Are the Illuminati real? The answer is Yes and No. If you are asking, was there ever a real organization called the Illuminati? The answer is Yes. If you are asking, is there a currently operating mega-organization that masterminds a super-colossal conspiracy that encompasses everything from the French Revolution to Jay-Z’s latest album? Then the answer is most certainly No.
The real Illuminati (as opposed to the bogus conspiracy theory) was founded in Ingolstadt, Bavaria on May 1, 1776 by the German philosopher and law professor Adam Weishaupt. At the time, the Catholic Church played a domineering role in controlling the political and intellectual life of Bavaria. Weishaupt, who was a supporter of the French Enlightenment, decided to create a secret society that borrowed ritual elements from the Freemasons in order to popularize French Enlightenment ideas on an underground level in Bavaria. (In fact, Illuminati is simply the Latin word meaning “the enlightened ones.”) At its height, the Illuminati organization had chapters in several German provinces, as well as Austria and Switzerland, but it never had more than 3,000 members. The group was weakened by factional infighting before being crushed by the Bavarian government in 1787.
According to the historian Vernon Stauffer’s 1918 book, New England and the Bavarian Illuminati,
As a final blow against the devastated order, on August 16, 1787, the duke of Bavaria launched his third and last edict against the system. The presentments of the former interdicts were reemphasized, and in addition, to give maximum force to the sovereign’s will, criminal process, without distinction of person, dignity, state, or quality, was order against any Illuminatus who should be discovered continuing the work of recruiting. Any so charged and found guilty were to be deprived of their lives by the sword; while those thus recruited were to have their goods confiscated and themselves to be condemned to perpetual banishment from the territories of the duke. Under the same penalties of confiscation and banishment, the members of the order, no matter under what name or circumstances, regular or irregular, they should gather, were forbidden to assemble as lodges.
Since participation in the Illuminati could get members “deprived of their lives by the sword,” I think it’s highly probable that the group never reformed after 1787. The only reason that the group has lived on is that some counter-Enlightenment writers in France later blamed them for causing the French Revolution, even though Bavaria was actually slower to adopt Enlightenment ideas than France was.
Source: Vernon Stauffer, New England and the Bavarian Illuminati, see Chapter III, esp. 182-183.