black star on the history of old german script black star
History of the Old German Script at Walden Font Co.

On the History of Old German Script

There is currently much discussion as to the origin and development of the Old German script. There are as many different opinions as there are voices talking about it. To avoid further confusion and clear up the record, we would like to trace the origins and development of the Old German Script from its beginnings in the first half of the 16th century to its termination as the “standard” German script in 1941.

“German Script” and “Kurrent”

The Kurrent script, which is commonly known as “The Old German Script” evolved from the gothic cursive handwriting at the beginning of the 16th century. The gothic cursive had been in use throughout much of the medieval ages and had developed into a staggering number of different writing styles. The need for a uniform and legible handwriting led many important writing masters to the development of the Kurrent, a script that was soon adopted by many chancelleries because it was beautiful, fast to write and comparatively legible. This initiated the widespread use of Kurrent as an everyday handwriting.

Over the next two hundred years, writing styles became more and more standardized, so that by the end of the 18th century the “modern” form of the Kurrent was established.

Sütterlin vs. Kurrent

Anybody who has tried will confirm that the classic Kurrent script is very hard to write. There are many sharp angles, straight lines and abrupt changes in direction. To give schoolchildren an easier start on the art of writing, the Viennese graphic artist Ludwig Sütterlin (born 1865, died 1917) devised a form of Kurrent that consisted of wide curves and very few sharp angles. He intended it as a basic script on which pupils would develop their individual handwriting. This Kurrent was accepted as standard script in all Prussian schools in 1915. By 1934, it was firmly established at virtually all German schools. Sütterlin Kurrent is the handwriting remembered by the older German generation. Like all Fraktur and Kurrent types, it mostly disappeared after 1941.

Why the German script disappeared

After the turn of the century, Kurrent, much like its printed counterpart, Fraktur, declined in popularity. As German society became more cosmopolitan, it viewed the national style of writing as antiquated and ugly. Consequently, the humanist Antiqua, both in its printed and written form became more and more fashionable. This, of course, changed with the rise of the Nazi regime.

Antiqua and Latin script were declared “Un-German” and “non-Aryan.” Only Fraktur and Gothic typefaces were to be considered “German.”  As a result of this policy many bastardized Gothic and Fraktur designs cropped up, all of them commonly known as “Schaftstiefel Grotesk.” (Jack-boot Helvetica) 

In 1941 however, Hitler ordered a complete reversal of existing policy and issued a curious decree, declaring Fraktur and Kurrent to be of “Jewish origin” and therefore taboo.

The motive for this sudden change is easily seen. The German administration of the occupied countries had found that Fraktur and German script formed a veritable communication barrier with the peoples of Poland, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Greece and parts of the Soviet Union. German or not, it had to go.

The nazi propaganda machine was charged with building public support for the decision, but quite apparently it choked on this particular bit of nazi reasoning. No mention of the order is made in the official newspapers for the following six months. At the start of the new school year, a more plausible reason was found, and the Reichsminister for Education touted the new policy as the creation of new standard script, better suited as a base for an individual handwriting. The Völkischer Beobachter (the official Nazi party newspaper) chimed in, complaining that presently German children had to learn eight different alphabets (Fraktur, Kurrent, Antiqua and Latin Script, upper and lower case each), which would now be reduced to four, thus making learning much easier on the children. The result, in any case, was that Kurrent was no longer taught in schools. 

It is a misconception that the allied forces officially prohibited the use of Fraktur and Script. It is, however, conceivable that local commanders preferred to have communications printed in Antiqua — again because non-Germans could not read Fraktur and Kurrent.

Was that the end of Kurrent?

Not quite. Some German schools still taught the Old German Script in optional afternoon classes. I still have a primer entitled “Wer kann das lesen,” printed in 1954, which is indicative of the innocence that was commonly felt about the way Germany wrote. The poor image of Fraktur and Kurrent only came about when movies, television and printed media associated Fraktur with the Third Reich - to the extent that for some time any blackletter font was considered “Nazi Type.”

We hope to have made a contribution to restore - or at least patch up - the image of Kurrent and Fraktur. Please feel free to send any comments or questions to oliver@waldenfont.com