What is the connection between blackletter and violent / extreme culture

Thord's picture

Dear typophiles, I’m currently writing a university essay on the connection between blackletter and violent and extreme subcultures. I know that there have been some discussions about the connection to Nazism, and the “The Bormann Decree” of 1941.
My interest is in its general use as a style associated with danger and violence. I want to understand why it has become popular with other subcultures. I know for instance that it is popular among gang members in Los Angeles. (Someone told me that it is fact banned at LA-schools, is that true?)

On the other hand is the said connection to neo Nazism. Two subcultures that are very different, maybe even oppositions, but still equally violent.

I am considering there to be three ways of understanding this:
1) An historic explanation, with its connections to the third reich and “the dark ages”.
2) An aesthetical explanation, in relation to the sharp edges and so on.
3) And finally a “functional” explanation, if you can call it that. Here I’m thinking of the legibility of these typefaces, which make them suitable for secret societies.

Part of my interest in this theme is to maybe be able to say something more general about what makes up and comunicates the “meaning” of a typeface. And how big a part of it is its historical connotations. A huge field of research of course.

As often with social sciences I suspect the explanation to be a combination of the three, but I would very much like to get your opinion on the matter. Are there any aspects of this that I’m missing? I am still quite early in the process, so any suggestions would be of great value. Maybe any of you know of any similar research that could be of interest?

hrant's picture

> Those who knew German—such as refugees, Jewish and non-Jewish—were
> of course aware that blackletter was far more general and historical.
> Hence Jewish organizations knew better than to have any bias against
> blackletter as a special Nazi invention.

There are two flaws in this:
1) It assumes all Jews are really into WWII-era German typography.
2) You can know something and still pretend not to.

The important thing about blackletter is that it's not just a fringe/grunge tool.
The US mainstream uses it to demonize things it considers the enemy:

What remains is to identify/admit who plays what role in driving the US mainstream. And if you're basing your views on official press releases, you can't get there from here.

(Of course now it's time for some textbook Anglo "Yeah, it's all a big conspiracy, ha ha ha!" escapist sarcasm. As if people with power have ever needed to conspire anything instead of simply going ahead with their obvious plans.)


alexfjelldal's picture

>I would be interested in the story of why within Germany itself they avoided blackletter after WWII.

Blackletter isn't too easy to read, that would be a reason to abandon it in schoolbooks.

I have been told that the nazi regime abandoned black-letter (they called it schwabacher, i think) during the war, when they discovered it had jewish roots or so. If this is true, it would be interesting to know how the regime explained such a "mistake". Do you have any info on that, Georg?

Thord: Sorry to lead your thread even more astray :-)


hrant's picture

Dammit where's my archives dammit!! :-/
All this is in there, so we shouldn't have to re-correct people all the time!

BTW, blackletter is MORE readable.


Thord's picture

No problem Alex. What you are talking of is the mentioned “Bormann Decree”. I also found a quote that might cast some light on your question about why it was abandoned.Although I suspect not everyone here will agree with the statements:

"The Nazi resurrection of Fraktur type offers another historically important example of ideology in typography. Fraktur, a typeface initially prized by the Nazis for its "German-ness," symbolized a totalitarian politics that valued style over content. Not surprisingly, once early victories "encouraged them to look beyond Germany's borders, the Nazis, quickly recognized the usefulness of a plainer, more 'European' style, banned Fraktur on 3 January 1941 as a 'Jewish invention."
Surrogate multiplicities: Typography in the age of invisibility
Visible Language, 2001 by Salen, Katie


Bleisetzer's picture

"I would be interested in the story of why within Germany itself they avoided blackletter after WWII. Was there any association by Germans of fraktur with the Nazi era? Was it a product of the occupation by the Allies? Was it an extension of the Nazi ban on blackletter? A combination?"

One thing before:
There was a strikt order from Deutsche Wehrmacht for signs and posters in all occupied east european countries, Poland, Russia, to use only Antiqua or Grotesk fonts. The reason was: The people in these countries could not read "Fraktur"-Fonts (Blackletter). So it made no sense to hang up posters in blackletter.

After World War II.. its is difficult to explain for me, as a german, to you guys. I'll try to be honest and do not want to offend anyone, okay?

The "normal" german was lucky to survive the war. That's all. Everything was "kaputt" and everyone was missing husband or wife, children, brother or whomever. Lots of their beloved were dead. Winter '46 and '47 were very hard and most of the houses in the cities were bombed. The people wanted to eat, to sleep and to find their families. Nobody was interested in fonts.

I can only speak for the people in West Germany, I guess in East Germany it was worse. From end of the 40ies it became better. And the Allies in each zone of Germany set the standard: Music, newspapers, culture, and fonts. 12 years nobody was allowed to have his own suggestions. Now they believed in becoming freedom and a better life. Yes, I am sure that - for a while - the germans worked out a kind of mimikry "Let's look to the americans/english soldiers to know what is good music, fashion and culture."

The use of blackletter was old fashion. That's why it was not used anymore. But that's all. I do not think anyone in Germany thought blackletters are Nazi stuff. It was as old as "Deutsche Gemutlichkeit" (you know that "typical german having fun? argghh..)

Okay, I did my very best. Hang me.



William Berkson's picture

>when they discovered it had jewish roots or so.

No, the story has been related here before. As I remember the story, at some point the Nazis realized to administer their conquered territories they had to use roman, which was also the only thing available in local printing plants. So they made the ridiculous 'discovery' that blackletter was Jewish. This was just one of the piles of Nazi lies. Except for the original Roman caps, all the latin letter forms in the 15th century, when printing came in,had been of course developed by Christian scribes.

Here's a link to the 'Bormann Decree', which rejected blackletter.

hrant's picture

> This was just one of the piles of Nazi lies.

Now they're gone, but new liars have replaced them,
and with similar lies, just more expertly crafted.


timd's picture

>The US mainstream uses it to demonize things it considers the enemy

Exactly why a youth culture would choose it.

>iron cross, swastika, “pickelhaube” spiked helmets, the term “Hells’s Angels” from the Howard Hughes film.

But not blackletter, preferring a tuscan style although the Nazi association exists of course those are also the things that a youth might choose to upset "the man" rather than any admiration or sympathy for Nazism, rather like Sid Vicious in 1977.


skelly's picture

Interesting article that mentions the connection between blackletter and graffiti:


dberlow's picture

"My interest is in its general use as a style associated with danger and violence."

...and newspaper logotypes, among other things. The fact that some these places are now and forever, echoes of previous uses for anti-humanist purposes is still, echoes and all, just one small branch of its use. It is our most primal form of type and as such, it is a "can't miss" font when you think about attraction of attention in the many places it is used.

Hiroshige's picture

It's all about volume (as in intensity), and how you play off that volume. The cultures and subcultures that use this aesthetic theme are making a loud and proud declaration. Some of it that I've seen, is pretty damn sexy stuff.

And kudos to those artists that are doing (and have done) kick ass work - whether it be for the nazi party or a snoope dogg birthday party.


alexfjelldal's picture

another thing, thord: you're writing on blackletter+extremism, i.e. rebellion and typography. maybe it would be interesting to mention or consider graffiti as youth rebellion through calligraphy, regardless of the aesthetic similarities between graffiti and blackletter. A band like Hatebreed communicates by choosing type, but a graffiti writer communicates by performing type.

god helg!


Thord's picture

That might be a good idea. What you mention about rebellion also has another dimension to it that has not been mentioned explicitly in this forum.
The nature of the modern use of blackletter in these instances; motorcycle gangs, black metal, American gangs and even neo nazis are quite different from its use in pre-war Germany, when the use was part of a national and government agenda. In other words; today it is used to upset “the man” as timd put it, whereas “the man” represented the use in that era.

Bleisetzer's picture

"...today it is used to upset “the man” as timd put it, whereas “the man” represented the use in that era."

These pics are one week old from Vienna, Austria.
I think the shop which uses the gothik font (or the "bad Nazi Stiefelknecht-Fraktur font" how someone said in this thread) is a young fashioned hairdresser. I do not know it, but it could be "Chadim" is a jewish name? However, not so important, but would be another argument against your theory against blackletters. I do not believe jewish people would use blackletters if there is any relationship to Nazism.

I saw no Hell's Angel walking around, only the two young employees, astonished why I was making pictures. But laughing, when I told them the reason was their window with the gothic font. They heard Haydn - classic music. I could not see any HipHoppers or Grunge or Mexican street gang members anywhere around.

Can it be its the "cultural remembering" is different seeing blackletters from country to country?


William Berkson's picture

>Can it be its the “cultural remembering” is different seeing blackletters from country to country?

I would expect this to be true, but I don't know; that's why I was asking about the story within Germany. There has to be more to the story than what you related above.

>it could be “Chadim” is a jewish name?

I don't know--the name seems to come from Bohemia. All Jews in Vienna were dispossessed of all their property in 1938-39 and almost all either left the country or were murdered--in Dachau or elsewhere. So if the shop owner is Jewish it couldn't actually have been continously 'in family possession since 1905'.

hrant's picture

Georg, sorry, I can't leave you alone here: you're in denial.
Maybe travel would help.

William, you can't say "all". Also: maybe they weren't Jewish -in terms of religion- for the whole duration. Just like some Armenians converted to Islam to avoid being murdered by the Turks. Anyway, the bottom line is: you can't be so sure.


Bleisetzer's picture

@ hrant

Is it possible to explain in more easy words what it means.
I cannot understand it:
"Georg, sorry, I can’t leave you alone here: you’re in denial.
Maybe travel would help."



Bleisetzer's picture

There is a jewish community in Vienna again, we visited the Jewish Museum and I spoke with a Zionis lady in the bookshop nearby. Some of the jewish came back to Vienna after 1945. Some of them might have continued their old business again. But, how I wrote, this was not the major point. Its one of the fonts some of the members here called "Nazi fonts". A Group Xa - Gothic font.


Nick Shinn's picture

And kudos to those artists that are doing (and have done) kick --- work - whether it be for the nazi party or a snoope dogg birthday party.

You've got that the wrong way round.
Kudos belongs to those artists who decline to let the end (doing kickarse work) justify the means (being bankrolled by fascists and chauvinists).

hrant's picture

Thanks for that, Nick.


William Berkson's picture

Hrant, you are misinformed. Study and learn.

A recent newspaper account:

"According to historical records, of the roughly 200,000 Jews living in Austria before the country was annexed by the Nazis in 1938, some 65,000 perished in the Holocaust, mostly in Nazi concentration camps. Most of the rest were forced to leave or fled to escape certain death.

At the end of the war, only about 1,000 Jews had survived.

Jewish homes and properties were systematically looted by the authorities, Nazi party factions and private citizens..."

From other sources: By German laws (Austria had become part of 'Greater Germany') all Jews were dispossessed of retail business (such as the one pictured), manufacturing business and professional licenses, such as doctor and lawyer. Adolph Eichmann was in charge of the persecution in Austria, and his actions were taken as a model for persecution elsewhere.

Finally, Jewishness was not defined by the Nazis by religion, but by ancestry.

hrant's picture

A fine press release.

My complaint is simply with your absolutism. I guess you can't see that you can't be sure that not a single Jewish business survived in Austria - that's a sign of fascism itself. Luckily the Nazi system, being made up of humans, wasn't a perfect machine - in fact it was less "efficient" than some other systems are today...

Study and learn... balanced, objective thought.


Si_Daniels's picture

>Finally, Jewishness was not defined by the Nazis by religion, but by ancestry.

I'm guessing there weren't too many converts in Europe during the thousand year reich? I wonder how they "defined" gypsies, communists, mentally disabled and the others victimised at the time?

Any way back on subject - from our local "Bavarian" town...

j_polo9's picture

wow thats funny. whats the explination to the sign?

William Berkson's picture

>I’m guessing there weren’t too many converts in Europe during the thousand year reich?

Not so good a guess--I mean if you are talking about the already converted, who were persecuted.

The German and Austrian Jewish community was the most assimilated in the world at the time, I believe. Vienna in particular was a magnet for converted Jews. For example, the parents of my own teacher, the late Karl Popper, were Jews who converted to Christianity. And he was one of those who had to flee Vienna. That he was nominally Christian made no difference to the Nazis. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, the Jewish community of Vienna in 1938 said that Austria had about 180,000 Jews, 90% in Vienna. Himmler's lists had 220,000 people targeted as Jews for persecution. In other words the numbers of converts and those of mixed descent numbered an additional 20% over the number of religiously identified Jews.

hrant's picture

More press releases.
Then they wonder why the world is going to hell in a handbasket.


Si_Daniels's picture

>wow thats funny. whats the explination to the sign?

It's a real Starbucks in a fake Bavarian town in WA state...

All the shop signs have to conform to local font rules :-) Here's a fun one...


Our motel room was directly above the Starbucks - not much fun the staff arrived pretty early.

Although it sounds cheesy (and the gift shops are) the food is pretty authentic - we had some great schnitzel in an underground restaurant with imported German beer and a real German accordion player... here's a linkie if you're ever in the area... http://www.andreaskellerrestaurant.com/

Choz Cunningham's picture

Complaints of absolutism are irrelevant and simplistly ill-tempered. It also doesn't matter if William was grossly oversimplifying things. It is wiser to err in descriptions of WW2 on the side of horrorific, until it makes one externalize it. There were enough witness; "a good number" of the Jewish were persecuted, and their businesses were confiscated and destroyed. Existential doubts of existence beyond one's mind aside, arguing with that pretty much suggest a need for new medicine. Regardless, business prospects were poor for known Jews. If the name 'Chadim' was indeed obviously Jewish, it woulda gotten "some quantity" of grief. Of course, what we don't know is if:

It's been around since 1905, minus the war years
Same business, with a revised name sometime post-war
It was temporarily called Moe's Tavern for a tense era in the 40's
It was one of the few that somehow, through an odd quirck of fate, survived and stayed open, openly Jewish-owned

or, and this is why the parts you nit-picked are void,

Maybe it isn't a Jewish surname. Of course, no one found the answer, so what difference do attacks on that sub-thread make? And we can't presume an answer, for if it was indeed a Jewish surname, it would have likely have been trashed, but then, if it survived that, they would be very likely to subtlely advertise that today. The odds weigh against each other.

Okay, sorry everyone for taking the childish trollbait. I'm done.

Back to the topic at hand. I'd have to say that if there was a Nazification of Blackletter, it all happened so fast that that there certainly had to betons of Germans, including Jews that had been using it since the 19th century's end. Fonts were enduring, governments were not. What would they care if another government used the same font the last few had? If America were to change governments twice in our lives, then be taken over by an oppressive extremist party, and they started their regime endorsing Times New Roman (before dropping it), would that mean anything at all to even a typographer, or would there possibly be more pressing issues?

I would love to hear more about Thord's 3rd conjecture, regarding legibility, and clique adoption. It puts Blackletter forward as a sort of slang or jargon for creating exclusivity. Are there parallel examples with other faces?

Choz Cunningham
!Exclamachine Type Foundry
The Snark

hrant's picture

Absolutism is not something to glossed over - it a sign of disease. Of fascism.
And sadly it is common among fervently religious people.

But anyway, I'm sorry I'm just really bad at swallowing opportunistic propaganda like I'm supposed to. It's because, living in the US, I'm drowning in it. Maybe if I was born and raised here I'd be better at believing that the sewage was drinking water.


William Berkson's picture

>sorry everyone for taking the childish trollbait

Lately I have avoided responding to Hrant's provocations as it just results in a torrent of insult and invective with little relation to the facts. However, here I did not want to let his attempt to minimise the holocaust pass. The result has, of course, been a stream of false and malicious insult and invective.

>Of course, what we don’t know is if: ...It was one of the few that somehow, through an odd quirck of fate, survived and stayed open, openly Jewish-owned

Choz, we do know. First of all, as I wrote, all Jews in Austria were officially dispossessed of retail business--by Goering's decree of 12 November 1938. Officially no Jew could own a business, and this is not my 'absolutism' but simply the absolutism of Nazi policy.

And we know the policy was ruthlessly and efficiently enforced by the Nazis, directed by Adolph Eichmann. It was also enforced by Nazi gangs who regularly went around beating Jews and destroying businesses. Then subsequently during the war Jews were systematically hunted down and killed. Hence it is inconceivable that any openly Jewish retail business could have operated in Vienna throughout the war. The 1000 out of 200,000 Jews who were still alive and in Austria at the end of the war didn't survive by being openly Jewish. They were either hiding or hiding their Jewishness. They certainly weren't openly running a retail business in Vienna during the war.

In any case, as the history of the Chadim shoe and leather repair business makes clear, it has only been called 'Chadim' since 1980; I don't know whether that is a Jewish name--it is certainly not a common one.

Bleisetzer's picture

"It’s because, living in the US, I’m drowning in it."

Wenn man in Amerika lebt, einem Land, das niemals einen Krieg im eigenen Land hat erleben müssen, ist es wahrscheinlich einfacher, kluge Weisheiten von sich zu geben. Man hat dann ein so wunderschön enges Gesichtsfeld, gebildet aus 3-Min.-Nachrichten, von denen 2:50 Min. über das Inland berichten. Aber was solls..

"In any case, as the history of the Chadim shoe and leather repair business makes clear, it has only been called ‘Chadim’ since 1980, and earlier was owned by those with more clearly Germanic names, who were very unlikely to have been Jewish. I think it is also unlikely that the current owner is Jewish, though I may be wrong."

Okay, so the owner of the shop is not jewish. But, how I said, its not the point. The point is the gothic font he uses. What he - as all the Vienna shops - wants is an association to the "Kaiserzeit", "when the world still was going its correct way." He uses the gothic font as a marketing tool. And he seems to be successful. By the way: In the hotel, we lived, were a lot of american tourists. They all thought "lovely" and no one was thinking about Nazi fonts.


hrant's picture

> minimise the holocaust

More warping of the facts. The only thing I was trying to do is minimize your absolutism, your faith in the Nazis when it suits your agenda, an agenda which: does not really involve type; and seems to trigger paragraphs of unsolicited off-topic elaborations at every iota of a pretext. "Officially no Jew could own a business"? Yeah, and officially anybody who drives over the speed limit gets a ticket. That world is one of paper, not flesh. And "openly running a retail business"? Improvise away to distortionland!! The main minimizing that's going on here is one of human nature. You guys made "Schindler's List", right? Go watch it again.

William, if you can't simply admit that "couldn’t actually have been" does not make sense, that something like "was very unlikely to have been" is the more balanced, human thing to say, then please at least give mensch.com (or however you spelled it) to somebody else. And send your resume to the White House.


dezcom's picture

How it is used is the key for usetoday. Blackletter shouldcrtainly be available as a typgraphic tool just like any other type style. When it is used with evil images as seen in horror films, it gets the evil devil look. When used in religious material it gets the old church look. When used on white supremicist skin-head propaganda, it gets the nazi look.

There is much more to typography than choosing a typeface. Content and context matter. Let's give graphic designers and typographers the option of using the tool in a good way. There was a great deal of typewriter text used by hate groips a few decades back when there were few options. Nobody stopped using typewriter for everything else.

If your thesis is to examine blackletter and hate groups, show blackletter used in the many other ways it has been used as well. Be careful of the self-fulfilling prophesy.


Nick Shinn's picture

I recently came across a Hitler-era series of glossy German design magazines in an old paper sale, but unfortunatley decided the price was a bit steep, because they were very interesting. I particularly recall an article on the autobahn system, with lots of beautiful pictures of empty highways. The typographic layouts were justified-modernist, and the display typefaces were Futura Light all caps and blackletter. The whole effect was complex and very disconcerting,

Bleisetzer's picture

"Be careful of the self-fulfilling prophesy."

Oh man. This is exactly my impression from the beginning of the thread.
Remember - the title is "What is the connection..." and not neutral "Is there any connection..."

This means, Thord, may be, is not searching if there is an interaction between blackletters and violance and Nazism, but its his theory and he now looks for references for his theory.

Si_Daniels's picture

>If your thesis is to examine blackletter and hate groups, show blackletter used in the many other ways it has been used as well.

Here, here! I'll drink to that Corona's all round! :-)

William Berkson's picture

>They all thought “lovely” and no one was thinking about Nazi fonts.

As I said, I think the association of blackletter and Naziism is very unfortunate. I am happy if it is fading.

>Yeah, and officially anybody who drives over the speed limit gets a ticket.

False analogy. Catching all speeders is impossible. Dispossessing all Jews of retail businesses with storefronts in Vienna was easy for the Nazis. Way easier than catching individual Jews, and of Jews they killed or drove out 99.5%. Making German lands 'Judenrein'--'cleansed of Jews'--was a top priority of the Nazi government. The idea that they couldn't find a Jewish storefront in the capital of Austria during seven years--1938-45--of systematic hunting and killing is absurd.

Bleisetzer's picture

In US is and was never a duty to announce after finding a new place to live.
In Germany and Austria such an announcement was and it is an absolutely duty. Maybe this information is unknown by some of the americans..

Si_Daniels's picture

>In US is and was never a duty to announce after finding a new place to live.

unless you're are a foreigner or registered sex offender.

Cheers, Si

cuttlefish's picture

>In US is and was never a duty to announce after finding a new place to live.

Or if you want to continue receiving your mail.

Linda Cunningham's picture

Not if you're a foreigner, unless that's changed in the last few years. I could move anywhere I wanted and not have to go register that change with INS. The IRS, and state licence registry, were informed, of course, but that would have made me just like a real citizen.


Si_Daniels's picture

or vote?

Si_Daniels's picture

>Not if you’re a foreigner, unless that’s changed in the last few years.

It had always been the law, but only got enforced after 9/11.


Linda Cunningham's picture

No vote. Taxation without representation. :-(

(OTOH, if you are a U.S. citizen but not a U.S. resident, you have to file with INS and, in most cases, pay U.S. taxes on your worldwide income.)


Linda Cunningham's picture

Well, registration is one more reason why I don't want to move south of the border again....

Thord's picture

To Chris. I have of course no intentions of writing a normative thesis. You seem to imply that I am suggesting graphic designers should not be able to choose whichever tools they wish. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

There can be little doubt that there are many good examples of use of blakletter where there are no associations to violence or danger. But sticking to your analogy of tools, the same could be said of the knife. Most knives are designed for and used for peacefull purposes and I’m certainly not afraid when I open my kitchen drawer. But this does not change the fact that a part of the nature of knives is that they are sometimes misused as a tool of violence.

Good graphic design is good communication. When working with it you need to take into consideration how the public interprets the work. If not you will have no understanding of the effects of the tools that you use. This is why an understanding of peoples interpretations should be interesting to any graphic designer, no matter how mislead and ignorant they are. If my work, as a graphic designer, is misunderstood by the public I have failed, no matter how right my intentions are.

hrant's picture

Well said.

> If my work, as a graphic designer, is misunderstood by the public I have failed

But still, the important thing is to try.
Yoda was dead wrong on that.


vinceconnare's picture

Zurich not so violent.

ebensorkin's picture

Well put Thord!

ebensorkin's picture

BTW- The impression I have had a about mexico ( & south america ) and black letter is that it has been seen as just another style for a long time. Lot's of stuff is set in it & it means more & more just 'mexican' or 'local' to them.

Check out this bus in Ecuador


Maybe it started with beer halls started by Bavarian immigrants. If so they were probably meaning this beer is 'German'. I don't know for sure. But blackletter became normal & after a while contrasted with US type culture. I think that's why gangs in LA took up the blackletter. I don't think they had coolness or hardness envy for the hells angels or whatever. I think they were attempting to be seen as more Mexican. And then there is CA surf culture which adopted blackletter. Maybe because they were going to Mexico to surf. Betwteen the two cultural sources blackletter made it into Hawaiian graphic design where it's meaning seems to be again: local pride. The Hawaiian graphic designers are not being neo-nazi's. And where I live in Alaska we have big 4x4 trucks owned by native alaskans that have stickers in the back window that say 'native pride' in black letter. I can't say that this doesn't look a little odd to me. But that isn't the point. The point is how they read the meaning in the letter style. BTW - don't take my history too seriously. It's just my guesswork. One day I will get a shot of the sticker.

Also has anybody metioned the work of Cristina Paoli?


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