjects, including politics, as forbidden. It was this political tradition among Italian Masons that made Gelli’s manipulations possible.
Licio Gelli, a former Fascist who so successfully played both sides that he was saved by a Communist official from being shot by left-wing partisans at the end of the war, entered Freemasonry in 1963, having learnt the ways of the sottogoverno, the ‘undergovernment’, during his time as assistant to a Christian Democrat Member of Parliament. In 1966 he was given permission to found Propaganda 2 (named after a lodge which was established in Turin before the Royal House of Turin became the focal point for a united Italy) and started recruiting members. P2 candidates, however, underwent no initiation ritual, they never met, names were known only to him.
Gelli appeared to have two goals: he wanted to make contact with important people who could help him bring conservative elements into his circle, for he believed that the voice of the extreme Right needed reasserting in the governance of Italy, and he wanted to get his hands on sensitive information which he could use later as blackmail. He was very good at both. ‘He built up the P2 Lodge, bit by bit,’ wrote two Italian journalists in an essay on P2 last year, ‘ “Brother” by “Brother”, made to measure to fit his most dangerous purposes.’
Precisely what these dangerous purposes were no one has been able to establish, though evidence has come to light linking Gelli and P2 with two abortive right-wing coups and some of the terrorist outrages of recent years. What is well documented, however, is that over a period of about ten years Gelli, friend of Peron and other Argentine leaders, was able to recruit to his most secret of secret lodges in Italy three Cabinet ministers, 40 MPs, the head of every branch of the Armed Services, the head of the Intelligence services and senior officers in banks and corporations, who between them gave him access to and, information being a form of power, some control over an enormous array of deals, contracts, preferments and appointments. Every favour he distributed, whether a loan, an intercession or an introduction, ‘created an obligation for the recipient to supply favours in return’. If a ‘Brother’ appeared reluctant to pay his dues, there were always the files to fall back on.
Among those most courted, most used and in the end most abandoned was Roberto Calvi, the bank clerk who rose to lead Italy’s most important private bank and to divert its money into a web of financial entanglements and malpractices, seemingly in cahoots with the Vatican’s own bank, the Instituto per le Opere di Religione, before dying at the end of a rope under Blackfriars Bridge. Calvi was tailor-made for Gelli: a stiff, formal man with a highly developed sense of conspiracy, fascinated by secret societies and the occult, who lived in ‘continuous passage from one bunker to another’, from armoured car to fortified building, surrounded always by bodyguards. Calvi believed, as Gurwin was told by a banker who knew him well, ‘that in the world, only a few, obscure people command and decide, and it’s important to have connections and friendships with these circles.’ Gelli was Calvi’s entrée: in return there was almost nothing Calvi would not do, even buying on Gelli’s say-so the ailing Rizzoli publishing empire, which was to give Gelli and P2 an enormous influence in the media, but was one of the main factors in Calvi’s downfall.
It would be wrong, Gurwin concludes, to search for a neat explanation to the dozens of questions that remain unanswered. What part the Mafia, the various Intelligence agencies, spies or right-wing terrorists actually played in the affair is certainly not clear now and is increasingly unlikely ever to be clear as time passes and as the Italians continue to blame every new local misadventure on a P2 conspiracy. True, after the discovery of the Gelli lists the government of Arnaldo Forlani fell, and the military and intelligence men lost their jobs: but the scandal quickly faded, as scandals do in Italy, and most of the 962 P2 men are now back at their jobs, untarnished by events. Italian Freemasons, in other lodges, have closed ranks against P2, dismissing its doings as a perversion of Freemasonry. Gelli has escaped from the Swiss prison from which he was about to be extradicted to Italy, and may now be in Latin America; Calvi is dead; Archbiship Marcinkus, banker of the Vatican who could say so much if he wished to, is safely ensconced behind its walls.
In Italy, where there is no strong central government, but strong alternative seats of power in the form of the Church and local government, there is nothing very surprising about the existence of an organisation formed to facilitate the transactions of the middle and professional classes. ‘In this country’ a contact told Gurwin, ‘everything depends on the “good friends”: my “good friend” is sure that you will get the job you want, so you can go ahead and apply for it.’