CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Slavic Messianism in Southeast Europe: Petăr Dănov and the White Brotherhood

by Thomas Heinzel
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2010 conference in Torino.© Thomas Heinzel, 2010. Please do not quote or reproduce without the consent of the author

My PhD project at the University of Erfurt, Germany, is a comparative analysis of new religious movements in Bulgaria and Greece in the interwar period (1920s and 30s). In my presentation I am going to highlight the Bulgarian part of my project, namely Petăr Dănov and his White Brotherhood movement. After a brief overview of Dănov’s biography and the history of the White Brotherhood I am going to focus on Dănov’s messianic prophecies which are a good example of the adoption and modification of Western Esoteric concepts in the cultural context of a Southeast European country. My goal is to shed light on the influences that contributed to this messianism and to show how an image of Bulgaria’s national identity is construed along the lines of alternative religious ideas.

1. Biographical and Historical Overview

Petăr Konstantinov Dănov was born in 1864 near the port city of Varna. He attended a school of American Methodists in Bulgaria and received a scholarship to study Methodist theology in the United States. During his seven-year study period on the east coast he obviously got to know Western Esotericism in general and the American metaphysical tradition in particular. In 1897 he founded, together with some supporters, the “Society for the uplifting of the religious spirit of the Bulgarian people " which was renamed as "Synarchic Chain" a couple of years later. The name implies that it was actually a network of spiritists from different regions of Bulgaria. In the circles of this "chain" Dănov acted on the one hand as a medium for spirits, angels and even Christ, on the other hand as a spiritual teacher and adviser of his followers. In addition to these activities he published articles in journals and travelled throughout the country enlarging his network and giving lectures on heterodox scientific practices.

During the First World War Dănov’s movement saw a structural change: In contrast to the meetings of the “Synarchic Chain” that had taken place in private houses following Dănov’s personal invitation by letter, he extended his public presence as a spiritual teacher and prophet from 1914 on when he proclaimed the dawn of a new age. He criticized Bulgaria’s participation in the war and had more and more people seeking his advice and counselling. The disastrous political, economic and social situation after the war lead to a growing interest in Dănov’s message of the coming of a new era of love and harmony, especially young people looking for a new spiritual orientation turned to the "Teacher",  as he was called. In 1918 the movement was finally renamed as “Universal White Brotherhood” or simply “White Brotherhood”.

In the twenties the “Izgrev”-commune was built up in the periphery of Sofia as the centre of the White Brotherhood including barracks for housing, a central building with lecture hall, a community kitchen as well as an orchard and a vegetable garden for self-supply. In the interwar period the Brotherhood was present in all parts of Bulgaria. Members of the intelligentsia (scholars, university students, teachers, doctors, artists etc.) formed the hard core of its adherents. Most of them attended Dănov’s so-called “Occult Classes” that took place in Sofia every week from 1922 on or received copies of the lectures that were given there.

Intending to introduce an inclusive ritual element into the life of the Brotherhood, Dănov created Paneurhythmy, a mix of free dance and gymnastics performed to music composed by himself. In Paneurhythmy figures from Rudolf Steiner’s Eurythmy are combined with elements of Bulgarian folk dance. According to Dănov, Paneurhythmy is a "science” that establishes harmony between man and universe.

Dănov’s ideas also made their way to foreign countries: Small Brotherhood groups emerged for instance in the Baltic countries, in Poland and in France. A special case is that of Dănov’s disciple who went to France in 1937 and built up his own White Brotherhood there: Mikhail Ivanov or, as he called himself, Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov. He imitated Dănov’s lecture style and looks and acted as a spiritual master himself. His “Fraternité Blanche Universelle” is present in several countries today and has always been fully independent from the Bulgarian Brotherhood.

A few months after the Red Army’s invasion in Bulgaria in 1944 Dănov died at the age of 80. Throughout the following years communist authorities denied the Brotherhood the status of a legal person. Even though no systematic persecutions took place, its members were isolated, marginalized and neutralized in Bulgarian society. After 1990 the movement was officially recognized; interest in Dănov’s teachings grew significantly under the new conditions of religious freedom and pluralism. Today the White Brotherhood is an informal religious network based on admiration for Dănov and the common practice of Paneurhythmy. Its activities (publishing books and magazines, arranging concerts, lectures, study groups etc.)  are coordinated by a steering committee and several working committees.

2. Dănov’s Slavic Messianism

"The Slavs have an important mission. Never before has there been such a huge mass of 200 million people gathered for one mission. The Slavs will be the forge of the new culture. (...) The Slavic race will be the living centre of the new culture (...) but then comes the Sixth Race."

This statement from Dănov is a good summary of his messianic vision that I would like to describe in detail now.

As the name White Brotherhood indicates, Dănov’s movement is a new religious phenomenon under strong influence of theosophical ideas. Dănov shares the belief in the existence of a hierarchy of illuminated beings – the “White Lodge” or "White Brotherhood” – that advances the evolution of mankind by sending messengers into the world who teach the ancient divine wisdom. In Dănov’s concept Christ is the "head of the ‘White Brotherhood’”, the cosmic principle of love which unites everything in the universe to a living organism. The role of the “White Brotherhood” is to promote awareness of this universal unity and to advance the realization of love in the life of mankind. In reference to Helena Blavatsky Dănov contrasts this “Brotherhood of Light” with the “Black Lodge” that follows evil ways and obstructs the evolution of mankind. This conception adds a dualistic element to the overall holistic framework of Dănov’s teachings and enables the Bulgarian master to ascribe opposition to his movement to the work of the "Black Brotherhood".

While Dănov in the beginning phase of his movement acted rather as medium and mouthpiece of Christ, he started identifying himself more and more with this entity around 1912. This development probably has its roots in the alleged coming of the “World Teacher” or “Buddha-Maitreya” that had been announced by the Theosophical Society Adyar since 1910. Dănov was never a member of the Theosophical Society but he was definitely familiar with all the relevant literature; many people who joined him after the First World War had even completed courses offered by the Theosophical Society in Bulgaria and projected their hope for a renewal of the world in love and harmony on the Bulgarian “Teacher” Dănov. Not only did the latter see himself as a divine messenger, but also the circle of his followers: Dănov explicates that they were reincarnated sages and initiates, members of the White Lodge who had taught the divine wisdom in ancient Egypt, India, Persia and Greece. In the 20th century they are present in Bulgaria to constitute a core of fraternity that sends waves of love to the world in order to awaken and unite mankind.

In his view of history Dănov largely follows the theosophical scheme of "Root Races": Humanity has reached the last phase of the Aryan age (the Fifth Race) which is dominated by the West and marked by the ultimate descent of spirit into matter. The First World War and the ensuing socio-political crisis represent, according to Dănov, the "birth pangs" of a new era, the culture of the Sixth Race, a culture of love and harmony that will see the emergence of a physically and spiritually upgraded humanity. Precondition for the coming of this age is the implementation of love among humanity in accordance with the principles of "Living Nature" – the visible body of God. In some of his lectures the Teacher also mentioned the transition from the astrological age of Pisces to Aquarius as the cosmic event marking the beginning of the new era. While most Theosophists at that time regarded the United States as the cradle of the Sixth Race, Dănov ascribed this role to the Slavic peoples; he called them the “mother that will bear the Kingdom of God on earth”.

We find a vision of Slavic chosenness already in 1898 in a sermon given by Dănov to the members of a charitable organization in Varna. In this early, spiritistic phase of his career he acts as the medium of the archangel that guides and protects Bulgaria and all Slavdom:

Bulgarian sons of the Slavic family, listen to the words of heaven! (...) A glorious future awaits you that will not come to destroy and annihilate Life but to restore it in its complete fullness. (...) The Lord was looking for a home and he chose the Slavic family that heaven loves for its divine virtue. (…) I come to strengthen the Slavic family that will prevail over all enemies and opponents that obstruct it on the way of its noble mission (…) I am Elohil, angel of the Lord´s Testament.”

The reason for this chosenness lies, as Dănov explains, in the fact that the Slavs show a deep religious sentiment, a sense of fraternity and readiness for altruistic self-sacrifice that distinguishes them from most other peoples. The Teacher characterizes Slavic religiosity in general as altruistic, universalistic and non-fanatical. In his opinion Slavdom is supposed to give the idea of fraternity to mankind in order to pave the way for the Sixth Race. Although Dănov did not ignore the discord that existed between some of the Slavic nations – Bulgaria for example fought three wars against its Serbian neighbours between 1878 and 1918 – he always kept up his optimistic vision of the future saying that the Slavs would bear a culture of fraternity, equality and freedom that all people in the world could drawn on.

In Dănov’s conception the Slavs are predestined to act – due to their geographical location – as mediators between East and West and to harmonize the different cultures just like a bridge between Europe and Asia. The sheer size of the Slavic territories appears like a sign of chosenness to the Bulgarian master. He actually follows early 19th century romantic discourses by presupposing an organic unity of all Slavs that transcends national borders:

„You can tell that the Slavs are of great importance by regarding the vast land mass that God has given to them – 21 Mio. km² protected in the North by a natural border – the Arctic Ocean.”

He emphasizes, however, that he does not want to put the case for militant chauvinism:

This is neither Nazism nor chauvinism because the mission of Slavdom is not racial but universal.”

Dănov compared the mission of the Slavs to that of the People of Israel, interpreting theosophically the traditional Christian stereotype of the "stubborn Jews” that did not recognize the Saviour: the Jews rejected the message of Jesus, the envoy of the White Brotherhood and paid for this with the effects of negative karma – something that could not happen to the Slavs, says Dănov:

"The Slavs are the New Israel. The New Israel will – unlike the Jews – accomplish its mission. (…) it will not fail like the Jews. (...) Just like the River Jordan flows into the Dead Sea, so the River Volga flows into the Caspian Sea.”

The Teacher believed that the deep religious sentiment typical for Slavdom was particularly well developed among the Russians. He admired Russian culture; according to his former disciples his private library contained all the classics of Russian literature: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Pushkin, etc. Tolstoy was of particular importance to him – Dănov called the Russian writer "voice of the living God" that preached true Christianity.  The Russians did not listen to him and had to pay for this with the atrocities following the October Revolution. Dănov and his adherents represent a part of the big picture of Tolstoyan influence in Bulgaria: religious anarchism, radical vegetarianism, the establishment of communes – all of these are Tolstoyan ideas implemented to some degree in the context of the White Brotherhood movement. There is of course another important figure of Russian origin that influenced Dănov: Helena Blavatsky. He saw her as a perfect example of Slavic spirituality and interpreted her impact in Europe and America as a sign of the Slavic mission. Furthermore, he found his messianic concept supported by Russian emigrants who fled the communist revolution and sought refuge in the West:

"It is not an accident that Russian emigrants have spread everywhere in Europe - that was necessary. The Russian spirit, Russian music, literature, art, philosophy, the Russian soul penetrates Western culture and inseminates it, just like the Russians have taken something from the West, there is a spiritual exchange."

Dănov’s attitude towards the Russian Revolution was ambivalent. In one of his lectures he expressed “fear of the Bolsheviks” and repudiated their violent measures. Elsewhere, however, he described the Revolution as a necessary step to overcome obsolete social structures in order to prepare Russia for its future mission. He explained the suffering of the Russians metaphysically:

"The convulsions the Russians are going through are an expression of karma accumulated during thousands of years. The nobility, the clergy, the entire Russian people needs to be cleansed so that the divine consciousness can awake in it.”

Due to his anti-clerical tendency and his vision of international fraternisation and social equality Dănov shared some ideas promoted also by Marxists. His opponents in ultranationalist and Orthodox Christian circles therefore called him an unpatriotic communist.

Despite his admiration for Russian culture Dănov did not see Russia but his own country Bulgaria as the spearhead of the Slavic mission. Though he conceded that his fellow countrymen had a relatively weak religious sentiment (it was not an accident that he founded the “Society for the uplifting of the religious spirit of the Bulgarian people" in 1897), he emphasized that Bulgaria had already given “light” to the world in form of the so-called Bogumils, a Gnostic, anti-clerical and anti-feudalistic movement spread throughout the Balkans in the Middle Ages. The Teacher pointed out that those Bogumils possessed "occult knowledge" and that their mission was to renew the original message of Jesus that was distorted by the church. Through the Cathars and Albigenses their spiritual impulse reached Western Europe and contributed to the emergence of Humanism and the Reformation. In Bulgaria itself, however, the Bogumils were met with rejection which – says Dănov – imposed negative karma on the Bulgarians who for that reason fell under the Turkish yoke for 500 years. Dănov referred to his White Brotherhood movement as "new Bogumils" representing the spearhead of a world-changing divine impulse conveyed to humanity by the Slavs:

The golden age began in Bulgaria when the White Brotherhood started working in this country. The Bogumils spread from Bulgaria to the West. And now this movement will spread from Bulgaria to the other Slavic peoples and in all directions.”

According to Dănov, the majority of the Slavs are still in their “Iron Age”, that is why they go through so much suffering. Only Bulgaria is in its "Golden Age" (that will last until the end of the 20th century) and therefore called up to help the other Slavic peoples. Just like spirituality will flourish in modern Bulgaria under the influence of the White Brotherhood, so will the positive features of the Bulgarian character that the Teacher outlines as follows:

“The Bulgarian is an internationalist and loves equality. (…) The most important thing is that he is generous: he collects things in order to have something to give. (…) The Bulgarian is steadfast, he has conscience, morality, a sense of justice, there are good dispositions (...).

According to official academic science the first Bulgarian rulers in the Middle Ages were members of a Turkic horse people (the so-called Proto-Bulgars) that settled in Slavic territories and also intermingled with the Slavs. Dănov mentions that fact by saying that the Bulgarians were a mixture of different peoples in which, however, the Slavic blood was dominant. He ascribes different aspects of the Bulgarian character to the respective influences of Proto-Bulgarians and Slavs, saying for instance that readiness for altruistic self-sacrifice was part of the Slavic heritage while the courage of the Bulgarians could be traced back to the bold horse people. Dănov also refers to the Thracians, a tribe that settled in the territory of Bulgaria in ancient times:

There were blessed people in Bulgaria before the settlement of the Slavs and Asparukh´s tribe (the Proto-Bulgars). The modern Bulgarian is formed of those blessed people that sought for spirituality and mysticism.“                 

With the help of this conception Dănov draws a line of continuity from antiquity to his own spiritual and mystical aspirations and those of his followers. Bulgaria’s role as Slavic spearhead receives additional legitimacy on the basis of this construed historical heritage that actually transcends Slavdom. The White Brothers and Sisters saw themselves as envoys sent to raise the level of religiosity in Bulgaria and to infuse the world with divine love. The outbreak of the Second World War came as a surprise to them because the First World War was, according to Dănov’s teachings, supposed to mark the end of the “dark age” in the first place. Dănov adapted to this situation by describing the events of the second historical catastrophe as a clear and definitive sign of the coming of the new era. He criticized Bulgaria’s involvement in the war and saw the Allied bombings of the capital Sofia as negative karmic effects caused by the reluctance of the majority of his fellow countrymen to accept his teachings and by the resentment shown towards the Brotherhood in Bulgarian society.

Dănov prophesied that 144.000 “Ascended Masters” or “Adepts” would incarnate world-wide throughout the 20th century to bring on the culture of the Sixth Race. 8000 of them were to manifest within Slavdom. Around the year 2000 Russia would “open up”, enter its golden age and finally fulfill the Slavic mission.  

Let us now take a closer look at the historico-cultural context in which Dănov formulated his Slavic messianism. A fundamental Bulgarian sympathy with Russia can be traced back to the early history of the modern Bulgarian state: The Russo-Turkish war of 1877–78 brought Bulgaria’s independence from Ottoman rule, the Russians had been revered ever since as liberators and protective sister nation. Russian experts helped building up the administrative structures of the independent Principality of Bulgaria; Tsarist Russia exercised significant social and political influence during the first years of the new nation. Although Bulgaria over time turned away from Russia in terms of foreign policy and orientated itself towards Central Europe, a feeling of gratitude and solidarity for Russia has always been preserved in the Bulgarian population. Besides that, several Pan-Slavic cultural societies and charitable organizations emerged in Bulgaria since the end of the 19th century bringing together natives with people from other Slavic countries. Their goal was to consolidate a common Slavic consciousness and to give financial support to Slavs in need. Many of them even hoped for the political unity of Slavdom. Dănov was never a member of such an organization; it is possible, however, that some of his followers were involved in such activities even though I have not found any evidence yet. A reason for the White Brothers not to join these societies would have been the Slavic chauvinism that was promoted in some of them – Dănov believed in a mission of the Slavs but he emphasized the supranational universality of this mission. In his view all mankind is supposed to fraternize, chauvinism is to be overcome with the further spiritual evolution and unification of mankind. It must be made clear at this point that Dănov’s attitude was rather apolitical. The Teacher even criticized some of his disciples for their political commitment since he believed that an excessive involvement in such worldly affairs would impede their individual spiritual development. His messianic ideas can be described as a deeply religious, prophetic vision based on patriotism and Pan-Slavic sympathies but not as a political agenda.

More than on the aforementioned pro-Russian and Pan-Slavic currents Dănov drew on the fundus of messianic and universalistic ideas that can be found in the works of some of the most renowned Slavic writers and scholars of the 19th century. Dostoyevsky for instance proclaimed Russia’s Pan-Slavic mission to lead humanity to salvation. In his opinion a strong Russia would be able to bring love, fraternity and “eternal peace” to the world. Similarities to Dănov’s ideas are striking, although the Bulgarian master seems to ignore the militant Russian nationalist framework of Dostoyevsky’s statement.

Another very important inspiration for Dănov’s conception of Slavic chosenness is 19th century Polish messianism. The Polish poet and national hero Adam Mickiewicz for example had the vision of a mission of the Slavs – especially the Polish – to bring fraternity to the European nations under the auspices of Christianity. According to Mickiewicz the Slavs are not as materialistic as the Western peoples but are capable of self-sacrifice and devotion to the “spiritual world”. Mickiewicz was interested in mysticism and esotericism which made him a suitable role-model for Dănov.

Enthusiasm for Eastern spirituality and mysticism in late 19th and early 20th century Europe was not only directed at India, Tibet or China but also at Russia. The works of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy or Turgenyev were regarded as examples of the depth of the “Russian Soul”. News of Russian healers, miracle workers, occultists, mystics and symbolists reached the European capitals. An influential Western admirer of Russia and the Slavs was Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy. He saw the Slavic culture as the sixth sub-culture of the Aryan age and – like Dănov – starting point of the Sixth Root Race. Steiner’s influence on Dănov is significant, given that the Teacher himself and many of his followers were demonstrably familiar with Steiner’s works, as can be seen for example from the Paneurhythmy-ritual.  In addition, Dănov’s and Steiner’s teachings were pretty close in terms of their "Esoteric Christianity" and their idiosyncratic versions of Theosophy. It is no surprise that Dănov is supposed to have said about Steiner that the latter did not look like a real German but had Slavic blood flowing inside him and showed features of the Slavic psyche and sensibility.

Dănovs complex of Pan-Slavic and Neo-Bogumil ideas has its roots in the debate on national identity which took place in Bulgaria at the end of the nineteenth and in the first half of the twentieth century. Basically, the central questions in that debate were: How European is Bulgaria? Should it stick rather to Western Europe or to Russia? What is its ethnic identity? What is the influence of Orthodox Christianity and the Bogumil heritage? In this context Dănov takes up a position on which he emphasizes the peculiarity of the Bulgarian identity against a one-sided, uncritical Western orientation:  In reference to the “culture of the White Race” that dominates the Aryan era he speaks of a "culture of violence" that the Bulgarians and the Slavs in general should not imitate. At the same time he does not – despite his admiration for Russian culture – see Russia as the spearhead of the Slavic mission, but his own country and points to Bulgaria’s autonomous world-historical contribution in form of the Bogumils. This position is at least partially an expression of Dănov’s Methodist background:  A line of historical continuity from the Apostles to the Paulicians, Bogumils, Cathars and finally to the Reformation was drawn by important theologians of that denomination including John Wesley, one of its founding fathers. Dănov probably adopted this reading that provided a basis on which he could imagine Bulgaria as part of a chain of mediation of the original Christian message – without the Bulgarian contribution Humanism and Reformation could not have emerged. The Teacher and his followers saw this contribution as a source from which the Bulgarians could gain self-confidence. The White Brotherhood claimed to be the successor movement of the Bogumils and postulated a renewed role of Bulgaria in the establishment of “true Christianity”, of a world-wide “culture of love”.