Banning Nazi Type

Last week, Paul Shaw posted a scan of an American boycott of Nazi type announced in the Graphic Arts Forum in 1939. What jumped out at me about the “Proclamation to Craftsmen, Artisans, and Friends of the Graphic Arts,” was that this was a purely commercial boycott, not an aesthetic one. For each German typeface that was condemned, the boycott suggests an almost identical substitute (even, as Shaw points, out “blatant piracies” in some cases). Not to mention the fact that none of the twenty-five “Nazi type” samples represents the category that most postwar readers would associate with the Nazis: blackletter type (often, but somewhat inaccurately, referred to as Fraktur).

A development of medieval Gothic script and the type in which the earliest books were set, blackletter is angular, broken (letters do not form a single, connected shape), and dense on the page. Historically, there are several varieties, of which Fraktur is only one. Though abandoned for printing in most European countries in favor of roman typefaces, its continued use in Germany made it visually synonymous with that country.

As the exhibit catalogue Blackletter: Type and National Identity (sadly not at hand right now; I apologize for any errors) explains, the Nazis actually had a somewhat conflicted relationship with blackletter. Because it was perceived as historically German, it seemed suitably nationalistic and ethnocentric. On the other hand, commercial designers, printers, and even Hitler himself preferred roman type. The result was the rise of the “jackboot grotesques” (grotesque meaning sans-serif among German typesetters) with names like Deutschland and Tannenberg. Jackboot grotesques were simplified forms much closer to roman type, and so ironically less blackletter than what they replaced, while still being superficially “German” enough to pass muster with the Nazis.

Then, once blackletter was internationally and pretty much irrevocably associated with Nazism in international eyes, the Third Reich reversed itself entirely. In 1941, the party attempted to ban printing in blackletter – claiming that they were actually “Jew letters” introduced to subvert good German script! Needless to say, the reversal didn’t change the international impression of blackletter or the trends in Germany towards its elimination, and blackletter mostly disappeared after the war.

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