Podcast „99% Invisible“: „Fraktur“

Peter Dör­fell lives in Dres­den Ger­many where he works in elder care, vis­it­ing clients at their homes, and to do that, he usu­al­ly takes the bus. But one morn­ing last Sep­tem­ber, he noticed some­thing unusu­al as he board­ed. “When I got on the bus, I see that the bus dri­ver had put up a sign inside of the bus that said in Ger­man, ‘Diesen Bus Steuert ein Deutsch­er Fahrer,’ which means ‘this bus is dri­ven by a Ger­man dri­ver.’” This was not the kind of mes­sage Peter was used to see­ing on his dai­ly com­mute, but to Peter… the mean­ing of the mes­sage was pret­ty clear.

“The impli­ca­tion to me was […] I am one of the good ones and not, a ‘for­eign­er.’” But what real­ly drove the mes­sage of this sign home, was not just the words, but the type­face it was print­ed in. A type­face from a fam­i­ly of Ger­man type­faces once used through­out Ger­many which are known col­lec­tive­ly as Frak­tur which in Eng­lish goes by a dif­fer­ent name: black­let­ter. Black­let­ter is the type of old-timey Goth­ic type­face that you often see used for the bold front titles of news­pa­pers like the New York Times or Wash­ing­ton Post, or on the T‑shirts of Heavy Met­al bands. But for many peo­ple, espe­cial­ly in Europe, black­let­ter is most close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with one thing: it’s the “Nazi Font“.


If you have ever caught even one minute of the His­to­ry Chan­nel… or real­ly any doc­u­men­tary about World War II, you have seen this type. You’ve seen it on Nazi posters, on Nazi office build­ings, on Nazi road­work signs. Today in Ger­many, black­let­ter type­faces are fre­quent­ly used by Neo-Nazi groups and for many Ger­mans, they bring to mind the dark times of the country’s fas­cist past.

Flo­ri­an Hard­wig is a graph­ic design­er and the edi­tor of a web­site called Fonts in Use and he says that in Ger­many, any black­let­ter type­face is used to sig­nal Ger­man nation­al­ism. Using black­let­ter is a state­ment and sends a sig­nal of empha­siz­ing the “Ger­man­ness.” Today, depend­ing on one’s per­spec­tive, black­let­ter can either rep­re­sent Ger­man culture’s rich and proud her­itage or alter­na­tive­ly, sym­bol­ize every­thing that is wrong with it. But to under­stand how people’s feel­ings about a sim­ple type­face got to this point, we need to go back to the moment of its birth.

𝕺𝖓𝖊 𝕿𝖞𝖕𝖊𝖋𝖆𝖈𝖊 𝖙𝖔 𝕽𝖚𝖑𝖊 𝕿𝖍𝖊𝖒 𝕬𝖑𝖑

Once upon a time in that bygone era of knights and cas­tles and feath­er quills, black­let­ter was used all across Europe. Black­let­ter may seem incred­i­bly ornate and def­i­nite­ly does not seem like a con­ven­tion­al style of writ­ing, but back in the Mid­dle Ages, black­let­ter was actu­al­ly con­sid­ered prac­ti­cal. Dan Reynolds is an Amer­i­can type design­er and his­to­ri­an who has been liv­ing in Ger­many for the last two decades, and he says today we’re used to let­ter­forms with per­fect­ly round­ed curves: think of our O’s, U’s, P’s, and C’s. But while these shapes look easy enough to draw, if you’re using a quill to draw out thou­sands of them, page after page, it becomes dif­fi­cult.

Back then, just as now, read­ers val­ued stan­dard­iza­tion in a text. Every let­ter, even the round­ed ones, had to look exact­ly the same. It was hard for a monk copy­ing out a text to con­sis­tent­ly draw per­fect cir­cles over and over again, and if you were a scribe it was a lot eas­i­er to pro­duce all those Os and Us and Cs out of a series of short straight lines. The tech­nique of using straight lines instead of curves gave the let­ters a frag­ment­ed appear­ance. Which is actu­al­ly how Germany’s most com­mon form of black­let­ter would get its name: Frak­tur.

Black­let­ter was first devel­oped in France in the 12th Cen­tu­ry, but with­in a few hun­dred years it had become stan­dard through­out Europe. So much so that it wasn’t real­ly a type choice, it was just what words looked like. Susan Reed is head of Ger­man­ic Stud­ies at the British Library, and she says that black­let­ter became so ingrained in the cul­ture that even after it stopped being need­ed, peo­ple kept using it. As with so many big leaps in tech­nol­o­gy, the print­ing press start­ed off by bor­row­ing heav­i­ly on the design con­ven­tions that came before it, even though the new oper­at­ing prin­ci­ples made those con­ven­tions unnec­es­sary. 

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