‘Gothic’ or ‘Black Letter’ script was used by monastic scribes in many parts of Europe from the 12th century. Early printer-typefounders, including Gutenberg and Caxton, imitated handwritten Black Letter in the first moveable type. In Italy, Gothic typefaces were soon challenged by Roman or 'Antiqua' letters (which owed their forms to classical Latin inscriptions) and Italics; and in much of Northern Europe, too, Black Letter forms were largely obsolete by the mid-17th century. In Britain, the ‘Old English’ variant survived in the ceremonial ‘Whereases’ of indentures and statutory preambles. It lingers on in ‘Ye Olde Tea Shoppe’ signs, Heavy Metal rock graphics, neo-Nazi tattoos and the mastheads of the dailies Telegraph and Mail.

In Germany, however, the local ‘Fraktur’ and ‘Schwabacher’ variants of Black Letter resisted displacement. As cultural tensions developed in the German-speaking world between classicism and theliberal enlightenment on one side, and romanticism and conservative nationalism on the other, the rival letter-forms became embroiled in the dispute. Nationalists, invoking philological studies of proto-Germanic languages, claimed an essentially Germanic character for Fraktur, and thought it had a role in defending the German language against corruption. ‘German books in Latin letters,’ Bismarck once said, ‘I don’t read!’

Bismarck's remark was amplified by Adolf Reinecke, a proto-Nazi Aryan supremacist of the Wilhelmian epoch, who advocated German colonisation of Eastern Europe and ‘liberation from the Jewish plague’ under the sign of the swastika. His 1910 treatise Die Deutschen Buchstabenschrift (‘The German Alphabet’) was a manifesto for Fraktur’s Germanness. It also claimed that it was more readable, more compact in printing, healthier for the eyes and destined for supremacy through the irresistible rise of the Germanic-Anglo-Saxon world.

German conservative and nationalist circles were largely sympathetic to such views. Hitler was not. He disliked Fraktur. ‘Your supposedly Gothic internalisation ill-suits this age of steel andiron, glass and concrete,’ he declared in 1934. Even so, Fraktur and a simplified derivative, Gebrochene-Grotesk, continued to be used as the standard public letter-form in much of Nazi Germany’spublishing, advertising and signage – some of which survives today – and Jewish publishers were expressly forbidden from using Fraktur because the regime considered its Germanic essence inadmissible to them.

Gebrochene-Grotesk – a simplified Fraktur – in a Berlin street sign today. © Louis Mackay

Gebrochene-Grotesk – a simplified Fraktur – in a Berlin street sign today. © Louis Mackay

Like Reinecke, Hitler expected that German ‘in a hundred years will be the language of Europe’. Unlike Reinecke, he thought that Fraktur – and its stablemate, the ‘Sütterlin’ handwriting taught inschools – were not aids but hindrances to achieving linguistic dominance. In early 1941, with much of Europe under Nazi control and high expectations of conquest in the East, Hitler banned the useof Fraktur and Sütterlin in favour of Roman type and standard handwriting.

How could immediate compliance with such a volte-face be ensured, and discussion of its implications suppressed? There was a simple answer to that. As Carlos Fraenkel writes, paraphrasing David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The History of a Way of Thinking, ‘when Westerners find fault with some aspect of society or culture... they always disparage it as a Jewish aberration.’ On 9 January 1941, Martin Bormann issued a confidential circular on behalf of the Führer to party officials:

To regard or describe the so-called Gothic script as a German script is false. In reality the so-called Gothic script consists of Schwabacher Jewish letters. Just as they later took over possession of newspapers, Jews resident in Germany when the printing of books was introduced took over book-printers, and thus the strong influence of Schwabacher Jewish letters came into Germany.

In other words, according to Bormann, since the time of Luther, generations of enthusiasts for the essential Germanness of Fraktur – Bismarck, Reinecke, most Nazis, though not Hitler – had beenduped by a centuries-old Jewish typographic plot.

Bormann evidently missed that the party letterhead on his circular was printed in Fraktur.