Annemarie Schwarzenbach

“Fear? Back then, I didn't even realize what that new feeling was. Later, when it overwhelmed me and almost pulled me under, I understood. And, since then, a nameless fear has hung like a plume of smoke over the great, colorful desert of this country, above my sometimes blissful, sometimes terrible memories of it.”
― Annemarie Schwarzenbach 

This week we explore the life and times of a writer, a photographer, a traveler, Annemarie Schwarzenbach an all in one woman. Though her life was rather short, it still managed to be rather full. Born in 1908, she died in 1942, but between those thirty-four years, she was able to find more life and growth than others have throughout their entire lifetime. Growing up in Switzerland through the beginning and growth of World War Two we look at a divided woman in a divided world, and we will explore the nuance of this division with you all now.

It is not out of place to find a queer person who didn’t have the best relationship with their family, but each family is different, and in this case, that difference is evident. For example, Annemarie’s mother was a queer woman herself, having relationships with a woman outside of her marriage to Annemarie’s father, which he tolerated. And in childhood, Annemarie was not only allowed to wear traditionally masculine clothes, but it was encouraged by her mother. Her sexuality was not in all truth the largest part of contention between herself and her family, but this didn’t mean her relationship with her family was any easier. While the divide began early as her mother was reportedly a domineering presence in the household, it came to a head when Annemarie met Erika Mann.

Erika and Klaus Mann were the children of Thomas Mann, and like their father, they hated Nazi’s. And her family were Nazi supporters. While Annemarie had made it clear she had similar feelings as the Mann family her friendship with Erika and Klaus angered her family. 

Annemarie remained friends with the two anyways, soon starting a relationship with Erika. This relationship would not last though, as while Annemarie was head over heels for Erika, Erika soon moved on to a new woman, an actress named Therese Giehse. 

Annemarie then moved to Berlin in 1930 with Klaus Mann, who was queer as well and settled in with the Mann family. It was then that she began taking drugs, an addiction that would plague her from then on. Along with addiction, she had mental illnesses, such as depression, that would play an intense role in her life. 

Her life in Berlin was a wild one, her friend Ruth Landshoff describing her during that time as:
“She lived dangerously. She drank too much. She never went to sleep before dawn". 

As we have discussed before during this particular period of history, Berlin was a hub for queer expression and art. But like many others, her lifestyle ended in 1933 when the Nazi’s took over, and the Berlin she had fallen in love with disappeared. And at the same time, the conflict within her family heightened. She continued consorting with anti-fascists and claimed to be one herself, while her family continued their support of the far right in Switzerland and, by extension, the Nazi party in Germany. Her mother was the driving force behind this decision. And again, the conflict between the mother and daughter heightened. 

Annemarie was caught between two worlds, her family, who had raised her in privilege and who she was unable to part with, and her friend circle which included Jewish people, queer people, and political refugees from Germany. And she chose the harder path, supporting her friends and beginning the publication Die Sammlung with Klaus Mann. This, of course, was a moral decision, but it was not an easy one, and it took a toll on Annemarie. The combination of the conflict between herself and her family, her continuing battle with depression, and her addictions factored together were among the precipitating events that led to her first suicide attempt. 

Her family only became more separated from her at this point, becoming resentful because of the scandal her suicide attempt had caused. So she began traveling again, moving through Europe and making friends with other artists and continuing the friendship with Klaus that would last her whole life. During her travels, she suggested that she and Klaus should marry in a letter as they were both queer and it could make life easier for the both of them. But it was not to be.

It was in 1935 that she met the man who would become her husband, a French diplomat in Persia named Achille-Claude Clarac, who was a gay man. Though they had only known each other for a few months previous to their marriage and they separated to their adventures soon after, it was a marriage that helped them both. It allowed both to have their relationships outside of their marriage without conflict, gave them a cover for inquiries into their sexuality, allowed Annemarie to get a diplomatic passport, and made travel easier for her. She took full advantage of the opportunities this opened for her, traveling to America, and later Afghanistan. As she traveled, she took photographs that documented racism and classism in America and the rise of fascism in Europe, and she wrote travel guides, and as she was a white woman born into a rich family, she did not fully understand the scope experience of racism and classism, so her accounts were problematic. Even though she had been able to surround herself with better influences in her later life her family and her privilege had left a mark on her, and she was not free of prejudice. And she had managed to write 300 articles, and took 5,000 photographs, becoming an extremely prolific artist. 

Throughout her travels, she had also managed to engage in many relationships, with authors, archeologists, and ambassadors. In the end, though she still had feelings for Erika Mann, who didn’t approve of the fact that throughout all the political turmoil in the world Annemarie still refused to cut ties with her family. Her family on the other side continued to object to Annemarie’s continued political ventures, including her vocal support of labor unions, which went directly against her family who owned textile farms. 

But throughout all of her movement, she always did at some point return to Switzerland. And she had kept a refuge in Switzerland, a home in Sils where she allowed her friends to stay if they needed somewhere safe and a place for herself when she did. It was upon one of her returns to Sils she died. In 1942 she got into a bicycle accident and hit her head and died over a month later. 

Though her friends tried to visit her, her mother refused to let them see her, including blocking Annemarie’s husband who had rushed to see her as soon as he had heard what happened. After she had died, her mother attempted to burn all of her diaries and work, and much of what Annemarie created was destroyed. Luckily her friends were able to save some and gave them to a museum years later.  

Even after death though, her two worlds continued to their conflict. While her legacy of creation grew in artistic circles, her name was scrubbed away within her own family. Her great-nephew Alexis revealing he didn’t even know about his great-aunt until he found one of her books, saying:

"I went to my grandmother and said, 'I didn't know grandfather's sister was a writer.' And she said, 'yes, she was a writer, and a lesbian and a morphine addict,' and this was the first huge piece of information I had about her,"

And when looking at her life, we are left with some conflicting questions ourselves. Annemarie was an incredible person, but was she a good person? Was it moral of her to remain in contact and try to get along with her family when her family actively supported Nazis? No. 

She was a woman who was given every privilege; she had a rich family, a family that would have supported her identity and she risked all of this to help work against one of the worst regimes our world has seen. Was she person who actively tried to do good in the world? Yes. 

Was she perfect? No. Was she evil? No. Was she good? We don’t know. 

We know there have been queer people who are horrible, in fact, we need to look no further than one generation above Annemarie herself. Her mother, a queer woman who actively supported Nazi’s. Queer history is not clean. It is not simple, or easy, or always on the right side of the battle. Like all of history, it is complex. 

There is no way to excuse Annemarie’s bad decisions, but there doesn't need to be. We don’t need to have every queer person to be perfect. But sometimes it feels like we do, sometimes we look at people within our community and wonder, how? How could someone be queer and have seen how privilege can hurt a community and yet turn away from recognizing their own? As our community gains visibility, we will see many people who are hateful even to people within their community, and it will be terrifying. Because at that moment it may feel like the community that has become home to so many of us, is not as welcoming as we once thought. 

But this is not a reason to allow such behavior or shrug it off. It is a reason to work harder. We are never going to be perfect, and we have never been, but that doesn’t mean we give up. We look at our community and acknowledge the flaws and then do the same for our history. After that, we get to work. We fight the urges privilege instills into every single one of us; we fight the people who choose hate even when they come from our communities; we fight. 

Annemarie Schwarzenbach was not evil, and she fought so hard. She was a woman who tried to make good decisions in a difficult situation, and sometimes she got it wrong. And in the truth of history, we find this pattern in many of the people we admire. That does not mean we cannot admire them; it just means we have to acknowledge that queer communities history is not perfect. Neither is queer communities present, or the queer communities future. But while we will never reach perfection, we work for it anyway, and in that work, we will find hope. Not perfection, just hope.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material.]

Barbara Lorey de Lacharrière, (trans. Gabrielle Giattino), Annemarie Schwarzenbach : A Life, Retrieved April 1, 2017

Isobel L. (May 23, 2008) Swiss writer's life was stranger than fiction, Retrieved April 1, 2017

James C. (November 15, 2011) Schwarzenbach in English, Retrieved April 1, 2017

Julia C. (November 23, 2015) A Woman to Know: Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Retrieved April 1, 2017

Ruth P. (2015) Schwarzenbach, Annemarie (1908-1942), Retrieved April 1, 2017