When I took on the job of cataloguing the Mitrinović archive, I was looking forward to finding out more about the personality of the eccentric intellectual behind the collection. What was he like? How did his contemporaries see him?
Firstly, Mitrinović really looked the part of the exotic foreigner to those who met him. It sounds like a cliché, but as several commentators said it independently, it seems that Mitrinović really did have mesmerising eyes. He was tall with dark hair and eyebrows. Evidently he also had real presence, although the artist Paul Klee described him as having a “peasant face”!
Mitrinović clearly had powers of persuasion that were something to be reckoned with. I think of him borrowing £5 from a total stranger on the ferry to England when he arrived in the country, or persuading the Serbian Legation to employ him as a clerk in 1914, when he more or less appeared on their doorstep in London. There are letters from people he had met at events or social occasions following up on his invitations to join his discussion group or take lessons from him in Theosophy. These prospective students seem nervous, in awe of their new guru, but also flattered to have been singled out by him. Some also seem delighted to have been offered a purpose in life, and perhaps the chance to make a difference in the world.
Parts of the archive suggest that Mitrinović was something of workaholic. The sheer number of long draft letters he wrote in the summer of 1914 when recruiting members for the Blutbund, or the screeds of notes and notebooks bear witness to his drive. In letters dating from 1924 – 1925 in particular, friends beg him not to wear himself out, with some speaking about his ill health or even referring to a nervous breakdown.
Mitrinović could inspire great loyalty and devotion. Examples include his relationship with David Shillan, whom he befriended in Shillan’s youth and who was still studying Mitrinović’s ideas and caring for his legacy long after Mitrinović’s death. Winnifred Gordon Fraser devoted her life to working alongside Mitrinović, taking on unglamorous administrative work, acting as a kind of secretary to him, and looking after him in his final illness.
Mitrinović could also inspire less positive feelings. According to his brother Cedomil, many of his friends and associates in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia felt betrayed and abandoned when he left in 1913, never to live there again. Letters from Vera Fordham and James Young hint that he might have had a passive aggressive side, as he seems to have cut off communication when he was offended.
Although there is evidence of conflicts within the groups, clearly many of Mitrinović’s circle kept the faith. They were convinced that his teaching showed the way to a better world, and whatever charges were laid against his efficacy as an activist, teacher and leader, it is hard to seriously doubt his commitment to creating the New Atlantis.