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:

[*] 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”.

Guest post at According To Hoyt: “Brahmandarins”

Sarah A. Hoyt asked me to contribute a guest post about “The Brahmandarins”, a term which I coined in the wake of the 2016 elections.
In this guest post, I touch briefly on the Brahmin caste in India, but at greater length on the Mandarins of ancient China, the Imperial Examination system by which they were recruited, the reason the once venerable institution decayed, and its parallels with the transnational New Class, “expert class”, or “credentialed gentry” of today’s West.

Read more at:

PS: a related post by Eric Raymond on “Escalating complexity and the collapse of elite authority” is perhaps an enlightening companion read.

To my Jewish readers: Shana Tova uGmar Chatima Tova!

Rosh Hashanah and the Rescue of the Danish Jews

A wonderful, healthy, and fruitful New Year to my Jewish readers.

By calendarial coincidence, the Jewish holidays for 2019 fall on or near those for 1943. Around Rosh Hashanah that year, the miraculous rescue of the Danish Jews took place. The following post is an expanded version of an earlier Facebook note.

The Danish rescue was uniquely successful among Nazi-occupied countries because of a confluence of several favorable circumstances.
(1) The Danish Jewish community was fairly small (about 7,500) and
(2) concentrated in Copenhagen, just a short boat ride away from neutral Sweden. (Today, a bridge across the Øresund connects the two countries.)
(3) Moreover, the Nazis regarded the Danes as their racial kin and ran the country as a “model protectorate”, leaving the Danish democratic government in place until well into 1943.
(4) Last but not least, the Danes and the Danish Jews had advance warning from the #2 of the occupation regime, the merchant and diplomat Georg Duckwitz (later honored as Righteous Among The Nations at Yad Vashem).

Duckwitz — an NSDAP member since 1932, but already disaffected since before the war — had learned from his superior, the Nazi plenipotentiary Werner Best, that the roundup would take place on Rosh Hashanah. Duckwitz then tipped off the Danish Social Democrat leader Hans Hedtoft, who in turn passed the word to Jewish community president C. B. Henriques and acting Chief Rabbi Marcus Melchior. The Jews went underground, and over the next few weeks were spirited aboard fishing boats by the Danish resistance (and just general Jeppe Shmø’s) and ferried to neutral Sweden. One well-known rescue group acted under the cover name of “Elsinore Sewing Club”: the Danish city Helsingør/Elsinore, with its Kronborg castle that inspired Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, is just two nautical miles across the Ølesund straits from Helsingfors, Sweden.

The famous physicist Niels Bohr (who had a Jewish mother) stepped up to the plate as well, levering the Nobel Prize he had received from the hands of the Swedish king into an audience with the monarch. Bohr pleaded with him for Sweden to publicly declare its willingness to accept Jewish refugees. Sweden had in fact been quietly doing this since 1942 for Jewish refugees from Norway, but now, on October 2, a proclamation welcoming them was read out on the Swedish radio. Whether this was thanks to Bohr’s intercession, to Hans Hedtoft’s similar démarche with the Swedish ambassador in Denmark, or would have happened anyway is a matter of dispute among historians, but Bohr’s effort certainly cannot have hurt.

The Danish rescuers played with an unusually good hand of cards. Still, this would have been for naught were it not for their determination to make the most of it. In doing so, they achieved an incredible result: over 99% of Danish Jews survived the war. (About 500, mostly elderly, Jews were arrested, but owing to pressure from Danish authorities, they were sent to the Theresienstadt Ghetto rather than extermination camps, and emissaries from the International Red Cross were allowed to check on their welfare. All except 52 of the Danish Theresienstadt inmates survived the war.[*])

The role of Werner Best in this whole affair is an enigma. After the war, Best escaped execution by convincing the Danish courts that he had quietly allowed Duckwitz to thwart the deportations. Yet he not only had been informed of goings-on at the Wannsee Conference, but had eagerly organized transports from France before his transfer to Denmark. Why this sudden change of heart where it came to the Danish Jews? I would argue the key lies in a 1942 Best memorandum (published anonymously on account of its explosive contents[**]) titled Herrenschicht oder Führungsvolk? (“master caste or leadership people?”). In the course of an argument drawing parallels with the Roman empire, Best not just pleaded for an occupation policy (at least in the West) based more on persuasion than on coercion and exploitation, but already then posited German loss of the war as a realistic possibility. As I see it, by September 1943 Best probably considered the war lost, and wanted to create himself a ‘life insurance policy’ through quietly giving Duckwitz free rein.[***] (Omission, rather than commission, afforded Best a measure of deniability if Duckwitz were found out and the Gestapo bloodhounds unleashed on him.)

Let us raise a glass of Aquavit to the courageous and resourceful Danish rescuers. Skøl and Shana Tova!

[*] As a sad reflection on the unseen prices paid for any negotiation with such a diabolical regime: unbeknownst to the Danes, other Theresienstadt inmates had been sent to their deaths in Auschwitz to create more room for the Danish inmates. The Theresienstadt ghetto was originally an army fortress town founded in the late 18th century by Habsburg emperor Joseph II (who named itafter his mother, Empress Maria Theresia). It had room for about a brigade’s worth of soldiers and their dependents, but was massively overcrowded with the 40,000+ Jews held there.

[**] The substance of the memorandum was dedicated to comparisons between the Third Reich and the Roman Empire, and how (in Best’s vision) to avoid the same fate as the latter.

[***] He may also have concluded it was a lost cause trying to convince the Danes they had a Jewish problem that could only be solved through deportation.

Beethoven’s “missing” piano sonatas: the three Kurfürstensonaten, WoO 47

Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas have been declared “The New Testament” of solo keyboard music, with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier the “Old Testament”.
What even some longterm Beethoven aficionados are unaware of (as was I, to my great shame) is that the canonical count of 32 (beginning with Op. 2 Nr. 1 in F minor, and ending with Op. 111 in C minor) excludes several juvenile works that Beethoven didn’t feel merited an Opus number.

Much has — rightly — been made of Mozart being a child prodigy at composition. Beethoven is often cited casually as a “late bloomer” in comparison, as he was in his mid-twenties when Three Piano Trios, Op. 1 and the Op. 2 piano sonatas were published. Yet at age twelve and thirteen, he wrote three piano sonatas dedicated to his first patron, the Kurfürst [i.e., Prince-Elector] of Cologne, Prince-Bishop Maximilian Friedrich von Königsegg-Rothenfels. These are known among musicologists as the Kurfürstensonaten, and numbered WoO 47: WoO stands for Werk ohne Opuszahl [work without an opus number] in German, but can conveniently be read as “without Opus” by English speakers.

They are clearly juvenile works, but already harbingers of the greatness that is to come. Particularly WoO 47 Nr. 2 in F minor floored me when I first heard it: one can hear foreshadowing of some elements of the later Pathetique Op. 13 in the related key of C minor (which has one “flat” fewer). I am obviously not the first, and won’t be the last, to note that Beethoven often gravitated to C minor and F minor (or their relative majors Eb and Ab, respectively) for his most “Sturm und Drang” works.

WoO 47 No 2 in F minor, performed by Mikhail Pletnev

I won’t deny that Op. 2 No. 1 in the same key — written when Beethoven was twice as old, and dedicated to his composition teacher Joseph Haydn — is a much more mature work, but this doesn’t stop me from enjoying this early work.

A lighter side of young Beethoven comes out in WoO 47 No. 3 in D major.


RIP Stanislav Petrov, “The Man Who Saved The World”

NPR (via Instapundit) has a long and well-written article about the demise (not previously reported) of a Soviet missile control officer who probably prevented a nuclear world war in 1983.

My brief summary: Podpolkovnik [Lt. Col.] Stanislav Petrov was on duty that night at a missile defense monitoring station, watching out for launches of American nuclear ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missiles).

That night, suddenly the computer howled an alarm that five missiles had been launched. Estimated time to impact: 20 minutes. 
He was to pass the warning up the chain of command, which would have led to a mass launch of Soviet nuclear ICBMs, and World War Three.

Petrov sensed something wasn’t adding up.

He had been trained to expect an all-out nuclear assault from the U.S., so it seemed strange that the satellite system was detecting only a few missiles being launched. And the system itself was fairly new. He didn’t completely trust it.

So instead of doing what he had been ordered, he ordered a check for computer malfunction. If his hunch was wrong, he’d have lost precious minutes for a preemptive retaliatory strike — “get the missiles off before the rockets impact on the launchers”.

But sure enough, there had been a malfunction.

He was given a reprimand for falsifying his logbook, but not otherwise punished. Presumably even his superiors realized how close the world had been to nuclear conflagration had it not been for Petrov’s cool-headed judgment.

Petrov’s actions were the subject of a 2015 docudrama, presented by Kevin Costner: “The Man Who Saved The World” :

But Petrov never considered himself a hero: 
“That was my job,” he said. “But they were lucky it was me on shift that night.”

By coincidence (the incident wasn’t reported in the media at the time), Iron Maiden’s 1984 album “Powerslave” contained a song about a near-miss nuclear standoff: “Two Minutes To Midnight”. Let me end with that, and salute Podpolkovnik Petrov.

Sabbath delight: Tatiana Nikolayeva plays J. S. Bach’s entire Well-Tempered Clavier

I had no idea who this fabulous Russian pianist was until I heard her performance of J. S. Bach’s Art of the Fugue on the Hyperion label — and was blown away by its combination of sensitivity and contrapuntal clarity. I treasure that recording above all others in my collection—if I could only take away one to a deserted island, that would be the one.
Sadly, shortly after that recording, she was felled by a stroke during a concert in San Francisco, and passed away days later, never having regained consciousness.
She had a very broad repertoire, most of it recorded in the former (thank G-d) USSR and (until recently, at least) only available on CDs with doubtful source audio provenance. (Vinyl rips? Analog studio tapes?)
But her first and last love was Bach. After she won the Bach Competition in Leipzig (then in the DDR) in 1950 with her Well-Tempered Clavier performance, the composer Shostakovich was so impressed by her voice-leading ability that he wrote his own 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 especially for her.

Until recently, all I had heard of her earlier output were lo-fi Youtube rips off vinyl recordings — with lots of hiss and distortion I had great trouble listening past. Now somebody uploaded a high-resolution digitization of the CDs. Below is the video for your enjoyment; I managed to locate a legal download for the source and promptly bought it. [Book I; Book II] You will wish to do the same if you like the recording. (I thought nothing could surpass Glenn Gould’s or Angela Hewitt’s for me, but this is something specia. )
“Perhaps not all musicians believe in G-d, but they all believe in Bach.” (Mauricio Kagel)

J. S. Bach (Tatiana Nikolayeva, piano): WTC Books I & II (complete)

As a bonus, here follows the complete performance by another great Russian pianist, Sviatoslav Richter. Enjoy!

J. S. Bach (Sviatoslav Richter, piano): WTC Books I & II (complete)

Operation Flash, Episode 2: Hinges Of Fate — now out on Kindle

In an alternate timeline, blowing up Hitler and his command turns out to be the easy part…

Killing Hitler had been child’s play in comparison with figuring out what to do next.
After the coup, the Reich was split into two. Bormann in Munich is Führer of a remnant Nazi state. Goerdeler’s Emergency Government in Berlin fights Bormann on the inside while waging a two-front war with the Allies on the outside.
But a secret meeting abroad may be a game-changer.
Meanwhile, Goerdeler’s special assistant Felix Winter investigates what turn out to be crimes beyond even the conspirators’ worst fears…

Like Episode 1 before it, this episode is just $0.99 on Kindle [free with Kindle Unlimited]

Kudos to all the people who helped make this happen, and especially to

  • Karen Folques, editor
  • “Covers Girl”, cover
  • John Earle, proofreader
  • Logotecture, final eBook conversion