Europe as a myth and mystery (Epilogue of “The Prophets of Europe”)

The visionaries spoke of great secrets, eternal truths, mystical experiences, deep essences and occult encounters. Frederik van Eeden, Erich Gutkind, and certainly Dimitrije Mitrinović, conveyed a message that we can no longer comprehend properly now. That is why I called The Visionaries ‘a pre-war history’ in the introduction.


Before World War I, but also before World War II, Europe was in a process of ‘disenchantment’, as the German sociologist Max Weber dubbed it. Speaking a symbolic language, observing rituals and having mystical experiences was accepted in so-called ‘pre-modern’ societies. Conversely, modernity stripped the profane from the sacred and the ordinary from the miraculous. There was still room for ‘God’ and the ‘Great Mystery’, but only in their own religious domain. In other domains – politics, economics, law – the ‘divine’ no longer held a prominent place.

This was not a smooth process. Some struggled against it. In an ever less religious world, people went in search of miraculousness. Secularisation thus led to all kinds of new forms of religion, and new forms of religious- ansophistic fears about Evil, the lack of (spiritual) guidance or vision, and the purposelessness and senselessness of modern existence.

Psychiatrists and Zeitgeist prophets such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung predicted that the death of God would lead to all kinds of ideological coercion. Concurrently individuals began to suffer from new psychological ailments – from stress and hysteria to phobias and fixations. Against this backdrop, culture would also have to contend with new collective mental ‘diseases’. In short, modernity brought material wealth but also mental malaise.

It was precisely in this context that Wassily Kandinsky wrote his programme Concerning the Spiritual in Art. He sketched a contradistinction between the dulled, materialistic masses and the visionaries, who ‘are not wrapped in lethargy, and who feel vague longings for spiritual life and knowledge and progress’. Kandinsky observed how the visionaries ‘are despised or regarded as abnormal and eccentric.’

After World War II Kandinsky was praised himself as a trailblazer of abstract art; that which had perhaps been regarded as ‘abnormal and eccentric’ in his time was in retrospect pioneering. This is not the full story, however. The art historian Marty Bax wrote in an epilogue to a recent Dutch translation of Concerning the Spiritual in Art that the post-war analysis of Kandinsky paid little attention to his mystical sources of inspiration. Kandinsky’s work was thus ‘purged’ of the spiritual, esoteric and romantic inspiration which had some common ground with that of the controversial ‘occult’ Nazism. It is only recently, in the last four decades, that interest has grown in thus underlying mysticism and symbolism, without which Kandinsky’s paintings cannot really be understood at all.

It is true that it is better not to get your fingers burnt on pre-war mysticism. Hitler’s NSDAP stemmed from the occult Thule Society, a secret order whose members combined theosophical ideas with racial theories. Less occult but also symbolic was the work of the prophet of The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler. His most important conclusions were not based on empiricism, but on Verstehen (‘understanding’) – an intuitive and irrational observation of the essence and character of things. There is no doubt about Spengler’s injudiciousness. He supported the National Socialist movement in the early 1930s and cast his vote for Hitler. He later turned his back on the NSDAP because he considered the party too democratic and plebeian.

There is a long list of artists and philosophers in the 1920s and 1930s who supported totalitarian regimes because they reasoned that people like Mussolini or Hitler could transform barren materialism into a vitalistic, heroic attitude towards life. It would be falsifying history to historically isolate all those visionaries. Many Europeans in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s shared their concerns about modern spiritual emptiness, lack of inspiration and the degeneration of human races.

The Holocaust and World War II made this mysticism forever problematic. To this day anthroposophists have had to give a full account of Rudolf Steiner’s racial doctrine, and neither can theosophists deny that Blavatsky’s writings influenced early Nazi ideology. But as well as mysticism, ‘ordinary’ spirituality also withdrew from the public domain after the war. People still attended church, but outside this domain they only talked sporadically about ‘big secrets’, ‘deep essences’ and ‘eternal truths’. This was lamented by some artists, such as the writer Gerard Reve, who said on Dutch television in 1966: ‘There is plenty of religion in this country, but it is practically impossible to find religious conviction here.’

In this light it is interesting to briefly reflect on a letter written by the physicist Albert Einstein to Erich Gutkind in the 1950s. In 1952 the Dutch mathematician L.E.J. Brouwer had recommended Gutkind’s final book Choose Life to Einstein, who later wrote the following words in a reaction to Gutkind:

What struck me was this: with regard to the factual attitude to life and to the human community we have a great deal in common. Your personal ideal with its striving for freedom from ego-oriented desires, for making life beautiful and noble, with an emphasis on the purely human element. This unites us as having an “unAmerican attitude.” Still, without Brouwer’s suggestion I would never have gotten myself to engage intensively with your book because it is written in a language inaccessible to me. The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change this for me. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstition.

He ended the letter with friendly, but for Gutkind very salient words: ‘Therefore I think that we would understand each other quite well if  we talked about concrete things.’

The letter is especially interesting because Gutkind had already said in The Absolute Collective that a scientific view would not take mankind forward. Einstein’s unwillingness to follow Gutkind’s visions is a good example of this. Einstein typified both Gutkind’s visions and the biblical legends and superstitions on which all religions are based as ‘childish,’ implying that their development had been impaired. That made Gutkind someone from the dark past, and Einstein someone of the bright present.

Einstein was right. Reason would prevail and the inexplicable would become absurd. We can now better understand what Einstein appreciated in the ‘unAmerican’ Gutkind – his ‘personal ideal’ to make life ‘beautiful and noble’. Einstein was not inspired by the spiritual element, but the social and societal elements. The Forte Kreis, the Adler Society, the New Europe Group and other organisations covered in this book were not only about the human mystery, but also about the future organisation of society. This brings us back to utopianism and the search for a better world.

Minor utopias

Many historians agree that the ‘great utopias’ of the twentieth century were ultimately associated with violence, exclusion and persecution. The American historian Jay Winter, however, made a distinction between great and minor utopias. Minor utopias can also result in violence, but their impact is chiefly measurable in the way they endure as a story in the minds of new  generations. In other words, the ‘minor utopias’ do not render new forms of government, but rather inspiration for human action. Winter described these minor utopias in his book as ‘… spaces in which the contradictions of a period are embodied and performed, and new possibilities are imagined’. He argues that they are full of mistakes and misconceptions, but that without those ‘minor utopias’ the world would be barren, inhospitable and dreary.

It should be clear that Mitrinović, Gutkind, Van Eeden and the other visionaries’ activities described in this book did not result in the realisation of Great Utopias, even though they should not be regarded as completely detached from them. Their lives mirrored the Great Utopias and tell the story of the minor utopias.

The story of Van Eeden, who died in 1932, has undoubtedly reached the most people. Tangible results of Van Eeden’s work can still be seen in the Netherlands. Take the International School of Philosophy in Leusden. After the failure of the Forte Kreis, Van Eeden founded the ‘Academy for Higher Wisdom’ with friends and colleagues in Amersfoort in 1916. The ‘Kingly of Spirit’ would be able to give voice to intellectual sentiments here in opposition to the Great War’s ‘nationalist disease’. Van Eeden clashed with the other initiators soon after establishing the institution and founded a competing school for Significs (Theory of Linguistic Signs) with the aforementioned ascetic L.E.J. Brouwer. In Welt Eroberung durch Heldenliebe (World Conquest through heroic Love) Van Eeden wrote that some of the spiritual aristocracy’s ideas required a great deal of patience. Now, a hundred years later, his sanctuary for ‘spiritual life’ still exists. It survived the twentieth century.

The story of Erich Gutkind, the other founder of the Forte Kreis, lived on elsewhere. In the 1950s and 1960s he lived with his wife Lucy in a drab flat in a remote corner of New York. When a selection of his papers was published in the United States in 1969, the philosopher Henry Le Roy Finch wrote an encouraging preface: ‘In the present tumultuous period Gutkind is the philosopher for the young. He has something of the greatest importance to  say to the generation which is groping its way beyond liberalism and at the same time beyond ideologies and beyond technology and a narrow pragmatism…’ But Finch was mistaken; Gutkind did not become a voice for the 1960s generation who experienced a short utopian period with the Summer of Love. The Jewish mystic was outshone by his friends – the greater minds that inspired him more than he did them.

Apart from Frederik van Eeden and Walter Benjamin it was Mitrinović who took Gutkind seriously. This is evident in his incorporation of Gutkind’s debut the Seraphische Wanderung (Seraphic Walk; large sections of which were published for the first time in English in The Body of God in 1969) into his own visions until the 1940s. Mitrinović would not have met Van Eeden without Gutkind, making this minor German philosopher an indispensable link, not only between the Dutch utopian and the Bosnian Serb guru, but also between two very important aspects of visionariness. Gutkind connected the prophetic mission of the rather more practical Van Eeden with Mitrinović’s inscrutably sectarian world. Gutkind was, as he said himself, a bridge builder.

Interest in Mitrinović’s work has grown in recent years, particularly in the former Yugoslavia, and especially in Serbia. The most logical explanation for this is the fact that Mitrinović acted as an enigmatic secondary figure in the Young Bosnian movement behind the murder of Franz Ferdinand in 1914 – an event that has been much discussed since 2014 both in and beyond the Balkans. The hiatus of 1914 – his flight to the United Kingdom – means that for historians his life has been permanently bisected into a Balkan and a British society life.

His name survived in the United Kingdom, albeit in a limited circle. The New Atlantis Foundation (the successor of the New Europe Group) continued for a long time after his death. Followers picked up where the ‘master’ had left off. They organised lectures and meetings to discuss the exaltation of humanity, the threefolding of the state according to Rudolf Steiner’s principles, and Gutkind’s sidereal lessons, which also provided inspiration long after Mitrinović’s death. The New Atlantis Foundation was later renamed the Mitrinović Foundation and still exists, even if the organisation now has a completely different character. It is no longer an esoteric group of utopian activist, but rather a loose community of critical sympathisers and historical researchers who manage its archive.


The true Europe

The story of a united Europe finally materialised after the war in the more profane Coal and Steel Community. Many of the political personalists, including some of Mitrinović’s followers, were committed to European unity after the war. People like Alexandre Marc connected the decentralisation of personalism to federalising Europe. Yet the concept of European unity evolved more and more into a technocratic and administrative issue in the second half of the twentieth century. Henceforth mythical Europe would be an internal market with milk quotas and agricultural subsidies. Perhaps the final euphoric and emotional moment on the road to European utopia was the enormous expansion of the European Union in 2004. The New Europe Group had argued in the interwar period for bringing the Slavic east together with the ‘conscious’ west. This was achieved on the threshold of the twenty-first century. But storm clouds gathered above the continent shortly afterwards. The European constitution was rejected, there was an economic crisis and  then there was a populist revolt.

It has only been recently that the supposed essence of a united Europe is once again being debated. That has everything to do with a sense of threat. Some see the threat as the arrival of foreigners; others in the opposition to the arrival of these foreigners. Be that as it may, the end of a united Europe has become imaginable, which is why Europeans are looking for spiritual and emotional roots.

These roots extend beyond simply the Zero Hour of 1945. In the 1920s and 1930s, in the time of the visionaries, the European story was by no means technocratic or pragmatic, but fundamental. It was often about the deeper meaning; the Great Truth of Europe. Nationalism had had a demonstrably disastrous effect on the harmony of culture. The traumatic events of 1914 – 1918 resulted in the spiritual ‘emptiness’ of the 1920s and 1930s which was felt throughout Europe. It was said that Europe was ‘degenerating’.

The pioneers of the 1920s and 1930s found a counterpart to nation states in ‘communities’. These communities were part of a hierarchical society in which ‘everyone knew their place’. These Europeans were certainly not left-leaning. Many French proponents of European integration were rabidly Catholic; they longed for the Middle Ages or were nostalgic for a supposedly lost culture. Likewise, they did not object to the firmly anchored colonialism and anti- Semitism of the period.

Coudenhove-Kalergi, the supreme interwar European, had his own personal reasons for wanting to transcend nationalism. As an aristocrat he could not imagine the dreams and thoughts of the ‘rooted’ sections of the community. In a similar way Mitrinović also had a personal connection with a united Europe. As the son of multicultural Bosnia, he had fled from east to west, to fashionable London. He had seen the limits of nationalism. But even more than Mitrinović, Gutkind had understood what nationalism could unleash. He had been forced to flee from his beloved Germany, the country he had acclaimed in 1914 in World War I.

The Grand Gesture started in small ways for the visionaries. As non-dogmatic and atypical visionaries, Van Eeden, Gutkind and Mitrinović did not strive for national unity, but for personal unity, which could be achieved step by step – in the light of eternity naturally. Van Eeden believed that his activities in the residential colony of Walden and in the Forte Kreis enabled him to share his own, deeply felt personal convictions with other people and in doing so disseminate them. He influenced Gutkind as well as Martin Buber, who later incorporated the theme of the real human encounter into his I and you. Mitrinović hoped his ‘Senate’ would establish a small laboratory to train mankind in encounters, however difficult, which would cultivate a kind of cosmopolitan citizenship.

The irony is of course that the people in this book were ill-suited to small- scale, utopian projects. Van Eeden’s Walden failed, and Mitrinović ‘Senate’ was nothing less than an awkward sect. Gutkind failed in Potsdam, Capri and in Hagen in 1928. The practical interpretation of ideas – and certainly such ideas – is rarely a tale of success. But the idea of decentralisation and a ‘personal’ vision of society deserves attention.

In the interwar years the visionaries wanted to rise above the national level for fear of war, and to sublimate the personal level. That was very much necessary then and perhaps now too. Mitrinović spoke one final time after the war before holding his peace. His words were bitter but not without hope. He shared a final vision:

There will be no more great geniuses, no more great prophets, philosophers, artists. The primordial sources have been worked out to the full. […] there is a need of a creativity which is possible to the many.