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How to sabotage a secret society. The demise of Carl Friedrich Bahrdt’s German union in 1789

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McKenzie-McHarg, AV 


In 1789 in Leipzig a slim pamphlet of 128 pages appeared that sent shock waves through the German republic of letters. The pamphlet, bearing the title Mehr Noten als Text (More Notes than Text), was an ‘exposure’ whose most sensational element was a list naming numerous members of the North German intelligentsia as initiates of a secret society. This secret society, known as the German Union, aimed to push back against anti-Enlightenment tendencies most obviously manifest in the policies promulgated under the new Prussian king Frederick William II. The German Union was the brainchild of the notorious theologian Carl Friedrich Bahrdt (1741-1792). But who was responsible for the ‘exposure’? Using material culled from several archives, this article pieces together for the first time the back story to Mehr Noten als Text and in doing so uncovers a surprisingly heterogeneous network of Freemasons, publishers and state officials. The findings prompt us to reconsider general questions about the relationship of state and society in the late Enlightenment, the interplay of the public and the arcane spheres and the status of religious heterodoxy at this time.



4303 Historical Studies, 43 History, Heritage and Archaeology

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The Historical Journal

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Cambridge University Press