Tag Archives: First World War

Fog of War, Letter from Gabriele Münter

The most affecting document I’ve come across so far in the Mitrinović Archive is a letter from the German Expressionist artist Gabriele Münter (19 February 1877– 19 May 1962), written to Dimitrije Mitrinović in 1914. The two became friendly whilst Mitrinović was studying in Munich, having met through Münter’s relationship with Wassily Kandinsky. Dimitrije Mitrinović was caught up by the outbreak of the First World War and at just about the last moment, fled to England (see the story here). Gabriele Münter herself hurriedly moved to Switzerland, and as a result of these rapid flights the two had evidently lost touch. Here Münter re-established contact with her friend. Her anxiety is clear from her opening words, “How are you? Where are you?”.

NAF 1-3-1 Letter from Gabriele Munter, copy, p.1

Münter entreated Mitrinović to write, reminding him to use German in case his letters were checked by the censors, so they would get through easily. She herself wrote in somewhat broken English to make sure her own letter would reach him.

Gabriele Münter is another fascinating character who turns up here in the Mitrinović collection. During the Second World War she hid her own paintings, those of Kandinsky and others from the Blaue Reiter group in her house. The works were condemned as ‘degenerate’ art by the Nazis and, if found, would have been destroyed. Despite several searches, the works Münter hid were never found and she was able ultimately to donate a significant part of her unique collection to the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich. On her death, in accordance with her wishes,  Münter’s house in Murnau was made into a museum dedicated to her art and that of Kandinsky.

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The Eve of the First World War, Letter from Erich Gutkind

In late July 1914, Dimitrije Mitrinović (like so many others) could no longer ignore what was happening in Europe. He knew that when war broke out, he was at risk of being drafted into an army whose government he had always struggled against – that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Alternatively, and more likely given the fate of so many Serbs who were treated as enemy aliens in their own country, he would have been imprisoned. His well-known beliefs and political activities put him in an especially vulnerable position, particularly whilst he was carrying a Serbian passport. He risked being arrested as a spy.

Faced with these grim prospects, Mitrinović thought of escape, but wrote first to his friend and mentor Erich Gutkind, apparently seeking advice and looking for reassurance that his flight wouldn’t be seen as a betrayal of the Blutbund movement that the two men were working so hard to create. Mitrinović’s letter to Gutkind sadly does not seem to survive, but we do have what now seems like an astonishing reply.

Letter from Erich Gutkind, 'Calm', copy, p.1

Writing on 30th of July (the day before Germany declared war on Russia), Gutkind urged Mitrinović not to be hasty and act, but to wait for a “metaphysical electrical flash of lightning”, which would initiate the change in the world they wished to see. He wrote that it was quite possible that it might all come to nothing, simply settling down again. He warned Mitrinović not to involve the “plebs”, as he believed action for a better world had to come top down, starting from the elite group of artists, writers and intellectuals who made up the Blutbund brotherhood. Gutkind finished by instructing Mitrinović to maintain the most “severe Buddhist calm” in the face of current events. Personally, I am reminded of Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens’ Bleak House, whose great preoccupation with her charitable work in Africa blinds her to plight of those in her own city (and even her own home).

Letter from Erich Gutkind, 'Calm', copy, p.4

Fortunately, the letter seems not to have dissuaded Mitrinović entirely. He travelled to Berlin, borrowing money from Gutkind’s mother to come to England. Travelling on one of the last boats out of mainland Europe, he later recalled realizing as the English coastline came into view that he would need money to prove to the British authorities that he could support himself. A fellow passenger lent him £5, and he was able to remain in the UK.

Mitrinović remained a lifelong admirer of Gutkind’s work, and the two did stay in contact despite the disintegration of the Blutbund in the face of the First World War. Indeed Mitrinović once claimed in later life that if Gutkind had not written his book Siderische Geburt (Sidereal Birth),  he himself would have to have done so. Gutkind’s central ideas relating to the essential unity of all humanity, the need for change in contemporary society, and what  Mitrinović’s biographer Andrew Rigby has described as ‘…the higher order consciousness that was necessary in order to create the new world that was imminent’ all resonated profoundly with  Mitrinović and were central to his thinking throughout his life.

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Moving in Elite Circles: the Blutbund Letters

Mitrinovic's Notes, 'Optimizam' [cropped]

In 1913 -1914 Dimitrije Mitrinović was studying art history in Munich, then one of the centres of the art world. Inspired by Kandinsky’s work and writing, he formed a friendship with the artist and his partner, Gabriele Münter.

Kandinsky and Mitrinović were both convinced of the need for radical change in the world, and felt that this should be led and achieved by the best minds in Europe, and particularly by artists whom they saw as prophets capable of seeing an alternative order. In order to spread their ideas, they set out to publish a Yearbook with articles on cultural and political subjects, as a follow-up to Der Blaue Reiter Almanach (The Blue Rider Almanac) produced by Kandinsky in 1912.

Kandinsky and Mitrinović made contact with Frederik van Eeden (1860 -1932), a Dutch psychiatrist, writer and founder of an intentional community, Walden, and the German philosopher Erich Gutkind (1877 – 1965). Gutkind and van Eeden shared their belief in change being initiated by the intellectual elite, then spreading to wider society. They called for the creation of a “Blutbund” (Blood Band, or Union), bringing together leading figures to effect change. Mitrinović worked furiously to get both the Blutbund and Yearbook off the ground, rattling off letters to politicians, writers, philosophers, philosophers, writers, social critics, political thinkers and leaders across the arts from across Europe and further afield. Amongst those he approached were H.G. Wells, Walter Schücking, Édouard Schuré, Dr. Rudolf Eucken, Ezra Pound, Ivan Meštrović and Stanisław Przybyszewski.

Letter to Erich Gutkind from Mitrinovic 1914 [cropped]

This draft letter to Erich Gutkind is just one of many from this period that survive in the Mitrinović archive here at Bradford. Written in German, Serbo-Croat, French, Russian and English, fortunately some were also later translated by Mitrinović’s circle. To me, Mitrinović’s large, rapid scrawl seems to embody his enthusiasm, conviction and the tremendous energy that he put into the Blutbund and Yearbook project. Although Mitrinović himself was not well known, the fact that he was willing to contact such distinguished men, pitching his vision for the future of Europe and humanity, shows great confidence and perhaps also that sense of great importance and urgency that he attached to his work. This particular letter has a rather nice postscript in which Mitrinović apologies for his imperfect German, but hopes that Gutkind will appreciate what we might call any ‘happy accidents’ that might have crept in.

Letter to Erich Gutkind from Mitrinovic 1914, postscript [cropped]

Sadly for Mitrinović, the First World War put paid to the Blutbund. Nationalist feelings ran high, with the group splitting along broadly German/ non-German lines. A group founded on the idea of creating a fairer, more peaceful world was undone by war. The Yearbook was never produced, despite Mitrinović seeking out contributors again in 1916.

Letter to Kropotkin, London August 1914

Part of what I find fascinating about Dimitrije Mitrinović is his complete refusal to let any setback crush his optimism. Within days of arriving in England as a penniless refugee, he was writing one of his Blutbund letters, urging Peter Kropotkin, the prominent anarchist to support the movement. After the First World War, and doubtless in light of the collapse of the Blutbund, Mitrinović changed tack. Instead of the new world order starting with an elite working to influence the world around them, he would start with more ordinary people who were willing to develop themselves on intellectual and emotional levels. Many in the group he gathered around himself from the 1920s onwards were deeply influenced by his ideas and some would remain devoted to him for the rest of their lives.

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Mapping the First World War, Map of the Southern Slav Territory 1915

NAF 1-2-3 Map of Southern Slav Territory 1915

One of the first items I’ve come across that really caught my eye since starting to catalogue the Mitrinović archive is a fascinating map of the Balkans. Entitled Map of the Southern Slav Territory and created by Dr. Niko Županić (1876-1961), this remarkable document was published in 1915, as the First World War was raging. It was commissioned by the ‘Jugoslav Committee in London’, represented by ex-pats including Dimitrije Mitrinović. The map shows the range of ethnic and cultural groups in the region – Serbs, Croatians, Slovenes, etc. and the degree to which all of these groups were intermingled. It also shows who held what territory at the time – a snapshot of the political and military situation. Who was the intended audience? Was it used in support of a goal close to Mitrinović’s heart – the establishment of a federal Yugoslavia?

NAF 1-2-3 Map of Southern Slav Territory - Key - Cropped

Prior to the war, Dimitrije Mitrinović became an important figure in the Young Bosnia movement, a nationalist group struggling against the Austro-Hungarian empire, seeking a moral and cultural rebirth amongst the Southern Slavic peoples. Within this group Mitrinović’s ideas were an influence on Gavrilo Princip, as both held anti-imperialist views. Where they differed strongly was on the use of violence. Mitrinović devoted his life to creating a new, peaceful world order. He believed that radical change was needed urgently, but that people should be brought to towards it on an individual level, and of their own free will.

Dimitrije Mitrinović was living in Germany just before war was declared in August 1914. He found himself caught – a return home would have seen him drafted into the Austro-Hungarian forces, fighting for an empire he had always protested against, or (more likely) imprisoned for his beliefs and political activities. He took a decision to come to London instead and would remain in England for the rest of his life.

With commemorations of the start of the Great War going on everywhere at the moment, this map is a timely discovery. Although our collections here at the University of Bradford are stronger on war – and especially peace and pacifism – of later years, this map also hints at the presence of other First World War material awaiting discovery in our collections.

NAF 1-2-3 Map of Southern Slav Territory - Detail

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