German design

Fraktur and the psychology of type

blackletter flag neo nazi rally fraktur
Deliberate font choices. Source: DPA

Fraktur, as a typeface, feels unnecessarily ornate today. The Germanic “broken script,” part of the larger blackletter family sometimes described as gothic, is difficult for modern eyes to read. Decorative capitals bear little resemblance to their roman counterparts, the lower-case k and s are easily confused for t and f, and ligatures smush together commonly combined letters such as ch and st. Fraktur developed alongside the earliest days of printing and evolved with the German language, which it is uniquely equipped to convey.

But fraktur also often provokes a visceral response in Germans, who associate fraktur and blackletter typefaces with nationalism. In Saxony last year, embroidery in a police vehicle was under debate because the blackletter design looked nationalistic. The cover of a recent issue of Der Spiegel about the riots in Chemnitz showed the name of the state, Sachsen, shifting from a white sans serif font to a brown gothic script. The meaning behind the use of blackletter was immediately clear to German readers.

“It’s connected enough that you get this icky feeling,” says typographer and design professor Indra Kupferschmid. In modern Germany, the only really appropriate uses of fraktur are for beer labels or traditional restaurants or quaint bed and breakfasts. Newspaper names get a pass. Blackletter logos for metal bands are almost indistinguishable from those of skinhead groups. And using fraktur for political purposes is strictly for neo-Nazis. The far-right Alternative for Germany party uses Futura Bold for its logo, as does the center-left SPD.

Should fraktur be forever banished from public life in Germany because of those nationalist connotations, or is it a cultural inheritance worth preserving?

Hanno Blohm, the head of the Association for German Script and Language (BdSS), thinks fraktur is undeserving of its bad rap. The 100-year-old nonprofit organization, which fights what it considers attacks on the German language, blames mass media for creating a connection between fraktur and nationalism. The BdSS answers the frequently asked question “Why are you defending a Nazi typeface?” in a multipage PDF in a traditional fraktur font: “Typefaces can’t be blamed if they are used by disliked people, just as the rail or post cannot help it if disliked people use their services.”

hitler mein kampf blackletter type
Guilt by association. Source: DPA

A long history

The fraktur family of typefaces has its origins in 1513, when Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I commissioned a new typeface to accompany an Albrecht Dürer woodcut. Similar in style to predecessors Schwabacher and textura, fraktur type gained popularity over the next few centuries, becoming the predominant type style not only in German-speaking lands but also in Scandinavia and the Baltic states. Roman typefaces existed alongside fraktur for many centuries: Often Germany’s belles lettres would be printed in fraktur, while any Latin words would be set in roman type such as antiqua, as would scientific texts. Likewise, German was written by hand in the Kurrent, or later Sütterlin, style; Latin was written in humanistic cursive.

But this uniquely German typeface has long had ties with nationalism, Hans Peter Willberg wrote in an essay included in the book “Blackletter.” The first big defense of fraktur was in 1813, when the German states came together to fight off not only Napoleon but also France’s classical Didot typeface, which was considered overly logical. This fervor for German typefaces returned in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, and in 1914 ahead of World War I.

The debate of antiqua vs. fraktur came to a head in 1911, when the typefaces were debated in the Reichstag. It was rationalism vs. romanticism, internationalism vs. nationalism, cold sans serif vs. human broken type. But Germany remained a nation of two typographies: Fraktur was used for 57 percent of all books and 60 percent of all magazines in Germany in 1928, at levels basically unchanged since 1891.

Meanwhile, designers influenced by Bauhaus and the English Arts and Crafts movement were experimenting with new typography, which led to the modernist Futura in the 1920s and paved the way for Helvetica in the 1960s. But when the Nazis came to power in 1933, they declared fraktur the true German type and Kurrent the true German handwriting. New broken typefaces, reminiscent of fraktur but not directly descended from it, reflected their nationalist aspirations: Deutschland, National, Tannenberg.

And then eight years later, the Nazis suddenly changed course: In January 1941, the party made roman type the new standard and banned fraktur and traditional German handwriting, claiming the letterforms were actually Jewish in origin. That was a questionable excuse for what was a pragmatic political decision: Adolf Hitler realized that gaining world power would be much easier if outsiders could actually read what Germany wrote. So fraktur was out, antiqua was in.

Since then it’s been increasingly rare to see fraktur used in Germany, and the Nazi association is stronger inside Germany than outside of it. “I do not see blackletter as tainted by the Nazis,” says American designer Paul Shaw, an editor of “Blackletter.” Fraktur has a complex history, one much longer than German totalitarianism. It’s the typeface of Gutenberg, Luther, Goethe, Humboldt. “To forever see the type as tainted is to give in to the Nazis.”

jonas martin, calligraphy, fraktur, calligraffiti
Making fraktur modern. Source: Jonaz Martin, [JM]

Modern reinvention of traditional letters

Ms. Kupferschmid, the typographer and design professor, sees a possibility for blackletter to have a comeback as a decorative typeface rather than an everyday text choice. “Maybe we can broaden the range of uses considered acceptable, but there will always be something ironic or purposefully referencing past uses,” she says. Perhaps modern typographers could create new versions of fraktur that reference its origins but bypass the tainted Nazi-era fonts. Posters for Berlin’s Volksbühne theater for a number of years used fraktur typefaces to make bold statements on neon backgrounds. The designs were visually shocking, in a way that was edgy but not nationalistic in sentiment.

Calligraphy is in the midst of a worldwide revival. While modern brush scripts are by far the most popular style, some artists are rediscovering Germanic letterforms. “Gothic stuff is a little boring,” says Jonaz Martin, an art director and calligraffiti artist in Berlin. “I want to honor tradition but also create something inspiring.” He scrawls his sweeping works in chalk or marker on shop windows. Fraktur is an inspiration, but so is Arabic calligraphy and his own history with graffiti.

So fraktur isn’t dead yet. In a way, the lingering signage in Tannenberg and other Nazi-era fonts are living history, daily reminders of the country’s past. To most people today, fraktur is difficult to read without a lot of practice — the decorative capitals seem indistinguishable, the ligaments inscrutable. Handwriting in Kurrent or Sutterlin is equally hard to make out.

Mr. Blohm of the BfDS, who was a German teacher for four decades, says being able to read and preserve old styles of writing is “important to understand how we have become ourselves. And also what we could become.”

Gewaltverherrlichender Aufkleber auf der Heckscheibe eines Autos aus Verden Aller aufgenommen in
Source: Imago

Grace Dobush is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author:

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!