GOTHIC LETTERS – Fashion, rebellion, propaganda

On a military-green pair of pants the message «Punk Royal» is written in gothic letters. The pants are worn by a financially viable student of advertising in her twenties. The flag-carriers of the punk-movement, Sex Pistols, once issued the single «God save the Queen», which was an attack on the royalty of England, among other things. 

For many, punk meant an attack on the establishment; the monarchy, the world of advertising, commercialism and capitalism. For the Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren the band offered an opportunity to make money off the protest movement, and they were given the hippest clothes of fashion from shops on King’s Road. The vocalist Johnny Rotten has later claimed that the band never were anarchists, despite songs like «Anarcy in the UK». It is questionable whether one can speak of a «blind rebellion» while Malcolm McLaren was pulling the strings. All of this despite the strong force, the unquestionable drive in the band’s output. Out of the punk-movement came many new forms of expression, it created many positive offsprings. But it is commercially exploitable, a fact which the student of advertising exemplifies. We can ask whether a protest is a fashion, or vice versa. And whether letters are simply tools for different kinds of propaganda; political, commercial, religious?

Gothic letters and their history excemplify these questions. From being a handwritten form used in Bibles, with forms echoing the pointed forms of cathedrals during the Middle Ages, to Lutheran letters of protest and nazi-propaganda. From Black Metal-covers to a somewhat more moderate life on pubs and a life full of action and speed on skateboards in California. In other words, gothic letters have been used for propaganda purposes by catholics, protestants, satanists, for nazism, alcohol, national identity and urban youth-culture.

During the Oslo Hate Conference (a peace-conference arranged by Elie and Marion Wiesel, 1990) I had been asked to produce a declaration in calligraphy, written by Elie Wiesel, to be signed by the heads of states. I met with Mr. Wiesel and his Norwegian publisher to discuss the design of the text. He asks for my business card. My hand moves up to my inner-pocket before halting abruptly: In it I have a business-card which was designed for The School of Graphic Design, where I worked as a teacher of lettering. It consisted of an eagle taken from the logo of a 1920s German Gymnastics Club. It was embossed and gilded with silvercolored-foil. The eagle held a barely visible scalpel between it’s claws (the scalpel was a tool formerly used by graphic designers in the preparation of artwork for print). If I had given him the business-card it would have had the same effect as if I had written the document in a Gothic fractura: One does not give a former prisoner of a concentration camp a business card or a document which may remind him of his prison-guards. For my generation this was a rather innocent joke with a well-known symbolism. For most people in the generation of our grand-parents a provocation and an insult. Gothic letters have a form of expression which is given different meaning according to the context – it no longer has one single interpretation.

It is correct that the letters were used for German propaganda, but the nazis perform a complete turn in 1941, when an internal letter signed Martin Bormann suddenly forbid the use of fracturschrift, by order of Adolf Hitler. Oldstyle antiqua was to be used instead. Gothic letters were called «Schwabacher-Judenlettern». As if Hebrew letters didn’t exist. And if we consider the nazi use of letters as a whole one finds, as in their architecture, a mix of historical styles: gothic, antiqua, roman majuscules and sans serifs used side by side.

Left: Poster for the Berlin Olympics, 1936. Functionalist lettering.
Right.: Letter banning the use of gothic letters, 1941. The letterhead is in gothic letters.

Sans Serifs were used by the avantgarde «neue typographie»-practitioners, known to us through the Bauhaus-style. It’s practitioners were accused of «cultural bolschevism», and many (including Jan Tschichold) were imprisoned or went into exile. Yet on the official poster for the olympic games in Berlin a functionalist sans serif has been used.

There was probably purely practical considerations behind the condemnation of gothic letters. The inhabitants of occupied countries were used to old style antiqua letters, and had problems reading German propaganda set in fractura. Legibility seems to have been an issue. The switch to antiqua was made for propaganda purposes.