My first visit to Berlin, was in July 2016, and thus around 80 years after the beginning of World War 2, and also around 80 years after a crucial stage in a long-running discussion in Germany about the use of a typeface – or perhaps, font, as we now call these designs of letters.
Visiting the now non-operational Templehof Airport, a massive example of Third Reich architecture, was an experience which I truly relished. As part of Albert Speer’s plan for the reconstruction of Berlin during the Nazi era, Ernst Sagebiel was charged with the responsibility of the design of this complex; at the time one of the world’s largest buildings. Sagebiel’s building style; very linear and uncluttered, has been called “ Luftwaffe modern “, alluding to the connections he had with the Luftwaffe.
One cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer scale of this building, and also the quality of build and detailing. The arc-shaped main building is over 1.2 kilometres in length; the highest number in the elevator is 8, and there are two floors below ground. It is a majestic design, and the build is of such good quality as to seem to represent an eternal and enduring testament to the anticipated durability of the Nazi regime. 80 years after it was built, there are no outward signs of settlement, dereliction or deterioration; and windows and doors are original in many instances. Its precise and un-adorned ( apart from Swastika-stripped Nazi eagles ) two-tone limestone facade shows no structural damage, and the overarching design brief is one of a superbly executed maintenance-free monolith.
On plan, the terminal was to represent a winged eagle, and the facade indeed proudly and haughtily presents itself to the city of Berlin, which was to be re-christened as Welthauptstadt Germania , Adolf Hitler’s projected name for the new capital for the world.
In the basements, however; away from the vast and palatial baggage and departure halls, the VIP lounges and restaurants, with their acres of polished marble floors, are the bomb-shelters. The tour guide talks of ‘ 300 bomb-shelters ‘, safely and solidly constructed of mass concrete, and capable of being closed off with individual steel doors, each with massive lever handles.
And, this is precisely where my interest in the Antiqua-Fraktur Dispute was stimulated. Decorating the walls of the half-dozen shelters I visited, and photographed by dim light, are contemporary depictions of what seem to be folkloric and light-hearted tales and scenes. The tour guide tells me they were to be for ‘ the enjoyment and entertainment ‘ of the expected occupants, as if the weeks of protective entombment would pass more swiftly surrounded by this uplifting imagery.
For me, unable to read and understand German, and hence the ‘ graffiti ‘ on these walls, and as a child of the ’50’s, the typeface did, however, awake some subliminal connotations of ‘ German-ness ‘.
I had, as a child read comics in the 1960’s, many of which then still were filled with war stories, and lean and violent ‘ Huns ‘ in helmets, ready to shout ‘ Achtung ‘ and ‘ Schnell ‘ whilst mowing down our brave ‘ Tommies ‘ with their ‘ Mauser ‘ machine guns. Unseen in those strips, but imbibed, was the ever-present ‘ German ‘ typeface, ever thereafter to evoke in me a sense of gothic and Nazi mythicism.
But seeing these images now, I realised I was understanding more about the ‘ brand ‘ of the NSDAP, and its clever packaging of the ‘ völkisch ‘ notions which included a romantic focus on folklore and sentimental patriotic fervour; in its more negative forms later to become overt xenophobia.
Hitler himself wrote in Mein Kampf, “the basic ideas of the National-Socialist movement are populist (völkisch) and the populist (völkisch) ideas are National-Socialist.”
He saw the advantage of gathering this populist interest in the folklore and history of Germany into the imagery of Nazism, and sense of nationalistic fervour which would be so powerfully harnessed in the years to come.
I left the bomb-shelters and this imagery, intrigued by the profound effect that the simple eighty year-old paintings, and especially the faded, simple arrangement of these few letters had had. In one way, these are incredibly valuable, a sort of time-capsule.
Two weeks later, I visited the American Cemetery near Cambridge. And after walking amongst the gravestones, crosses and walking along the path, reading some of the thousands of names inscribed in 1956 upon the monument to the American dead, I walked into the Chapel.
And on a somewhat inclined plaque, against the wall, was a brief but comprehensive description of the War in Europe. And there it was again, that the ‘ Enemy’s ‘ emblematic typeface was evident.
Every instance of mention of Germany, from the “ Enemy’s military, industrial, and economic system “, or its “ transportation systems and coastal defenses “, to the
“ German fighters “ and the “ Enemy’s submarines “ , and more, was highlighted by the use of the ‘ German ‘ typeface. In the design of this plaque, clearly there had been a strong association, less than ten years after the end of the war, of the old typeface with Nazism, and the desire to perpetuate this association was very, and surprisingly to me, evident.
But, a dispute? Why?
In most of Europe, both of these ‘ blackletter ‘ typefaces had historically been in common usage, but with the Antiqua typeface displacing the Fraktur version in the 15th and 16th centuries. However, in Germany, both continued to be used into the early 20th century.
So it was, in Germany, that a dispute developed along ideological divides, about which typeface represented ‘ German-ness ‘ . It seems that the dispute began in earnest in the 19th century, when nationalists began stridently to attempt to define cultural values that should be common to all Germans; a classic case of nation state building its sense of identity.
Some writers suggest that the Antiqua typefaces were seen to be shallow and light by their proponents, in contrast to the darker, denser Fraktur, supposedly representing the German values of depth and sobriety. (1)
And so, in 1911, on May 4th, the dispute reached a peak, during a vote in the Reichstag. The ‘ Verein für Altschrift ‘ , ( society for old-script ) submitted the proposition to make Antiqua the official German typeface, replacing Fraktur, which had been the official typeface since 1871 – the date of the Unification of Germany. A long debate followed, and the proposition was very narrowly rejected – by 85-82 votes. And so, from 1911 onwards, Fraktur continued as the official typeface until 1941.
Fraktur typefaces were hence heavily used early on during the Nazi era, as they continued to be claimed as the true “ German “ script. However, in 1941, the use of Fraktur was banned, its use being increasingly associated with Jewish control of newspapers. Martin Bormann signed an edict banning the so-called Shwabacher Jewish Letters. ( 2 ) .
Adolf Hitler also expressed his dislike for the Fraktur typeface in a declaration made in the Reichstag in 1934. ( 3)
“ Your alleged Gothic internalisation does not fit well in this age of steel and iron, glass and concrete, of womanly beauty and manly strength, of head raised high and intention defiant … In a hundred years, our language will be the European language. The nations of the east, the north and the west will, to communicate with us, learn our language. The prerequisite for this: The script called Gothic is replaced by the script we have called Latin so far ..”
Hilter referred to Antiqua as ‘ Latin ‘ , referring to its origins in Roman inscriptions.
But of course, 1945, the end of the war, and the de-Nazification of Germany changed everything….
But one still sees the Fraktur typeface, on labels on beer bottles, on hotel signs, on pub signs, all over the world, as well as in Germany, and it certainly continues to convey the notion of ‘ German-ness ‘ .
And the typeface in the bomb-shelters under the Templehof Airport? Looks like Antiqua to me…..but I may be wrong!
2. Facsimile of Bormann’s Memorandum (in German)
The memorandum itself is typed in Antiqua, but the NSDAP letterhead is printed in Fraktur.
“For general attention, on behalf of the Führer, I make the following announcement:
It is wrong to regard or to describe the so-called Gothic script as a German script. In reality, the so-called Gothic script consists of Schwabach Jew letters. Just as they later took control of the newspapers, upon the introduction of printing the Jews residing in Germany took control of the printing presses and thus in Germany the Schwabach Jew letters were forcefully introduced.
Today the Führer, talking with Herr Reichsleiter Amann and Herr Book Publisher Adolf Müller, has decided that in the future the Antiqua script is to be described as normal script. All printed materials are to be gradually converted to this normal script. As soon as is feasible in terms of textbooks, only the normal script will be taught in village and state schools.
The use of the Schwabach Jew letters by officials will in future cease; appointment certifications for functionaries, street signs, and so forth will in future be produced only in normal script.
On behalf of the Führer, Herr Reichsleiter Amann will in future convert those newspapers and periodicals that already have foreign distribution, or whose foreign distribution is desired, to normal script”.
3. from Völkischer Beobachter Issue 250, Sept. 7, 1934.