I remember struggling with the lowercase cursive f. Over and over, I would write f’s on the brownish lined paper (you know the kind, it had 2 solid blue lines set about an inch apart with a dotted line between them). And every time I turned it in, my teacher would reject it and send it back… “not right” “your bottom loop goes the wrong way”. It was frustrating and discouraging. I wasn’t allowed to move on to the letter “g” until I got this right. And since both of my parents wrote in a completely different style, there was no help from home. So, you can imagine how much empathy I have for German School children of the 1930s who had to learn 4 different alphabets in both upper and lower case! But why? Why did the old German cursive alphabet take so many forms? Why did the writing styles change?
It turns out that there is a lot of history to unpack behind the story of German writing. The changes weren’t about making Genealogists weep in frustration (although I have my suspicions), it was really about German nationalism, and pride in a language.
Read on to find out why it is so hard to read your great-grandfather’s letters….
Old German Cursive Alphabet and Typefaces
Because bouncing around in time is exhausting, let’s start at the beginning… (well, not the VERY beginning German cave drawings aren’t helpful, let’s go around back 1000 years.)
Blackletter aka Gothic Script
Around 1050 AD, Blackletter, those strong fancy “Gothic” letters you see in illuminated manuscripts, developed out of the even fancier Carolingian script, because even in the Middle Ages, there was a need for speed and efficiency (You think your computer printer at work is slow? Try waiting for a group of monks to hand write your new decree…). Still, Blackletter got tweaked along the way (just like the home computer), and by the 1400s, it had split into a few different sub-types. Guttenberg used Textualis, with its heavily angular styling, to print up the first bible in 1455. (Stop and think about this for a second. Guttenberg used moveable type to print the Bible. EVERY LETTER needed to be set in a frame individually, like an alphabet puzzle. And it was still quicker than monks.) Then Martin Luther came along and started using Schwabacher typeface in 1472 for his translation of the Bible. This rounder version was less harsh looking and became quite common in Germany Lutheranism spread.
Then in the 17th century, Fraktur replaced them all.
Albrecht Dürer- The Triumphal Arch public domaine
In the early 1600s, Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian 1 commissioned a woodcut from Albrecht Dürer called “The Triumphal Arch“. Hieronymus Andreae, an associate of Dürer, created a new typeface specifically for the artwork. It included special German characters like the ß and umlauts, that were missing from earlier typefaces. They named it “Deutsche Schrift”, but the rest of the world called it Fraktur. (The name Fraktur comes from the Latin meaning “broken script” or “fractured”. All those swirls, flourishes, and curlicues in the Fraktur letters break up words.)
While the rest of Western Europe was using Antiqua, an unadorned style of gothic script, the German world moved over to the “Deutsche Schrift”, aka. Fraktur. Books, journals, basically all printed materials were printed in Fraktur. When Napoleon broke up the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, a Nationalist movement worked overtime to preserve German cultural values and canonize German literature. In the eyes of many Germans, Antiqua, with its simple style was “light and frivolous” not serious enough for the strength of German writings (that might be one of the most German things ever). And in 1871, when the German Reich was established, “die deutsche Schrift became the standard. All government publications were to be printed in Fraktur.
The Antiqua-Fraktur dispute!
Not everyone was thrilled with this new development. German scientists continued to use Antiqua in order to share their discoveries with the non-German speaking world. German books and publications might be written in Fraktur, but any foreign words were printed in Antiqua. (That must have been fun down at the printing house)
But the hardliners prevailed (the nerdy scientists had to take a back seat on this one). Fraktur or deutsche Schrift was to be used in German texts, and nothing else ( An apocryphal story about Otto von Bismark sums it up. It’s said he refused to read any book that wasn’t printed in German typefaces…. And he ever RETURNED gifts if they contained Antiqua. “Deutsche Bucher in lateinische Buchstaben lese ich nicht!” I will not read German books in latin letters!)
The upside of Antiqua is that it could easily be handwritten. On the other hand, Fraktur had a whole different written alphabet…. Kurrent.
Because Fraktur was CLEARLY too complex to use while dashing off a grocery list, people used its handwritten counterpart, Kurrent, (the original old German cursive alphabet ) While Fraktur means “broken”, Kurrent means “runs together”. You don’t have to keep picking up the pen when writing in Kurrent.
Kurrent was used from the 15th to the 20th century, and it was taught in schools as THE deutsche Schrift (German Writing Style) until 1941. Yet it comes with its own tricky bits. The Kurrent alphabet is loaded with sharp angles and strange changes in direction. There are 3 different “s’s”, depending on where the letter falls in the word. And it’s confusing for the modern reader because it has letters that look like completely different letters in modern writing (the lowercase h looks like an f… so Tochter looks like Tocfter).
At this point, German students were learning 4 different Alphabets, just to get by. (It’s enough to bring a mom to tears thinking about the homework.)
Latin would be the unadorned handwriting of any other language like Spanish or French. (I have great empathy for any of the kids who decided to learn Greek or Russian on top of this).
Then a new German Alphabet came along….
When the 20th century rolled around, the Prussian Ministry of Science, Art and Culture decided it was time to update Kurrent, so in 1911, they commissioned Ludwig Sütterlin to create a modern German handwriting system. By 1920, Sütterlin was being taught in schools across Germany.
(Side note- having experienced the rollout of new math, I have a great deal of empathy for teachers who had to change lesson plans, and parents who were suddenly faced with not understanding how to do the homework)
The point of the exercise was to make handwriting “easier to read and write”. The design took Kurrent and modified the proportions a bit. Now you could write your name without changing the pressure on your pen.
Unlauts are indicated by a small “e” above the vowel (like they tried to squeeze it in)… note that it’s a Sütterlin “e”, so it looks like a tiny “n”.
Not to be outdone by Prussians, the Hessians introduced THEIR new script, the Offenbacher Schrift in 1927. This script, created by Rudolf Koch, encouraged freedom and creativity! Naturally, since individual Freedom and Creativity were not very encouraged in Germany, especial in the early 20th century, the script wasn’t used outside of Hesse….
Introducing, Normalschrift, a step away from the old German Cursive Alphabet and typefaces
The Nazi era in Germany brought new Script changes. What happens when you want to take over the world, but no one can read your propaganda? It’s problematic. Sütterlin was still being taught in schools… but Fraktur got a simplified overhaul. For posters and signs, the Nazis used the Schachtstiefel Grotesk typeface (Combat Boot san serif). This simplified “Blackletter” typeface may look familiar to you since it still appears in design today.
This poster is an example of Schachtstiefel Grotesk Schrift
But of course, there was a problem.
In 1940, after years of promoting German typeface and handwriting styles, the realization set in that it would be impossible to force people in occupied lands to change their writing style. PLUS (and I imagine this was an even bigger issue) it was crazy expensive to send new Typeface to all the publishers of books, newspapers and journals in other countries. (I can just imagine the poor guy from the budget office who had to break the news to Hitler that sending crates of German Type all over Poland and France was costing an arm and a leg.) On the other hand, since Hitler, hated the look of it anyway (artists have strong opinions about fonts), he waved his hand, and made it go away.
The Schrifterlass (edict about script) of January 3, 1941 officially forbade Blackletter typeface. Their excuse? an invented Jewish connection to the invention of Fraktur. (Never mind the irony of sending out the Schrifterlass WITH BLACKLETTER TYPEFACE in the header…!) And a follow up edict banned Kurrent and Sütterlin. (At this point, I’m sure parents were tearing out their hair). Normalschrift (also called Latinschrift) took their place in 1941/1942. Antiqua took the place of Fraktur in printed materials. (Although, the old Kurrent was still being used through 1945 in some places…. Probably because they wanted to use up old stock. No German is going to throw away perfectly good letterhead, just because the government changed typefaces AGAIN).
The 1941 Schrifterlass, forbidding Fraktur… ironically uses Fraktur in the Header
After World War 2, things were messy in the handwriting world. While schools were SUPPOSED to teach Normalschrift, some schools still taught Sütterlin. (I imagine it had a lot to do with lack of teachers and lack of teaching materials.) And some kids were still writing in Kurrent, because their parents taught it to them at home.
As for Fraktur printing? Some books and newspapers continued to be printed in the old script… the Frankfurter Allgemeine still uses it in its masthead. And many restaurants carried on using it, and still do today, because the style evokes a “German-ness”. You will also find Fraktur in Pennsylvania Dutch art.
After a few years Normalschrift or Lateinschrift became the standard.
Writing in Germany Today
The standard didn’t last very long though (naturally), because in the late 60s and early 70s the emphasis in German schools changed from writing to reading. The new Vereinfachte Lateinschrift (simplified Latin letters) corrected all the “mistakes” of the original Normalschrift… mostly where letters end and connect to each other in words. (Let’s go back to that lined paper that I started the post with… with the Vereinfachte Lateinschrift, all letters ended on the dotted line through the middle, instead of the top or bottom or wherever).
The Problem for Historians and Genealogists is that the Old German Cursive Alphabet Changed
Making sense of German historical records can be tricky because the old German Cursive Alphabet and typefaces kept changing.
In my closet I keep an old Gingerbread Tin full of letters. Sifting through them is like a trip through the history of German handwriting. My mother’s style is clearly Sütterlin, my Oma wrote in Kurrent, while letters from my older cousin, are Normalschrift … and the younger ones write the Vereinfachte Lateinschrift. (Funny, my parents are only 2 years apart in age, but it’s clear my father learned to write in Kurrent).
For those of you working on your Family Tree, reading the old German cursive alphabet is an exercise in frustration. Digging into Genealogical records without aids to help you read them is almost impossible. Even if a person wrote in Kurrent, individual writing styles, can make ledger entries frustrating to decipher. Is it any wonder that only 1% of Germans can read early German documents?
Fortunately, there are some helps out there… and practice makes it easier (a lot of practice, and a good magnifying glass). Think of it as a fun challenge.
I finished my Reading the Old German Handwriting course! This online class from Germanology Unlocked leads you through the whole process from alphabet to essential vocabulary. There are games and tricks for reading (is that an s? Or a d?). You even get a primer in reading German church records (although there is a whole other class for that here). You can revisit and review the lessons as often as you like. I keep the Worksheets and PDFs on my desk for reference. If you have old records to decode…or you love genealogy and want to make sense of those records, this class is essential!
Here are some helps-