War Typography

How nations made typographical propaganda in the First World War

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


Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of the fragments...

Kurt Schwitters


By the 1910s, branding was no longer an act of visually shouting down the competitionit had become a nuanced and expressive art. Associative branding made logos representations of their products in the same way that Guimard’s Métro entrances were a synecdoche for Paris. Letters, in and of themselves, were representing greater and greater ideas.

So, when the countries of Europe went to war, they called letters into action. Nations needed brands.

Nationalism at the turn of the century

Nationalism was nothing new. For centuries, rulers had united their people behind shared languages, cultures, land, and history. Letters changed everything.

By the start of the 20th century, printing had come a long way since William Caxton printed the first books in vernacular English. Widespread literacy and affordable reading material made it easy to unite people behind shared languages and cultures, even where land was fragmented and history adversarial.

The nation suddenly became very powerful idea. Late in the 19th century, the numerous German and Italian kingdoms united into nation states. This alternative to dynastic empires and kingdoms drastically reshaped Europe’s political boundaries. In the Balkans, Serbian nationalists aspired to replicate what the Germans and Italians had accomplished—to unite the Slavic people in the Balkans in one nation state, Yugoslavia. This would displace the empire that dominated the area. 


The Vienna Secession

The Austral-Hungarian Empire—a distant descendant of the Carolingian Empire—entered the 20th century in a golden age. Political stability and relative liberalism had done the empire well. Her people had rapidly produced an array of epoch-defining contributions to science, philosophy, music, and art.

Visual artists and architects produced particularly lavish work. The influence of Art Nouveau was everywhere, but the results compared favourable to even the finest works in Paris. Fantastic buildings rose around Vienna, decorated with vines, palms, and leaves in vermilion and gold. New styles of printed art emerged, carried in the magazine Ver Sacrum, which featured fanciful types and sensuous—even erotic—imagery. The new movement, breaking away from conservative artistic traditions, called itself the Vienna Secession.

Made in Germany: the brand

The good times rolled all across Europe. The changes of the 19th century—industrialization, liberalization, the introduction of public education, the preservation and ordering of public spaces—had born fruit. Europe’s great powers had never been so wealthy. Nor had they been so numerous, counting the new German Empire.

In Germany, Britain found an unprecedented rival. Britain was the world's industrial titan—no country’s industrial output came close. But at the end of the 19th century, German productivity suddenly surged. Determined to hold onto their place at the top, Britain took measures against German industry.

Their first measure was an act of branding. In 1887, Britain passed a law that required German-made goods—then considered inferior—bear a mark, “Made in Germany”. The plan backfired when the quality of German goods surpassed that of British goods. The mark, meant as a scarlet letter, became inadvertent advertising. A century later, “Made in Germany” would become the world’s most trusted indicator of quality. But even in the 1910s, people knew what they were buying.

As far as blunders go, this was benign. But it was a prelude to a series of blunders that could only have happened at that time, in that pressure cooker—no matter its country-of-origin stamp.


Prelude to WW1

Back then, war in Europe was still normal. Less than a century earlier, Napoleon had lead his Grande Armée out of France and rampaged across Europe, humiliating military leaders across the continent. Not suffering the humiliation gracefully, Germans had since rampaged back into France three times—German unification itself was precipitated by a Prussian rampage—and they’d chewed a piece out of France in the process. Germany emerged as a great power. England, as the superpower du jour, seemed destined for conflict with the upstart. Both countries believed that when that day came, they would easily win in a short, decisive clash. They just needed an excuse.

Nationalism provided.

In 1908, Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia. This inflamed Yugoslavian nationalists, who felt that Bosnia ought to belong to their fledgling nation state. One teenage radical murdered one Austral-Hungarian archduke, and Germany and Britain got their war. It was neither short nor decisive.

Nations are abstractions—collections of implicitly agreed upon ideas. Humans and bullets, on the other hand, are material. When Gavrilo Princip's bullet severed Franz Ferdinand's jugular, it was an act of matter upon matter. One person was shot to death; it was abhorrent. The pain, the terror, the rent flesh, the blood, the annihilation of a person, the finality—these are the worst experiences.

But what are the experiences of a material person when used as an instrument of a nationan artificial creation that experiences nothing? A nation didn't shoot Franz Ferdinand. Gavrilo Princip didn't shoot an empire. And yet, ideas drove matter into inexorable motion.


War breaks out in Europe

A month after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the empires and nation states of Europe blundered their way into a brutal stalemate: a war that nominally pitted nation against nation, empire against empire, but really pitted industry against the flesh of men. Machine guns, artillery, poison gasses, tanks, submarines, and airplanes slaughtered humans by the millions. Nationsthe motive ideas behind the carnage—never stopped a single bullet, never spared a man fighting in their names. 

In Albert Camus’ The Plague, the narrator states, “When a war breaks out people say: 'It won't last, it's too stupid.' And war is certainly too stupid, but that doesn't prevent it from lasting. Stupidity always carries doggedly on, as people would notice if they were not always thinking about themselves.”

The leaders of the nations engaged in WW1, imbued with a stirring sense of national self to think about, carried doggedly on, using the ideas of nations—both their own and their enemies—to inform massive propaganda campaigns. These efforts spanned all available media—leaflets, posters, newspapers, postcards, radio, even children’s books and films.


Type in WW1 propaganda

Visuals in propaganda often sprang from newly broken ground in poster design—minimalist imagery was particularly effective. But the Pre-Raphaelite influence in Art Nouveau remained—when inspiring loyalty and courage, visuals emphasized the hero over the battlefield. Not so for letters. The whimsy and flow of Art Nouveau lettering would have been wildly inappropriate for such self-serious stupidity.

Staid, solid, and deeply traditional types proliferated. Bold Serif types and humanist Sans Serifs, similar to that of Edward Johnston’s recently debuted London Underground signage typeface, appeared in all countries’ posters. These types were easy to read, eye catching, and played well with minimalist imagery and simple messages. Handwriting appeared, used as personal addresses, from child to father, or wife to husband. When poster designers did use stylized fonts, they were toned down, but sharp enough to cut.

Letters pressed into service became representations of their nations. Forming words was no longer enough. The British rallied to Baskervilles and Caslons, Germans to Blackletters, French to Didones. In part, this was only natural—these were the fonts popular in each nation anyway. But the same could be said for language, or any other element of culture. Nations now had demonstrably vernacular letters.

The war ended as it started—stupidly. Sick of nations using them to sop up bullets, people rebelled. Mutinies and strikes broke out in France. Russia embroiled itself in a Marxist revolution and years of brutal civil war. Austria and Hungary split. Even the Germans, finally, experienced their own democratic revolution. In June of 1919, five years after it started, the war ended with the Treaty of Versailles. National printers produced copies of the treaty using their vernacular fonts.


The end of everything old

It’s tempting to look at big historical events like wars as spots where we can carve nature at its joints, as it were—epochal turning points, when everything changed. Many things did change during WW1—millions of people experienced the ultimate change, from life to death. But over the course of the First World War, the ideas that motivated the war only ossified. When it was over, the problems that they posed weren’t resolved, only fouled by death.

The same was true of design. Nothing new really came out of the reckless encounter. Only the old was destroyed. But out of the smouldering ruins, the survivors saw a chance to make something truly new.

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