The Fate of Fonts
Typography and Danger in Germany, Part Three
In the history of the Nazification of all things “German,” the suppression of the modern fonts might be a footnote to the destruction of modern art if it is mentioned at all. However, as was pointed out in earlier posts, the font, particularly the fraktur font or the traditional German blackletter font had a deed and strong hold on the imagination of the people as being part of their “identity.” The Nazis were nothing if not thorough, the entire culture in all its manifest details came under their purview. The goal was to completely Germanize, if you will, Germany, which had been slipping into decadent and non-German ways, falling prey to the dubious delights of jazz and allowing “degenerate” art to be hung in the finest museums. There were internal enemies that Adolf Hitler and his allies had every intention of rooting out in order to establish a Volksgemeinschaft or a racial community. On one hand, the Nazis were very clear on who the enemy was–the Jew–but there was less clarity on how this purified racial community should be represented. Many Nazis liked and collected “modern art,” and it was some years before it was finally determined that art had to be classicizing and naturalistic. Modernism in art originated, not in Germany, but had invaded Germany, coming from other, alien sources, incompatible with the soil of the nation, the Heimat, the homeland. Above all, modern art was foisted upon the naïve art world by Jewish dealers, intent upon polluting the purity of Germany. Font selection for the Third Reich was no different from the official art style–it took years to decide upon and disseminate the official Nazi font.
One might ask the question of why so much emphasis was placed upon the font in Nazi Germany. Surely Germany already had a “national” font that connotated “Germany” and “Germanic” in fraktur. In fact, in the minds of many, even today, fraktur was the “official” font of Nazi Germany. However, the actual story was more complicated. Outside of the elegant printed Bibles of the fifteenth century, most books were printed in the difficult to read Gothic style known as Textura. In Germany, a cruder version, called Schwabacher, was the favored typefont. For Emperor Maximilian, such an unartistic font was unacceptable for his planned library of beautifully printed books. The new font for the Emperor needed to be both German and legible, incorporating the humanism of the Antiqua style, which was a Renaissance version of the ancient Roman lettering. The Emperor’s font designers turned to history and used the calligraphic bastarda handwriting. This distinctive font, “a mixture of Gothic and Roman, and blending the qualities of both,” according to H. Liebaers in Mostly in the Line of Duty: Thirty Years with Books, had been the official font of the Burgundian court. Bastarda was, as was often the case in early printed books, a version of Medieval handwriting, cursive, adapted to a formalized font, as designed by the court calligrapher, Leonhard Wagner. Sadly, only four of the proposed series of books were published but they were illustrated by artists such as Dürer and Cranach, with Dürer’s Unterweysung giving lasting fame to fraktur.
The contest between Fraktur and Antiqua was also a religious one in Germany, the birthplace of the Protestant version of Christianity. The Protestants used Fraktur, while the Catholics used Antiqua. In contrast, the general readership, especially in the scientific community, the preferred font was Latin. The state of affairs–multiple fonts, each having a different connotation, continued well into the twentieth century. The introduction of the modernized fonts, such as Futura or the Bauhaus font of Herbert Bayer complicating font matters in Germany. It seemed as if Hitler himself would solve the issue–tradition or modernity. Surprisingly, Hitler, who had little use for Modernism, came down on the side of the modern, stating in 1934 that fraktur was not appropriate to “an age of steel and iron, glass and concrete, of womanly beauty and manly strength..The script called Gothic is replaced by the script we have called Latin.” Hitler’s proclamation was particularly interesting, with all his emphasis on gender implications, in light of the preceding semiotics of the dueling fonts. According to the book, Smallest Mimes. Defaced Representation and Media Epistemology by Paul Majkut, “Antiqua was deemed ‘un-German’ and Roman fonts were castigated as ‘trivial’ because of their ‘light’ fonts. Fraktur, like all Blackletter scripts’ dark, dense strokes, was viewed as representing German character marked by qualities of substantiality, gravitas, fortitude, and intellectual depth.”
In the book, Nazi Culture: Intellectual, Cultural and Social Life in the Third Reich, George Lachmann Mosse explained that the Nazis were no ordinary political party. The Nazis were a cultural force that wanted to envelop all aspects of German life with National Socialism. “This society,” he wrote, “would not allow for the differentiation between politics and daily life which many of us naturally make..Hitler’s aim was to construct an organic society in which every aspect of life would be integrated with its basic purpose..no one could be allowed to stand aside. Politics..was..the concrete expression of the Nazi world view. This world view as held to be the very crux of what it meant to be German, and therefore, politics was the consciousness of race, blood, and soil, the essence of the Nazi definition of human nature..Such a total view of politics meant–as it was called after January 1933–Gleichschaltung, “equalizing the gears” of the nation.” This “equalization” of a complex culture was a massive undertaking, which aimed at nothing less than a complete rebuilding of Germany in a very compressed period of time, from 1933 to 1939. During this six-year sequence, and it was a sequence, various elements of the society were brought in line with the Nazi way of thinking. As Mosse wrote in his book, “What developed between 1933 and 1939 was the level of effective enforcement, not the kind of culture which was to be enforced.” This is a book of primary documents that show the various proclamations over time, adding up to a loyalty to the Nazi regime that preceded the actual politics. In other words, once they were trained to be obedient to the will of Hitler, the German people would fall in line with any laws or demands that presented themselves, regardless of their contents or implications.
It was to be expected that art, in all its manifestations, would fall under the notion of “enforcement.” Individuals who worked in the arts were required to join the Reich Chamber of Culture (Reichskulturkammer) long before any official policy emerged. Therefore, artists were positioned in waiting, so to speak, dependent upon the demands of the regime and trained into obedience. As Mosse wrote, “..we are dealing with an emotionally charged and unified ideology which was translated into fact by 1934..This new Germany was to be built upon the foundation of the “new man,” and this man, in turn, was the product of the correct world view. The world view or ideology (and the terms can be used interchangeably), was all-inclusive: a true instrument of reform. Originating in the wellsprings of man’s nature, it was pushed outward into all aspects of human life. Because this world view arose from the depths of the human soul, its expression must be cultural and not material..That is why Hitler himself put such a high valuation upon artistic endeavors, and his own artistic ambitions must have played a part in this emphasis..The ‘new man’ must be culturally centered, creative person who through his creative drive activates his “Germanism.”
At first, it seemed as if fonts had escaped the attention of the Nazis. The neutrality was surprising given that before they ascended to power, the party had used the fraktur font for all of its publications. However, once in office, a compromise was reached and a standardization for fonts was apparently decided. As Gideon Reuveni wrote in Reading Germany: Literature and Consumer Culture in Germany Before 1933, “Fraktur became the German national typeface and all official publications, newspapers, and textbooks were required to use it. The decision did not eradicate rounded typefaces. In the 1930s we find abundant use of Antiqua fonts in books, advertisements, and magazines.” Reuveni speculated that the decision to allow two fonts to coexist was an economic one. It is also known that non-Germans found the fraktur font difficult to read and that Hitler wanted Europeans and Americans to be able to follow his career and triumphs with ease. German designers had long been on a crusade to modernize and to usher Germany into the modern era. In addition, the conquered territories seized by the Nazis in the late 1930s all used Antiqua and all needed to be communicated with through printed materials. So, for the meantime, practicality dually reigned with ideology.
For the modern artists of the twenties and thirties, the objection to serifs comes from the fact that the serif was the result of handwriting with a pen, which leaves traces at the ends of each letter. It was indisputably clear to the artists that times had moved on and that design must reflect this decades-long evolution. For font designers, the goal was to replace the hand with the machine, which was incapable of such idiosyncrasies. When Jan Tschichold (1902-1974) entered the field of book design and page layout, there were fonts aplenty but they were applied without regard to the page or its shape, much less the content of the text itself. “The essence of the New Typography,” he said, “is clarity.” Shaking off “beauty” for the doctrine of “form,” Tschichold was closer to László Moholy-Nagy in his holistic conception of book design. Impacted by De Stijl, he insisted on certain rules for printing according to strict geometric principles. He rejected the idea of arranging the print on the page as if there were an imaginary central spine or focal point ruling from the middle. For Tschichold, the form is the content of the printed page. But, following the logic of De Stijl, he insisted upon the balance of asymmetry in which logic and order become possible. As he declaimed in 1930, “Standardization, instead of individualization. Cheap books, instead of private-press editions. Active literature, instead of passive leather bindings.”
Tschichold followed the thinking of Adolf Loos and thought that fonts should not be decorative and should divest themselves of ornament, such as serifs. Like Renner, he came to the conclusion that the “grotesque” or sans-serif fonts could be the source of modern typefaces. By paying attention to the needs of the content itself and by purging the page of its imaginary center, the designer can then arrange blocks of text in proportional relationship to the size of the page which needed to be standardized. The arrangement or layout design can be asymmetrical and balanced and harmonious, not in terms of the Renaissance middle or central axis, but along the rules of abstract painting. But he cautioned that typography is not painting and is led by another logic. Tschichold called his “rules,” or philosophy, “asymmetrical typography,” by which he meant layout. He insisted upon the importance of the blank white page which becomes part of the design. In his book, he dealt briefly with color, maintaining the common combination of Black and White with Red as the accent. His own fonts were heavier than Futura, but Tschichold always insisted upon modernity. He argued that the traditional German ‘blackface’ could never be “comfortable” in the modern world and “must be totally excluded as a basic type for contemporary work.” He objected to the “emphatically national, exclusivist character of fraktur” now “retrograde” in a transnational world. Tschichold asked, “Do other typefaces express anything? Is it really a typeface’s job to express spiritual matters? Yes and no.” The designer argued that since each typeface must express its age—a common sentiment in German in the 1920s—this is an age of clarity and truth, in search for “purity of appearance.” In his book, the artist insisted,
None of the typefaces to whose basic form some kind of ornament has been added (serifs in Roman type, lozenge shapes and curlicues in Fraktur) meet our requirements for clarity and purity. Among all the types that are available, the so-called “Grotesque” (sanserif) or “block letter” (skeleton letters would be a better name) is the only one in spiritual accordance with our time. To proclaim sanserif as the typeface of our time is not a question of being fashionable, it really does express the same tendencies to be seen in our architecture. It will not be long before not only the “art” typefaces, as they are sometimes called today, but also the classical typefaces, disappear, as completely as the contorted furniture of the eighties.
Like Paul Renner (1878-1956), Tschichold relied upon simple geometry to construct his plain “essential” letters. That said, the main contribution of Tschichold was his new rules for layout and design in a modern age. Hand drawn illustration was rejected in favor of half-tone photographs, and he freed design from the tyranny of the center and replaced the image of the artist with that of the engineer who reformed fonts without reference to aesthetics. Tschichold and Renner knew of each other’s work and knew each other as professionals. As principal, Renner hired Tschichold in 1925 to teach typography at the Münich Meisterschule für Deutschlands Buchdrucker (Master School for German Printers). These two masters of the font and the new book layout were part of a larger and wider effort in Germany to modernize, including the Bauhaus in Dessau. But in 1933, the Nazis seized control of the German government and everything changed for artists. Their crimes were numerous and ideological, ranging from being modern to being Jewish to being “international,” that is not German.
For Renner and Tschichold, their faults were more political than cultural. Renner had long held socialist beliefs, for moral reasons, which was not a problem during the prevailing socialist Weimar Republic. Tschichold, like many intellectuals of the twenties and thirties supported–naïvely as it turned out–the Communist Revolution in Russia. In other words, for both artists, politics aside, their “cues” or their inspirations came from the incorrect sources, the Eastern Europeans and the Russians. For the Nazis, the Slavs were an inferior race and their artistic ideas and styles had infiltrated Germany, polluting its purity. Tschichold would be the first to be arrested. Indeed, as soon as the Nazis were in power, the tide turned against Renner, who was one of the early artists to be arrested as “subversive” by the new government. Because both artists were interested in the work done by the Constructivists in Russia, they were accused of being “Bolsheviks,” a term that would later be used to persecute these designers. Although unlike Renner, Tschichold had not created a widely-used counter-font, like Futura, his adherence to Constructivist design made him a “cultural Bolshevik” in the eyes of the Nazis, who found a Mondrian painting which they thought was a safe and spied various printed and artistic materials linked to Constructivist works. Tschichold was arrested and held for six weeks. Renner protested and was also arrested in 1933. To make matters worse, Renner, in what turned out to be an ill-advised move, published Kulturbolschewismus in 1932, a strong statement opposing Nazi ideas and policies. This outspoken opposition was particularly risky for, in that same year, the Bauhaus in Dessau was closed by the local Nazi government. He arranged for George Trump to be appointed principal of the school to be appointed in his stead, thus avoiding the fate of the Dessau Bauhaus.
The website wiedler.ch explained the impetus of this dangerous book: “In his brilliant essay “kulturbolschewismus?” (culture bolshevism?) Renner demasks the Nazi’s campaign against modern art and architecture as false, racist and dangerous. the title refers to a term that was popular among conservative ideologists and the national socialist party to denounce modern art as “non-germanic”. and Renner puts a provocatively oversized question mark after it! In 1932, Paul Renner was unable to find a German publisher for his explosive essay, but finally it was published by his Swiss friend Eugen Rentsch. The response was a mixed one: while Thomas Mann wrote a letter full of praise to Renner, the brown newspaper “der völkische beobachter” published a spiteful review. after the Nazis seized power in March 1933, Renner was arrested, his office searched, and he was sacked from his post at the meisterschule. He spent the next 12 years in “inner emigration”, painting. Soon after its publication, “kulturbolschewismus?” had to be withdrawn from the German book market. few original copies seem to have survived.”
But according to Keith Houston in his book, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, after his arrest, “Tschichold reacted strongly to his ill-treatment at the hands of the Third Reich and repudiated his earlier work, detecting ‘fascist’ elements in the strictures of Modernism.”Alarmed that so many of his students were showing up in Nazi uniforms, Tschichold slipped out of the country and found safety and new employment in Switzerland, where he spent the rest of his life. When he was released, Renner went into what was called inner exile and refrained from criticizing the font now and forever identified as Nazi. But, as it turned out, fraktur was actually not the font of the Nazis: this misunderstanding probably dates back to the early use of fraktur in Nazi publications. That said apparently confusion among fonts must have continued for some time, inside Germany. Order had to be imposed. Order, of course, had to flow from Hitler himself who had long preferred the antique, the ancient, and its evocations of the Roman Empire, after which the Thousand Reich was modeled. Despite its “German-ness” the fraktur font had to be eliminated in favor of the Roman heritage because in his disorganized mind Hitler determined that the Romans were a part of the Nordic race–despite their southern roots—and were prescient in their hostility and opposition to the Jewish faith. Hitler banned fraktur. The question is how did Hitler justify jettisoning a “German” script in favor of a font alien to Germany? The answer, as it always would be, was to blame the Jews.
In 1941, Martin Borman decided that the Fraktur font was a bit too Gothic and had it officially replaced with Antiqua. Ironically the fraktur font, once considered quintessentially “German,” was declared to be too “Jewish.” He stated, “To regard or describe the so-called Gothic script as a German script is false. In reality, the so-called Gothic script consists of Schwabacher Jewish letters. Just as they later took over possession of newspapers, Jews resident in Germany when the printing of books was introduced took over book-printers, and thus the strong influence of Schwabacher Jewish letters came into Germany.”
Strangely, the heading of the stationary is the fraktur font. Nonetheless, Borman’s letter continued,
For general attention, on behalf of the Führer, I make the following announcement: It is wrong to regard or to describe the so-called Gothic script as a German script. In reality, the so-called Gothic script consists of Schwabach Jew letters. Just as they later took control of the newspapers, upon the introduction of printing the Jews residing in Germany took control of the printing presses and thus in Germany the Schwabach Jew letters were forcefully introduced. Today the Führer, talking with Herr Reichsleiter Amann and Herr Book Publisher Adolf Müller, has decided that in the future the Antiqua script is to be described as normal script. All printed materials are to be gradually converted to this normal script. As soon as is feasible in terms of textbooks, only the normal script will be taught in village and state schools. The use of the Schwabach Jew letters by officials will in future cease; appointment certifications for functionaries, street signs, and so forth will in future be produced only in normal script. On behalf of the Führer, Herr Reichsleiter Amann will in future convert those newspapers and periodicals that already have foreign distribution, or whose foreign distribution is desired, to normal script.
One should never seek consistency in the mind of those who are unbalanced, but, in the end, the fraktur font won. It seems that fraktur was used locally or internally when the Nazis were fighting to achieve power but that once the “empire” began to be built, the Antiqua came to the fore. Notice that serifs were beside the point and that Hitler never warmed to fonts associated with Communism and socialism. Despite the fraktur font being condemned as Jewish, as was stated earlier, this font is still linked to all things Nazi and to this day, the font carries with it all the horrors of the crimes of its former owners.
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.