WRITING ABOUT what he called “the awful German language,” Mark Twain expressed bewilderment at its grammatical intricacies and lengthy compound nouns like Waffenstillstandsunterhandlungen (cease-fire negotiations) and Unabhangigkeitserklarungen (declarations of independence).
“These things are not words, they are alphabetical processions,” Twain wrote in 1879. “And they are not rare; one can open a German newspaper any time and see them marching majestically across the page.” Nearly 120 years later, the unwieldy vocabulary marches on, but the equally distinctive gothic typeface that dominated the printed word in Germany when Twain visited has vanished almost entirely.
Typographers call the typeface black letter, and an exhibition examining its rise and fall opens on Tuesday and runs through April 25 at the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography at Cooper Union in New York.
New York Times readers see a variant of black letter everyday in the newspaper’s banner: The New York Times. Like those of The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, the banner is an Old English typeface closely related to the Germanic type known as fraktur because of the broken curves in letters that derive from medieval handwriting.
After the invention of Gutenberg’s moveable type in the 15th century, black letter became an embodiment of Germanness and a focus of Teutonic pride. One of Goethe’s publishers, Johann Friedrich Unger, balked at converting to roman typeface when it swept Europe along with Enlightenment ideals. “Why should we Germans renounce our originality? To please foreigners who learn our language? Does any nation do the same for us?” he asked.
Otto von Bismarck, the founding Chancellor of the Reich, was more chauvinistic, going so far as to refuse to read books set in roman typeface. But nationalism dealt a near fatal blow to black letter. The Nazis’ advocacy of what they deemed a specifically “German type” — in contrast to the “foreign” roman type in which you are reading this article — indelibly tainted the fonts.
The exhibition traces black letter’s intriguing history and relationship to German national identity. Peter Bain and Paul Shaw, the co-curators of the show, definitely have politics as well as design on their agenda. A book published to accompany the exhibit details how antagonism between speakers of German and Romance languages fueled black letter’s vitality. Napoleonic battles and the Franco-Prussian War spurred German nationalism; with it came renewed passion for fraktur.
By the early 20th century, German printers used both gothic and roman fonts, until the Nazi regime tipped the balance with a fervid preference for black letter. The Third Reich’s Interior Ministry planned to have all typewriters replaced with new ones using the “German type.” All official printed matter, textbooks and newspapers were reset in gothic letters — derided by anti-fascists as “jackboot grotesques.”
Germany pursued this policy until 1941, when Hitler decreed the abandonment of gothic type, a move taken in part to make it easier for foreign observers to read reports of his military triumphs. Seeking ideological justification for the about-face, the Nazis belatedly asserted that the script was introduced by Jewish publishers.
Despite the Nazis’ ultimate renunciation of black letter, it casts a darker shadow since being co-opted by Hitler. Communist East Germany, having rejected responsibility for the fascist past, was more comfortable using it than postwar West Germany, where black letter was confined largely to beer ads and restaurant signs. In a united Germany, neo-Nazis and skinheads tap into it for use in propaganda literature. So do German as well as American heavy-metal bands seeking a singular typography.
Recalling black letter’s rich and varied legacy, Germany’s most prestigious newspaper, the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, sets not only its masthead but the headlines of its editorials in fraktur. Gothic digital fonts are also now readily available for computer use and an Internet page run by the Federation for German Script and Speech campaigns for a black letter revival. Nonetheless, many Germans today have little inkling of the type’s long trajectory and read it with difficulty. Chances are slim that this politicized lettering will ever again parade across the page for a mass readership.