Prior to the late eighteenth century Germany comprised numerous independent states – electorates – that formed part of the Holy Roman Empire. Cologne, Mainz and Triers were ecclesiastical electorates ruled by bishops; and Brandenburg, Bavaria, Hanover, Saxony, Wurtemburg and the Kingdom of Bohemia were presided over by dukes or princes. The two largest states were Austria and Prussia, who vied for leadership. Political and economic priorities differed among the various states, as did religious affiliations. Those in the north-west and south-east were mainly Catholic, and those in the north-east and south-west predominantly Protestant.

The Holy Roman Empire of which they were part had been led since the mid-fifteenth century by the male head of the Austrian House of Habsburg. But while the Holy Roman Emperor had influence he had limited formal authority and in that sense, as Voltaire commented, the Holy Roman Empire was ‘neither holy, nor Roman nor an empire’.

Freemasonry was established in Hamburg in the 1720s by merchant traders and expanded south and west in the decades that followed. William Preston wrote that the Earl of Strathmore granted a deputation for a lodge in Hamburg in 1733 and there is evidence of another lodge meeting there in the later 1730s under an English Provincial Grand Master for Prussia and Brandenburg. This may have evolved into Lodge Absalom which was warranted on 23 October 1740. It was common practice for overseas lodges to be warranted by the Grand Lodge of England some years after their establishment. Lodge Absalom subsequently chartered daughter Lodges in Brunswick (1744), Hanover (1746), Celle (1748), Oldenburg (1752), Schwerin (1754), and Hildesheim (1762).

Lodge Union of Frankfurt was established at Frankfurt-on-Main in 1742. And although most, perhaps two-thirds or more of German Lodges later adopted other forms of Masonic ritual, principally ‘Rectified’ or ‘Strict Observance’, and later Swedish Rite, Lodge Union was one of a small number that continued to adhere to the English system of three Craft degrees.

In September 1740, the year he became king, Frederick the Great (1712-1786), authorized the formation of a Lodge in Berlin. This was The Three Globes; it became the de facto Prussian Grand Lodge.

For much of the first half of the eighteenth century, Germany followed France’s lead in the arts and philosophy. French was also the language of diplomacy and of elite polite society. And as France gradually adopted Enlightenment tenets, Germany followed suit with its own version, the ‘Aufklärung’, which altered Germany’s intellectual culture, affecting German art, music, philosophy and science.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) was at the core of the German Enlightenment from 1751 in his role as editor of the Berlin Gazette. His circle included Friedrich Nicolai (1733-1811) and Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), with whom Lessing collaborated in the authorship of Pope – ein Metaphysiker!

Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, his last major work, debated personal morality and explored issues such as religious toleration: ‘where Christian, Jew and Muslim can unite as one – a dream that is so sweet’. Lessing was initiated into freemasonry in lodge Zu den Drie Goldenen Rosen in Hamburg in 1771.

Other German Enlightenment figures reshaping German culture who are known or believed to have been freemasons include Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835); Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834); Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832); Friedrich Wilhelrn Schiller (1775-1854); and Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803). Von Herde, a friend of Immanuel Kant and Johann Goethe, an intellectual innovator, was one of the leaders of Germany’s proto-Romantic Sturm und Drang movement. He was initiated in 1766 in Lodge Zur in Riga. Goethe was initiated in Amalia Lodge at Weimar in June 1780.

Music was at the heart of the German and Austrian Enlightenment and strongly supported by the elites, many of whom were freemasons. Three of the Esterházy family‘s directors of music or ‘kapellmeisters’ – Joseph Haydn, Paul Wranitzky and Ignaz Pleyel – performed in Lodge meetings. Haydn initiated into Zur wahren Eintracht; Wranitzky into Zur gekronten Hoffnung; and Pleyel into an unnamed lodge in Eberau, Hungary. However the best known composer associated with Austrian Freemasonry was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, initiated in 1784 into Lodge Zur Wohltätigkeit.