by Paul Meller, The Brussels Times, 24 August 2022

Who’d be a freemason?

The story of Liberté Chérie is retold each year at a memorial gathering of Belgian freemasons in Breendonk Fort, near Antwerp. The fort was also used by the Nazis to lock up Belgian political prisoners and is now a museum. For the past 33 years, they have gathered at this grim site to remember not just their brothers, but all the victims of the Nazis. Freemasonry was founded in the early 18th century but has since acquired powerful enemies. The Nazis shut down Masonic lodges in Germany, as well as in the countries they occupied during the second world war.

The Roman Catholic church sees freemasonry as a threat. In the 19th century freemasons were among the most prominent advocates for the creation of secular public education in Belgium. Freemasonry had a schism in the 19th century when freemasons in France, Belgium and other predominantly Catholic countries broke off from the lodges in Britain. Two distinct versions of freemasonry emerged – one focused on religious-like beliefs, the other on ethical values. Some view masonic lodges as closed shop gentlemen’s clubs where members go to eat and drink and network, while others criticise the self-advancement and cronyism that comes to light from time to time.

Accusations of antisemitism are levelled at freemason lodges too – although they were shunned by the Nazis for refusing to allow Jews entry. Historian Jean van Win says Brussels Park is the ‘victim’ of a series of myth-busting conspiracy theories surrounding freemasonry. The Royal Park layout is a patte d’oie, or goose’s foot design first used in the gardens at Versailles, which pre-date modern freemasonry. Along the southern end facing the Royal Palace there are two dips in the otherwise flat park. Paths lead down roughly 15 metres to two areas of shrubs and trees that ignore the meticulous symmetry on show in the rest of the park.

The letters were erected in 1991 as part of an art exhibition but no masonic lodge was involved. Freemasonry’s history is puzzling. Some trace its roots to craftsmen’s guilds of the Middle Ages. Others claim it is inherently Christian, and dates back to the Crusades. Over time, freemasonry became the antithesis of Roman Catholicism in Belgium.

“The aim of freemasons is to build a temple of humanity,” says Dr Cornet. The Belgian Museum of Freemasonry is a treasure trove of artifacts chronicling the movement’s presence in Belgium. The museum’s recently appointed curator Annick Born says she wants to make freemasonry more transparent, while striking a balance between the mysticism and the history. Famous freemasons from around the world include Voltaire, Rudyard Kipling, Sir Christopher Wren, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Duke Ellington and Winston Churchill.