Short History of German Writings in the 19th and 20th centuries

The German writing of the 19th and 20th centuries has its roots in the Carolingian minuscule of the Middle Ages. The first tiny Gothic gestures appeared in the 12th century, not in Germany, but in France. Until the 15th century, several forms of Gothic writing coexisted in the West while, at the same time, cursive writing, which was faster to trace, was used in everyday life. The first printing characters were based on Gothic script. The rounding of the letters is broken, as suggested by the name Fraktur, which was given to this font in Germany from the 16th century onwards. But, while in Germanic spaces, the Fraktur was used, the rest of Europe printed in Latin script, a prefiguration of the future Antiqua font.

The German cursive writing, called Kurrentschrift, was characterized by sharp angles. It was normalized in the 19th century and was taught in schools until the beginning of the 20th century. Surprisingly, it is more difficult today to decipher Kurrent than German writing from more remote times!

Family tree of fonts

The Fraktur was politically manipulated in the 19th century by German nationalists; it was supposed to be better able to express the “Germanness” than Antiqua… Until the early 20th century, German-language books were mainly printed in Fraktur but foreign words, especially of Latin origin, remained written in Antiqua; this is what is called “double writing” (Zweischriftigkeit). The same phenomenon could be observed with handwriting, the Latin form being able to coexist punctually with Kurrent. Fraktur and Kurrent are the most common writings found in German archives in contemporary times, at least until the Nazi period.

An example of use of Fraktur and Kurrent for official documents in the early years of the German Empire (1877)

At the beginning of the 20th century, a debate opposed the supporters of the Fraktur and those of Antiqua. The latter were calling for the abandonment of the Fraktur in order to bring it into line with the standards in force in Europe and in order to make it easier to understand. At the same time, the Kurrent was reformed by the graphic designer Ludwig Sütterlin. At the request of the Prussian government, he proposed a new writing in 1911: the Sütterlinschrift. It was not until the aftermath of the First World War that the Sütterlin supplanted the Kurrent in education and in everyday use in Germany and Austria. Antiqua and the different types of Latin handwriting were nevertheless common in Luxembourg and Switzerland.

Christmas card in Sütterlin (interwar period)

During the 1930s, the Nazis promoted the Fraktur for the same reasons as the nationalists in 19th century, but they finally decided to ban it in 1941, on the grounds that it was of Jewish origin! In fact, this police force hindered German propaganda during the Second World War because it was very difficult for the occupied populations to decipher. The Kurrent and the Sütterlin followed the same fate very quickly. Antiqua and the cursive Latin manuscript were definitively established in Germany after 1945.

Decree which prohibits the Fraktur, January 3, 1941 — but paradoxically used it in the header

Today, in German-speaking countries, Fraktur is used in some commercial brands (brasseries, restaurants, pharmacies, etc.) or in urban signage to claim historical depth. Some newspapers also use it for their headlines, such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. As for the Kurrent or Sütterlin, they are no longer taught and rarely used in everyday life.

Street sign in Vienna today

Benoit Vaillot

Doctorant en histoire (EHESS, Paris) / Arche EA 3400 (Université de Strasbourg). PhD Researcher (European University Institute, Florence). Coordinateur du séminaire doctoral « Nationalism Working Group » hébergé à l'Institut Universitaire Européen.

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Facebook


Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse de messagerie ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *

Ce site utilise Akismet pour réduire les indésirables. En savoir plus sur comment les données de vos commentaires sont utilisées.