While stories of lost cities abandoned to the jungle are common, actual examples are much less so. Nan Madol, a sprawling stone city on the island of Ponape (formerly Ascension Island) in the Caroline Islands of the western Pacific Ocean, is among the most impressive. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the South Seas. Mostly overgrown with jungle, the ruins of Nan Madol cover 175 acres (71 hectares) on an islet in Ponape’s coral reef.

The city includes temples, tombs, and house platforms, separated by a maze of shallow canals and surrounded by a protective wall originally 30 feet (9 meters) tall. All the surviving structures are made of natural basalt columns stacked crib-style, like the logs in a log cabin, with chinks between “logs” filled with smaller stones, coral, and pebbles. During the years of Nan Madol’s glory, archeologists agree, the stone structures served as foundations for buildings of wood and palm thatch. With no mortar, no tools capable of shaping the hard volcanic stone, and no knowledge of the arch or vault, the builders of Nan Madol nonetheless made a city splendid enough to deserve the title “the Venice of the Pacific.”

According to native Ponapean legends, the city was built by two brothers, Olsihpa and Olsohpa, who came to the island from far away on a large canoe. They became the island’s rulers and set out to build a stone building from which to rule. Their first three attempts were unsatisfactory, but the fourth, Nan Madol, became the island’s capital. When Olsihpa died, Olsohpa became the first Saudeleur or king of Ponape. Fifteen Saudeleurs followed him, but the Ponapeans grew soft and forgot the art of war. In the reign of the sixteenth Saudeleur, the war chief Isokelekel from the island of Kusaie far to the west invaded Ponape, defeated the last Saudeleur and became king in his place. Isokelekel and his successors, the Nahnmwarkis, ruled Nan Madol for a time, but in the reign of the fifth Nahnmwarki, Luhk un Mallada, the city was finally abandoned to the jungle.

There seems no reason to doubt the Ponapean account of Nan Madol’s rise and fall. Radiocarbon dates taken from remains of sacrificial turtles at one of Nan Madol’s temples show that the temple was in use around 1275 CE, which fits the rough chronology established by the traditional list of reigns. The legend of the brothers Olsihpa and Olsohpa might be a folk memory of the arrival of voyagers from Indonesia or the Philippines, where buildings of stone were common long before Nan Madol was built; something as simple as a ship blown off course and wrecked on Ponape’s shores might well have set the entire process in motion.

Nonetheless Nan Madol has been drafted repeatedly into the service of alternative theories of history. Claims that Nan Madol had a population of one million or more, and that it was made millions of years in the past out of 15-ton stone blocks, using engineering principles impossible for modern Ponapeans to duplicate, can be found here and there in the rejected knowledge literature, even though none of these “facts” are true. Believers in the lost continent of Mu, in particular, have redefined Nan Madol repeatedly as a lost Muvian metropolis. See lost continents; Mu; rejected knowledge.

Further reading: Ballinger 1978.


The rise and fiery end of German National Socialism between 1919 and 1945 represents one of the most puzzling phenomena of modern history, far stranger than any work of fiction. After a life on the mean streets of Vienna and Munich, an unemployed nobody named Adolf Hitler seized control of a tiny, dysfunctional party on the fringes of Munich politics, suddenly developed a talent for fiery oratory, and turned the party into one of the most terrifyingly effective political machines of modern times. Only 14 years after that party’s founding, with a platform consisting mostly of medieval racist fantasies, it seized control of one of the most educated and cultured nations in the world.

In 1933, when Hitler became its Chancellor, Germany was economically, politically, and militarily prostrate, bankrupted by the Great Depression, burdened with vast reparations by the victors of the First World War, and threatened with immediate invasion if it attempted to start rebuilding its military. Seven years later German tanks and aircraft crushed the allied French and British armies, conquered France in less than two months, and came within an ace of forcing Britain out of the war. In the early part of the war Hitler and his armies forged an empire from the Atlantic to the gates of Moscow and from the Arctic Circle to the Sahara desert, and went under only after most of the world rose up in arms to crush them. As Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier pointed out in their seminal work on the occult dimensions of Nazism, Le Matin du Magiciens (The Morning of the Magicians, 1960), the historical arc of the Nazi movement might best be called “a few years in the absolute elsewhere.”

Since 1960, a substantial literature in most western languages has pointed to occultism as a major factor in the Nazi phenomenon. Most of these works are packed with misinformation, factual inaccuracies, and blatant fabrications, and a very large number of them draw sweeping conclusions about Nazi occultism without having any clear idea of what occultism is in the first place. The irony, as a handful of pioneering historians have pointed out, is that a very solid case can be made for occultism in the National Socialist movement, but that nearly everything written about the subject has missed the actual occult dimensions of Nazism and strayed off in pursuit of fantasy and fraud instead. See Occultism.

The occult side of National Socialism began long before the Nazi party itself took shape, with a Germanic racist offshoot of the Theosophical movement called Ariosophy. The two chief Ariosophical theorists, Guido von List (1848–1919) and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels (1874–1954), rejected the Theosophical faith in spiritual evolution, replacing it with a cosmology in which members of an original semi-divine Aryan race had fallen from grace and lost their superhuman powers through interbreeding with subhuman beast-men. List and Liebenfels each founded secret societies, the Höhere Armanen-Orden (Higher Armanen Order, HAO) and the Ordo Novi Templi (Order of New Templars, ONT) respectively, to promote Ariosophical teachings. The ONT published a magazine, Ostara, in which many of the later themes of Nazi politics and racial theory first saw print. See Höhere Armanen-Orden; Ordo Novi Templi; Theosophical Society.

Ariosophy found an eager audience in Germany in the years before the First World War, and in 1912 the first German Ariosophical secret society, the Germanenorden, was founded by Hermann Pohl. Originally launched as the secret wing of the largest German antisemitic organization of the time, the Hammer-bund, the Germanenorden was pulled between occult and political factions and finally split in half in 1916. The Munich lodge of the Germanenorden Walvater, the magical side of the schism, operated under the cover name of the Thule-Gesellschaft (Thule Society), drawing its name from the lost continent of Thule. In 1918 members of the Thule Society organized a political party, the German Workers Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, DAP), as a front to draw the working classes away from communism. See Germanenorden; Thule; Thule Society.

On the evening of September 12, 1919, an Austrian veteran named Adolf Hitler, who worked as an informer spying on Munich political parties for German Army intelligence, attended a meeting of the DAP. He joined a few days later and quickly became the party’s leading figure. A longtime student of the occult and a convinced Ariosophist, Hitler soon came to the notice of important figures in the Thule Society. Thule members Rudolf Hess and Ernst Röhm became close associates of the future Führer. Another important figure was Dietrich Eckart, an Ariosophical occultist and writer associated with many Thule initiates though not actually a member himself. Eckart became Hitler’s mentor; he has also been named as Hitler’s occult instructor, and while no conclusive evidence supports the claim, that role was one Eckart was certainly equipped to fill. See Hitler, Adolf.

As the DAP transformed itself into the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers Party, NSDAP) and became the dominant force on the German far right, many other Ariosophists and occultists flocked to it. One was Heinrich Himmler, who joined in 1919 and took over the SS (Schutzstaffel, Protection Force) in 1929 after a series of bitter political struggles within the party. Perhaps the most serious of Nazi occultists, Himmler believed himself to be the reincarnation of the medieval German king Heinrich I. Under his leadership the SS became an occult secret society with immense influence throughout German society, and the SS headquarters at the medieval castle of Wewelsburg became the center of the Third Reich’s occult dimension as Himmler implemented many of the old ONT programs on a colossal scale. See SS (Schutzstaffel).

Ironically, given the extensive occult involvements of top Nazi leaders, the history of National Socialist Germany reads like an object lesson in the dangers of negative magic. Blind to the consequences of their own actions as they lashed out at imaginary racial foes, the Nazi leadership created enemies for the regime faster than Nazi armies and concentration camps could kill them, in a spiral of violence and self-inflicted destruction that ended with Hitler’s suicide, the collapse of the Nazi movement, and the total devastation of Germany itself. Any student of occult philosophy could have predicted such an outcome.

The magical dimensions of National Socialism were no secret in the occult community before or during the war. French occult periodicals discussed Hitler’s occult background in the 1930s, and English magician Dion Fortune, in a series of war letters circulated among British occultists to organize anti-Nazi rituals, described the magical side of the Nazi phenomenon in plausible terms. Starting in 1960, though, this material was all but buried beneath a mountain of sensational literature that exploited rumors of Hitler’s connections with the occult and the world of secret societies for all they were worth. Pauwels and Bergier’s Le Matin du Magiciens began the trend with a colorful but inaccurate description of Hitler’s occult connections. From Pauwels and Bergier come the claims that top Nazis were in contact with Tibetan masters, and that the geography professor Karl Haushofer was the secret mastermind behind Hitler’s rise.

Even more influential was Trevor Ravenscroft’s The Spear of Destiny (1972), which used ideas borrowed from Rudolf Steiner and the Austrian mystic Walter Stein to fill out a colorful story about Hitler’s quest for world power through control of the Spear of Longinus, allegedly the spear that pierced the side of Jesus during his crucifixion. Ravenscroft’s book has been shown to be nonsense by skeptic Ken Anderson in his book Hitler and the Occult (1995), but The Spear of Destiny remains in print and its claims have been recycled for more than three decades. See Anthroposophical Society; Grail; Spear of Longinus.

Another dimension of the postwar mythology of National Socialism has its roots in the rise of neo-Nazi movements and secret societies around the world. The two most important figures here are Savitri Devi (1905–82) and Miguel Serrano (1917–). Savitri Devi (born Maximiani Portas) argued that Hitler was an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu and the redeemer of the Aryan race in the Kali Yuga, the dark age of Hindu tradition. In her major work of Nazi theology, The Lightning and the Sun (1958), she argued that Hitler was a messianic figure who used the violent methods of the Kali Yuga to initiate a new Golden Age. These ideas became popular in neo-Nazi groups in the 1960s, after Devi made contact with National Socialists in Britain and America.

Chilean author and diplomat Miguel Serrano’s mystical theology of Nazism, Hitlerismo esoterico (“esoteric Hitlerism”), reaches much more deeply into occult traditions. Trained in a Chilean magical lodge with links to right-wing French occult circles, Serrano adopted a Gnostic theology in which the distant ancestors of the Aryans, divine beings from the hidden dimension of the Green Ray descended to earth on the lost polar continent of Hyperborea to do battle with an inferior godling and the beast-men he had created. Some of the Hyperboreans interbred with the beast-men, creating today’s humans, while others withdrew from the earth’s surface into the hidden cities of Shambhala and Agharta inside the hollow earth. According to Serrano, Hitler was “the last avatar,” a mighty being who withdrew to the hollow earth at the end of the Second World War before traveling home to the realm of the Green Ray. Despite their resemblance to third-rate science fiction, Serrano’s theories have been adopted by a number of neo-Nazi secret societies. See Black Sun; hollow earth; neo-Nazi secret societies.

All of this postwar mythologizing, much of it carried out by people with little if any knowledge of actual occultism, has served mostly to cover the actual occult dimensions of National Socialism with many layers of nonsense. A few historians have looked into the Ariosophical background and occult activities of the National Socialist movement, but the definitive history of Nazi occultism remains to be written.

Further reading: Goodrick-Clarke 1992, Goodrick-Clarke 2002, Hakl 2000.


Like traditional cultures worldwide, the native peoples of North and South America have a rich and varied tradition of secret societies. A handful of Native American secret societies, including the warrior societies of the Great Plains and the shamanistic False Face Society of the Iroquois, have become fairly well known among non-native peoples in America, and commonly make brief appearances in books about secret societies around the world. Like every other aspect of Native American cultures, however, native secret societies vary dramatically from tribe to tribe, and often within individual tribes as well. Assumptions based on the traditions of one tribe rarely if ever apply to another. See Dog Soldiers; False Face Society.

One of the few generalizations that can be made about Native American secret societies is that they filled crucial functions in most native cultures, playing roles more often assigned to other forms of social organization in other cultures. Among the Lakota (Sioux) people of the northern Great Plains, for example, secret societies carried out police duties among tribespeople and enforced the traditional legal codes surrounding the buffalo hunt, while among the Hopi of the desert southwest and the Haida of the northwest coast, most traditional religious ceremonies are conducted by secret societies. Examples of other secret society functions in different tribes could be multiplied endlessly.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as the dominant American, Canadian, and Latin American societies tried to eliminate native cultures, most Native American secret societies faced serious restrictions and constant pressure from Christian missionaries and their converts. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, however, a widespread cultural revival among native peoples has helped revive many traditional secret societies, and ritual initiations that had not been performed for many decades are now being performed again.

Further reading: Fenton 1987, Mails 1973, Meadows 1999.


The process by which secret society fiction is recycled into secret society fact has rarely been so clearly shown as in the rise of neo-Nazi secret societies in the last decades of the twentieth century. Starting in 1960, when Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier published their bestselling Le Matin du Magiciens (The Morning of the Magicians), popular presses throughout the western world brought out scores of non-fiction books and hundreds of novels on Nazi occultism. A few of these drew on the actual occult connections of National Socialism, while most others invented details out of whole cloth or borrowed material from other realms of rejected knowledge, but all of them worked to create a sense in the popular imagination that the Nazi phenomenon was linked with occult mysteries and secret societies. See National Socialism; rejected knowledge.

All this was fodder for Anton Szandor LaVey (Howard Stanton Levey, 1930–97), the founder of the Church of Satan. At least as much a showman as a Satanist, LaVey produced and starred in theatrical rituals in the church’s San Francisco headquarters, and the mythology of Nazi occultism inevitably found its way into his ambit. A ritual titled Die elektrischen Vorspiele (The Electrical Prologue) duly appeared, making use of the distorted perspectives of German expressionist film of the Weimar era alongside electrical equipment of the sort used in 1930s Frankenstein movies. Predictably, although the ritual is clearly LaVey’s work, he claimed that these rituals were worked by high-ranking SS officers in Nazi Germany. See Church of Satan; SS (Schutzstaffel).

Once launched into the Satanist community, Nazi symbolism and ritual spread quickly. By the late 1970s, Temple of Set founder Michael Aquino was working with Nazi material, a process that culminated in the foundation of the Order of the Trapezoid – a group within the Temple of Set practicing Nazi-based occult rituals – and a visit by Aquino and other Temple of Set members to the former SS ritual center at Wewelsburg, where they performed rituals to contact the forces once invoked by SS head Heinrich Himmler. The late 1970s also saw the emergence in Britain of the Order of Nine Angles, a Satanist order with close ties to the British nationalist and neo-Nazi scene. See Order of Nine Angles; Temple of Set.

The emergence of neo-Nazi occultism was also spurred by the rise and collapse of the Bruders Schweigen, a racist secret society in America that attempted to launch a guerrilla war against the US government. While its efforts ended in complete failure and the death of its founder in a hail of bullets, and most of its surviving members are still serving long prison sentences, it succeeded in bringing the existence of the Christian Identity movement, a racist offshoot of Protestant Christianity, to the attention of the mass media. The wide publicity this gave to racist ideologies was tempered by the recognition by many racists that revolutionary violence was a risky business. This encouraged many people on the radical right to turn to occult practice as a safer way of expressing their beliefs. See Bruders Schweigen; Christian Identity.

In the last two decades of the twentieth century, well over a dozen occult secret societies using Nazi symbolism and teachings emerged. Most of these are small and localized, but close connections with the skinhead and industrial music scenes and the wider Satanist community, umbrella organizations such as the White Order of Thule, and a network of magazines, websites, and small publishing houses link them together. Despite their marginal role in contemporary culture, it might be unwise to dismiss them and their repellent creeds too lightly; the Nazi Party itself emerged out of a movement just as fragmented and marginal to its own society. See White Order of Thule.

Further reading: Goodrick-Clarke 2002, Gardell 1994.


One of the most recent branches of the alternative realities scene in the western world, the New Age movement took shape in America in the 1950s in the UFO-contactee scene, a network of people who believed they were in touch with aliens from other planets by way of trance mediums. All through the 1950s and 1960s, contactees had been bombarded with claims that an apocalypse was about to occur and usher in a new age of the world. During the 1970s, several groups in the network began to suggest that, instead of waiting for the new age to dawn, people ought to start living as though it already had. By living their lives as though the promised Utopia had arrived, they suggested, people could inspire others to do likewise and show that a living alternative to the status quo was possible. See ages of the world; unidentified flying objects (UFOs).

These concepts caught on rapidly, and during the Seventies the movement attracted avant-garde thinkers from the scientific community. As the movement expanded, though, it became a focal point for any imaginable form of alternative thought, and the original momentum of the New Age idea faded. By the middle 1980s, nearly every form of rejected knowledge, from alternative healing and perpetual motion to conspiracy theories and the hollow earth, found a welcoming audience there. A surprising amount of what makes up the New Age movement today is anything but new, and the Theosophical Society in particular contributed a huge amount to the current New Age scene. The whole New Age movement has been described as “Theosophy plus therapy,” and though this is not strictly accurate, the fusion of nineteenth-century occultism with today’s alternative healing methods and psychological theories does characterize a great deal of New Age thinking. See hollow earth; rejected knowledge; Theosophical Society.

It is hard not to sympathize with the desire to create a better world through personal example and living one’s life in harmony with one’s ideals, and to the extent it has fostered this project the New Age movement has contributed much to the world. In recent years, though, it has become a hunting ground for proponents of increasingly paranoid conspiracy theories, and a growing number of people who identify with the New Age have turned from radiating love to collecting guns and circulating rumors about the New World Order. While this transformation may seem surprising, much the same change occurred in the alternative spiritual scene of early twentieth-century Germany and helped lay the foundations for the Nazi movement of the 1920s and 1930s. See Germanenorden; National Socialism; New World Order.


On January 16, 1991, as American aircraft bombed Baghdad in the early hours of the first Gulf War, President George H. W. Bush gave a speech proclaiming a “New World Order,” in which an alliance of industrial nations would counter military aggression on the part of Third World countries worldwide. Catchy phrases of this sort have long been a staple of American political speechmaking, and Bush and his speechwriters were doubtless startled to find that within months this phrase had turned into an element in conspiracy theories around the world.

The phrase “New World Order” actually surfaced years before in the writings of John Birch Society founder Robert Welch. Once a fervent anticommunist, Welch saw conservative Republicans turn against his organization and embrace measures that, at least in his opinion, surrendered America to communist rule. His encounter with the writings of eighteenth-century Illuminati hunters Augustin de Barruel and John Robison, and their early twentieth-century followers such as Nesta Webster, explained why: conservatives no less than liberals were dupes or willing participants in an all-encompassing conspiracy. The mysterious “Insiders” who directed the plot, he believed, aimed at a global police state in which marriage, religion, private property, and individual freedom would be abolished. In 1972, he began using “New World Order” to describe the Insiders’ goal. See Bavarian Illuminati; John Birch Society.

Under Welch’s leadership, the John Birch Society became a major seedbed of conspiracy theory and played a central role in disseminating the distinctive secret society mythology of the late twentieth century: the belief that a single omnipotent secret society already controls the world’s governments and economic systems, and is simply waiting for the right moment to cast aside the illusion of democracy and wield openly the power it currently exercises covertly. These ideas derive from the Theosophical belief in the Great White Lodge, the benevolent secret government of the planet. Antisemitic circles in late nineteenth-century Europe fused this with the conservative fear of liberal secret societies to create the myth of a single conspiracy for world domination. This provided the central theme to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the most notorious work of antisemitic literature in the twentieth century. Welch himself rejected antisemitism, but most of his claims about the Insiders simply repeat material from the Protocols. See Great White Lodge; Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Writers who helped Welch put this mythology into circulation included Gary Allen, Des Griffin, and A. Ralph Epperson among others, and most got their start in the John Birch Society’s magazine American Opinion. Gary Allen, a frequent American Opinion contributor, was particularly influential in the development of the New World Order idea. He argued in his None Dare Call It Conspiracy (1971) that the “world supra-government” behind the approaching global police state was headed by international banking families and controlled through the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a New York-based think-tank founded in 1923 and supported by Rockefeller money. Allen’s theory was quickly adopted across the far right and became the basis of dozens of books exposing the alleged machinations of the CFR and its members. See Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

Unexpectedly, these claims also found a hearing at the other end of the political spectrum, where the collapse of the New Left in the early 1970s left many activists looking for a new ideology to replace Marxism. They found it in books such as Laurence Shoup and William Minter’s Imperial Brain Trust (1977) and Holly Sklar’s Trilateralism (1980), which pinpointed the CFR and its offshoot, the Trilateral Commission, as the hidden hands behind corporate imperialism in the post-Second World War world. Later works from both sides of the political spectrum drew in other familiar conspiracy theory names, such as the Committee of 300. See Committee of 300; Trilateral Commission.

Well before 1991, then, the phrase “New World Order” had become a buzzword among both left- and right-wing conspiracy theorists. Many books published in the 1980s even claimed that the phrase could be found on the back of the US dollar bill. The reverse of the Great Seal of the United States shows a pyramid topped by an eye in a triangle, and the Latin words NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM beneath; the phrase actually means “A new order for the ages” but can easily be misread “New World Order” or “New Secular Order” by those with a shaky grasp of Latin.

Thus when President Bush chose that phrase to frame his ambitions for a Pax Americana in the wake of the Soviet collapse and Iraq’s defeat, the conspiracy-minded took it as confirmation of their worst fears. Bush was himself a member of the CFR and past director of the CIA. Their suspicions were heightened when Francis Fukuyama, a State Department employee with close ties to the administration, published The End of History?, a manifesto proclaiming the permanent ascendancy of corporate capitalism and Republican politics as the culmination of human history. To believers in conspiracy theories, Fukuyama’s country club Utopia looked like a propaganda release on the part of the long-awaited global dictatorship.

Meanwhile a growing number of Christian fundamentalists were jumping on board the New World Order bandwagon. The overlap between John Birch Society political conservatives and religiously inspired social conservatives had always been large, and numerous figures on the radical fringe of the fundamentalist movement had adopted Welch’s analysis in the decades before 1990. After Bush’s speech, however, such talk quickly moved out of the fringes into the fundamentalist mainstream. See fundamentalism.

Fundamentalist minister (and presidential candidate) Pat Robertson led the way with a bestselling book, The New World Order (1991), that fused the John Birch Society theory of “Insiders” with Christian apocalyptic mythology. In Robertson’s view, Adam Weishaupt and the Bavarian Illuminati were Satanists who initiated the Rothschild banking family into occultism and used their money to launch the French Revolution as the first move in a plot against Christianity in preparation for the coming of the Antichrist. In this way Robertson imported the entire body of twentieth-century conspiracy theory into the fundamentalist subculture. See Antichrist.

Even before Robertson’s book made it popular, a growing number of fundamentalist writers had embraced modern conspiracy theory and adapted it to fit their religious beliefs. The huge alternative-history publishing industry, with its passion for reinterpreting Christian origins, was tailor-made for this project. Bestselling books such as The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail argued for the existence of a secret underworld of noble families concealing a religious tradition at odds with Christian orthodoxy; in the hands of fundamentalist authors these became the “black nobility,” an alliance of aristocrats in the service of the Antichrist.

The fundamentalist adoption of New World Order rhetoric was far from the strangest reworking of the New World Order theory. David Icke, a former BBC football commentator and Green Party candidate turned conspiracy hunter, burst onto the scene in 1995 with the first of a series of books claiming that the New World Order was under the control of alien reptiles. According to Icke, a cabal of aristocratic families, descended from lizards from another dimension, controlled the world in secret. See Reptilians.

As this last example suggests, the belief in an approaching New World Order has long since passed beyond the realm of history into the worlds of theology and mythic symbolism, where the mere fact that the New World Order never quite manages to arrive cannot quench the conviction of the faithful. It has also come to play an economic role as an effective marketing gimmick to boost sales of assault rifles and survival gear. These factors make it likely that the New World Order mythology will continue to unfold in the decades to come.

Further reading: Allen 1971, Fukuyama 1989, Goldberg 2001, Icke 1995, Robertson 1991, Sklar 1980.


A radical movement in late nineteenth-century Russia, the Nihilists emerged as the political wing of a Russian counterculture that prefigured nearly every detail of the hippie culture of the 1960s. The “New People” rebelled against the mores of Tsarist Russia with unconventional dress and manners; men grew long hair and beards, women wore their hair bobbed and refused makeup. Blue-tinted spectacles, high boots, and a passion for cigarettes formed other parts of the kit. Most were college students though few completed degrees. The New People rejected Christianity and argued for civil and sexual freedom for women, ideas that were at least as shocking in 1860s Russia as in 1960s Britain and America.

All these trends surfaced in 1855 after the death of the arch-conservative Tsar Nicholas I and the accession of his son, the more liberal Alexander II. Reforms that allowed Russian citizens to travel abroad gave many young Russians a taste of freedom and a desire for more. Many Russian students enrolled in foreign universities, especially at Heidelberg and Zurich, where they were exposed to radical ideas. In Russia, Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel What is to be Done? – the story of a young woman’s journey from the narrow world of middle-class St Petersburg to freedom among the New People – had the same cultural impact that Kerouac’s On the Road had a century later among young Americans. Another novel, Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, attached the label of “Nihilist” to the New People, though it came to be used for the movement’s political faction as the nineteenth century drew on.

This political dimension rose to prominence as Alexander II’s government backed away from its more liberal reforms. Part of this withdrawal came from the Tsar’s worries about the spread of radical ideas in Russia. Already in 1861 a manifesto titled To the Younger Generation was in circulation, calling for the Tsar to be replaced by a salaried official. Several influential writers among the New People, including Chernyshevsky himself, were imprisoned in Siberia after widely publicized trials. This served only to embitter the New People and drive more of them into revolutionary politics.

Nihilism exploded into political violence in 1866, when Dmitri Karakozov, a young student in St Petersburg, tried to assassinate the Tsar. The attempt failed, but harsh new laws passed by the Tsar’s government in response launched a spiral of violence and repression that ultimately brought Russia to the threshold of the 1917 revolution. Mass arrests of suspected radicals began in 1873, but each Nihilist hanged or sent to permanent exile in Siberia was quickly replaced by others. More assassination attempts followed, some aimed at the Tsar and others targeting important government officials. A terrorist bomb thrown by Nihilists of the “People’s Will” faction finally killed the Tsar on March 1, 1881.

This assassination was in many respects the last hurrah of Nihilism. By that time the New People were decidedly old news, and a younger generation of radicals was turning from the Nihilists’ rejection of authority and vague belief in freedom to the new theory of social revolution proposed by a German writer named Karl Marx. See Communism.

Further reading: Broido 1977, Hingley 1967.


One of the many groups alleged to be the secret masters of the world, the Nine Unknown Men first surfaced in the writings of Louis Jacolliot (1837–90), a French colonial civil servant who wrote a number of wildly popular books on alternative history. According to Jacolliot, the order of Nine Unknown Men had been formed on the instructions of Ashoka, emperor of India in the third century BCE, as a secret government for the world. Jacolliot’s claims were taken up by the mystic and writer of adventure fiction Talbot Mundy (1879–1940), who based a novel entitled The Nine Unknowns (1923) on the claim that the Nine remained active and influenced global politics in modern times. From there, the Nine Unknown Men found their way into modern conspiracy theory. Never as popular as the Bavarian Illuminati or the Trilateral Commission, the Nine still have their supporters among believers in one universal conspiracy that controls the world. See Bavarian Illuminati; New World Order; Trilateral Commission.

The Nine Unknown Men are not Jacolliot’s only contribution to today’s alternative-realities scene; he also invented the secret city of Agharta. See Agharta.