Nesta Helen Webster: the far-right author who popularised the antisemitic Illuminati conspiracy


Mark Horne
Mark Horne is a board member of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. He currently works as Development Manager at a university and has been a fundraiser, copywriter, researcher and campaigner.

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Watching the rioters at the Capitol in Washington DC in early January, viewers may have seen rioters wearing jackets and insignia that expressed coded antisemitic messages, such as 6MWE – which horrifically stands for 6 Million Wasn’t Enough, in reference to the Holocaust – or rather less coded messages, such as the now-infamous “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie.

While the participation of openly far-right groups such as the Proud Boys is well-known, many of those attending will have been adherents primarily of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which gathers together and overlaps with a number of other conspiracy theories, including one of the oldest and best-known: the Illuminati.

QAnon posits that Trump is working to bring down evil-doers of the worst imaginable kind – child abusers and murderers – whose crimes were either perpetrated or protected by the deep state, including the supposed Illuminati, which secretly controls the world.

A white man with long grey hair and a long grey beard wears a black Camp Auschwitz hoody at the riot at the Capitol on January 6th 2021.

Despite the popular conception of the Illuminati as some shadowy all-powerful organisation that for some inexplicable reason uses rappers to send coded messages to the world via lyrics and hand-signals during music videos and live performances, the actual Illuminati was an 18th Century Bavarian secret society, designed in the mould of the Freemasons. It was founded in 1776 by philosopher Adam Weishaupt, and by 1784, at the height of its membership, it had between 650 and 2,500 members.

It was outlawed by edict shortly thereafter, but Augustin Barruel and John Robison wrote in 1797 and 1798 respectively that the Illuminati were responsible for the French Revolution as part of a wider international conspiracy. Paranoia that the Illuminati had secretly continued spread to the USA through the sermons of Jedediah Morse, and contributed to concerns about Freemasonry in general, influencing congressional elections into the 1830s. Worries about the anti-absolutist principles of the actual Illuminati were taken seriously by European monarchies of the 19th Century, with half a wary eye to the idea that the secret society had somehow survived.

Nesta Helen Webster - a black and white photograph of her looking slightly off centre.

The Illuminati conspiracy theory seems to have acquired its specific antisemitic flavour in the early 20th Century, with the intervention of far-right author Nesta Helen Webster, who was involved with organisations such as the British Union of Fascists in the pre-war period. Webster was born Nesta Helen Bevan in 1876, and began a career publishing novels, before turning her hand to histories of the French Revolution, seeing secret conspiracies in every corner. She believed the widely-circulated antisemitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or at least subscribed to the idea that it represented a deeper truth, even if the document itself was a hoax, leading her to believe that wealthy Jews were behind many wars and revolutions throughout history.

Like many antisemitic conspiracists, Webster claimed in her 1924 book Secret Societies and Subversive Movements that she was not accusing all Jews of all possible crimes, and in any case that she merely used Jewish people’s own words against them. As the book continues, she weaves a narrative during which she is “just asking questions” (full of innuendo) and repeating uncritically various medieval stereotypes of Jews. Webster launches into full-throated antisemitism of her own by Chapter 14 on “Pan-Germanism”:

“Without in any way absolving Germany from the crime of the war, it is necessary to take this secondary factor into consideration if peace between the nations is to be established. For as long as the lust of war lingers in the hearts of the Germans and the lust of gain at the price of human suffering lingers in the hearts of the Jews, both races will remain necessary to each other and the hideous nightmare of war will continue to brood over the world.” (emphasis mine)

This is not an isolated passage – the next chapter is called “The Real Jewish Peril” and begins:

“In considering the immense problem of the Jewish Power, perhaps the most important problem with which the modern world is confronted, it is necessary to divest oneself of all prejudices and to enquire in a spirit of scientific detachment whether any definite proof exists that a concerted attempt is being made by Jewry to achieve world-domination and to obliterate the Christian faith.”

On shaky ground at the best of times, one of Webster’s conclusions is based on some truly startling leaps of logic. She says that no historical or extant subversive movements were actively antisemitic, so all such movements must be controlled by Jews, presumably because in Webster’s worldview, if you’re not actively hating or persecuting Jews then you must be Jewish. The single worldwide conspiracy (Illuminism / the Illuminati) that she claims is in control of all the other revolutionary subversions must therefore also be controlled by Jews.

To give an idea of how this was received in the 1920s, Secret Societies was reprinted twice, and other aspects of Webster’s work – including her writing relating to Jews and the French Revolution – was praised by no less than Winston Churchill. Little wonder, then, that despite being on the wrong side of history regarding fascism, polite British society nonetheless saw fit to offer her a warm obituary in The Times upon her death in 1960. It is depressingly easy to see how her ideas, which the events of the 1930s and 1940s should have so thoroughly repudiated, slithered their way on into the consciousness of the decades beyond.

David Icke holding a microphone and speaking. Photo by Tyler Merbler [CC-by-2.0]

Her malign influence is still very much felt today, with historian Dr Steven Woodbridge drawing a direct line from her “academic” works to NWO conspiracists, far-right militias, and of course David Icke. It is worth noting that Icke says he is not antisemitic, but genuinely is referring to lizards in his Illuminati conspiracy theories – although he does use the term Zionist, and references the antisemitic hoax The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

As for how we get from Webster to the present day popular conception of the celebrity-embracing, world-controlling Illuminati, it’s a wild tale, told in a BBC article which explores the 1960s resurgence of the myth, in an account featuring a Playboy writer, a stage play with Jim Broadbent and Bill Nighy, and even a card game. I think the article misses the point about the darker origins of the conspiracy theory, but it is worth reading nonetheless.

To summarise the article: the Illuminati as a modern conception was a joke, a hoax, with journalists sending in fake letters alleging all sorts of nonsensical conspiracy theories with the Illuminati at the core, all stemming from the principles of Discordianism – a parody religion that suggests social change can be created from causing chaos, through activities like hoaxes.

It is therefore a fitting parallel that QAnon – a fiction perpetrated from message boards that revel in such hoaxes – arose in a way that partly parallels the rebirth of the Illuminati as a modern conspiracy theory fifty years earlier.

And it is no surprise at all that both conspiracy theories espouse vile and violent myths about Jews.

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