Tag Archives: Letters

Robert Dell, Our Man in Geneva

Here in Special Collections we are always telling students that the power of archives comes from the fact that they were generally not produced with any consideration for how they would be seen in the future. Rather, they were working records produced at a given moment in history for contemporary purposes. I came across a letter recently that reminded me of the truth of that.

NAF 3-3-1-20-18 Letter from Dell, SignatureRobert Dell wrote to Winifred Gordon Fraser in 1935 from Geneva discussing Nazi Germany and the difficulties facing German refugees. The letter is a prime example of how archival sources put us back in the shoes of those living through the historical events we study, and how they can put a human face on world affairs.

Dell was a journalist, then working as a Foreign Correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, but intriguingly his career had already included co-editing The Burlington Magazine and being an art dealer in Paris. He was involved in Dimitrije Mitrinović’s New Europe Group, and even for a time served as its President. Dell had written a book on Nazi Germany, Germany unmasked: on Germany under the National-Socialist regime (Martin Hopkinson, London, 1934).

NAF 3-3-1-20-18 Letter from Dell, p.1, Excerpt re European Situation

From this letter alone, it is clear that Dell understood the real threat that Hitler posed – unlike many in Britain at the time. He talks of German negotiators effectively stalling for time. Dell also writes about his frustration with the British authorities, particularly when it came to immigration. He complains that it is far easier for members of Nazi Party to come to Britain than German refugees, even when those refugees might be demonstrably capable of supporting themselves once in the UK. Dell himself was doing his best to help one Mrs. Brandt, and part of his reason for writing to Gordon Fraser (and Mitrinović) was to try and obtain some work – even unpaid – with the New Europe Group to bolster her case.

NAF 3-3-1-20-18 Letter from Dell, excerpt re RefugeesI do not know whether or not Mrs. Brandt was successful in her bid to come to England, nor whether or not Winifred Gordon Fraser and the New Europe Group were able to help her. In Robert Dell, however, she at least had an articulate and well-connected advocate. Thanks to his letter, we have an interesting report on what it was like to observe the failure to create a lasting peace in the 1930s at close hand, and a terrible sense of the consequences for people like Mrs. Brandt.


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How is Your Serbo-Croat? Special Collections Needs Volunteers!

Dimitrije Mitrinović was born in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina, into a Serbian speaking family. He learned to speak and write in multiple languages as a young man and today his Archive reflects his “multi-lingualism”. This is particularly true of the letters in the collection. So far I have catalogued material in German, French, Russian, Italian and, of course, Serbo-Croat.

Unfortunately I don’t have Mitrinović’s knowledge of languages, which is where you come in! Special Collections is looking for volunteers to help us to catalogue correspondence from his Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian friends, colleagues and family to the same standard as we’ve established for letters in English.

NAF 1-8-3-1 Postcard, front                 NAF 1-8-3-1 Postcard, back

Dimitrije Mitrinović created, edited and wrote for influential journals and magazines in Serbia, Croatia and subsequently, Yugoslavia. He knew some of the region’s most learned, famous (and infamous) and artistic citizens including Gavrilo Princip and Ivan Meštrović. If you have a knowledge of the Serbian or Croatian language and an interest in history, this could be just the project for you! And you don’t have to live near Bradford, as we’ll supply you with copies to work from and training.

Please email e.l.burgham@bradford.ac.uk to find out more and register your interest.

NAF 1-8-3-7 Letter, front [pink]

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End of a Friendship? Letter from James Young

In my last post I started to look at Mitrinović’s character, but there’s much more to learn about such a compelling, complex man. Perhaps the most revealing document I’ve come across so far when it comes to Mitrinović’s personality and personal relationships is a letter from James Young written in April 1925. Young was a psychoanalyst, who had studied under Jung, and written for The New Age alongside Mitrinović.

NAF 1-8-2 James Young Letter, 1925, p.1

The letter seems like an insightful and perhaps brutally honest analysis of Mitrinović’s character. It is also quite revealing of group dynamics in his circle, as Young complains that two group members were policing access to Mitrinović. He voices his worry that Mitrinović would burn out, recalling an incident where he had finally persuaded his friend to take a holiday, only for Mitrinović to use it as an opportunity to teach a young woman philosophy. Young felt she was already reeling under the weight of new ideas, further adding to the inappropriateness of the situation. He saw this incident as an example of Mitrinović’s unhealthy compulsion to teach.

NAF 1-8-2 James Young Letter, 1925, p.2 excerpt re compulsive

Young was also concerned about, and irritated by, Mitrinović’s habit of forming and dissolving groups focusing on achieving different aims in his project to change the world. In his view, Mitrinović was spreading himself too thin. He would achieve more by concentrating his energies.

NAF 1-8-2 James Young, 1925, p.6, excerpt

Some in his circle interpreted this behaviour as stemming from Mitrinović’s desire to retain his leadership role. By constantly moving the goal-posts, none of the students could surpass the master by becoming more expert than their guru. Others were more sympathetic, believing that Mitrinović kept the group moving on to new things so that they wouldn’t become fixated on one area at the expense of his holistic philosophy. Each new group worked to bring its members new insights, focusing on different subject matter. Others in his circle felt that Mitrinović was continually searching for the right ‘formula’ – a venture that would take off and wouldn’t need input from him, freeing him up for other work.

According to his biographer, Andrew Rigby, Mitrinović felt different audiences needed different messages, and the use of different channels for communicating that message. The constant stream of new ventures and campaigns may also have been part of Mitrinović’s attempt to shake the British public awake, getting them to see that urgent action was needed to avert disaster as the world dealt with the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler and Communist dictatorships.

NAF 1-8-2 James Young Letter, p.4, excerpt misunderstanding

Clearly Mitrinović’s way of working could frustrate and confuse even his closest friends. Being in his circle could be an intense, emotional experience and feelings could run high. We are fortunate to have this letter and others in the archive that record this atmosphere. They give us a vivid picture of what it was like to be caught up in the world of a charismatic guru in the eventful interwar period.


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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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