Lost Typography

How the Nazis targeted modernists and murdered Blackletter

This is the fourth part of a series on modernism and typography. Read the first part here.

In 1933, Germany’s National Socialist German Worker's Party claimed control of the country. Over the next decade, the national socialists—commonly called Nazis—would claim control of most of Europe, enforcing a brutal vision of German superiority, based not on innovation and creativity, but on mythicism, medievalism, and racism. Their values were at odds with modernism; their means posed an existential threat all modernist artists. In the violence that ensued, the Nazis drove modernists from the continent, and even managed to kill off the most German letters of all.


Excerpt from a Nazi poster deriding "degenerate art", printed in Blackletter.

The Nazis were not fans of modernist art. They had a term for it: entartete Kunst—degenerate art. This was based on a concept of social Entartung (degeneracy) developed back in the 19th century by Max Nordau. His book on the subject was part psycho-physiognomy (a pseudo-science connecting character to facial features), part tantrum against contemporary artists from the Pre-Rafaelites to Oscar Wilde, and part commentary on the backlash to modernity.

Nordau was mostly wrong. Even in the 19th century, physiognomy had already been discredited for hundreds of years. And there's no accounting for taste. But Nordau wasn't all wrong. There was a potent backlash to modernity brewing—Nordau even identified degeneracy manifesting socially, in part, as antisemitism—a real and dangerous problem in turn-of-that-century Europe.


How was modernist art degenerate? 


That problem had only intensified by the end WW1, when Paul Schultze-Naumburg—an accomplished if deeply unfashionable traditional architect—ignored Nordau’s good observations, and cobbled his bad arguments together with his own bad intentions.

Incapable of keeping up with the times, Schultze-Naumburg had seen his architecture business suffer while modernists flourished. Rather than accept responsibility and change, he blamed others, finding a scapegoat courtesy of his own raging antisemitism. When he started publishing, the result was a series of unhinged, racist rants against a faked-up conflation of modernism and Jewish people.

Schultze-Naumburg claimed that art that was anything other than strictly representational was the product of a damaged visual cortex, found in the offspring of interracial couples. Pure-bred Germans, though, were capable of producing the finest art—art that happened to be exactly the kind of art Schultze-Naumburg made. His art was a pure representation of the world, “uncontaminated by Jewish influence”, comparable to that of the Ancients.

Ancient art: a blatantly non-representational mosaic of Alexander the Great fighting a Lion

Ancient art: a blatantly non-representational mosaic of Alexander the Great fighting what could be a Lion.

It’s worth dwelling on how irrational this argument is. First, are we to believe that Piet Mondrian painted using straight lines and primary colours because that’s literally how he saw the world? It’s a wonder the man could find his paint brushes.

Of course, Mondrian could find his paint brushes. And he used his functioning visual cortex to gain extensive training and experience painting in more representational styles. A survey of his—like almost any accomplished painter’s—body of work demonstrates that he was capable of producing representative pictures. That he choose to explore the world in experimental and interesting ways is not a sign that his brain couldn’t interpret the world in fusty and boring ways.

Second, Ancient artists created plenty of non-representational art. Schultze-Naumberg also celebrated Medieval art for its purported purity, even while it was notoriously non-representational. Both Ancient and Medieval artists tended to ignore things like perspective and scale. This wasn’t because they were poor artists, but because they made deliberate choices about what and whom they represented in order to tell a visual story. The artist depicts the king as bigger than an entire castle not because the artist doesn't know better, but because the king matters more than the castle—the king’s gigantic metaphorical stature is essential to the story the artist is telling. In other words, these artists were abstracting—just like Piet Mondrian.

Medieval art: men as large as castles

Medieval art: a creative representation of scale.


Irrational and artistically irrelevant as Schulze-Naumberg’s thinking was, it caught the attention of the embodiment of both irrationality and artistic irrelevance: Adolf Hitler. By the end of their first year in power, the Nazis had taken Schulze-Naumberg's ideas and established the Reichskulturkammer (Empire’s Chamber of Culture). Membership was both mandatory for all practising artists, and only open to “racially pure” artists who were friends of the party. With no way to practise art, and often facing severe persecution, the modernists based in Germany scattered to the wind.

This ended typographical experimentation in Germany. But that wasn't enough. Letters themselves had to be pure Germans!  To that end, the Nazis resurrected the oldest, German-est fonts they could find—Blackletters.


How the Nazis brought Blackletter back

Almost as soon as the Nazis had consolidated their political power, they started consolidating all German printing under one man: Max Amann, an original member of the Nazi party, the party's long-time publisher, and a prolific thief. Soon after establishing the Reichskulturkammer, Hitler awarded Amann’s loyalty by making him the head of the Reichspressekammer (Empire’s Chamber of Press). Amann used the position’s powers to close down and sell off rival publishers—naturally, to himself. Soon, Amann owned 80% of publishers in Germany.

This made Amann the locus of control of communication in the Third Reich—something like a latter-day, German William Caxton, only a shameless thief and beneficiary of authoritarian largesse. Amann alone decided how printed works in Germany looked. He approached the job with a characteristically Nazi penchant for irrationality and capriciousness.


Max Amann, the face of Nazi types and typefaces

Max Amann: the face of Nazi types and typefaces.


Amann decided that German letters ought to be all Blackletter, all the time. Never mind Sans Serifs—even staid Roman fonts were, of course, contaminated. The printers who used them did so “under Jewish influence”. Only the true German letters from the Middle Ages ran pure as a Bavarian mountain stream. Somehow, Amann restrained himself from mandating the use of Edelweiss ink.

German, as printed by Amann, appeared primarily in Fraktur, a slightly newer style of Blackletter commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I in 1515, for use on a series of woodblock printed wallpapers. Over the following years, it became the predominant Blackletter, replacing the older Schwabacher style used to print Luther Bibles—the first Bibles in vernacular German.

Nazi Germany also made widespread use of a Gebrochene Grotesk (broken grotesque) Blackletter for signs. This was roughly the Sans Serif version of Blackletter—stripped down, simplified, legible at a distance. These concessions to modernism made Gebrochene Grotesk useful on signs, and prominent in the era’s public works. We can still find them today, for example, in Berlin’s North-South S-Bahn line.

A station sign on Berlin's north-south S-Bahn line.


How Nazis killed off Blackletter

Blackletters seemed destined to rule for 1000 years. But early in 1941, Amann pulled a stunning about-face. Blackletter was out; the Roman letter was back in. After a meeting between Hitler and Amann, Hitler’s secretary Martin Bormann released a brief on official Nazi letterhead—still using Frakture. Its gist: the so-called Gothic script was not German, but a “Schwabach Jew” letter; Jews had started taking over the press all the way back in the Early Modern Era when they'd taken control of printing presses, thus forcing the fonts on Germans ever since.

It’s not even worth dwelling on how irrational this argument is. But here goes. The claim that Jews controlled early printing presses has no basis in reality. The idea that controlling newspapers was part of a centuries-long conspiracy is a teleological delusion predicated on a lie. The notion that there’s anything forceful about introducing a typeface is an insult to force itself. The implication that Blackletter fontsobviously based on penwork by Christian monks—were not based on penwork by Christian monks is incoherent to the point that it threatens this very sentence's cohesion. And Schwabacher... The Nazis didn’t even use Schwabacher!

The Nazis left no explanation that makes sense for why they dumped Blackletter. The best theory we have has to do with the countries the Nazis had recently conquered in 1941. To the Dutch, Belgians, and French, Blacketter was illegible. As much as the Nazis wanted to enforce German superiority on their subjects, their authority meant nothing to anyone who couldn’t read what they were saying. Blackletter was simply too vernacular to rule the world. 

There's no good reason the Nazis couldn't have continued using Roman types in the occupied countries, while using Blackletters internally. But good reason would have meant admitting that all things German weren’t inherently superior in all cases. Instead, they resorted to bad reason, concocted a ridiculous, racist story, and disavowed their own types.

Ironically, Blackletters really are the better types for the German language. They use ligatures and characters that aren’t available in Roman types. It’s still possible to write German in Roman types—we do so today—but small parts of the language died with its types. By and by, the Nazis did the world a favour and followed them into oblivion.

Reichslotterie (Empire's Lottery) appears in a Roman type over a shattered Berlin street; the result of an evil gambit

Reichslotterie (Empire's Lottery) appears in a Roman type over a shattered Berlin street; the result of an evil, ill-advised gambit.

They left their country traumatized and divided. The proponents of modernism, who had once met in Germany to trade the world’s boldest ideas, were scattered across the world—in America, Britain, and Switzerland. They brought modernism with them—to new countries, and back to its roots, international style.