Tag Archives: Pacifism

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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Designs for a Flag

NAF1-2-5 Design for a Flag - Collage

Most of the files in the Mitrinović collection are full of documents, typewritten, printed or manuscript, covering all sorts of interesting subjects but not necessarily the most visual of items. So finding a file of colourful little paintings and collages was a treat! These bright designs are seemingly for a new Yugoslavian flag for the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, as the new country was officially called from its foundation in 1918 until 1929, when the name ‘Kingdom of Yugoslavia’ was officially adopted. A note accompanying the designs shows how Dimitrije Mitrinović incorporated colours associated with Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bulgaria.

NAF1-2-5 Design for Flag DM's Notes    NAF1-2-5 Design for a Flag 1

Mitrinović felt strongly that peace could be achieved through Yugoslavian, European and, ultimately, world federation.  We might speculate that for him the flag designs symbolised a peaceful, self-governing country embracing its diversity and free of the yoke of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires with their ‘divide and conquer’ approach to the Balkans. Tragically, as we know, the united Yugoslavia was not to solve the region’s problems, although perhaps the European Union may have met with some approval from Mitrinović. He might have seen it as a positive force for peace in the Balkans, as in the rest of the continent, fostering positive co-existence. Certainly Mitrinović viewed a federated Europe as highly desirable and the first step to a united world.

For those interested in finding out more, Serbian academic Dušan Pajin of the University of Art, Belgrade, wrote an article for the journal Serbian Studies, Dimitrije Mitrinović and the European Union Project’ published in 2008 comparing Mitrinović’s ideas of a united Europe with the reality of the E.U. in 1998. (Available to download free here). No doubt as I catalogue his papers here at Bradford, more of Mitrinović’s thoughts on the subject will be accessible and will repay further study.
As many people are trying to assess the value and purposes of the E.U., to reform it or leave it altogether, it seems timely to revisit the kind of thinking that led to its creation in the first place. For many like Dimitrije Mitrinović, seeing how imperial ambitions and simmering ethnic tensions could divide peoples and erupt into violence, a unitary authority founded on co-operation seemed the only way to ensure peace and prosperity. These cheerful little flags seem to me to capture some of that optimism and belief that change was possible.
NAF1-2-5 Design for Flag 2

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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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