Nazi Taint - Redirect from: Design >> Overused Typefaces

hrant's picture

{Over in the Design area, there's a thread called "Overused Typefaces"* which has sprouted an interesting discussion about blackletter. I'm trying to redirect it over here. I was going to call this new thread "OK to Hate", considering my post below, but I realized it needed to be broader.

Starting: Tuesday, June 10, 2003 - 10:41 am}

> a revival of blackletter may be helped along by its role in an interesting historical situation.

I have a short-story-length expose boiling over in my head about this at the moment, but for now let me ask this "set-up" question:

Why is hating blackletter -by associating it with the Nazis- seemingly encouraged by most people? Especially when you consider that the Nazis disowned it! Is it perhaps because it also seems to be OK to hate Germans in general (at least in the US)? It can't be anti-Semitism, since very few people know/believe the (false) story that blackletter was Jewish. Is it because people need something to hate? Is it due to brainwashing? Or what?

> why did the nazis feel they had to pretend that this wasn't a simple practical measure.

Maybe because they could get more milage out of it by pretending it was part of fighting Jews.


John Hudson's picture

> why did the nazis feel they had to pretend that this wasn't a simple practical measure.

Because they were commited to an idea of German national culture that required the preservation and celebration of anything distinctively German. The only way to get rid of something so obviously German as blackletter, was to deny its Germanity.

I also think it was a characteristic of Nazism to require an ideological reason for everything, so 'simple practical measures' were unlikely to be acknowledged as such. If it is possible to relate your ideology to absolutely every aspect of life, you can present this as evidence of the universal truth of your ideology.

John Hudson's picture

Why is hating blackletter -by associating it with the Nazis- seemingly encouraged by most people? Especially when you consider that the Nazis disowned it!

I don't think it is actively encouraged; it just isn't discouraged and most people don't know any better. The vast majority of people have no idea about the Bormann memo or the official rejection of blackletter by the Nazi regime. All they know is that in every WWII film they have ever seen blackletter is used for Nazi documents, signage, etc. And when game developers produce the latest version of Castle Wolfenstein or Day of Defeat, what do they use to evoke the WWII period? Blackletter.

johnbutler's picture

First of all, most of the anti-blackletter sentiment and false association with NS is among modern Germans, not Americans. It stems from the postwar sentiment to reject anything and everything that could even remotely be connected with NS, a great example of the classic leftist bad habit of not bothering to match sentiment with commitment or diligence. In other words, the Rule of Thumb wins out over knowing where to stop.

Second, I wouldn't say that most Americans consider it "OK to hate Germans in general" and don't understand where you get this crazy notion. It may have been true after the war, but most Americans today have a rather neutral or favorable opinion of Germany and Germans, notwitstanding the usual bickering over the recent Iraq war. Personally I wouldn't trade my Audi for any American car on the market, and I love traveling in Germany.

If you read the rest of Bain & Shaw's book, you will see that today blackletter is mostly associated with Heimatkitsch, goth music, and certain subcultures in Germany. Certain styles (Schaftstiefelgrotesks like Element, Tannenberg and Deutschland) are definitely and perhaps correctly associated with NS. And blackletters of all types are routinely commandeered by lunatic fringe designers.

But the mistake of permitting that fringe to get away with "making those types their own" is what grates on me the most. Of course, others make this same argument about the swastika, but I can't go that far. The swastika was relatively obscure before its adoption by NS, whereas blackletter was a centuries-old institution with origins and roots both inside and outside what is now Germany.

The only way to counter this is to start using blackletters again for general purposes--even body text! (Yeah, I know, good luck selling a client on that. :-) So far I only see them in reprints.

There's also the readability issue, which is already discussed in another thread.

hrant's picture

> The only way to counter this is to start using blackletters again for general purposes

Yes! Just thrust the iron into the fire.

And I was thinking that the ideal type of place to do that would be "The History of Yiddish" or something! You would have a colophon explaining the whole sordid affair, and how it doesn't make sense to hate blackletter.

But you would need a new breed of blackletter.
Broken record, I know:


John Hudson's picture

It stems from the postwar sentiment to reject anything and everything that could even remotely be connected with NS, a great example of the classic leftist bad habit of not bothering to match sentiment with commitment or diligence.

To be fair to postwar German social democrats, cultural de-Nazification was vigorously imposed by the occupying powers, particularly the Americans in West Germany, and those responsible can't be expected to have had a nuanced and informed sense of the role of blackletter in German history longer than twenty years. This was one of the topics discussed at the blackletter panel in Leipzig. One of the interesting aspects of this period is that the Soviet occupiers in East Germany really didn't seem to care one way or the other about blackletter, probably because they lacked any understanding or interest in the blackletter vs. antiqua debate of what was, for them, a foreign script. This is one of the reasons why interest in blackletter persisted in East Germany (e.g. by Albert Kapr in Leipzig) when it was still virtually taboo in the West.

johnbutler's picture

An interesting point, John.

I do not believe that most ordinary Germans object to blackletter for headlines and subheads (the Frakfurter Allgemeine uses 16pt or so textura subheads in its columns to this day.) There would probably only be widespread irritation if it were used as body text in a book... the usual "man kann das nicht lesen."

And Hrant, I'm trying hard to disagree about the Yiddish idea but can't. :-) In addition, there were a number of Jewish type designers... I believe Berthold Wolpe was Jewish. He studied under Koch and fled to London in 1935. He designed a blackletter called Sachsenwald-Gotisch. Some more details can be found here. I haven't been able to locate a specimen. (Perhaps Andreas has one?)

andreas's picture

No John, ;-) Its hard for me to get English or American specimen books, like for you folks getting some nice German ones. The NZ black letter debate frustrates me. Its like you cry to the world "No, the earth is not a disc!" - So I hope someday some designers are frustrated by the 1000 reincarnation of a sans serif design and try to made some fusions with blackletters for text faces. It could be interesting. One funny thing to the Castle Wolfenstein game. All posters are fakes. Mostly the spelling was false too. (like Japanese using fake English looking words - "Dinglish" to style trendy things) They should buy some German stamps or postcards from this time to get a real feeling, but who cares.

andreas's picture

Him... the dark side of Bitstream? What does it mean?

hrant's picture

> Berthold Wolpe ... designed a blackletter called Sachsenwald-Gotisch

Rookledge's calls this a "romanized blackletter", which makes me really want to see a sample.

BTW, Wolpe's very first font (Hyperion, designed in 1931 but released only in 1952) is a highly intriguing Roman in one weight with distinct blackletter overtones, and a slant of about 6 degrees. It hasn't been digitized... yet. Here's a sample of the 16 point, collaged from a scan of the Bauer/Neufville specimen book:



sham's picture

I had a client once that rejected blackletter because he associated it with the "low-riders" in the area.

I can't help but think about the swastika with all this nazi talk. Blackletter will recover eons before this ancient symbol does.

hrant's picture
Type is sexy.
Fraktur is sexiest.


bieler's picture


Catching the tail end of this. I have a number of the Wolpe Sachsenwalds and the Rundgotish that were cast by the Hansestadt Letter Foundry. These are all Monotype cast on a Super Caster. Mint. And they are all for sale, as are all my other remaining blackletter castings!!! Wilhelm-Klingspor-Schrift, Claudius Fraktur, Post-Fraktur Initialen...


hrant's picture

I was reading this:
and it hit me that the way to re-legitimatize blackletter might be to take the Beetle path, whatever that is.


hrant's picture

That doesn't sound right. From what I know blackletter is the "umbrella" term, and it has four main substyles: textura, fraktur, rotunda and schwabacher.


dan_reynolds's picture

Josh, allow me to "drool all over the keyboard"

dan_reynolds's picture

I took a look at your website, LHOON, and I must say that I disagree with you about Helvetica.

While I am saddend by the supression of blackletter, amoung other things, in late 20th C design, I think that responding to this by turning around and trying to "eliminate" Helvetica is silly. How different is this from designers who tried, and are trying to elimiate blackletter from the typographic pallette? There was a time when blackletter was comparatively as ubiquitous as Helvetica is today (esp. in Germany).

Just as Tschichold, later in life, looked back at his New Typography, and saw parallels between its polemic and fascism, current "blacklashing" against Helvetica by a tiny minority of designers is just as bad.

Helvetica became one of the most used computer fonts in the world because it had alrady been used successfully for two and a half decades in metal and film form! It wasn't the Mac (or the PC) that made Helvetica so ubiquitous, it was swiss designers themselves. Already in the 1970s, American designers were writing articles in design journals decrying how Helvetica had taken over the world.

And lastly, regarding a comment on your site, I find it unlikely that "Hitler" would rejoice at the triumph of Helvetica in the world. While Helvetica is a descendent of German sans serif typefaces, these were NOT the sorts typefaces that the NS supported the usage of. They disapproved of modernism in virtually all of its manifestations.

"Hate" is just too string for anything, especially something like typefaces or type choices (and I'm a TYPE designer!). Aren't there better things in the world to fight against, and collect petitions for the abolition of, than Helvetica?

hrant's picture

Although I think banning Helvetica (or any font, even Comic Sans :-) is counterproductive, in the blackletter/Helvetica comparison, reducing usage of the latter certainly has more merit, because: many people who want to ban blackletter are motivated by policital manipulation; blackletter has functional merit, which has yet to be really explored; and Helvetica is a poor type design.

Hate is indeed too strong an emotion to feel for a font, but it's not too strong an emotion to feel for the motivations behind the contemporary denigration of blackletter.

BTW, some good news:
So maybe a blackletter revival will first come from within Germany after all.


dezcom's picture

What of the numerous Christian books and Bibles in Blackletter caligraphy? This certainly has nothing to do with Nazis.
I don't even think Nazi when I see most blackleter fonts. Fette Fractur and those like it do however create the image in my mind. I don't think Fracturs or any font or style of font should be banned. Mass murders and ill treatment of people should be banned, not the type that just happened to be in use at the time.


dan_reynolds's picture


blackletter type relates to Bibles in two distinct ways, both of which are often misunderstood. As you alluded, medieval manuscripts were normally written with calligraphic hands that acted as the influence for the the first typefaces.

The "gothic" style of lettering (i.e., texturas) probably developed in the Ille de France concurrently with the advent of Gothic Architecture. As French art and culture (including gothic architecture) spread across Europe by storm, these scripts were passed along as well, although every one (country) wrote them a little differently. Interesting to note that neither Gothic architecture nor gothic scripts ever took a firm hold in Italy (where the italic types that we use today were formuated).

Gutenberg copied the format of the medieval manuscript (very quickly and very well) for his first Bibles. The catholic church in Germany continued to set Latin text in Gutenberg-like texturas for generations (this might be a bit of a generalization).

What really made Fraktur the German typeface was the printing of the complete Luther translation of the Bible in it, during the 1530s. The Lutheran Bible (in German) remained set in the Fraktur variety of blackletter until the 1960s!

The Luther Bible is oftenregarded as the definitive book of the German language. In fact, Luther practically invented hochdeutsch when he wrote it, because he needed to find a langauge that would universally be understood. Even today, German-speaking countries have a range of perlexing dialects. And, it was the Bible after all... talk about a good seller.

So, the Luther Bible was the first book printed in the modern German language, and it was printed in Fraktur. This is hard to fight against. It was the standard setter. How could one set German in anything else?

Well, after the 1800s, a lot of Germans started setting a lot of German books in serif type, because a lot of serif typefaces are easier too read than a lot of Frakturs (I like Hrant's theory that Fraktur Boumas are inherently more legible, but design plays a large role in the translation of this theory... some Frakturs, like some latinate Serif faces, are just bad for use in text). Books that were originally written in other languages, and books that were aimed at the scholarly, upper class (think a special edition of Goethe's Faust, for instance) were now being printed in latinate serif type (called Antiqua in German). Books for the masses, and newspapers, remained in Fraktur until the very end... which was Hitler's banning of Fraktur in 1941, and West Germany's quick, unfounded, association of Fraktur type with Nazism immediately after the war's close.

So, Bibles and Blackletters go hand-in-hand, in more ways than one.

dezcom's picture

Thanks Dan, that was an enlightenment :-)

serin's picture

Hi everyone,

Just a thought - about the "saving" of Blackletter by using it in publication again. In my eyes, Blackletter suffers now because of its past involvement with "historical situations" which has politisized Blackletter beyond repair. I think what needs to be done is not use it for something which one could directly relate to Germany, history, or indeed any modern subculture. I think it needs to be used for something totally unexpected if it is ever going to be accepted again as a viable type for every day use. Using it for something such as a history of Yiddish would, I think, only serve to strengthen the box that Blackletter has been placed in.

How about a children's book set in Blackletter? Or a cookery book? And if not, why not? I am not sure what I think of these yet, but I would like to see how others react... :-)

Blackletter is so laden with meaning, whatever you believe that meaning to be, that to really bring it back into the realms of an everyday typeface, it needs to become meaningess once more, as it began - as a vernacular, common font of the people. To rid it of its meaning, it needs to be thrust into totally unusual circumstances. Then, I reckon, it's sink or swim. If it works, then we can rejoice! If it doesn't then we will know for certain that Blackletter belongs in the realm of the decorative and unusual. Not that that's a bad thing....

By the way, I am new to all this - both Blackletter and this forum. I am a Graphic Design student with a fascination for Blackletter and am currently writing a dissertation about it. Until now, my knowledge has been very patchy, but it's slowly improving! Let's just hope it improves quickly enough to write a first class dissertation!


dan_reynolds's picture

Sorry everyone, I hit the "send" button too quickly here

dan_reynolds's picture

>Using it for something such as a history of Yiddish would, I think, only serve to strengthen the box
that Blackletter has been placed in.

This sort of book has probably been printed in blackletter several times, albeit most of them pre-1941.

>How about a children's book set in Blackletter? Or a cookery book? And if not, why not? I am not sure what I think of these yet, but I would like to see how others react... :-)

No one would buy it :-(

Another thing to remember: there are several types of blackletter (as has been mentioned over and over again above). Some of them are optimized for the setting of the German language, and some of the

serin's picture

Hi Dan

Thanks so much for your advice. I am indeed reading Blackletter:Type and National Identity right now and finding it fascinating reading! As for my German - more than a little rusty! If only Blackletter was popular in France....

I have done a fair bit of reading already and I have been surprised by the lack of information (in English) that there is out there. I have already read every book in my library that says anything about Blackletter and it didn't take too long!

As for the children's book and cookery book idea - of course you are right. But the Yiddish book - I meant that using Blackletter in a modern day context for something such as a history of Yiddish would be detrimental. If Blackletter is to be accepted into modern culture as anything but a decorative font, it needs to be used with something other than a historical topic.

I hope I can make some interesting points along the way, anyhow! I will be using this place as a sounding board for ideas for my dissertation, so I really appreciate you taking the time to reply.


dan_reynolds's picture

Well, even if your German is really "rusty," try reading everything you can find by Albert Kapr. He is dead now, but he taught in Leipzig for most of the GDR-era. My favorite book it his Franktur: Form und Geschichte der gebrochenen Schriften. Even the pictures would tell you a lot.

Also, blackletter WAS very popular in France. The broken-style of handwriting (which Gutenberg used as the model for his textura typefaces

hrant's picture

Cassie, great to see such budding interest in blackletter, and great to have you on Typophile too!

Although time heals all, the reason I think something like a book about Yiddish would be "optimal" is that currently -as you say- the negative associations of blackletter are too strong for it to be used neutrally; for example if you use it for a children's book you'll surely be accused of trying to raise the next generation of Neo-Nazis; not to mention the compounding of the legibility issue for youngsters. Because blackletter's main liability is that it's perceived as being anti-Semitic, using it in the opposite light seems like the key (along with an expansive colophon about the "situation"). On the other hand, I agree that it doesn't have to be -and yes, quite probably shouldn't be- historical.


serin's picture

Hi again all,
I have a few questions which I am asking people for my dissertation (big thanks to Dan already for answering them x). Would anyone who would not mind being quoted in my dissertation please send me an email regarding these questions? I am looking specifically for those with typographic qualifications or those who now work in typography, but anyone with an opinion to share or a particular insight is more than welcome to reply.

Here are the questions:

1. Firstly, could you please describe your occupation and explain your connection to typography and specifically Blackletter type.

2. What is your opinion of Blackletter/Roman hybrid fonts. Are there any that you believe have been successful?

3. Do you believe Blackletter type has a place in contemporary typography, or will it always be regarded as a relic from the past?

4. What are your suggestions for “saving” Blackletter and having it used as a body text once more?

5. Is Blackletter worth saving? If so, why?

6. Why are you personally fascinated by Blackletter (I am assuming you are from your involvement on the type forums!)?

Any answers will be most appreciated.

Please email responses to - i would prefer private responses to posts.

Thanks everyone!

Cass x

johnbutler's picture

Greetings Cassie,

Sorry I haven't responded earlier. I hope to send you some answers to your questionnaire shortly.

But I would like to mention one book I picked up at the recent Prague conference. It's a doctoral dissertation by Silvia Hartmann entitled Fraktur oder Antiqua: die Schriftstreit von 1881 bis 1941. Published in 1998, second edition in 1999, by Peter Lang GmbH in Frankfurt.

It exhaustively analyzes minutes and correspondence among the governments, proponents of Antiqua and defenders of Fraktur up until (and slightly past) the Verbot in March 1941. It includes monotone facsimiles of typewritten letters, escalating in desperation and absurdity near the end. Some of the letters are in a Fraktur typewriter font! The quality of reproduction is poor, but I'll try to post some scans. I always knew such typewriters existed but couldn't find samples after years of searching.

I'm about 50 pages into this 450-page book after two months of on-and-off reading (on my best days I can finish two pages) and it combines the dryest of academic and bureacratic German. Not rip-rooaring so far... a lot of he-said-she-said... but it paints a clearer picture than anything that came before, and for that I am grateful to Dr. Hartmann. I expect it to become more interesting further into the book, especially when the Schaftstiefels start waddling in.

It is important to remember that the German language as we foreigners are taught is a gross oversimplification of what it used to be, which is more than one dialect of arguably more than one language. The greatest solidifying forces of the modern written German language are Goethe's literature and Luther's Bible translation. In the 1800s, German nationalization--for better or worse--was as much about consolidating a common laguage and identity as anything else. You can't so easily amass power when the people you want working for you can't understand you. I see the assertion of some common "Germanness" as a sign of desperation more than anything else. My knowledge of 17th-to-19th-century European history is too spotty to speculate accurately, but I think this desperation may have arose in the wake of what other adjacent empires were doing or had recently finished doing on Prussian and Saxon soil. There were regional differences within Germany just as in any other nation that had to be overcome. More complex than the puerile extrapolation of cultural meaning from the purely mathematical classification of "red states" and "blue states."

As an aside, I was born into a military family that moved around a lot, but by age seven we settled into a relatively isolated part of the United States (the rural South) and I spent the rest of my childhood there surrounded by strange dialect, strange customs and patently offensive ideas about "race" and "revival" and a few other chestnuts. Our schools were effectively segregated ad hoc. I was lucky to have parents who knew what to look out for and keep me from falling in with friends who susbscribed to these things (the military culture had long since developed a very simple and effective means of dealing with ignorance) and I never quite assimilated. I had escape fantasies from the beginning, in fact. But what I observed coming back after a few years in college is that the Southern accent has completely left younger children. Their televisions teach them how to talk, think and feel. They all still know rednecks, they make fun of them now, and being one is now more a sign of rebellion and is often as artificial as being, say, a "goth." (Heh.) Mullets are even cultivated out of conscious irony rather than plain ignorance. But I don't know if this is any sign of advancement. From where I look, they're merely exchanging one mass culture for another one.

To be sure, I don't feel any sense of elitism for observing this. On the contrary, I think it happens everywhere, and there is an impulse in many (most?) people to see the others surrounding them as not clued in on what they know. In my own more discouraged moments, I see my fascination with Blackletter and automated fine typography as my own not being clued in on what everyone else already knows. But I say fück it, it gives me great pleasure, so why not plow ahead. (Thanks to the typophile censor engine for necessitating the umlaut.) I'll let others experience and preserve the fascination of professional football, prime-time home renovation documentaries, and Univers on a damn Swiss Grid.

There has been a lot written about Blackletter for German, cos that's where it last had massive use, especially in text sizes. What I would like to see is an analysis of what happened to Blackletter outside of Germany, and I suspect that you will find that it wasn't discarded for its own faults, but because Antiqua designs of particularly high quality appeared here or there at this or that time, became quickly fashionable and successful enough as to set a standard. And I think this happened long before there was anything close to an actual "Germany." Before there were nation-states at all as we know them. We should probably turn this around and ask not why Fraktur failed, but why Antiqua succeeded. And I suspect it has less to do with how the letters looked and more to do with the parts you can't see, for example what mechanical innovations and economic demand coincided with Antiqua types' introduction... did printers simply happen to be able to print more as a result of faster presses, more paper, growing literacy--did the letter shapes themselves ever play much of a part in their own success?

The main problem I have about the Fraktur v Antiqua argument is the "versus." The idea that you must discard the other when choosing the one makes no sense to me. And if people find it hard to read, well boo farking hoo. Oh no, we wouldn't want to learn something new, now would we?!

[panting exhaustedly]

Welcome to the show!

dan_reynolds's picture

John, I haven't even heard abouth this book. It sounds fascinating! Unfortunately, reports that it is sold out, and no used copies are available. ZVAB doesn't even list it in its database, and it goes without saying that our college library doesn't have it* :-/

I would like to see this. I'll keep looking around for it. If any of the Germans reading this have a copy, or know where I could get one, please let me know.

The history of German unification is fascinating. In AP European History, we had to memorize both it, and the unification of iItaly. I found the unification of Italy rather dull, and have forgotten it entirely.

While Napoleon's ravaging Central Europe certainly raised the level of "German" consciousness (just see Goethe's letters from his mother!), and Napoleon's political tinkering allowed German unification to happen sooner, I'm not too sure that those wars had a direct role in German unification.

In my vague opinion, I think that the sheer force of the Hollenzollern family's will led to Germany's unification (plus late breaks by a cunning Bismark and a stupid Napoleon III). The ravaging wars of the 1600s (mainly the 30 years war) more or less "created" the House of Brandenburg. But for the next two centuries, many other Germans saw the Hollenzollern Prussians as bullies. However, like the French monarchs of the 1000s

hrant's picture

The opinion of Germans concerning blackletter is paradoxical: on the one hand they know -and feel- the most about it, but on the other they're more concerned with feeling less guilty about the Nazis than typographic richness and integrity. I think a revival might have to come from outside.

There has however been some great news lately showing that Germans are perhaps finally getting over WWII*, and this is good news for Fraktur. I won't go into why I think this is happening, lest I trigger another war of words about the Middle East.

* Some pertinent stories:


dan_reynolds's picture

I don't think that WWII is anything that the Germans (or anyone else)can, or should get over. However, one also has to realize one's place v

hrant's picture

> I would really, really like to keep discussions of Fraktur's pluses and minuses separate
> from questions of its relationship to Nazism, or to how Germany feels about the war.

That makes no sense to me.

I'm not advocating discussion about Nazis to any great detail in this thread, but the biggest hang-up with Fraktur is in fact that it's very much seen (by too many people) as fascist. Heller is one extreme, but simply ignoring the issue is the other. We need to be straight about this if we're sincere about reviving Fraktur - no more manipulation or feel-good tactics, please.


dan_reynolds's picture

Cassie, I wrote an article for you at Typographica:

serin's picture

Hi Dan
Did I thank you already for the article? Things are moving along nicely with the dissertation. Got to do a presentation about it soon...should be interesting! Hope things are good with you and thanks again for all the help.

hrant's picture
Now if we could just get the BBC to cover blackletter in the same way... Hey, I know! Paint a swastika and some fraktur on the back of an unsuspecting celebrity (like maybe Mel Gibson :-) and let the idiotic media do its thing!


dan_reynolds's picture

Don't forget Snoop Dogg! I pass by a great poster on the way to the trainstation everyday that combines custom blackletter lettering with Wilhelm Klingspor Gotisch

hrant's picture

Cassie, I myself would guess that one motivation is the "anti" nature of blackletter: anti-decent (via the Nazis), and anti-function (poor legibility*). On the other hand, Gabriel Martinez Meave has pointed out that many Mexicans like blackletter simply because of its forms, and are in fact oblivious to the politico-cultural baggage.

* For a necessary elaboration on this, see


serin's picture

Hey everyone

Dan, you rock! Thanks so much for the picture. Hrant - could you tell me where I might be able to find the quote by Gabriel Martinez Meave, from a source that I could quote? And does anyone know of any research into the psychology of Blackletter or similar research? Having trouble finding what I need. Maybe because it doesn't exist! Haha. I am also wanting to read anything about the physical aspects of Blackletter and the connotations therein and not so much about the historical factors. Lemmy from Motorhead still hasn't got back to me....sigh....

Cass x

hrant's picture

Cassie, I doubt there's a transcript of what Gabriel said (you'll have to rely on our typographic "oral tradition" I guess :-), since he said that during the Q&A session after the blackletter panel discussion at ATypI's Leipzig conference in 2000. The other insightful audience observation then was from John Butler. And I remember pointing out during my "reply" (I was a member -if an outclassed one- of that panel) that the New World outlook seemed to be quite different than the Continental one... Unfortuntely, that productive innocence is increasingly being eroded and manipulated for nefarious political ends.


piccic's picture

I had a feeling: don't know if it could be useful, but I see that most forum discussions become misdirected because of it: the word used to identify a thing and its perception.

In this case: "Blackletter". It occurred to me when Josh Griffing mistook the cathegory name/subgenre (Fraktur) with the whole category (Blackletter).

My idea to help discussions (in general as well) would be this: considered we are each one from a different country it's great we can use English, but wouldn't it be useful to see which terms are used in our own languages?
I think it would be enormously helpful to see the whole picture in a clearer light.

I start with my beloved Italian. We do not have more technical terms like "Blackletter" or "Gebrockene Schriften". We call it "Gotico", which, in all senses and with all that the word can evoke is "Gothic".

But here, the way people superficially use it, is very precise in its loose definition. And as you use it, they tell you it's "something Nazi" (the Fraktur) or something generically "old-style".
While many people (even the most ignorant) are responsive when you talk them of "Lineare" or "Senza Grazie" (Sans-Serif) or "Graziato" (Serif), or "Calligrafico" (Script) they are often very quick to refuse your "Gotico", since it's "outdated" and "evokes Nazism".

Picking up once again Hrant's interest (which is mine as well) we may consider Italian culture "needed" to keep its distance from Nazism for decades after WW2, since we'd been allies with it. How do you think is "Blackletter" perceived in Japan, for example, considered they were Germany's allies as well?

You should see how the political debate here in Italy still spins around this issue, in an era where it does not make actual sense to still speak of "Fascism" or "Communism" except as referring to History. Politics seems such a farce today I can't really see why people keep clung to the use of these "labels".

I find difficult to grasp any actual connection between our post-structural politic parties and their previous historically-soaked counterparts. We live in a sort of "non-historical" time, where History's faults has become good mostly used as a childish offense. Ignorance (in any field) seems inevitably interlocked with Pride, and they both prosper.
Or is this vision biased by the fact I, myself I'm ignorant about what actually "Politics" should be, and that I was born in 1969, already so distant from the War?
Is this too off-topic?

roland_scriver's picture

Great subject for a dissertation Cassie!

I guess that you are aware of a trend in the U.K for Blackletter particularly in design work for fashionable/trendy clothing companies; even Liberties on Regent street has used it in their point of sale. But I have a theory that there is a lot more to this interest.

Partly it has a lot to do with the recycling of symbols; in the sense that Blackletter has become associated in a contemporary sense with alternative, and even pop culture in the West thanks to its use in the identities of contemporary Rock and R&B acts, and has therefore once again become familiar to our eyes from the point of readability. Blackletter now stands for an acceptable form of rebellion, and has become less associated with Nazi Germany particularly with the younger generations. This association with rebellion has been passed down to us from the 60's and the use of what we would call Second World War memorabilia by American motorcycle gangs as 'cheap riding gear'( Check out page 38,'Hell's Angel, the Life and Times of Sonny Barger and The Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club' published by Fourth Estate). This side of the theory relies on what Claudio called a "non historical time", in that a symbols association can alter with the passage of time.

The other part to my theory relates to what is going on throughout Europe at different levels, but particularly on a subcultural basis, and with relevance to countries with a Celtic and Germanic heritage of which the UK is part.

There is a growing interest in our individual cultural heritage in relation to a growing belief that globalization is leading to the Americanisation of European identities. Sub culturally this can be seen in the Black Metal scene in Norway (read 'Lords of Chaos' by Michael Moynihan and Didrick Soderlind) where this belief has played a part in the development of a scene that is now international. The same mass interest has been seen in the rise of popularity in History and and European Mythology (see 'Lord of the Rings', the forthcoming 'Beowulf' film, and the forthcoming Ridley Scott film about the Crusades).

From the English point of view I think we look at the languages and culture of Europe and see a sense of identity we crave when we consider that our cultural invaders from America use the same language as ourselves, and with the dominance of American media over here, it seems that there is very little we can do to stop our assimilation.
For this reason we look for our identity in our nearest cultural neighbors which I believe are those in Northern Europe, and the Celtic countries Scotland, Ireland and Wales; and in this sense I believe that the use of Blackletter as well as Uncials, Semi-Uncials and other decorative Medieval lettering is being used to give a sense of identity that is not Americanised.

I know many of these issues are not strictly type related, but they are to do with culture of which language is a part.

By the way I do have good friends who are American, no offence intended.

johnbutler's picture

The Norwegian Black Metal Scene is always more fascinating to anyone who has not listened to one of those albums straight through. And I think it has more to do with an irrational fear of immigrants than an affinity for listening to sagas.

Cultural identity is overrated.

hrant's picture

> Cultural identity is overrated.

Yes, SUVs, bigscreen TVs and pizza for every family is much better.
Oh, and Arial for every document.


piccic's picture

I retain just a reflection from my tirade:
I'm still curious to know if there's been some interesting use of Blackletter in Japanese design.
From what I get, Japanese get interested in Latin since its forms are bendable and easy to play with, coming up with variations.
A friend told me most designers tend to look at the Latin typefaces as fun and exciting for their variety, and for the immediate generic feeling they convey.

But what kind of typography did we have in Japan while Europe was the cradle of printing history? And during World War 2? I'd love to hear a Japanese designer on this.

hrant's picture

> Japanese get interested in Latin since its forms are bendable

1) The Japanese are interested in Latin (in fact they look up to it) because the US defeated them in WWII. The effect of their capitulation -especially when you consider their erstwhile obsession with Honor- is at the heart of their current mindframe, including matters typographic.
2) To me Japanese seems more bendable than Latin, not least due to its two levels of color. I would guess that Japanese designers are simply more conservative with their own script - and this is typical of virtually all peoples: Anglos for example merrily reform -and even replace- the scripts of other cultures, but they throw monumental hissy-fits when you suggest that Latin could use help.

> Europe was the cradle of printing history



Forrest L Norvell's picture

The Japanese fashion industry is obsessed with blackletter. Check out h.Naoto Blood, where blackletter type becomes a design element on the distressed fabrics of their most out-there designs. Blackletter is used as a signifier of Western exoticism, Victorian-era fetishization of childhood (cf. ref. Japanese "elegant lolita" culture), and spoOoOoky Gothicness. There was a good article about the Gothic Lolita scene, which has been a dominant trend in Tokyo's Harajuku fashion district for a good five years now, in the New York Times (unfortunately, it's disappeared into the archives). Anyone with access to a good Japanese bookstore is encouraged to pick up a copy of Gothic & Lolita Bible to see how this works out in practice.

What interests me about this phenomenon is how closely it mirrors the American goth / industrial subculture's fascination with incorporating Japanese language text into their own designs. The Japanese have created this weird steampunk vision of morbid Victoriana, where Japanese evokes postapocalyptic futurism to the goths. I guess we all yearn for the exotic.

Hrant, Japanese is reasonably plastic, but when you're dealing with ideograms composed of graphemes or radicals, you have to be careful about how you distort the strokes if you want the result to be readable. You have to be pretty sensitive to how Japanese is read before you can start making alterations to forms for aesthetic purposes. I think you're right that outsiders can have more fun with this than native readers and writers, but they still have to be pretty conversant with the language first.

It would be interesting to see what people could do with the archaeographic forms or Japanese / Chinese calligraphy, which use forms that are considerably freer in their rendering.

Re: black metal, tastes vary. Some of my favorite music is black metal, although John is right in saying that black metal reflects deep-seated unease to the point of atavism in its outlook. The original black metal scene was full of neo-Nazis, xenophobes, homophobes, and pretty much every other form of violent European white male thuggery. It's somewhat hypocritical to admire the music and deplore the ideology, but hey, people still go see Wagner's operas all the time. And yes, black metal bands love not only blackletter but the extreme plasticity of letterform that blackletter reflects: just look at a few black metal band logos, and you'll see what I mean. It's strange to me that blackletter doesn't get used more than it does. Typically it's used by the bands that are trying to sound more medieval and primitive and less extreme or thrashy, much like you'd expect.

johnbutler's picture

>Yes, SUVs, bigscreen TVs and pizza for every family
>is much better. Oh, and Arial for every document.

"Cultural identity" is an unquantifiable simulacrum. It never means the same thing to any two given people.

Your Honor, the Plaintiff's insistence that I turn down my Norwegian Black Metal music is part of a larger more pervasive systematic assault on my cultural identity.

hrant's picture

Forrest, interesting.

> It's somewhat hypocritical to admire the music and deplore the ideology

I don't think so, because anything tangible (like a melody or a shape) has its own life so to speak.


> "Cultural identity" is an unquantifiable simulacrum.
> It never means the same thing to any two given people.

I'm sorry us humans have such unmeasurable and variable emotions, oh alien robot overlord. Since you can't measure them on your big stick, you must destroy them, certainly. Especially when they interfere with Good Business.

Just keep pillaging non-Western museums and I'm sure you'll get over your -deserved- cultural inferiority complex eventually.


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