Stranger than fiction: 3rd Reich abolished German “Fraktur” blackletter script as being “of Jewish origin”


In the popular imagination, “Fraktur” letters are quintessentially Teutonic. [*] Indeed, the “Iron Chancellor” Bismarck famously used to return books to sender if they were printed in Roman type, insisting German printers should use German type (i.e., Fraktur).

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Example of German Fraktur script from C. P. E. Bach’s “Essay on the true art of playing the keyboard”, Berlin, 1762

Some neo-Nazi groups do use Fraktur fonts in logos, banners, and tattoos, with the predictable result that some groups who affect them (or superficially similar blackletter scripts) for other reasons are falsely accused of National Socialist sympathies.

Imagine my surprise when, during “world-building” research for Operation Flash, I discovered that Fraktur fonts were actually banned in the Third Reich by a January 3, 1941 circular, which was signed by Martin Bormann but communicated a decision by the Führer himself. This “Normalschrifterlass” (standard script decree) claimed that Fraktur had actually been invented by Jews from Schwabach, and therefore now only Antiquaschrift (i.e. the standard Roman script used outside Germany) was now to be used and taught as “Normalschrift” (standard script).

There is a Dutch-language novel [**] that contains the passage: “The Germans have discovered that Pythagoras was a Jew, so now they have to call his theorem the Hermann Goering Rule instead.” As it was then and as it is now, ideological fanatics defy the satirist’s imagination.

Consensus nowadays is that even the Nazi top themselves did not believe this “pretzel logic” argument, and that they in fact made the switch on practical grounds: as they still imagined themselves ruling over a large part of Europe for an extended period of time, they had no more use for a script that nobody outside the German-speaking lands was familiar with. (The fact that the transition took the form of a phase-out rather than a book-burning-and-replacement action would seem to corroborate the theory of a pragmatic motivation. So does a February 2, 1941 entry in the diary of Josef Goebbels, where it is noted with approval that German elementary schoolers now would only have to cope with four kinds of letters — uppercase and lowercase versions each of Antiqua and cursive — rather than eight.[***])

Early on in the Third Reich, an attempt to demand Fraktur typewriters had met with failure, as typewriter manufacturers could not agree on the specific variant. Interestingly, Hitler (y”sh) himself — who had always disliked Fraktur –subsequently made a reference in a 1934 speech to misguided attempts “by backwards-lookers” to reimpose Fraktur.

In the postwar era, Fraktur never made a comeback: nowadays only Amish and Pennsylvania “Dutch”[****] printers use it as a standard printed script.

But I am still wrily amused by claims that Hebrew square script somehow stood at the cradle of Fraktur…

This video gives a good brief summary in movie form: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLwZ2pyPNAs

[*] Technically, Fraktur is just one specific member of “Gebrochene” [broken/disjoint] scripts, i.e. German blackletter scripts. In common German as well as English parlance, Fraktur has become the term for all German blackletter.

[**] “Cis de Man” (“Frankie as a man”), by Piet Bakker. It’s the sequel to the popular coming-of-age novel “Cis de Rat” (“Frankie the street rat”), following the now-adult protagonist as he is a soldier in a Dutch artillery company before and during the Nazi invasion. Both the original and the sequel are peppered with the earthy Dutch sense of humor, but remain PG-rated.

[***] The fourth script type was Kurrentschrift, the German cursive counterpart of Fraktur. One stylized variant of that, Sütterlin script, was used for cuff titles on Wehrmacht and Waffen SS uniforms throughout the war.

[****] The Pennsylvania community in question are of course of “Deutsch” (German) rather than “Nederlandse” (Dutch) origin. Dutch is on a dialect continuum with Low German (Plattdeutsch), and in the Middle Ages the language called itself “Diets” rather than “Nederlands”. This archaic term survives in the Dutch expression “iemand iets Diets maken”, freely: “tell it to somebody like it is, in plain English”.

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