Swiss perspectives in 10 languages

Hermann Hesse: “Writer, guru, searcher”


The German-Swiss Nobel Prize winning author Hermann Hesse, who died 50 years ago today, wrote not only novels like Steppenwolf and the Glass Bead Game, but also thousands of letters.

Part of his correspondence is held in the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern. Hesse spent much of his life in Switzerland, which is also where he died and is buried.

“We received this donation in July from the United States,” Lukas Dettwiler, who has looked after the Hesse archives since 2003, tells

He points to a collection of around 50 postcards and letters that are mostly of a practical nature, dealing with such matters as forwarding post and his woollen socks. The donation came from the grandson of  family who regularly put up Hesse in their home in Zurich in the 1920s and 1930s.

The archive receives a steady stream of postcards and letters that have turned up in attics and old chests by people whose families had contact of some kind with the famous writer.

Hesse himself kept 40,000 letters he had been sent.

“A real marvel”

On this hot summer’s day, it is refreshingly cool six floors underground in the archives housed in the Swiss National Library. This is where Hesse’s papers are stored, along with much else. Bern has not only much of his correspondence, but also 6,000 books from the library Hesse built up over the years in his home in the village of Montagnola in the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino.

“He held all these books in his hands – that makes you think,” Dettwiler comments. “Hesse not only produced numerous books and poems, but he also read a lot and wrote a good 3,000 book reviews.”


Then he comes to the boxes of letters sent to Hesse. Many are from well known people, including the Swiss writer Robert Walser and the Austrian author Stefan Zweig. They also contain correspondence with Hesse’s psychoanalyst, a certain J. B. Lang.

There is a total of more than 100 boxes containing well over 20,000 carefully filed and labelled letters written by 6,000 different correspondents from some 100 countries.

But it wasn’t only Hesse’s fellow writers, painters and musicians who wrote to him. Many of the letters come from “ordinary” people, readers and admirers from all over the world, writing from cities as far apart as Tel Aviv, Santiago de Chile, New Delhi and Tokyo, and also from the US and many European countries.

“Just look at the ‘treasure’ we have here.” Dettwiler proudly opens one of the boxes. The letters are wrapped individually in special paper to prevent them from disintegrating.

“This letter was written in 1908 by Elisabeth Goller, who was a fashion designer and a great admirer of Hesse.” The thin paper is decorated with the daintiest of embroidery and is still flat and undamaged after more than 100 years. “It’s a real marvel!”

Hesse is well known for having kept up a correspondence with countless numbers of people. According to Hesse expert Volker Michels, he is said to have devoted more than a third of his working hours to answering the thousands of letters and questions he received.

Hesse as counsellor

“These replies are an inexhaustible source of biographical information, as well as information about the history of his works and of his times, and make for gripping reading. There’s hardly a major issue that he wasn’t asked to comment on,” wrote Michels in a piece to mark the 50th anniversary of Hesse’s death.

People asked him existential questions, about love, marriage, living together, death, grief and religion – all of them subjects dealt with openly in his books, which was unusual at that time.

Dettwiler mentions a woman from South America, who wrote: “I have made a wealthy marriage, but I am unhappy. Do you have any advice for me about how I can change my life?” Hesse answered by asking if she had tried yoga.

“So he sat down and wrote a detailed answer to the woman, although it might have been rather a chore for him. He felt he had a responsibility.”

A multi-faceted author

But Dettwiler cannot say whether Hesse derived a benefit himself from his unusually intense exchange of letters with so many strangers. Was it a kind of compensation for a person who lived very reclusively, and scarcely tolerated visitors in his home?

“In any case, he had a strong feeling of responsibility towards his readers. He was certainly not indifferent to people.”

Dettwiler feels that in a way Hesse was being used by the people who wrote to him, “as a counsellor, as a therapist. For some he was even a guru, a spiritual figure.”

But Hesse never saw himself in such a role. “He was himself very much on a search, and didn’t know what the answer was. You can see that for example in Steppenwolf and Siddhartha.”

Dettwiler believes that it is possible to get to know Hesse not only through his works but also through his letters. “They give a comprehensive picture and show different aspects of the writer. Many people saw their own reflection in him. He made them feel that they were not alone with their sufferings or their enthusiasm.”

Restraint and respect

Dettwiler has only read a small fraction of all these boxes of letters down in the basement. On the one hand he doesn’t have the time, but on the other the “correspondence part is always very intimate and personal and private”.

“Sometimes you read sad and disturbing things. It isn’t right to read them. The contents were not written for us, not for me, the current archivist, nor for those who archived them 50 years ago.” Knowing that all these letters exist, and that they are “resting here” is enough for “Hesse’s posthumous private secretary”, as he calls himself.

And on that note, Dettwiler closes the boxes, puts them back on the shelves, and emerges from his underground kingdom, back into the present day.

Hesse was born in 1877 in Calw, in the Black Forest area of Germany. Both his parents had served as Protestant missionaries in India.

He started training in a bookshop in 1895, and spent much time reading, especially philosophy and theology.

His first poem was published in a Vienna periodical in 1896.

He later moved to Basel where he worked in an antiquarian bookshop.
The publication of the novel Peter Camenzind in 1903 enabled him to make a living from writing.

He then married for the first time, and settled on Lake Constance.

After a trip to the Far East in 1911, he moved to Bern where he lived from 1912 to 1919.
He separated from his first wife in 1919 and moved to Montagnola in Ticino. 

He later remarried twice.

In 1924 Hesse became a Swiss citizen.

He won the Nobel prize for literature in 1946.

He died in Montagnola on 9 August 1962.

Although he achieved popularity in the German-speaking world during his lifetime, he was little known abroad, and his fame had started to wane before his death.

However, in the mid-1960s, during the hippy movement, such works as Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, The Glass Bead Game and Narcissus and Goldmund became bestsellers in the United States. 

His works have been translated into 70 languages, and he is one of the most widely read German authors of the 20th century.

The Hesse archive in the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern contains more than 2,000 letters written by the author as well as thousands of letters sent to him.

The core of the archive is the collection of Hesse papers bequeathed to it by the author’s friend Helene Welti-Kammerer in 1942.

Between 1949 and his death in 1962, Hesse donated to the archive about 17,000 letters he had received.

The Bern archives hold about a third of the correspondence he received. Another third is in the German literary archive in Marbach, while the rest is scattered over smaller collections or is lost.

(Translated from German by Julia Slater)

Deeply Read

Most Discussed

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here . Please join us!

If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR