The German Typeface Debate

By Debra Kelly on Sunday, September 20, 2015
Printing press plate
“German books in Latin letters, I don’t read!” —Chancellor Otto von Bismarck

In A Nutshell

At the turn of the 16th century, Germany’s Emperor Maximilian I established Fraktur and a Gothic style of script as appropriate for printing German works. By the 19th century, it had faded from popularity elsewhere, in favor of a more modern, Roman-inspired typeface. But Germany hung on, continuing to print everything in old-school script from a desire to maintain what was clearly a German-based and superior font. Ironically, it was Hitler that put an end to the practice, outlawing the script on the basis that it was clearly a typographical plot created by the world’s first printers, the Jews.

The Whole Bushel

It’s no secret that people, as a species, hate Comic Sans. That’s simply because it’s impossible to take it seriously, as demonstrated when Cern’s discovery of the Higgs boson particle was made in Comic Sans, and it was the font that got the most attention. The scientists’ font choice was trending way, way above their actual discovery, making it quite clear that there’s a lot to be said for presentation.

The Comic Sans debate isn’t the first time people have taken up figurative arms for or against a font, and when Germany was forced to make a very important choice at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries, typeface was a big deal.

When handwritten documents gave way to the printing press and movable type, a lot of the earliest typefaces had their roots in what was already well-established. Dating back to the 12th century, monks and scribes used a handwriting style that’s still pretty familiar to us today. Originally, printers (including Gutenberg himself) used movable type that mimicked the style of the Gothic and Black Letter types of script. In some areas, though, other typefaces were quickly becoming more and more popular with the approach of the 20th century. Printers began using characters that were inspired more by ancient Latin and Roman inscriptions. The Latin-inspired typefaces became known as Antiqua, and their popularity spread.

The old style of Black Letter script was quickly associated with something that was more old-timey than anything serious. No one wanted to read Shakespeare in script any more, but this was also at a time when Germany was very aware of its national identity. What was good enough for the rest of the world was clearly not good enough for Germany.

German nationalists took a stand against books printed in the new Antiqua typeface, stating that they just weren’t German. Otto von Bismarck officially declared that “German books in Latin letters, I don’t read.” Fraktur was the only thing appropriate for German works. Created and established by Emperor Maximilian I at the turn of the 16th century, it was clearly superior.

The call to keep German books looking more appropriately German was picked up by the Aryan supremacists, who were touting the spread of German culture and a resistance to everything that wasn’t suitably German, a reason that Black Letter script and the typefaces Fraktur and Schwabacher are still used for neo-Nazi propaganda and tattoos.

Some advocated for keeping the old typeface because they said it was more German-looking, easier to read, better for the eyes, healthier for the person in the long run, more efficient for printers, and (of course) it was destined to be the typeface of the world anyway once the German way pushed back the plague that had been spread across Europe by the Jews (who were expressly forbidden from using the typeface).

Most German nationalists agreed with the idea, with one major exception: Hitler. In 1934, Hitler took a stand against the so-called “German” typeface, declaring that it was vastly inappropriate for the age they were living in. He wanted to usher in a new regime of “steel and iron, glass and concrete,” and found Fraktur too old and too complicated to be easily taught, adopted, and spread. There was so much support for Fraktur, though, that most of the early Nazi propaganda and advertising continued to be done in the old style.

When Hitler officially rose to power, he outright banned the use of Fraktur and its derivative typefaces. In order to make sure everyone stopped using them immediately, he started spreading the word that Black Letter and Gothic script wasn’t an ode to German superiority after all, but a secret typographical plot started by the world’s earliest printers: the Jews.

Show Me The Proof

LRB Blog: Negative Typecasting
An Illustrated Dictionary of the Third Reich, by Jean-Denis G.G. Lepage
Huffington Post: Higgs Boson Discovery Announcement Made In Comic Sans