Guido van Hengel

The Prophets of Europe

Visions of the Future from a Lost Continent

Three radical twentieth-century thinkers and their utopian plans for a new order

Once upon a time, Europe was not despised as a bureaucratic monstrosity, but praised as a noble ideal. In this book the author narrates how, in the early decades of the twentieth century, a number of intellectuals from across Europe united in a ‘blood bond of European geniuses’. Together they spun fantasies of a world order that would transcend the reigning ideologies of liberalism, socialism, fascism and nationalism. Meanwhile, darkness was descending on the continent.

On the eve of the First World War, three of those unconventional Europeans crossed paths. The celebrated writer and psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden (1860–1932) had by that time already founded a utopian commune, but he aimed higher. He wanted to save humanity from the horrors of modernity. In his pursuit of this objective he received moral support from the German philosopher Erich Gutkind (1877–1965), an anti-scientific mystic, and the Bosnian guru Dimitrije Mitrinović (1887-1953), who spoke an oracular language of his own invention intended to reach an underlying reality.

They quickly recognized each other as kindred spirits, and in the years that followed, they corresponded, learned from each other and contributed to each other’s magazines and manifestoes, forming a transnational intellectual network.

In Potsdam, Munich and London, they shared their vague but passionate ideas about the unification of Europe, the importance of world peace and the leading role of individual geniuses. Their associates across the continent included the anarchist Gustav Landauer and the philosopher Martin Buber.

The Prophets of Europe is not just a history of ideas, but the story of the idealists themselves who sought to cross the borders between politics, music and religion. Even after the Second World War Gutkind and Mitrinović remained active in New York and London, but to the people of the post-Holocaust age, their ideas seemed hopelessly old-fashioned.

Historian Guido van Hengel offers an alternative history of the early twentieth century, when mystical philosophies and grand schemes for humanity did not seem as naive, or as suspect, as they do today. He builds a powerful case that the stories of these political dreamers hold vital lessons for our own time, as the sleeping giant of political utopianism reawakens all around us — from Putin’s resurgent nationalism and Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman dream to Trump’s campaign promise to make America great again.

‘Van Hengel shows that there were many more gloomy intellectuals who criticised European culture and came up with great visions of the future. The way in which Van Hengel describes their activities and ambitions is very compelling and enlightening.’

Historisch Nieuwsblad

Guido van Hengel

Guido van Hengel is a writer and historian. He studied in Groningen, Jena and Belgrade, and in 2014 he published The Days of Gavrilo Princip, a cultural history of a generation of young revolutionaries on the eve of the Great War. He obtained his doctorate cum laude from the University of Groningen…

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De zieners. Toekomstvisioenen uit een verloren Europa (2018). Non-fiction, 312 pages.

English sample available

Themes: history


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