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German Typefaces: The Battle Between Antiqua and Fraktur

From Gothic Textura to Fraktur


Fraktur letter A

Fraktur letter 'A'

The German 'Gothic' Typeface

Have you ever wondered about that funny-looking, ornate German typeface found in old German books and on beer steins? German Gothic type, or Fraktur, goes back to the fifteenth century and was used in Germany until the end of World War II. The term "Fraktur" comes from Latin for "broken" or "fractured"—a reference to the fact that the letters are broken into sharp angles rather than the more flowing form of Roman or Antiqua. (The German would be Bruchschrift, but this term is rarely used. Fraktur can also refer to a bone fracture - Knochenfraktur.)

Although Fraktur, blackletter, or "Gothic" type is most often associated with German, it is not unique to German. It was used in English ("Old English"), Gaelic, Latin, in the Scandanavian languages, and for other European languages. (Many American newspapers use Fraktur type in their mastheads to this day.) Gutenberg's 42-line Bible was printed in Latin using a blackletter typeface that imitated Textura, one of the various handwritten scripts used by monks when books were still produced by hand. But it was only in the German-speaking world that Gothic type (Deutsche Schrift) was commonly used from the mid-fifteenth century until well into the twentieth.

But that is not to say that the use of blackletter or Gothic type was without controversy in the German lands. Europe's two main competing typefaces reflected religious, political, and even architectural differences (Gothic versus Romanesque). The Roman type style that Germans call "Antiqua" (Altschrift, old script) soon gained favor in Italy, France, and other Catholic regions. The Germanic, Gothic typestyle was favored by Martin Luther and the Protestants in northern Europe. (Luther's Bible and other religious works were all set in Fraktur.) Besides creating a "typeface divide" in Europe, this split between Humanistic, Catholic Antiqua and Germanic, Protestant Fraktur was also reflected within the German-speaking region. (Remember, there was no Germany/Prussia until 1871.) Literary works in German were most often published in Fraktur, while scientific and learned works were set in Antiqua (Latin) type.

The world's first newspaper was German and set in Fraktur. The Relation in Strassburg (then in Germany, now in France) is considered the first true newspaper ever printed. The weekly Relation was first published in the summer of 1605. It was not until 1660 that the world's first daily newspaper was published, this time in Leipzig, Germany. Like most German newspapers up until the end of the Nazi era, Lepizig's Einlauffende Nachricht used Fraktur type.

However, quite a few famous German authors went on record opposing the use of Fraktur for their works. At various times no less than Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche, and Jakob Grimm all spoke out in favor of Antiqua over Fraktur! On the other side were people like Otto von Bismarck, who is claimed to have refused to read anything published in German if it was set in Latin rather than "German" type. But on at least three occasions in German history (see our Typeface Chronology) the Fraktur debate (der Fraktur-Streit) came to a head. Fraktur was by no means a sure thing; it almost lost to Antiqua several times. But instead the two typefaces were forced to coexist in German for five centuries. And—irony of ironies—it was the Nazis who finally dealt the official death blow to Fraktur in January 1941. Of course, true to form, they had to use a lie to disown the Fraktur they had long claimed was "German"! But with the exception of a few party organs, most German newspapers did not get rid of Fraktur until years later. (See our Schrifterlass page for more about the Nazi ban.)

Finally, we need to clear up one misconception about Fraktur. Although the word "Fraktur" is often used to refer to all forms of Gothic type, technically Fraktur is only one category of several blackletter typefaces that evolved after the invention of printing with movable type. There are four basic categories of "broken" or "Gothic" type: Textura, Rotunda, Schwabacher, and Fraktur. Each of these categories can be futher subdivided into several variants. (See examples in our Fraktur Image Gallery.)

NEXT > A Chronological History of Blackletter/Fraktur Typeface

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