Sensitive subject, come if you dare: Renner / Futura and the Third Reich...

David Rault's picture

Dear Typophiles

There is a taboo, a subject about which almost nobody talks in the circles of typography, and the few ones who tried to were quickly bashed and sent to oblivion.

The subject is: Paul Renner, Futura, and the nazis.

I'm going to make it short, using the information I have verified, totally or partially: Paul Renner was the director of a printing school in Germany, and He was very close to the Bauhaus movement - though never being officially part of it. In the late 20's, He made some harsh comments on the nazi regime in a book. Subsequently, he was banned from his school when Hitler's powers rose. While most of the Bauhaus people flew out of Germany after it was closed by the nazis, Renner stayed in. In 1941, Goebbels understood that the Blackletter, until then promoted as a vibrant traditional pangermanic font, was too hard to read on the display panels and any outdoor signage, such as roads signs and so on, thus putting a serious brake on Germany's taking over Europe. He then issued the order to ban the use of Blackletter, suddenly described as a "jewish style" (!!), and realized that the sans serif of the Bauhaus era were pretty much sticking to the canons of national socialism. The Third Reich then began to use... Futura. I have some official third reich documents using Futura: letterheads, nsdap handbuch, door signs, even an enigma operating manual. Renner is known for having said that He was very sad about this misuse of Futura, but other sources prove that towards the end of the war, He was working closely with Albert Speer on the creation of an official type for the Third Reich... And Futura was so much associated with the nazi Germany at that time that after the war, Maximilen Vox tried really hard to force Peignot to distribute the font, which He reluctantly did after lots of discussion and after renaming it "Europe", for some years.

It's very hard to get any more info about this era. Every biographer of Renner tends to avoid this gap.



quadibloc's picture

I noted that the "Zur Beachtung!" instruction sheet pasted inside the German Enigma cipher machine was in Futura, but I never gave that much thought. Apparently, despite its association with the Bauhaus, the Nazis didn't find it sufficiently objectionable to avoid, I figured. That they didn't use Fraktur for something for use by Germans only, though, had an explanation I knew: when they switched from Fraktur, even though the practical reason was so that other people could read German propaganda, they gave it an ideological rationale, claiming that Fraktur was a "Schwabacher-Jewish" typeface.

I agree that since Fraktur precedes Nazism by a long time, it's ridiculous to call it a "Nazi typeface". But Fraktur had been distinctively German for a much longer period of time, and German nationalism had a streak of militarism and authoritarianism in it long before the Nazis came around as well. So, the choice to use Fraktur in many contexts is one that would legitimately tend to be avoided on the basis that it could give rise to suspicions that one is sympathetic to the harmful aspects of German nationalism.

I don't think there's anything that is to be done about that.

As for readability, what one is familiar with far outweighs any absolute characteristics of a typeface. If Fraktur is less legible than Roman because Roman is simpler, then Roman should also be less legible than sans-serif. While a rationale can be given for the greater legibility of Roman - the serifs guiding the eyes - that it is really the "sweet spot" is not, in my opinion, fully established.

And if some text types really are too "busy" to be legible, there are many typefaces with calligraphic influences that are highly legible by any standard. They don't tend to be used for body type, but that's more a question of taste and symbolism - and, while I can understand that readability is the reason why science fiction books are set in Times Roman (or Caledonia, or Century Expanded) and not Futura or Helvetica or Univers, I'm a little disappointed that no one is typesetting fantasy books any longer in Jenson, Cloister Lightface, or even in something such as William Morris' Chaucer type.

hrant's picture

> As for readability, what one is familiar with far
> outweighs any absolute characteristics of a typeface.

Dead wrong.


Nick Shinn's picture

I don't think those principles can be meaningfully separated from the document, and the role of the typographer therein.

For instance, Helmut Krone's format for the DDB VW ads relied on the reader having some *familiarity* with the Bauhausy (for want of a better word) connotations of Futura—German, modernist, etc. At the same time, Krone gave the face all sorts of room to breathe in the text layout, responding to the *absolute* form of the letters, finding the setting which optimized the readability of this particular "Mid-century Madison Avenue" way of writing (chatty, short paragraph adspeak) in this particular typeface, for this amount of text.

dinobib's picture

@ Nick Shinn
Why it isn't true?
Of course Futura was extensively aviable.
The same year Futura was released in 1927, the Bauer Type Foundry open an office in New York.
Lot of type shop use it but in three years, others founders have tried to create their own geometric sans, most of them failed and Linotype with ATF, and Monotype decided to finally released really close copy of Futura. That was Spartan and Twenty Century.
In our history of Futura, we effectively choose to focus on great uses by great man and we try to provide the major used of each time from the 2O's until today. We figured out some links between designers, art directors, and artists who predominantly use Futura.
We probably could have choose lots of differents uses but it could be so much due to the world success of the Futura typeface that we have been obliged to make some choice that would fit our text.
Futura was used a lot in advertising and editorial layout, we shown some of them, the same way we show how much the Futura was a lot used during the last 20 years for signage and communication of great cultural places and museums.
Consider that we show around 400 images in our book of 192 pages.
I understand your point about famous designers not only shaped the popularity of Futura but it's seems really impossible to not show the best uses at each time in such a book, trying not to be a thesis for type specialist but a book of popularization for students and people interested in type and graphic design.

Sorry for my english.

Nick Shinn's picture

Alexandre, I haven't read your book.
I am responding to your post, and disagreeing with:

Its in the United States — where modernism have found refuge and where it was in use since the end of the 30’s — where it earned its letters of nobility thanks to its use for the Sweet Catalog Files by Ladislav Sutnar, and thanks to the work of Bradbury Thompson and Paul Rand.

As I showed by the Harpers Bazar ad, Futura was in use in the US before "the end of the 30's".

I reject the elitist notion that its "nobility" was conferred by the superstars around whom graphic design history is configured.

I dispute the quaint notion of design history focusing on "Great uses by great men". You are giving students, in particular, a false picture of the world, at odds with their ultimate role in society.

Admittedly, design history is young, dating only to the 1980s, but nonetheless, I believe it should catch up with other areas of history, and try to paint a picture that is broadly representative.

I know it's hard not to refer to the icons (I illustrated a point in this thread by referring to the Krone VW ads), but one should try. Look at where Stephen Heller has gone. How many great men in his latest book on Scripts (with Louise Fili), investigating the heart of graphic design in commercial culture? And that shows good, interesting, meaningful work—although not previously lauded in in awards competitions and monographs. If anything, he has popularized previously un-great men, such as Alex Steinweiss.

dinobib's picture

I understand your point.
Following your idea just wouldn't have done the book we wish and have done.
We take examples of use, not only because they were produced by icons but also because they seems to us (it's really subjective) telling something more general about the way Futura was used at different time in the century.
Of course Futura was really know and use before the end of the 30's in USA and we deaply speak about it success and we discuss of others foundries trying to compete by providing others geometric sans like Dwiggins's Metro (1929), Robert Hunter Middleton's Tempo (1931) and many others.
In our popularization of this story (we said "vulgarisation" in french), we decide to focus on a European view at the beginning and provide an american view mostly from and after the war. It was a choice and we could understand some may have done this differently. It appears to us that this would be the best way to do it from the infos and materials we got and to make the text clear and not too confusing.
Also, saying that the American scene of graphic design takes a lot from the arrival of many emigrés coming from Europe and their understanding of new typography and modernism and functionlism, doesn't seems to be false to us.
Despite the fact we focus on icons, we think that we reproduce some really rare or unknown materials.
We also showcase some really less-known works and artists or designers.
Maybe your judgment is mainly based on the informational text I have post, which was written for promotional needs.
In such a short promotional text, we and our publisher focus on well-known designers and probably use some too quick and simplistic images to do urge to the largest public.
This could not really well depict the true nature of our book.

quadibloc's picture

Dead wrong.

I'm not unsympathetic to this view. I do think that one can, using techniques such as that shown in Typographic Printing Surfaces, show that Fraktur is, in an absolute sense, somewhat less legible than Roman. The same is true of, say, a script typeface.

On this basis, one might also say that the normal printed forms of the scripts of Armenia and Georgia are very nearly as legible as the Roman alphabet, that of the Thai script is noticeably less legible, and the Hebrew and Arabic scripts are definitely less legible.

With the exception of Turkey and Malta, however, there has not been much of a demand to abandon either the Hebrew or Arabic scripts in favor of something else. Israel - and, for different reasons, Japan - both demonstrate that perceived inadequacies in a script, at least as seen by outsiders, are not barriers to mass literacy.

Thus, while I'm not prepared to go to the politically-correct extreme of assigning no weight at all to the intrinsic legibility characteristics of a script, it does seem to me that the evidence does show that familiarity does have a heavy enough weight to cover a multitude of sins in this regard.

That also accounts for the slowness with which text types were abandoned in favor of Roman types for vernacular texts in European printing outside Germany.

Another way to consider this is to ask oneself the question: if the Western world were to suddenly decide to abandon the Roman alphabet in favor of (a suitably modified form of) the Korean writing system, which is also alphabetic in basis, and arguably as legible as Roman letters, how long would it take for people to be able to read books so printed with as much facility as those in the Latin script?

Of course, that's not really a fair comparison. Of course, if letters are written in a code of completely different shapes, one will have to memorize that new code. Fraktur and Roman, on the other hand, are very clearly just two slightly different forms of the same script.

hrant's picture

You're way too rosy-eyed towards Latin.

Actually blackletter (I mean structurally, not necessarily most instances of it) is inherently more readable* than Latin:

* Not at all the same thing as "legible".
And virtually nothing to do with "literacy".

Armenian and Georgian are more readable than Latin. So is Arabic, by a big margin. Hebrew is less readable. Thai is probably slightly inferior. Korean? Makes Latin look like a village idiot.

The adoption/abandonment of a script has little to do with its readability, sadly. Especially in this age of idiotic democracy. And it has even less to do with familiarity.

Is it worth switching? Hmmm, is it worth learning math in school? It's so hard!...


quadibloc's picture

others founders have tried to create their own geometric sans, most of them failed

Oh, my, yes. Vogue, the one from Intertype, is, in my personal opinion, a terribly ugly typeface. I remember it from Cracked magazine, the liner notes of record albums from really cheap labels, and various other unfortunate places.

Perhaps less-readable typefaces or less-legible typefaces are analogous to QWERTY. Something else that is very unlikely to go away.

At least we're both agreed that the Korean writing system is a better one.

And, also, as I've noted elsewhere, script changes historically have indeed mainly taken place for political or religious reasons, so we're agreed there as well.

Té Rowan's picture

To me, the Korean writing system looks very logical, very well designed and very readable. Yet, I can't read it worth a crooked fig. Why? I'm totally unfamiliar with it.

matthew.wyne's picture

Does anyone have images they can share of Nazi publications that use Futura?

quadibloc's picture

Arabic is more readable than Latin, by a big margin?

I'll admit I find this almost impossible to believe. Too many letters, in their medial forms, have too little legibility for this to be plausible.

And that h, z, and s have descenders in Fraktur makes it more readable seems a stretch, even if I see a point there.

But to go back to the original post: since Paul Renner opposed Nazism himself, the fact that the Nazis used Futura a lot after abandoning Fraktur, while not something to be covered up, is simply irrelevant in a biography of Renner. He didn't control their actions.

Unless one somehow believes there can be something intrinsic to a typeface that makes it a "Nazi typeface", so that the fact that Futura appealed to Nazis means that despite his political beliefs, there was something sick in Paul Renner's mind, how can this be a "sensitive topic"? The idea is just silly.

But the same goes for Fraktur. The connection of Fraktur to Nazism is also all external associations, not something about the typeface itself, even if some of those associations long predate Nazism.


a reasonably large image of an Enigma with the instruction sheet.

Is it worth switching? Hmmm, is it worth learning math in school? It's so hard!...

Well, knowing math instead of not knowing math gives one an additional skill. Once one can read and write, learning to read and write in a different way only lets one do the same thing one already could before.

If the Latin alphabet is the QWERTY keyboard of scripts, one will have to explain why. Its individual letter shapes are distinctive. And the script is versatile; the letters have simple enough shapes, and are distinguished by major features, not minor ones, that many different and still legible typefaces are possible.

If more ascenders and descenders are needed, though, there is an option. I don't count going to Fraktur as switching scripts, and so I'm open to minor modifications.

Ranging and non-ranging numerals.

Instead of going to Fraktur to get more ascenders and descenders, take the lower-case letters that don't have any - acemnorsuvwxz - and treat them as ranging digits, and switch to non-ranging versions. That is, give (some of) them second-order ascenders and descenders that don't go to the full ascender and descender heights. So a and s could ascend; r, v, and w could descend. If it weren't for h, m and n could ascend as well, but they could also be made to descend instead. Also, s and u could ascend (a u with a descender would be confusingly similar to y).

Something like this:

except that the new ascenders and descenders could be significantly more subtle than illustrated here.

So now n moves towards ղ (gh)... u would have to have a descender as well as an ascender to look like կ (g), so there is only one borrowing from Armenian. But with the new ascenders and descenders being subtle, perhaps half as much as in the illustration, there would not be that much of a resemblance.

I think that would be enough to give more bouma to the Latin script. As I noted, it's versatile, with styles from Jensons to Optima.

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