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The Utopians: Six attempts to build the perfect society by Anna Neima

12 November 2021

Susan Gray considers post-First World War ideals of community

ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS, the British welfare state, self-directed learning, and relieving depression with psychedelic drugs are just some of the enduring ideas incubated by the utopian communities that sprang up around the world in the aftermath of the First World War.

For the historian Anna Neima, faith played a significant part in the 1914 conflict: “Faith drove the First World War . . . clerics and preachers across Europe described the struggle as an opportunity for spiritual renewal.” And, while only one of the six experimental communities portrayed in The Utopians is explicitly Christian, a sense of seeking the promised land, a lionisation of physical labour, especially out in the fields, and a monastic discipline permeate all the utopias.

The Bruderhof, founded by Eberhard and Emmy Arnold in Sannerz, in central Germany, in 1920, is one of the inter-war utopian communities still flourishing today. Currently, more than 2900 people live in the pattern forged by the Arnolds, in settlements in the United States, South Korea, and East Sussex. Communities are modelled on the Early Church: “a return to a way of life described in the Acts of the Apostles: a church community that shared all property and lived all life in common and in the spirit of Jesus”.

A financially forced merger with the Hutterites in 1931, and subsequent hierarchical reorganisation, in which the leader Eberhard became Servant of the Word, supported by a council of Witness Brothers, underlines the Bruderhof’s durability. Post-merger Bruderhof women started to wear the long dresses and headscarves that they are still seen in today. Similarly, the community survived the ill health and sudden death, aged 52, of its leader — a fatal blow for other utopias. And a move to Lichtenstein and then the Cotswolds enabled the Bruderhof to transcend the rise of Nazism.

Neima credits faith as the engine of longevity, contrasting secular communities’ vulnerability to members’ criticisms, quixotic leaders, and changes in the Zeitgeist. “This was not so for the Bruderhof members who felt their communal ideals were ‘not based in human nature, but on the eternal God’. It is largely due to this faith-based conviction that, throughout history, it has often been faith based utopias that last the longest.”

Faith enabled a social experiment in a Berlin suburb, where the would-be Lutheran leader Eberhard polished the household’s shoes, and Emmy insisted that the servants eat with them, to transform into an enduring international community, complete with idealists’ indifference to food. The Sannerz culinary motto was “Ten have been invited and twenty will come. Add water to the soup and welcome them all.”

alamyWhen utopias failed to prevent a second world war, American soldiers, farmers in peacetime, visited Dartington Hall in 1944 to study agricultural methods

Dartington Hall, in Devon, was equally keen to involve the estate labourers in community decisions, and, as with the Arnolds’ embryonic Bruderhof, found the workers’ response lacklustre. Established in 1926 by the American heiress Dorothy Whitney and her second husband, the agriculturalist Leonard Elmhirst, Dartington Hall was a mirror of Santiniketan-Sriniketan in West Bengal, the community founded by the Indian nationalist and poet Rabindranath Tagore.

Elmhirst had worked as Tagore’s farming adviser and right-hand man, as the poet sought to revitalise Bengali village life. Dorothy’s fortune of $8 million (equivalent to $200 million today) funded the transformation of a roofless Totnes manor house into a school and community, modelled on a fantasy medieval village, that attracted the leading lights of the day, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Stephen Spender, and W. H. Auden.

After the Second World War, Aldous Huxley recalled Dartington as “one of the few places in the bedevilled world where one can feel almost unequivocally optimistic”.

Huxley reappears in the last of Neima’s utopias: Trabuco College, in California, founded in 1942 by Gerald Heard. Having worked for the Irish reformer Sir Horace Plunkett, and been a regular in Bloomsbury drawing-rooms, Heard’s response to two world wars was to create a community of “neo-brahmins” in the foothills of the Santa Ana mountains, who were to lead the unenlightened masses away from despotism. Huxley was a supporter, but he never joined the community.

Although Heard saw Trabuco as a synthesis of all religions, its inspiration was obvious: “A bell, nearly two feet in diameter, hung in an elaborate tower and was used to mark out the community’s daily routine . . . the centrepiece of Heard’s spiritual strategy: a round, domed, windowless meditation building called the Oratory.”

Trabuco survived for only seven years, but went on to influence the Esalen Institute, and the West Coast counter-cultural ideas that pervade to this day. By highlighting the widespread, magnetic attraction of ramshackle and often spartan utopias, Neima’s meticulously researched and measured study underscores the collective trauma of the First World War, and people’s fervent attempts never to see those horrors repeated.

Susan Gray writes about the arts and entertainment for The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times, and the Daily Mail.


The Utopians: Six attempts to build the perfect society
Anna Neima
Picador £25
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