A French Catholic priest called Augustin Barruel is generally regarded as one of history’s most famous conspiracy theorists. His multi-volume 1797 book, Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, about an alleged conspiracy that led to the outbreak of the French Revolution, has been reprinted many times and translated into several languages.
Not long after the publication of his work, Barruel was sent a letter by a man called Jean Baptiste Simonini, who alleged that the Jews were also part of the conspiracy. This letter – the original of which has never been found – continues to shape antisemitic conspiracy thinking to this day.
Even before the revolution, Barruel had become famous in France as a conservative writer and journalist. The trainee Jesuit priest strongly opposed the new philosophy of the time – the convictions of Diderot, d’Alembert or even Voltaire – which he regarded as radical.
In his book, Barruel’s conspiracy theory had three component parts. First, he assumed that radical philosophers in Voltaire’s circle had stirred up society. Second, he complained about the multitude of Freemasons in France. Third, he introduced the Illuminati.
The Illuminati was a real secret group, founded in the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt in 1776. Around the time of the Illuminati’s discovery in 1784, a conspiracy theory was stirred up by its staunch enemies accusing the group of wanting to overthrow all thrones and altars and to completely transform society. Even though the Illuminati was eventually disbanded before the outbreak of the French Revolution, many conspiracy theorists believed that its ideas, which were considered radical, had been carried to France by an important member.
For Barruel these three connected conspiracies ultimately led to the rise of the the Jacobins – the most influential political club during the French Revolution.
European conspiracy theories until this point had long presented Jews as evil and disruptive figures. However, Jews played no role in the conspiracy theory Barruel set out in his book. But then he was sent the letter from Simonini.