Portrait of Annemarie Schwarzenbach with Camera, 1939 © Esther Gambaro, Nachlass Marie-Luise Bodmer-Preiswerk.

The fascinating life of Annemarie Schwarzenbach is steeped in mysteries, but in this strangeness, each of us can paradoxically find each other. Passionate about speed, elsewhere, and great outdoors, she was an insatiable traveller who was also homesick from time to time. Queer icon and lesbian, she knew how to free herself from gender codes. Both an anti-fascist activist and the daughter of a wealthy Nazi partisan family, she was at the same time a great bourgeois but a keen observer of poverty and marginality. She knew how to travel through social and ideological strata. Annemarie was a complete artist, a music lover who could have become a great pianist, an exceptional photographer who conveyed the depth of her glance through the lens. On top of this, she was a compulsive writer, a relentless letter-writer, a correspondent for many newspapers, and above all, a talented novelist. However, even if she crossed paths with many political and intellectual personalities of the interwar period, her story was unjustly forgotten. On the occasion of the anniversary of her birth, I invite you to discover the story of the Swiss writer-traveller, who fascinates with her power and fragility.

From an aristocratic background to anti-fascist rebellion

Annemarie Schwarzenbach was born on May 23, 1908 in Zurich, in German-speaking Switzerland. She grew up in a wealthy family of Zurich industrialists related to Bismarck through her mother Renée Schwarzenbach. Her imposing shadow hangs over the childhood of young Annemarie, as she grew up in the luxurious property of Bocken, a real “golden cage”[1]. Her mother has an imposing and devouring personality: She invites all of Zurich’s high society at her “court” to enjoy Wagner concerts and maintains an affair with Emmy Krüger, a famous opera singer. Annemarie received an aristocratic education: horseback riding, piano, social celebrations, nothing was left to chance. But from an early age, it was in writing that she found freedom and a way to emancipate herself from her mother’s suffocating presence.

Renée Schwarzenbach with her children: Hasi on the left, her niece Gundalena, Annemarie, Suzanne and Freddy. Mariafeld, 7 July 1921© Alexis Schwarzenbach/Metropolis.

At the age of fifteen, she was sent to a boarding school for young girls from good families, where she unleashed the passions of her young comrades despite her young age. Her androgynous beauty and haughty magnetism were already taking effect, as Annemarie asserted her homosexuality early on. From the age of twenty, she wrote to Pastor Ernst Merz, her friend and confidant: “I can tell you […] that there are only women whom I can love with real passion”.


Annemarie and a friend at Fetan Institut, 1925.

Annemarie then carried out brilliant studies in the field of history, which led her to Paris in the footsteps of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The Notes of Malte Laurids Brigge was a great inspiration for her. In the heart of winter, disenchanted by the dirty and grey city, she writes a first short story inspired by this experience of uprooting and loneliness, entitled Pariser Novelle. In 1930, she crossed paths with Erika and Klaus Mann, the “terrible children” of the winner of Nobel Prize for literature, Thomas Mann. This friendship would play a decisive role in her journey: In Erika, she would find an older sister and a role model –if not a lover– and in Klaus Mann an alter ego. Both Klaus and Annemarie are people marked by loneliness and incompatibility with the world around them. They are among those who, to use Jean Cocteau’s expression, “do not live well on this earth”. They also have in common their “sexual indeterminacy”[2] with homosexual relationships and genderless attitudes. Above all, they have the same worried and alert gaze on the “lost generation”[3] that is the youth of the interwar period. Faced with this predominant anxiety, both Annemarie and Klaus chose movement and a headlong rush. And this is how the first trips became necessary for Annemarie Schwarzenbach.

“I only live when I write”[4]: A life of traveling and writing

In 1931, immediately after receiving her PhD in history, Annemarie left for Berlin when she was 23 years old. At the same year her first story Freunde um Bernhard largely inspired by autobiographical elements was published. The Berlin of the 1930s was not yet one marked by Nazism, its bars and clubs welcomed a large homosexual community. An atmosphere of anxious joy floated over the city, and it was in this context that Annemarie discovered morphine. This devastating addiction would afflict her for four months in rehab centers, on the verge of insanity and suicide. Her beauty bore the mark of this flaw: The antithetical nickname “inconsolable angel” given to her by the poet Roger Martin du Gard, synthetized this luminous but tormented appearance.

Annemarie Schwarzenbach, 1932© Mariane Breslauer.

But the tragic history of the 20th century soon caught up with this freedom-loving young woman. In 1933, the year Hitler came to power, Annemarie suggested to Klaus Mann that they jointly found an anti-fascist review, Die Sammlung[5]. The call of the great outdoors nevertheless overpowered this editorial project: After working in Spain with the photographer Marianne Breslauer, Annemarie left for a six-month trip to the Middle East. Her crossing of Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq would lead her to Persia, from where she wrote her first travel narrative: A Winter in the Middle East. However, Annemarie Schwarzenbach is not an orientalist. During her many travels in Iran, she did not pursue any exotic dream but instead experienced roaming as a loss of oneself, at the same time as an encounter with the other, in the manner of Gérard de Nerval in his Travel to the Orient. There is indeed an important intellectual and psychic kinship between the two tormented and anachronistic romantics Nerval and Schwarzenbach. The Orient for them is not a space of conquest or fantasy, but on the contrary, a place for the projection of inner torments.

In 1934, she set sail for the Soviet world, for the occasion of the Moscow Writers’ Congress. There she met André Malraux and Louis Aragon. Annemarie did not hide her enthusiasm for the Bolshevik model, stressing in a letter to her friend Claude Bourdet the place of literature in the USSR: “Here, a man like Gorky is, with Stalin, at the center of the interest of the greatest number, he is a true national hero – and here everyone is concerned with literature”. She then continues on to Tehran, passing through Tbilisi and Baku. During this second trip, she worked as an archaeologist on the Rhages site. She also decided to get engaged with Claude Clarac, an openly gay French diplomat. This union would allow her to free herself once and for all from family tutelage and to become a resolutely free woman. When she returned to Persia for the third time in 1935 to get married, she began her most famous manuscript: Death in Persia.

Annemarie Schwarzenbach and her husband Claude Clarac © Swiss Literary Archives

But the honeymoon was short-lived, Annemarie set sail for the United States in 1936, with her partner Barbara Wright. At that time, the writer became a major reporter: She captured the misery of the industrial cities of the North and denounced the racial segregation in the South. Her texts became more combative and committed against the human misery in New Deal America. It was at this time that she defined herself in one of her letters as a “labor writer”[6], making the denunciation of poverty the central mission of her writing.

Being queer in the 1930s, or “the tragic greatness of the androgyne”[7]

Nevertheless, the hectic biography of Annemarie Schwarzenbach is, from this time, punctuated by detoxification cures and multiple wanderings. But in September 1938, a decisive encounter brought her out of her torpor: The famous Swiss writer and traveller Ella Maillart entered her life. Less than a year after their meeting, on May 6, 1939, the two women set off for Afghanistan in Annemarie’s Ford. One only needs to look at the photos from the period to realize that Annemarie was creating, in Butler’s words, a real “gender trouble” with her travel companion. Tomboy haircut, men’s shirts, pants; as she smoked her cigarette while driving through the roads of Anatolia, the Caucasus and Iran, she was easily mistaken for a boy. This trip was to come under the shadow of addiction: While Ella Maillart, very interested in spirituality, had hoped that her friend would find “the balance and health of the mind” through this trip, Annemarie immersed herself irremediably in drugs. When the two women reached Kabul at the end of August 1939, war broke out in Europe and Hitler invaded Poland. The two friends also split up at this stage: Ella Maillart would continue her journey to India, while Annemarie would return by boat to a war torn Europe. From this trip, Ella Maillart would draw her book The Cruel Way, in which the character Christina is easily recognizable as Annemarie Schwarzenbach: the one who chooses “the complicated way, the cruel way of hell”[8].

Annemarie Schwarzenbach and Ella Maillart, June 1939 © Keystone/Photopress-Archiv

In 1940, the descent into hell continued for Annemarie. As she embarked for New York with her partner Margot von Opel, psychotic crises, suicide attempts and internments followed one another. This catastrophic stay was illuminated only by meeting a very young writer who had just entered the scene with her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter – namely, Carson McCullers. The 23-year-old woman was immediately fascinated by Annemarie, in whom she recognized a soul mate that she quickly idolized. Although the two women remained bound by an intense correspondence until the end of Annemarie’s life, she would nevertheless reject the feelings of the young American author. Carson nonetheless dedicated her latest novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, to Annemarie Schwarzenbach in 1941.

The American Writer Carson McCullers, 1947 © Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum

The same year, Annemarie returned to Europe, stopping off in Lisbon, where she resumed her journalistic activity. In April, she embarked for the Belgian Congo, in order to join the resistance and in particular the Free French Forces. But in Brazzaville the presence of this aristocratic and German-speaking lonely young woman disturbed the small colonial community, which soon suspected her of being a spy for Nazi Germany. Her involvement in the resistance was short-lived, but never mind, Annemarie decided to travel up the Congo River. Arriving in Molanda, she met Madame Vivien, a wealthy planter, with whom she would undertake a journey to the borders of Uganda and Rwanda, before passing through Sudan. This immersion in what was then called French Equatorial Africa (AEF) inspired her to write a cycle of poetry, Tétouan (Kongo-Ufer / Aus Tetouan), as well as a novel, Das Wunder des Baums.

Madame Vivien in Congo, photo by Annemarie Schwarzenbach, 1941 © Swiss National Library.

In 1942, with her manuscripts under her arm, Annemarie left for Lisbon before joining her husband stationed in Tétouan. She had been amazed by this trip and was fully expecting to return to Morocco by the fall. But on September 6, 1942, at the age of 34, Annemarie fell from a bicycle to her death. The devastated angel died from her wounds a few weeks later in Switzerland. When she died, her mother and grandmother burned most of her manuscripts and correspondence: Hundreds of letters from Klaus and Erika Mann, Ella Maillart and Carson McCullers went up in smoke. Most of her manuscripts, inherited from her friend Anita Forrer, are forgotten. Her works would not be published until the 1980s, and despite this late rediscovery, the life of the writer-traveller remains totally forgotten.

This amnesia is symptomatic of an androcentric history and literary canon that excludes female writers from its corpus, especially if they present a queer and lesbian identity as in the case of Annemarie Schwarzenbach. Her career, however, reminds us that homosexuality could be experienced relatively freely and was accepted in intellectual circles between the two wars. It also reminds us that non-binary and transgender identities did not originate in the 21st century but have existed in many forms throughout history. Thus, from a feminist perspective, the rediscovery of Annemarie Schwarzenbach is not neutral; it makes visible the journey of a queer woman in the interwar period and recalls the elements of this culture: the transvestite shows, the homosexual relations lived more or less openly, the fascination and the ease surrounding her dressing as a man… Annemarie is a true queer icon who deserves to be better known, even rediscovered by the LGBTQ+ community.

Annemarie Schwarzenbach and Erika Mann in Paris, 1930.

Thus, Annemarie Schwarzenbach is a figure who is both familiar and foreign, whose destiny caught up in the tumults of the history of the first half of the 20th century never fails to fascinate us. The inconsolable angel is a radiant epicenter from which to explore aesthetic and political considerations to propose a non-androcentric historical and artistic canon.

[1] Dominique-Laure Miermont, Annemarie Schwarzenbach ou le mal d’Europe, Petite bibliothèque Payot, p.19.

[2] Dominique-Laure Miermont, Annemarie Schwarzenbach ou le mal d’Europe, Petite bibliothèque Payot, p. 76

[3] The expression is from the writer Gertrude Stein.

[4] Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Journal from Kabul, 1939.

[5] Which means “the gathering” in English.

[6] Letter to Arnold Klüber, 4 February 1938.

[7] The expression is from Ella Maillart, The Cruel Way, 1947.

[8] Ella Maillart, The Cruel Way, 1947.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here