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By Slobodan G. Markovich

Dimitri Mitrinovic – “An Unrecognised Prophet” Of A United Europe And Mankind

Dimitrije Mitrinovic (1887–1953) was a philosopher, poet, publicist, journalist, social and cultural reformer, psychotherapist, and “an unrecognised prophet”, to quote some of the ways he was described

Mitrinovic spent his childhood and youth, till his twenties, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the period when the Habsburg Empire administered the provinces and was making intensive efforts to modernise and Europeanise them. After graduating from the Mostar Gymnasium (1899–1907), he got associated with a loosely connected group of literary circles consisting of secondary school pupils. It became known by its subsequent appellation: “Young Bosnia”. Besides their interest in literature, members of this group had political aspirations, and after the annexation of the provinces by Austria-Hungary, they turned against the Dual Monarchy. Mitrinovic was held in high regard by the followers of the group and, around 1910, it seemed that his trajectory to become a prominent Yugoslav (Serbo-Croat) national revolutionary was set.

In 1911–13, his stay in Rome changed everything in his life and signalled his shift from national to universalist topics. His interest in Indian religious philosophy, Buddhism, and Renaissance humanistic and hermetic teachings emerged during this period, marking the beginning of his life-long search for gnosis. It was during his stay in Munich (January 1913–spring 1914) that he conceptualised his idea of an international yearbook of leading intellectuals who could transform the world through their ideas. His contacts with the artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) were particularly influential. From this period on, he believed that culture could play a major role in the transformation and humanisation of mankind. The Munich period also meant a U-turn in his political and cultural focus. He abandoned his national programme and became a rather devoted cosmopolitan.

In 1914 Mitrinovic escaped to Britain to avoid mobilisation and stayed in London and Britain till his death in 1953.

During the Great War, contrary to the social mainstream, he was committed to pacifism and conscientious objection. He also made his first two circles of followers. British writer Stephen Graham, his disciple at the time, was so inspired by this experience that, in 1918, he published his religious novel The Quest of the Face based on the teachings of Mitrinovic. It advocated an introspective and soul-searching Christianity. A highly influential book by Serbian theologian and later Bishop Nikolai Elmiric, Discourses on Panhuman, was published in 1920. Its syncretism was clearly inspired by Mitrinovic.

During the Great War, he got associated with Alfred R. Orage (1873–1934), the editor of the avant-garde journal The New Age. The influence of Mitrinovic over Orage gradually grew, and he became his guru of sorts and was even given a chance (in 1920/21) to contribute a regular column for his journal entitled “World Affairs.” In these articles, he endeavoured to synthesise various philosophical teachings and religious traditions. He was particularly influenced by Eric Gutkind, Vladimir Solovyov, H. P. Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner and Alfred Adler. Soon enough, Orage found a new guru in George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. The disappointed Mitrinovic had to find new ways of prophesising his ideas.

Between 1927 and 1932, he co-ordinated the British branch of the Adler Society. At that time, he believed that modern gnosis could be found in the writings of Adler and Jung. He had huge ambitions for the society, which gathered many followers and was rather successful, but disagreements with Adler on the direction the society should take led to its self-suspension in Great Britain. After that, he returned to his religious and philosophical syncretism but continued his social activism.

His most influential initiative was the New Britain movement in the 1930s. One of his followers from that period was Alan Watts, a precursor of the New Age Movement. In his memoirs, published in 1972, he summarised four main points of this movement. The first was the concept of social credit explained by Major Douglas, the second was guild socialism with workers as stockholders in the companies employing them, the third was the application of Rudolf Steiner’s concept of the Threefold State, which would include three assemblies (political, economic, and cultural), and the fourth was the campaign for an immediate federation of all nations of Europe. Watts recalled that when Hitler came to power in 1934, Mitrinovic wanted to stop him: “The New Britain movement invoked the governments of England and France to use force, if necessary, to prevent his refortification of the Rhineland in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, and it would have worked.”

The movement developed around two successively published journals: The New Britain Quarterly (1932–33) and The New Britain Weekly (June 1933–Autumn 1934). At some point, the journal had a circulation of 32.000 copies per week, and the New Britain movement had real potential for political and social change. By September 1933, there were 65 local groups all over the United Kingdom, but Mitrinovic and his closest associates decided that they did not want to water down their ideas and simply dismantled the movement.

He was the man for whom only the vast processes of time existed. He did not look a few centuries ahead like Shaw and Wells, but to distant milleniums, which to his apocalyptic mind were as near and vivid as tomorrow…

During the last two decades of his life (1934–1953), he was surrounded by a group of 30–40 followers. They were men and women of good repute, many of them accomplished in their careers. He organised for them lectures, workshops and discussions that were supposed to train them for the Senate of the World, and the senate function was, for him, as his biographer Andrew Rigby noticed, “an essential integrative function in the new social order.” By all available accounts, his followers took this demanding training in various languages, religions, and cultures very seriously. What still puzzles researchers is why this cosmopolitan but seemingly utopian initiative appeared to his rather accomplished followers as something worthy of dedicating their lives to. His disciples continued their dedication to their spiritual master even after his death by establishing the New Atlantis Foundation, which kept and archived his papers and disseminated his ideas. Its legal successor is the Mitrinovic Foundation.

Concomitant with New Britain was the New Europe Group, the most stable of his initiatives from the 1930s. It was established in 1931 and lasted till 1957; its principal aim was to promote a European federation. The list of the presidents of NEG includes very distinguished names. Its first president was the town planner Sir Patrick Geddes, and the radiochemist and polymath Frederick Soddy, the Nobel Prize laureate for Chemistry in 1921, also served as its president. H. C. Rutherford, a disciple of Mitrinovic’s, wrote that one of the aims of the New Europe group was to bring “the continent of Europe more actively into the consciousness of the insular British.”

He endeavoured to define a way to transcend political divisions and identified the sphere of culture as the crucial element of social change. His overall activities should be understood as an effort to bring various religions and cultures much closer to the point that they could not only communicate but would also be able to combine diverse ideas and concepts. He was someone who pursued a utopian project of preparing small groups of people to absorb various cultural influences and be capable of creating a cosmopolitan identity as a result. That new global identity would not be based on mere openness to different cultures but rather on the ability to integrate disparate and sometimes conflicting traditions into a new cosmopolitan whole.

In order to analyse Mitrinovic’s life, work, controversies and accomplishments, an international conference was organised in Belgrade in May 2021 with participants from four countries. After the conference, an edited volume in English, entitled A Reformer of Mankind. Dimitrije Mitrinovic between cultural utopianism and social activism was published in January 2023 by the Faculty of Political Science and Zepter Book World.

The book discusses many aspects of Mitrinovic’s legacy, but the enigma of this man is still there to be analysed. This is not surprising at all if one recalls the words of the Scottish poet Edwin Muir on Mitrinovic:

He was the man for whom only the vast processes of time existed. He did not look a few centuries ahead like Shaw and Wells, but to distant milleniums, which to his apocalyptic mind were as near and vivid as tomorrow…