Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About German Typefaces

We notice them in antique shops, on old-fashioned signs in Germany, or – unfortunately – on neo-Nazi paraphernalia: old German typefaces. These fonts are everywhere, but do you know what they’re called and where they come from? We explore some of the history.
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Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About German Typefaces

You’ve probably seen the funny-looking German typefaces (like in the illustration above) many times before: from museums and historical movies, to cute antique signs and perhaps even on your great-grandmother’s birth certificate, they’re practically synonymous with traditional German culture. But why do these typefaces look so different from other fonts, and why are they so closely associated with Germany? To find out, we’ll embark on a journey that begins with the history of the printed word.

In The Beginning, There Was Textura  

Before we had the classic Times New Roman (and its older, fancier cousin Garamond), tried and true Arial, and unexplainably annoying Comic Sans, we had Textura. This was the standard font from the 12th to 15th centuries in western Europe, and famous works, like the Gutenberg Bible, used this typeface. Its etymology is from the latin textura, meaning “fabric.” Calligraphic and latticed, this typeface is still considered the standard “medieval” font.  

A German Font For A German Bible

When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, he did not merely help usher in new religious ideas; he also helped usher in a new typeface. Whereas the Latin Gutenberg Bibles had been set in Textura, many editions of the German Luther Bible used a font called Schwabacher instead.

The origins of the name “Schwabacher” are contested: There wasn’t a printing press in the Frankish village of Schwabach, nor was there a known type cutter with this name. It probably comes from the 1528 Articles of Schwabach, one of Luther’s earliest confessions of faith. Schwabacher was the primary font choice in Germany from the late 15th century until the middle of the 16th. Even when Fraktur took over, Schwabacher was still used occasionally, like for emphasis in Fraktur texts.

Fraktur, The Font You See Everywhere

Whether you realize it or not, most “German-looking” fonts are actually Fraktur. This is because from the mid-16th century to the beginning of the 20th, it was the most-used typeface in the German-speaking world, and it’s still immediately recognizable to most German speakers. The first Fraktur typeface (based on an anonymously-made hand font) was designed in 1513 by Hans Schönsperger in Augsburg.

The name Fraktur comes from the Latin fractus, meaning “broken.” Like Textura and Schwabacher before it, Fraktur is a Blackletter typeface — or a gebrochene Schrift in German, which means “broken font.” This is a typeface where the bends of the letters are angular or “broken,” as abrupt changes in stroke direction make the letters look quite harsh.

Its descriptive name explains why “Fraktur” is often used colloquially to refer to all German Blackletter fonts — but you can tell the difference between Fraktur and the others by the so-called Elefantenrüssel, or “elephant’s trunk.” This cute expression describes the sweeping swings of the capital letters: the S-shaped decorative element that you can see in some capitals (A, B, J, M, N, P, R, T, V, W, Z). Apart from this, however, this font is quite easy to learn to read, even for beginners. (For tricky letters, here is a guide.)

Compare popular German typefaces

Antiqua Emerges On The Scene

Unfortunately for Fraktur enthusiasts, a new typeface arrived at the beginning of the 19th century to communicate new ideas: Antiqua. The name comes from the Latin antiquus (old) and referred to typefaces with rounded letters based off the Latin alphabet. 

Interestingly, “Antiqua” is a misnomer. Renaissance scholars knew ancient texts only in the form of manuscripts written in Carolingian minuscule, a very clear and simple font. They deduced that the minuscule, as well as other simple Roman fonts such as Capitalis, dated back to antiquity. This is why the humanists wrote in a similar minuscule (and also used Capitalis for upper-case letters). With both old styles combined, the new font was dubbed Antiqua.

Antiqua quickly became the standard for texts in Latin and Romance languages. However, the German-speaking world still used Blackletter for German texts and Antiqua for foreign texts into the 20th century. If a text changed languages, the fonts changed accordingly. Despite its widespread use, however, it would be several centuries before Antiqua finally emerged victorious in Germany — and even then, only with the “support” of a totalitarian regime.

Antiqua vs. Fraktur

In the second half of the 18th century, Germans developed a growing interest in French and Classical literature, thanks to the influence of the Enlightenment, Weimar Classicism and the French Revolution. Anyone who was internationally educated also had to be able to read internationally — that meant using Antiqua. Still, many traditionalists in Germany felt strongly about staying with Fraktur as a “German font.”

During the Nazi regime, Fraktur experienced a renaissance as a “German typeface,” and in 1937, the Ministry of Propaganda even forbade Jewish publishers to use it. Adolf Hitler, however, saw the return to blackletter fonts as backwards. In his 1941 decree, Blackletter fonts were designated as “Schwabacher Jew Letters” and Antiqua was ushered in again as “normal type.” This reasoning was not only contradictory, but also ahistorical: At the time of the Schwabacher typeface, only Christians had been allowed to print books.

The real reason for the (expensive) change during wartime was probably because Hitler assumed German would become the world’s dominant language — and in Antiqua, everyone could read it.

German Fonts Today

After the end of the Second World War, typefaces were regulated by the occupying powers. In the West, the use of “German fonts” was often prohibited by the Allies because they couldn’t read them. Of course, the change was not abrupt: On his insistence, the works of Hermann Hesse were printed in Fraktur for years, and the Protestant church used the “German type” until the 1960s.

Now that everyone has a printer, we see all sorts of fonts, though Antiqua fonts dominate. Still, Fraktur has its adherents. Some German newspapers use or recently used (most notably the Frankfurter Allgemeine until 2007) Fraktur as a display type.

Blackletter is also used in advertising and signage to give off a “homey” or “traditional” vibe: At rustic restaurants, beer gardens, sausage packers, and so on. In addition, Fraktur and other Blackletter fonts also appear in subcultures such as metal, punk, goth or hip-hop — often in the form of tattoos. And, despite its wartime ban, Blackletter is also popular with Neo-Nazis — although who really expects historical understanding from them?

Bonus: The ß

The ß is the only letter in the Latin type system that is currently used exclusively in German and its dialects. This interesting character is nothing more than a ſ (the Blackletter “long S“ that looks kind of like an F) and 𝖟 (a blackletter Z which looks like the number 3). This means that, hidden in our Antiqua writing today, a little bit of Blackletter remains — the ß.

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