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Annemarie Schwarzenbach, the inconsolable angel

In 2004, in the introduction to the biography she devoted to Annemarie Schwarzenbach,

Dominique Laure Miermont underlined the mystery emanating from the photographic portraits of the young woman born in 1908 in Zurich and died in 1942, at the age of 34. 

After meeting her briefly in June 1933, the poet and writer Catherine Pozzi wrote about her in this way.  : "What grace in this serious face. But she has a worried look, as if solicited by invisible sorrows. (...) We have a curious feeling of instability with her. She gives you the evil of Europe" . 

In 2018 for the show "Une vie une oeuvre", Vinciane Moeschler and Ghislaine David recounted the journey of this woman whom Thomas Mann, the father of his two great friends Erika and Klaus Mann, had nicknamed "  the devastated angel  ". 

Journalist, photographer, writer, from a family of wealthy industrialists in Zurich with whom she broke radically, Annemarie Schwarzenbach fled this environment to travel, photograph and  tell the world, from Russia to Persia, from the United States to the Middle East. A journey marked by friendly and amorous passions, morphine addiction, and the relentless fight against Nazism. 


"Minimal is the border between the inhuman and the superhuman, and what is superhuman is the desperate greatness of Asia" 


"Beautiful face of an inconsolable angel" wrote Roger Martin du Gard.

But it is also something quite different when we talk about Annemarie Schwarzenbach, namely a painful destiny, a vocation to love which was exalted in suffering, dreams and travels. How then not to be overwhelmed by this life, by this quest which failed at the very threshold of the place of his second birth! 

"Every evening, I take my leave ... and in the morning I am close to the unknown. Past, no more adventures, but I still have a thousand realities to undergo. I leap forward and throw myself against them; I love, and I don't forget anything. Behind me, cedars, olive groves, songs, columns, sails, tents. And those horse-hoof prints left by the peoples on the march.  distant! Ah! the distant! Like a cowardly horse, my impatience risks a deviation to the right, to the left, and always rushes forward. How much sleepless nights cost me before reaching them! ... The roads go away, veiled like milky ways. The cold, the hunger, the thirst ... I got what I wanted, and no place to lay my head. And not a helping hand! "

"All the paths that I have followed, all the paths from which I have turned away, have ended here, in this" Happy Valley "from which there is no way out, and which, for this reason, must to be already like a place of death "(July 1935).

Annemarie Schwarzenbach and the Orient  : interview with Dominique Laure Miermont and Nicole Le Bris

Life and Personality

DLM  : Annemarie Schwarzenbach (AS) was born in Zurich in 1908, in a family of the Swiss upper middle class. A brilliant student, she passed the exam of "  maturity  "In 1927, studied history and obtained the title of"  Dr.phil.  ”(Equivalent of the current magister) in 1931.
Devoting herself to writing from then on, she moved to Berlin for a while (1931-33). In the wake of Klaus and Erika Mann, with whom she befriended from 1930, she took a stand against National Socialism and initiated the anti-fascist review Die Sammlung (“The Rally”).
In addition, in 1930 she began a career as a journalist and, from 1933, became a reporter-photographer, which led her to various European countries, the Near and Middle East, North America and Africa (Congo, Morocco). Much appreciated by editorial staff, in ten years she published nearly 300 articles in the Swiss press. The funds bearing his name in the Bern archives number approximately 5
  000 negatives and original prints.
On a personal level, AS was a tormented being, in the grip of an illness that she tried to curb by the consumption of various drugs (alcohol, tobacco, morphine products) which her body could not resist for more than ten years. She died in 1942, at the age of 34, following a fall from a bicycle, most likely caused by an advanced state of physical and mental decay.
AS has taken a look at the world imbued with humanity and humanism. She had a keen awareness of the tragedy of the human condition, an intimate knowledge of the ambiguity of things in this world, an infallible perception of the pernicious mechanisms of ideologies. Her ideals of peace, individual freedom and justice made her very close to the underprivileged and the neglected of all countries. She was gifted with an empathy for her "
  human brothers  Which is expressed through writing and photography. She was also a woman animated by an authentic subversive courage, at the antipodes of its weaknesses.
In addition to seven books published during his lifetime, AS wrote many other works, a part of which has been published since his “
  Renaissance  »In 1987. His work is considerable and protean  : novels, tourist guides, news, travel journals, letters, biography, play, poems, as well as many unclassifiable texts.


DLM  : We can assume that, because of her history studies, she was in contact with archaeologists. What is certain is that in June / July 1933 he was offered to join a group whose project was to leave for six months to visit a dozen excavation fields located between Turkey and Persia.

NLB  : Archeology appears as a complement and an extension of her training as a historian. But reading his letters, what determines his departure is a set of reasons, the first of which are psychological and moral. She is in search of moral health. His relationship with his family is difficult -  and this more and more, as radically opposed positions take hold, pro-Hitler in her family, resolutely anti-Nazi in her. At 25, she must shake off her dependence on her family, prove to her that she is not "  unable  " and "  dilettante  ". She will profit, she thinks, from a job "  concrete  " and "  objective 1  »(As opposed, no doubt, to the literary works to which her predilection has hitherto gone, works which kept her in too exclusive contact with her subjectivity). It will also be beneficial for her to move away from her friends -  Erika and Klaus Mann in particular  - to which she feels linked by an excessive emotional dependence.
Other reasons have played a powerful role, which are intellectual and ultimately political. Annemarie has been attentive to how, since the 1920s, the ancient roots of Western civilization have been used extensively for ideological purposes. She read (in 1930) the work of Maurasian Henri Massis, Defense of the West (1927) 2 , or Le Déclin de l'Occident by Oswald Spengler (1922) 3 . Now that Nazism was on the rise, in 1933-34 she felt the need to escape, the better to fight it, from its paralyzing grip 4 . The forms of engagement that are proposed in Europe do not satisfy her. The one she chooses is double
  : found with Klaus Mann the anti-fascist review that we said and, paradoxically, go to the East to do archaeological excavations  : she will be able, as she wrote to Klaus Mann 5 , by measuring skulls, "  prove the absurdity of those idiots of German racists  », That is to say the absurdity of the theories on the superiority of the Aryan race ...

Archeology training

DLM  : Before leaving, she read a number of specialist books. And already in 1932, planning a trip to Persia, which was aborted at the last moment, she had studied the Asian collections of the museums in Berlin. During this six-month stay -  between October 1933 and April 1934 -, it is on the Syrian construction site of Reyhanli (halfway between Antakya and Aleppo), directed by the American mission of the University of Chicago, that she is initiated during more than a month in the basics of archeology. Then she visits many sites on the soil of ancient Mesopotamia.  : Ctesiphon, Tello, Uruk, Qal'at Sukkar. In Babylon, Ur and Khafadjé, it is respectively the famous professors Jordan, Woolley and Frankfort who welcome it. In Iran, after Susa, AS visited the Rayy (former Rhagès) site, near Tehran. Professor Erich Schmidt, who is its director on behalf of the University Museum in Philadelphia and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, then suggests that he return in October of that same year 1934 to participate in the excavations -  which she immediately accepts. Finally, this journey ends at the site of Persepolis where she meets Friedrich Krefter, the famous archaeologist whose extraordinarily precise sketches and plans of the former Achaemenid capital made it possible in 2006 to reconstruct the site in three dimensions. And it is he himself who photographs AS on the excavation field.

NLB  : His experience as an archaeologist is found through allusions in the short stories of Orient Exils, but it is mainly reflected in two of his works  : his travel story Winter in the Middle East (published in 1934), and the novel La Vallée Heureuse (started in October 1938 and published in 1940), whose hero is precisely an archaeologist. This last text allows us to imagine the way in which she lived her excavation campaigns. An indication catches the eye  : the character evokes the few books he has chosen to take with him  : "  A large volume, Cambridge Ancient History  ; a little book with a red cover, Pottery of the Near East, published by the British Museum  ; Diotima's letters to Hölderlin, The Resurrection of the Dead Cities by Marcel Brion and an English novel that I have not read 6 .  The two volumes of Brion's book were published between December 1937 and May 1938, and therefore could not serve as a mentor to the apprentice archaeologist that AS was, but she must have encountered there afterwards a vision of the past. and the archaeological discovery that corresponded to his. And in fact it is easy to see in Brion's work what echoed his way of feeling  : some epic and lyrical evocations of the great disasters that befall humanity  ; the emotion in front of a science which makes alive, current and present the tragedy of the past  ; and which gives the feeling of a unity of the human adventure, by re-establishing the link between the man of today and the man of the most remote times  ; or again this vision of the march of history as a perpetual movement, a journey of civilizations, producer of infinitely fruitful encounters -  Marcel Brion and Annemarie Schwarzenbach were both great travelers.
In total, AS has undeniably invested a lot in his experience as an archaeologist (figure
  2). She prepared for it at length in Berlin, she learned Arabic and Persian. His letters or his stories reveal the passion that a new hypothesis can inspire in him on a site.  ; the emotion she feels in being in the very places where writing was invented, in rediscovering the space of origins, in "  descend to the deepest spring 7  "  ; and the intensity of its encounter with certain monuments, which engages the very idea it has of humanity.

Having said that, she was only an archaeologist for a short time, and always, she reproaches herself, too much "  dilettante  ". The main thing has always been for her to write  ; she continued, moreover, during the excavations of 1933, to write reports and to work on her travel journal. And she says through the voice of the hero of La Vallée Heureuse the impossibility for her to have a permanent job, to develop roots, and the invincible need to always start again.

Archeology and taste for travel

DLM  : We have seen why AS made its first two stays in the Middle East. There was then, in 1935, a third stay in Persia, motivated by his marriage with the French diplomat Claude Achille Clarac, second secretary to the legation of France in Tehran. Finally, between June and August 1939, AS made by car, and in the company of Ella Maillart 9 , the Geneva-Kabul trip. After a year spent in repeated detoxification treatments, what motivates this trip is above all the pressing need to find an activity that takes her away from herself. Thanks to Ella Maillart who knows Joseph and Ria Hackin 10 well , she has the opportunity to work for Dafa (French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan). This is how she will visit the excavations of Bagram and will work for some time on the site of Konduz (Afghan Turkestan) (figure  3).
Between 1936 and 1938, AS also made two trips to the USA to investigate Great Depression America, first in the Pittsburgh mining region (West Virginia and Pennsylvania), then in the southern states (Tennessee, Alabama). , Georgia, Caroline, Ohio). A fierce follower of Roosevelt's New Deal, she has produced numerous reports in which she expresses her solidarity with the nascent trade union movement and is indignant at the inhuman living conditions to which sharecroppers and workers in spinning mills are reduced.
His last great trip was to the Congo in 1941-42. She left there in order to join the Free French Forces and to work as a war correspondent. This project failed, because her friendship with Klaus and Erika Mann, fighting against Hitler, and her quality as the wife of a diplomat still attached to the Vichy government 11 , made her suspect in the eyes of the local authorities. But she spent ten months there exploring several regions, and especially writing.

  • 12 The Happy Valley, p.  74.

NLB  : As we can see, at the origin of these trips appears, almost every time, a professional reason, or a desire for commitment. But beyond these circumstantial reasons, and undoubtedly in a much more decisive way, there is the need to leave within itself, the fascination for the distant. This is what texts such as La Vallée Heureuse and Les Quarante Colonnes du Souvenir (The Forty Columns of Memory) say abundantly.
That said, AS is not exactly the "
  travel writer  »That we often see in her, undoubtedly by comparison with Ella Maillart, or with Nicolas Bouvier who took the same routes, or simply because we stop at his work as a reporter. She does not have the taste for adventure for herself, nor the sporting taste for the feat or the ordeal to overcome. She has little ethnographic curiosity, and declares it clearly through the voice of the hero of La Vallée Heureuse.  : "  I do not travel to discover new virtues and other manners 12 .  »The various ways of living of men interest him less than their community of destiny. And his purpose is not to write to tell the story of a journey or the astonishment it brings.

If she writes, it is as a last resort above all to share with her readers a deeper and more mysterious experience of a spiritual nature. I say mysterious because she herself often declares that she does not understand exactly what she calls "  the curse of flight  "  ; as if traveling meant giving in to an obscure temptation. A blameworthy temptation too  : like other writers and artists of this time, she often returns to the parable of the Prodigal Son, with which she must identify somewhat, with the dose of guilt that this entails. It is only little by little, over time, that she becomes convinced of the validity of her vocation as a traveler. It then appears to her that throughout her travels, it is a vision of the human condition that she attempts, that she has a mission, to acquire and to express. And the journey itself, as she experiences it, represents the tragedy of this condition, because it appears in the last analysis as the quest, always disappointed and never renounced, for a lost plenitude.  : Where is the land of promises  ?, such is the speaking title which one could give to a collection of its articles. The family of thought to which AS belongs, much more than that of the traveling writers, is that of the romantic poets, of Hölderlin and Rilke.

Works by Annemarie Schwarzenbach published in French translation.

Tragic heroine of  "  The Cruel Way  ",
Annemarie Schwarzenbach did not stop at accompanying Ella Maillart in Afghanistan.
She will also take the pen. His writing is precise and of rare authenticity. 


1938-1940 The Happy Valley
(Das glückliche Tal)

During the summer of 1935, when she was going through an acute moral crisis, Annemarie Schwarzenbach stayed with English friends in a tent camp set up in the upper valley of the Lahr not far from Tehran. It was this sojourn that, four years later, inspired her to The Happy Valley, a story she lent to a male narrator. The discovery of a grandiose but inhospitable region, loneliness, the break with bourgeois society, the search for one's own identity, love, death, the fascination with drugs - these are the main themes of this moving text.

AMS et Ella Maillart

Annemarie Schwarzenbach (left) and Ella Maillart in their Ford Deluxe, a few weeks before their departure for Afghanistan, June 1939.


1939, Ella Maillard leaves in a Ford, from Geneva to Kabul, with Annemarie Schwarzenbach (named Christina in the account she writes of the trip under the title La Voie cruelle) Annemarie is under the influence of drugs, Ella tries to l 'release it.

Afghanistan, 1939 © Anne-Marie Schwarzenbach

In 1997,  Florence Heiniger invites the director Anne Bisang and the author Yvette Z'Graggen to the Faxculture set to evoke the figure of Annemarie Schwarzenbach.

Annemarie Schwarzenbach - A Rebel Switzerland (2000)

Jaquette du film : Une Suisse Rebelle

Based on unpublished archives and co-produced with TSR and ARTE, Carole Bonstein's film retraces the atypical and eventful journey of this Swiss writer, journalist and photographer.

Become a key figure in the Swiss cultural landscape, Annemarie Schwarzenbach today embodies a model of courage, lucidity and revolt.

Her fight against Nazism and Switzerland's passivity during World War II, her insubordination to her social environment, her pain of life, her internal struggles, her homosexual love affairs and her quest for freedom make her a full-fledged author. and deeply authentic.

Crowned with a prize at the Solothurn Festival and two major international prizes, the documentary by Carole Bonstein is the first film to pay tribute to the work and life course of this woman at odds with her time.

Carole bonstein

A graduate of the Faculty of Communication at Boston University and the School of Media Studies in Toronto, Carole Bonstein signed her first film as a director with Une Suisse Rebelle in 2000. After having worked as a director's assistant for numerous shows at Télévision Suisse Romande, Carole Bonstein broadened the scope of her cinematographic experience by moving to Canada in 2002 where she worked for documentaries at Media Incorporation Toronto and for various film festivals in Toronto. In addition to her artistic projects, she acquired a training in cultural management at the University of Geneva.
and Lausanne.

Carole Bonstein is currently working on other documentary projects as a freelance director. She also collaborates in the production and distribution of various documentaries.

Annemarie Schwarzenbach - Une Suisse rebelle (2000)
Maison Boken

Freedom is only valid as long as one has the strength to use it.



(Historical chronology) The dates in square brackets are the dates of writing.

Two dates separated by a semicolon correspond to writing and publication. Asterisks denote works published during the author's lifetime.

Literary works

Nouvelle parisienne [1929], in Inverses n °  6, 2006

See a woman [1929], Métropolis 2008
* New lyric [1931
  ; 1933], Verdier 1994
* Winter in the Middle East [1934], Payot 2006
Le Refuge des cimes [1933], Payot 2004
Orient exiles [1934-35], Autrement 1994 / Payot 2000, 2003
Death in Persia [1935-36], Payot 1997, 1998, 2001
* The Happy Valley [1938
  ;  1940], Editions de l'Aire 1991 / L'Aire bleue 2001
The Forty Columns of Memory [1939-40], ampersand 2008 editions
Rives du Congo / Tétouan [1941-42], ampersand 2005 editions

2. Reporting and correspondence

Letters to Claude Bourdet. 1931-1938, Zoe 2008
Far from New York. Reports and photographs [1936-38], Payot 2000
Where is the land of promises
  ? With Ella Maillart in Afghanistan [1939-40], Payot 2002
Visions d'Afghanistan [1939-40], Payot 2002 [non commerce]

Sources: Dominique Laure Miermont Biographer of Annemarie Schwarzenbach


1930 - Intellectually and sentimentally decisive encounter with Erika and Klaus Mann (children of Thomas Mann)


1938 - Meeting with Ella Maillart

Once we are on our way, we do not know goodbye or regret, every day it becomes a little less possible to turn around, we no longer want to.


Source: Where is the land of promises?

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