The interwar period of the 1920s and ’30s saw an explosion all over the world of groups establishing radical utopian communities as alternatives to the capitalist and nationalist projects that had resulted in the Great War and its devastations. In her new book, Anna Neima explores six of these groups, including the Bruderhof communities founded by Eberhard and Emmy Arnold.
Neima presents a vivid picture of the early Bruderhof movement. The Arnolds’ simple appeal to living as the first Christians did – holding everything in common, resisting violence, and practicing radical hospitality – was something others found deeply alluring. This would eventually lead them to a fifteen-room house in the German village of Sannerz in 1920. The community was magnetic, representing not just a biblical ideal but a reality, and in the following year it attracted 2500 national and international visitors – Christians, Jews, socialists, pacifists, freethinkers, and others.
Community life was not without its difficulties. Besides the issue of finding enough space and food for all those visitors and new members, Neima highlights the Arnolds’ informal, faith-based approach to finances. Their expectation that God would provide what was needed when it was needed resulted in a chunk of the community’s membership splitting off. Add to this the rise of Nazism and the deep suspicion the Bruderhof’s values aroused among government officials. Ironically, it was during this time that the community experienced some of its greatest growth. Eberhard met with an early death in 1935, but Emmy would go with the community to Liechtenstein, England, Paraguay, and eventually the United States.
Neima takes some liberties with her source material, and a few inaccuracies surface in her account. Nonetheless, her extensive knowledge of utopian projects – not just in the 1920s and ’30s but in the broader history of the modern world – results in a compelling and informative narrative that situates each group in this unique historical moment.
Besides the Bruderhof movement, Neima explores Rabindranath Tagore’s communities in rural Bengal; Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst’s Dartington Hall in Devon, England; Mushanokōji Saneatsu’s Atarashiki-mura in the mountains of Kyūshū, Japan; George Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in outer Paris; and Gerald Heard’s Trabuco College in California. Throughout, Neima traces connections between the different communities, with founders and prominent members visiting and working with those covered elsewhere in the book. Common themes also emerge, such as commitment to internationalism and cooperation, rejection of materialism, the central role of arts and spirituality, willingness to experiment, and a lot of perseverance through hard work and disappointments.
The book will be valuable for those living in or seeking intentional community today who want to familiarize themselves with the shortcomings and successes of others who have gone before them. Readers more generally curious about this historical period will also find much here to speak to their imaginations.