The Great Rubber Robbery: How Julius Fromm’s Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis

by Leon Rocha

JULIUS FROMM WAS BORN Israel Fromm on 4 March 1883 in Konin, what was then a small town in the Russian Empire and now part of Poland. Like many Jewish families in the region, the Fromms moved in 1893 to a rapidly expanding Berlin in search of a safer life and better opportunities for the children. They were culturally assimilated, and Israel Fromm adopted the name Julius. The Fromms made a living rolling cigarettes during the day, and selling them one by one in cafés at night. This was a line of work which lent itself to impoverished immigrants in Germany who often had little more than manual dexterity. The patriarch Bernhard Fromm died in 1898 at the age of forty-two and Regina died in 1911, leaving Julius and his elder brother Salomon the responsibility of raising the entire family. Julius Fromm, a “quintessential ‘entrepreneurial proletariat’”, and a modest man with minimal education, sought a career alternative to making cigarettes and began taking evening classes in rubber chemistry around 1912.

Julius Fromm then hit upon the idea of making condoms. The early condoms from the eighteenth century were generally made of animal intestines, and were used primarily by wealthy men – like Giacomo Casanova, who referred to them as “English riding coats” – to protect against the incurable syphilis. These condoms were difficult to use, diminished pleasure, frequently broke, and offered only limited protection against venereal diseases. In 1893 the American industrialist Charles Goodyear developed rubber vulcanisation. When the sap of the rubber tree is formed into rubber, then treated with sulphur and heated to high temperatures, it forms an elastic and durable material that can be used to make raincoats, shoes, tyres and condoms which rather looked like bicycle inner tubes with bulging seams. Later a dipping method was invented that made possible the production of thinner and seamless condoms. Julius Fromm saw a market he could tap into and founded his company in 1914, opening a small workshop in the Bötzow area in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin. With World War I and the liberalisation of sexual values in the Weimar Republic, the demand for condoms exploded and Fromm’s business quickly expanded, and he established factories near the Spree River in Berlin-Mitte.

Fromm improved on the manufacturing technique. He used glass moulds, which were mounted on carrier frames and dipped into a vat of rubber solution liquefied with gasoline, benzene and tetrachloromethane. After two dippings, a thin rubber skin formed around the glass moulds and this was then vulcanised in special ovens with sulphur vapours. The condoms were dusted with a lubricant, rolled off the glass moulds and tested by inflation with compressed air, inverted and packaged. Fromms’ condoms were sturdy yet elastic, durable enough to be warehoused and transported for long distances. In fact this technical process of condom manufacturing has remained largely unchanged, with the exception of automation and the replacement of the benzene treatment with a latex process in the 1960s. Using a similar setup, Fromm also made surgical finger cots, rubber gloves, pacifiers and teats for baby bottles – another sound business move given the rising birth rate in Germany.

In 1916 Fromm decided on “Fromms Act” as his brand name. In adopting the English spelling of the word “Act” (Akt in German), Julius Fromm wanted to transmit a cosmopolitan image for his product. It was also a humorous name, as “Fromm” also meant “pious” in German, and at the same time somewhat risqué, as “Act” carried a sexual connotation. Fromms Act condoms came in instantly recognisable small cardboard boxes with green and purple stripes, and each box contained three condoms and was sold for seventy-two pfennigs. This was not inexpensive but Fromms Act was a high-quality and reliable product. It was even endorsed by famous sexologist and homosexual activist Magnus Hirschfeld, who founded the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin in 1919. By the 1920s Julius Fromm was a very successful and wealthy man. He received a certificate of naturalisation in 1920 and acquired German citizenship. In 1926 Fromm moved his operation to Friedrichshagen in Eastern Berlin; in that year alone his factory produced 24 million condoms. In 1930 Fromm established another factory in Köpenick, an impressive and ultra-modern complex built by the famous architects Arthur Korn and Siegfried Weitzmann in the Neue Sachlichkeit style, complete with full-length glass façades and climate control systems. Annual production rose to 50 million condoms in 1931. Fromm had agencies in all parts of Germany and exports were handled by branches in the Netherlands, Britain, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Iceland and even as far as New Zealand. Fromms Act became the first global condom brand, older than the current bestselling brand around the world, Durex, which was established by London Rubber Company in 1929. Fromms was so popular that apparently German cabarettists and comedians name-checked the product in their routines, singing lines such as “Fromms zieht der Edelmann beim Mädel an”, “Wenn’s Euch packt, nehmt Fromms Act” and “Ich bin ganz Fromms – zum Platzen gespannt”.

ADOLF HITLER became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Two managers of Fromms Act became members of the National Socialist Party, and a red swatiska flag and a photograph of the Führer were soon displayed in the cafeteria of Fromm’s factory. Julius Fromm began to emphasise the German nature of his products, in an attempt to ward off boycotts of his Jewish company. His naturalisation was reviewed by the Berlin police commissioner, though the plan to revoke his citizenship was abandoned a year later in 1934. Julius Fromm did remain optimistic about the future and did not feel that Hitler posed a real threat, but his company increasingly became a target of harassment. He therefore converted Fromms Act into a corporation and assumed the role of consultant, drawing profits from the business and retaining possession of the buildings and equipment. He also sent his children to safety in Britain and Switzerland. Fromm continued to promote his products and refined the manufacturing process. Collaborating with I.G. Farben, he developed a synthetic rubber and improved his condoms’ lubrication. However, by 1937 Fromm realised that Germany was no longer safe and decided to sell Fromms Act. In May 1938 the sales of Jewish property had to be approved by the Reich Economics Ministry, and Hitler’s economic advisers began to take serious interest in Fromm’s lucrative enterprise.

A buyer was brought in by the Ministry – Baroness Elisabeth von Epenstein, the godmother of Hitler’s right-hand man Hermann Göring. The offer was 200,000 Swiss francs; Nazi officials steamrolled the transaction. According to the official exchange rate, Epenstein’s offer was the equivalent of 116,000 Reichsmarks. Even though the offer was worth several times that amount because Swiss francs were valuable foreign currency, this was still a fraction of Fromms Act’s estimated market value of 5 million Reichsmarks. Julius Fromm’s life project was now Aryanised. Elisabeth von Epenstein also received a large piece of property in Gösing in lower Austria, belonging to another Jewish industrialist who was forced to sell all his assets at bargain basement prices before emigrating to the United States. In return, Elisabeth von Epenstein gave her godson Hermann Göring a mediaeval castle in Veldenstein near Nuremberg, and bequeathed to him the Mauterndorf castle in Lungau, Austria.

Julius Fromm and his wife Selma left Berlin in October 1939 for London, where his second son Herbert and his family were already living. The Fromms proved to the British Aliens Department that they were able to support themselves, and were granted visas from the Home Office. They stayed at first at Hotel Esplanade in Warrington Crescent, where Sigmund Freud also lived between August and September 1938. They later moved to an apartment in Regent’s Park. Julius Fromm’s siblings also tried to get out of Germany, though they initially found it difficult to leave behind what they had earned. Salomon and Alexander Fromm both owned successful optician’s shops, which were ransacked and demolished on Kristallnacht. Siegmund, Berhard, Else and her husband Willy Brandenburg sold Fromms Cosmetics to Fromms Act, now owned by Elisabeth von Epenstein, for a fraction of its market value. But Salomon Fromm’s wife Elvira and son Berthold, as well as Else and Willy Brandenburg, never made it out of Germany. Berthold was sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin, where he was shot, and Elvira Fromm and the Brandenburgs were murdered in Auschwitz. Most of the Fromm family members who made it to London were classified as unsuspicious enemy aliens, but with the rise of fear of Nazi spies and the “enemy from within” in Britain, some of the Fromms were detained in barracks and camps, and Salomon Fromm’s daughter Ruth ended up in Holloway Prison. Julius Fromm’s youngest son Edgar was deported to Australia in 1940, abroad the infamous HMT Dunera, and found his way back to London after nearly eighteen months of internment.

MEANWHILE IN GERMANY, property that belonged to the Fromms and other German Jews continued being expropriated by the Nazi state. In accordance with wartime international laws, Julius Fromm’s property was subject to enemy asset administration once the British declared war. In 1942 expelled German Jews were renaturalised as German citizens, in order to subject them once again to Reich laws and enabling the Nazi government to expropriate Jewish property.

Julius Fromm’s savings in various bank accounts were emptied out and “invested” in government bonds, and their safe deposit boxes were raided. Former business partners refused to pay their debts to “the Jew Fromm”. The Fromms’ villa in Berlin was transferred to the Reich and then given to “war hero” Colonel Wolf Hagemann. The furniture and other valuable items of the Fromm household were sold to high-ranking officers or auctioned off, nominally in the name of Julius Fromm. The revenue generated from these sales were then taxed away or siphoned off. In total, the German state’s profit from the Aryanisation of Fromm’s holdings was 2 million Reichsmarks, in today’s purchasing power an equivalent of 30 million euros.

Julius Fromm died on 12 May 1945 of a heart attack in his London home, four days after the Allies’ victory. His family recalled that he was overjoyed with the demise of the Nazis and in fact looked forward to returning to Germany. The Fromms factory in Köpenick – which was part of the Soviet occupied zone – was almost destroyed by air strikes, and the machinery that remained intact were shipped to the Soviet Union. The older plant in Friedrichshagen continued to supply Red Army soldiers with condoms. According to the Potsdam Agreement, the Fromms ought to have had their factories returned to them, but Communist officials in East Berlin prevented this and forcefully nationalised the company, arguing that Julius Fromm was a “Jewish proprietor, capitalist exploiter, anti-social, anti-labour and pro-Nazi”. Later, Fromms condoms were produced by the Volkseigener Betrieb Plastina in Erfurt, and the brand was renamed to Mondos, which became synonymous with condoms in the German Democratic Republic.

After Elisabeth von Epenstein’s death in September 1939, Fromms Act was passed onto her lover and financial consultant, the Viennesse businessman Otto Metz-Randa. After the War Metz-Randa transformed himself from a profiteer of “Entjudung” and passed himself off as a victim of the National Socialist regime. He refused to hand the company and the trademark back to Julius Fromm’s sons Herbert and Edgar, and argued that Fromms Act was not sold under duress and the transaction  unrelated to the Nazi regime. In 1951 the Fromms were forced to agree to a settlement at the restitution tribunal in Berlin, and outrageously the Fromms had to pay 174,300 West German marks to Otto Metz-Randa in order to regain ownership. An agreement was signed between the Fromms and the Hanseatische Gummiwerke Bachmann & Co. KG, which would allow the Bremen-based company to use the Fromms Act trademark. Hanseatische Gummiwerke, now MAPA, continued to make a range of condoms in the present day – Billy Boy, Blausiegel and Fromms. Even in the 1960s Germans still knew exactly what a “Fromms” (plural “Frommse”) was, just as Kleenex had become synonymous with tissue paper.

THIS COMPACT AND COMPELLING BOOK is co-written by Götz Aly and Michael Sontheimer, and expertly translated into English by the award-winning Shelley Frisch. In 2004, Aly organised a reading group at the Sunday Club – “a meeting place for lesbians, gays, and trans-, bi- and heterosexuals” – in Berlin, and shared with his colleagues a file on Fromms Act that he discovered at the German Federal Archives. Although Aly’s recollection sounds strangely inappropriate: he was challenged by “the person in charge of cultural programming” at the Sunday Club to come up with something to read that was different from the “run-of-the-mill hetero claptrap”. Aly thus decided to show his friends the sexy Fromm file to “uphold his reputation” (as what?). Independently, Michael Sontheimer, a correspondent for Der Spiegel, managed to track down Julius Fromm’s son Edgar after watching him on a TV chat show in 1996. Crossing paths with Aly, the two men decided to co-write a book on Fromms Act. Aly and Sontheimer admit that the story is compiled from fragments. Neither Fromm’s personal papers nor his company’s archives survived, and Aly and Sontheimer only managed to unearth a handful of documents – wills, Julius Fromm’s application for German citizenship, correspondence with the police commissioner in Berlin, marketing materials for Fromms Act, certificates and photographs. Nevertheless, this book is meticulously researched and packed with fascinating detail.

The German title of the book is far clearer about Götz Aly and Michael Sontheimer’s intentions – Fromms: Wie der jüdische Kondomfabrikant Julius F. unter die deutschen Räuber fiel. This is literally Fromms: How the Jewish Condom Manufacturer Julius F. Fell Prey to German Robbers. Compare this to the English title Fromms: How Julius Fromm’s Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis, which: (a) omits mention of Fromm’s Jewishness; (b) draws attention and prioritises the condom part of the story by rendering Kondomfabrikant into “condom empire” (a cynic may wonder if this is the publisher’s marketing ploy to make the book sexier); (c) conflates deutschen Räuber with the National Socialists. Deutschen Räuber in the German title is not only intended to refer to the Nazis, but also the officials of the Federal German Republic and the German Democratic Republic who fraudulently manipulated the Fromm’s heirs application for restitution, in order to not pay out that which the family was entitled. So the English title is unfortunately somewhat misleading.

Fromms is never intended as a history of sexuality, or a history of a contraceptive technology. In fact Aly and Sontheimer do not seem to be that interested in condoms; only the first pages of Chapter 13 discusses the modern manufacturing process of condoms, and Fromm’s method was passed over in Chapter 2 in about one-and-a-half pages. There is no discussion on where Julius Fromm might have sourced his raw materials and chemicals, other than a quick mention that “Ceylon rubber is best suited to the manufacture of Fromms products”. One begs to find out the trade networks that transported rubber from Southeast Asia to Germany. We get little sense of how Fromm might have obtained his machinery, no details on the other hygienic and surgical rubber products that his company made, or how his competitors operated, or how Fromms Act were distributed and marketed from Antwerp to Auckland, or how Durex eventually took over as the leading brand around the world. Moreover, we gain little new understanding on the sexual culture – only Chapter 1 provides some historical background on the transformation of sexual mores and the question of family planning in Weimar Germany. The bibliography lists eight secondary sources on the history of gender and sex in Germany. The essential Sex After Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany (2005) by Dagmar Herzog is not cited; although she appears on the dust jacket praising the book.

Aly and Sontheimer do not tell us how National Socialists discussed condoms, other than a quick mention of their compulsory use in military brothels. Nor do we find out more about the discourses of sexually transmitted diseases and birth control in the German Democratic Republic. Aly and Sontheimer’s story stops with the death of Julius Fromm and the painful process of seeking restitution, well before the age of HIV, when the sales, promotion, public discussion and use of condoms dramatically increased again. These are not the priorities of Aly and Sontheimer – and admittedly the sources that will enable them to address some of these issues may be severely limited – so it is no wonder that the historian of medicine and sexual science Lesley Hall seems disappointed in her recent view in Social History of Medicine. (As another historian of medicine and sexuality, I am similarly disappointed, though tremendously educated by the book.) Hall, “with eager anticipation”, wanted to read a history of the material culture of pre-hormonal contraception that concentrates on technical developments, marketing and dissemination of these devices. But Götz Aly and Michael Sontheimer set out to deliver a work that – in the words of Julius Fromm’s son Edgar – “put [Fromm] back on the map” – and that offered a case study of the Nazi plundering of Jewish property. A comprehensive, academic, global history of the condom remains to be written.

TO THOSE WITH PASSING FAMILIARITY WITH the field of Modern German History, Götz Aly requires little introduction. Though he deservedly enjoys a considerable scholarly reputation, Aly is perhaps best described as a “maverick historian”. He has won numerous prestigious awards, such as the Heinrich Mann Prize of the Berlin Academy of Arts in 2002 and the Marion Samuel Prize in 2003. He was a Visiting Professor for Interdisciplinary Holocaust Research at the Fritz Bauer Institut in Frankfurt. He was appointed by the German Federal President Horst Köhler to the board of trustees of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and in 2007 received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

No stranger to controversy, Aly caused a minor media storm at the press conference of a 2009 exhibition held at the Werkstatt der Kulturen on “The Third World in the Second World War”, when he accused black Allied soldiers of the systematic rape of German women during World War II. He also upset the British press – The Daily Telegraph  and the First World War Veterans’ Association, when at the same event he asserted that Gandhi was one of the greatest fans of Nazi Germany. (Though to be fair to Aly, he was arguing against what he perceived as an instance of “political correctness” gone wrong; the exhibition at Werkstatt der Kulturen was cancelled and later reopened at a different site, because the exhibition also included material on “non-White admirers of the Nazis”.) Aly’s 2008 book Unser Kampf: 1968 – ein irritierter Blick zurück (a deliberately provocative title that plays on Mein Kampf), argues that 1968 was merely a delayed offshoot of European totalitarianism, and that the ’68 generation was no different from the ’33 generation in their propensity to violence and their anti-democratic, anti-Enlightenment, anti-Semitic, anti-capitalist and anti-American attitudes. In a couple of recent columns in Berliner Zeitung, Aly has also launched an attack on the current German pension scheme by arguing that it had its basis in the Nazi regime – in other words, social egalitarianism is just National Socialism under a different name. This has won Aly a number of conservative supporters who argue for the dismantling of the welfare system in Germany.

Aly’s profile at the Goethe Institut website uses the word Querschläger to describe him. Querschläger is literally a “ricochet”, but in this context means a provocateur, a dissenter, a lone pioneer, a “gadfly” perhaps, someone who revels in his role as a critic challenging all sorts of received wisdom, particularly the accepted opinions of the “academic establishment” in which Aly wishes to have no part. Aly’s self-fashioning as an outsider is apparent on the third page of Fromms’ preface. He argues that Jewish businesses like Fromms Act “are almost universally ignored by historians”, because:

[T]hese companies were unceremoniously destroyed, they cannot sponsor business historians, who prefer to follow the money. Over the past twenty years, scholarly interest guided by this monetary inequity has produced a peculiar asymmetry, with the perpetrators and profiteers dominating historical inquiry. The companies’ legal successors have supported research because of their professed interest in “coming to terms with” an unappealing past fosters their images and thus the marketing of their brands; among the many cases in point are Volkswagen, Krupp, Allianz, Daimler-Benz, Deutsche Bank, Degussa, Dresdner Bank, Flick, and Bertelsmann. Because business history functions in this manner, a giant of the twentieth century like Julius Fromm, the  creator of the world’s brand-name condom, seemed destined for oblivion.

Elsewhere Götz Aly stated that “invoking the names of Dresdner Bank, Allianz, Generali, Daimler-Benz, Deutsche Bank, Krupp, I.G. Farben or Thyssen may serve to veil the real historical background of Aryanisation in a cloak of anti-capitalism, but it cannot provide a remotely satisfactory explanation” (“Rede zur Verleihung des Heinrich-Mann-Preises der Akademie der Künste 2002”). So in Aly’s scheme, those who study the collusion of big companies with the Nazi regime are either mercenary historians following the scent of money and hired to perform a public relations exercise to improve the companies’ image, or they are irrational anti-capitalists or conspiracy theorists with an axe to grind and who cannot provide any interesting or adequate explanation of the financial workings of the Nazi state.

Fromms should be read alongside Götz Aly’s earlier work, Hitlers Volksstaat: Raub, Rassenkrieg und nationaler Sozialismus (2005, translated in 2007 as Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State), the book that caused by far the greatest stir among German historians. At the heart of Hitlers Volksstaat are two simple questions: What was it that held the Third Reich together, and why did ordinary Germans support Adolf Hitler? Aly’s answer is surprising: the ordinary Germans supported Hitler not because they were anti-Semites and or driven by Nazi ideology, they were quite simply bribed and bought – Nazi Germany was a “dictatorship of favours” for everyone. The Third Reich, Aly claims, in fact operated a programme of “progressive taxation” that redistributed wealth; this was funded by Jewish assets and properties systematically plundered from Germany and its occupied territories. The result was that the ordinary Germans hardly bore any financial costs of the war, and actually enjoyed a much improved standard of living. This argument, seductive it may seem, is fiercely criticised by other historians. While it is true that the Germans did systematically pillage on an unprecedented scale, critics such as Adam Tooze (The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, 2006) argue that the second half of Aly’s thesis – that the Nazis provided its citizens with a progressive welfare state and that seventy percent of the costs of the German war effort was transferred to the non-Germans – “[is] wrong not in the sense of debatable or contentious, but wrong in the sense that it is contrary to all empirical evidence and to any known body of economic theory”. Limit of space here will not permit a detailed analysis of Aly’s book and its many critical reviews; interested readers may start with Alfred Mierzejewski’s review “The Latest Phase of Germany’s Effort to Master its Nazi Past” ( and Adam Tooze’s strident though entirely judicious essay, “Economics, Ideology and Cohesion in the Tird Reich” (

The problem with Aly and Sontheimer’s Fromms is that, in Chapter 10, “‘Jew Auction’ as Aryan Haunt”, the indisputable fact of the expropriation of Julius Fromm’s property is subtly mobilised to support Aly’s argumentative grandstanding in Hitlers Volksstaat. Chapter 10 is by far the most detailed of the book, and describes the transfer of the Fromm villa into the hands of Wolf Hagemann and the auctioning of Fromm’s possessions. Aly ends the chapter on a dramatic note:

Julius Fromm had fallen prey to the robbers. These were not a bunch of bandits in the bushes, however, but a state and its citizens. Millions of Germans – Nazi and others – seized the opportunity to profit. According to the principles of social participation, helping the Nazis meant helping themselves. The National Socialist movement may have sprung from an ideological foundation but it was now fully fused with material interests, thus uniting the Görings, Hagemanns, and Metz-Randas, the men who ran the elevators and the men who ran the country, the tenants in the modest back units and stately front buildings, lower-ranking and top-level officers. Instead of going to a carnival or a sale, everyone happily trotted off to the Jew Auction.

But this only seems partly true. It is beyond doubt that the Görings, Epensteins, Hagemanns, Metz-Randas, the men who ran the country, the tenants in stately front buildings, the top-ranking Nazi officers – in other words the elites – profited from the plundering of Fromm property. It is not obvious, however, how the men who ran the elevators, the tenants in the modest back units, and lower-ranking officers – the ordinary Germans – benefited from the hideous and harrowing spectacle of the Jew Auction. Aly asserts that “even Germans who arrived late or came with an empty wallet and left empty-handed still stood to profit in the end, because the proceeds flowed into the Reich coffers and reduced the tax burden across the board”. According to Adam Tooze, this is based on “kitchen sink accounting techniques” – “the evidence suggests that up to the early 1940s, contrary to the impression created by Aly [in Hitlers Volksstaat], the per capita tax burden in the Third Reich was […] among the highest in the world”. The argument that the expropriation of the property of affluent Jews provided substantial per capita benefits to the entire German population simply does not hold up. But even if the only people to benefit from the pillaging of Fromms’ property were Hermann Göring, Elisabeth von Epenstein, Wolf Hagemann and Otto Metz-Randa, this would not make this any less of a moral outrage. What emerges here is that the idiosyncratic arguments from Hitlers Volksstaat are smuggled into Fromms. And the case of Julius Fromm is then enlisted to bolster the theses from Hitlers Volksstaat. Julius Fromm is indirectly made to service Götz Aly’s argumentative acrobatics, perhaps argumentative excesses.

Julius Fromm’s grandson Raymond wrote a heartfelt Afterword to the book. For the Fromms, the book clearly is more than “simply another tale of persecution and the Holocaust, for it serves as an example of the fate that befell […] countless other German and Continental Jewish families” – families torn apart, often stripped of their possessions, rendered destitute and homeless, sent to extermination camps, and the descendants humiliated as they sought restitution that never arrived. Götz Aly and Michael Sontheimer, as Edgar Fromm requested, admirably put Julius Fromm “back on the map”. They told a powerful story that absolutely needed to be told, and wrote a book that absolutely needed to be read. The problem is Aly also appears to have dragged Julius Fromm into his fight against other German historians, and have turned part of the Fromm saga into grist to his theoretical mill.

Götz Aly and Michael Sontheimer. Fromms:
How Julius Fromm’s Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis.
Translated by Shelley Frisch, afterword by Raymond Fromm.
xii + 219pp., fogs, apps., bibl., index.
New York: Other Press, 2009. $23.95 (cloth).

Leon Rocha is D. Kim Foundation for the History of Science and Technology in East Asia Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Needham Research Institute and the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge.

(c) 2011 The Berlin Review of Books

Rage, Time, and the Politico-Religious Revenge Banks

by Francisco Klauser

Peter Sloterdijk’s sociopolitical essay Rage and Time tells a compelling cultural history of the mediations, exploitations, and translations of rage through (and into) the great religious and political ‘cosmologies’ of Western civilisation. Rage and Time is a powerfully written book about the sociopolitical ordering, coding, and accumulation of rage; a book which, in sum, acknowledges and investigates the role of rage as one of the driving forces of human history.

Comparable with Sloterdijk’s earlier work – amongst which Critique of Cynical Reason (1987) and the 2,500-page long Sphären (‘Spheres’) trilogy (1998; 1999; 2004) are but the most acclaimed examples – Rage and Time captivates through its multifaceted and at once strident and joyful style of writing. Divided into four main sections, the book not only makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the constitutive role of affects in world politics – which is still dramatically underexplored by political theorists, despite important recent work, for example by Chantal Mouffe – but also provides a solid historical contextualisation of the most recent violent eruptions of anger, from 9/11 to the 2005 French riots.

“Of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus, sing Goddess…”: Sloterdijk starts his ambitious world history of ‘rage and time’ with the opening line of Homer’s Iliad, the first words of the European tradition. For Sloterdijk, Homer’s epic poetry not only highlights that in Europe literally everything began with rage, but also exemplifies the antique roots of the critical question – to which the sociopolitical and religious ‘cosmologies’ are constantly responding – of how to relate collectively to the affect of rage. Sloterdijk’s reading of the Greek heroic epos, the imaginary space of gods, half-gods, and divinely chosen angry heroes, underlines that in ancient Hellenistic mythology the origins of rage and anger are neither located in the earthly world, nor attributed to individuals’ personalities. Rage is rather understood as a possessed, divine capacity, a god-favoured eruption of power. Hence the birth of the hero as a prophet, whose task is to make the message of his god-given anger an immediate reality (pp. 8-9). For Homer, to sing the praises of Achilles’ heroism also – and ultimately – means to celebrate the existence of divine forces, which are releasing society from its vegetative daze, through the mediation of the godly chosen ‘bringer of anger and revenge’.

Hand-coloured etchings, “Vessels of Wrath”, from Francis Barrett’s “The Magus” (1801). (Source: Wikimedia Creative Commons; public domain.)

It is from the Greek mythological relationship with rage and anger that Sloterdijk derives his own conceptualisation of rage through the figure of Thymos. Originally denominating both the Greek hero’s specific organ for the reception of god-given rage and the bodily location of his proud self, Thymos later with Plato, and following the general transformation of the Greek psyche from heroic – belligerent to more civic virtues, stands for the righteous anger of the Greek citizen as a means of defence from insults and unreasonable attacks (pp. 22-25).With the figure of Thymos set against the psycho- analytical focus on Eros, anger, for Sloterdijk, is not only a vent for frustrated desires, but also, and rather, a reactive manifestation of offended pride. Yet, and in the tradition of both Sloterdijk’s earlier (1985) novel on the birth of psychoanalysis and of his critical study of psychoanalysis in the first volume of Spheres (1998, p. 297), Sloterdijk does not per se negate the merits of psychoanalysis for an understanding of the affective realm of human existence. Rather, Sloterdijk’s critique focuses on the limitations of the libido-centrist psychoanalytical vocabulary and thinking.

In conformity with its basic erotodynamic approach, psychoanalysis brought much hatred to light, the other side of live. Psychoanalysis managed to show that hating means to be bound by similar laws as loving. Both hating and loving are projections that are subject to repetitive compulsion. Psychoanalysis remained for the most part silent when it came to that form of rage that springs from the striving for success, prestige, self-respect, and their backlashes. (p. 14)

From this standpoint, a theory of rage, for Sloterdijk, is primarily a theory of the politico-religious mediations of the processes of overcoming offended pride and of longing for revenge.

As we move from the ancient Hellenistic to the monotheistic Judaic world, the politico-religious coding of rage is fundamentally altered, as Sloterdijk shows in the second section of his analysis. In the Jewish faith, the angry hero becomes the metaphysical, wrathful God. Rage is thus conceived as the exclusive privilege of God, the very condition of his absolute sovereignty and power, which is directed in punitive form against his own people or against his chosen people’s enemies. As Sloterdijk subsequently shows, this cosmology of wrath of the Old Testament undergoes another set of structural changes in the medieval rage-conception of Catholic teaching, based on the double process of the earthly demonisation and of the metaphysical suspension of rage.

Had Europeans not heard about pride – or likewise rage – from the days of the church fathers, when such impulses would have been taken as signs pointing to the abyss for those cast away? (p. 17)

Based on the Christian axiomatic association of rage and eternity, God thus becomes the location of a transcendent repository of suspended human rage-savings and frozen plans of revenge.

What is important to note in this context of the Christian depictions of the Inferno is that the increasing institutionalization of hell during the long millennium between Augustine and Michelangelo allowed the theme of the transcendent archive of rage to be perfected. (p. 97)

In this light, and relating to the theorisation of human affects more generally, Sloterdijk’s analysis of ‘rage and time’ points towards the need to consider the world of affects not only in its fleeting and intimate, but also in its relational, resource-like, dimension, as the object of specific rage-administrating projects. Hence the possible reading of Rage and Time as a theory of the accumulation of affect.

This problematisation of anger and resentment as the objects of politico-religious accumulation and regulation is further developed in the third section of Rage and Time, relating to another ‘thymiotic’ revolution in Occidental civilisation with the emergence of the communist ‘World Bank of Rage’. Unlike the Christian referential of a metaphysical archive of rage, Sloterdijk shows that the communist ‘rage economy’ offers an earthly rooted programme for the canalisation and sociopolitical actualisation of individual rage-investments. The communist code of rage thus implies another project for the suspension and delegation of anger (to the earthly instance of the professional revolutionary) as a means to concentrate and maximise the power of individually deposed rage-investments, linked with the promise of substantial interest payments in the form of a better, newly created society. In Marx and Engel’s words, “all history is the history of making wrath productive”.

As the counterpoint to the communist doctrine of a party-led collectivisation of rage, Sloterdijk discusses the bourgeois-biased individualisation and romanticising of rage, exemplified by Alexander Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo, as yet another exemplary ‘instruction manual’ of how to deal with rage. This individualist-capitalist approach to rage is further explored in the last section of Rage and Time, referring to the contemporary world of mass culture and consumerism, which is interpreted by Sloterdijk as a general transformation of rage-dynamic into greed-dynamic and lust-dynamic systems. Sloterdijk argues that in the aftermath of the Western rage-projects in their red, white, and brown colours, the figures of the resolute warrior and the prolific mother are substituted by the ambitious lover and the luxury consumer.

Yet, if consumerism conceals and redirects individual, pent-up rage towards new civic duties of enjoyment and desire, it also creates an explosive ‘multiegoistic situation’, which is deeply shaped by rather unarticulated and unregulated manifestations of disappointed rage communities. Pointing to the remarkable lack of political collection and administration of the thymiotic energies erupting in the 2005 French riots, the contemporary world, for Sloterdijk, is also a world of multiple decentralised movements of disoriented rage-holders. It is in a sense a postmodern world, in which no theory or project of global meaning prevails as a unitary mediator for the suspension, accumulation, management, and goal-directed increase in value of entrusted, individual rage investments. “Neither in heaven nor on Earth does anyone know what work could be done with the ‘just anger of the people’.” (p. 183) We hence rediscover one of the leitmotifs in Sloterdijk’s oeuvre, referring to the causes, modalities, and effects of the Enlightenment-induced destruction of unconditional, absolute truths in respect of both ontology and morality. For example, in Critique of Cynical Reason, Sloterdijk addresses this problematic through the notion of ‘cynicism’, as a diffuse, generalised attitude of discontent, following the loss of the great ideals and truths of older cultures. In Spheres, this theme emerges somewhat reformulated, in the opposition between the globalising spatialities of classical holistic thought and the foam-like spatialities of modernity.With Rage and Time, Sloterdijk further pursues this investigation through the discussion of the contrasting politics of anger in the past and present world.

On the last fifteen pages of Rage and Time, Sloterdijk asserts the potential of political Islam – based on its missionary dynamism, battle-centred cosmology and demographic strength – as an alternative ‘World Bank of Rage’ in the contemporary sociopolitical context. On the one hand, Sloterdijk acknowledges the actual and future power of political Islam to reunite parts of the disappointed Muslim world; on the other hand, he questions the ability of political Islam’s creative forces to develop an alternative oppositional movement of global meaning to the current capitalist mode of existence. In this, Sloterdijk stresses the current technological, economic, and scientific shortcomings of political Islam and thus its general limits in creatively shaping the socioeconomic conditions of humanity in the 21st century. Sloterdijk’s reading of political Islam thus focuses more on its high-risk potential in the form of intensified Muslim civil wars, or further amplified conflicts with Israel, than on its oppositional role within the Western world itself.

However, whilst Sloterdijk’s analysis of communist and Judeo-Christian anger-semiotics expands on a broad body of historicocultural insights, the investigation of current mediations of anger in the Middle Eastern world and in the context of post-9/11 Western politics appears to have been somewhat slighted. Readers of Rage and Time may search in vain for a more profound analysis of the differences and parallels between the historical and the contemporary sociopolitical coding of anger and revenge, which could have resulted in a more substantial prospective examination of the upcoming sociopolitical challenges in the 21st century. In this light, Sloterdijk’s open-ended conclusive consent of a general need for a morally based “education program” and a “great politics” of “balancing acts” (page 229) remains relatively vague, resembling a well-intended, yet somehow unrealistic, wish.

The main strengths of Rage and Time certainly lie in its very rich, cultural-historical approach and in its immense suggestive power for further analytical and empirical research into the complex role of rage and anger in contemporary politics – from the current semiotics of the war on terror to the Western imaginaries of modern forms of heroism, for example. Sloterdijk’s analysis strongly confirms the critical importance and high potential of such a research agenda. From this perspective, and in addition to Sloterdijk’s exclusive focus on the various forms and mediations of rage, one of the central challenges for future analyses will be to undertake detailed and comparative investigations into the ways in which political and religious semiotics and practices are combining and mediating different human affects simultaneously. This will – for example – allow a more substantial engagement with the widely developed body of empirical research on fear and hope. Rage and Time provides the perfect starting point to address these questions and to further elaborate upon the complex relationships between the political and the intimate (affective) dimensions of social existence.

Peter Sloterdijk: Rage and Time. A Psychopolitical Investigation.
Columbia University Press, New York 2010.
ISBN: 978-0-231-14522-0
Cloth, 256 pages, US$34.50.

Francisco Klauser is assistant professor in political geography at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. His work focuses on the relationships between space, surveillance/risk and power; he also has research interests in urban studies and socio-spatial theory.

An earlier version of this review, based on the German edition of Zorn und Zeit, was first published in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Vol. 27 (No. 1/2009), a publication of Pion Ltd., who have given kind permission to reproduce part of the material in the present review of Rage and Time. Reproduction of the present version requires permission from all the copyright owners concerned. (c) 2010

Of Pencils and Pixels

By Frank Berzbach

Sonja Neef, a lecturer in European media and culture at the Bauhaus University in Weimar, devotes her study ‘Imprint and Trace’ to the topic of ‘Handwriting in the Age of its Technical Reproduction’. In much the same way that Walter Benjamin, to whom the subtitle obviously alludes, did not object to photography as such, but only to the photographic reproduction of original works of art, so Sonja Neef does not lament the disappearance of handwriting. Whether the practice of handwriting will indeed ever disappear completely is, of course, an open question. If today’s continued presence of, say, vinyl albums – hastily written off as outmoded by many a commentator only a few years ago – is anything to go by, then there would seem to be little reason to be pessimistic about the future of handwriting. (After all, he who writes by hand may be said to demonstrate character, in that he writes against the tide of the zeitgeist.) On the contrary, what Neef sets out to show is that our current standardised typographies and digital substitute worlds remain indebted to handwriting as their ancestral predecessor. Cultural techniques may be everchanging, but they remain latently ever-present. Even the latest flat-screen technology is not left untouched by the history of handwriting. Neef makes it clear that traces of handwriting are to be found everywhere. What is important is ‘to contemplate the Manual within the Digital: the fingerprint on the touchscreen, the stylus on the writing pad of a tablet PC; in short, to consider handwriting from [the perspective of the] screen’ (p. 29).

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Neef’s observations are informed by the conceptual vocabulary of such figures as Jacques Derrida and Friedrich Kittler, and consequently the study as a whole accentuates the cultural-philosophical more than media-theoretic aspects. To be sure, dogmatic adherence to any particular methodology – what Paul Feyerabend used to call ‘Methodenzwang’ – is not something one accuse the author of. What one might wish to criticise is the overambitious scope of the historical trajectory, which the author sets out to chart: Neef’s observations concerning the development, the significance, and the destiny of the technique(s) of handwriting go all the way back to the evolutionary origins of hand-like extremities “from fish to homo sapiens”, and span the whole breadth of cultural evolution, from human prehistory to the ancient world, the medieval period, the modern age and digital postmodernity. Thus, the author takes her readers on a tour de force from hieroglyphics to screen-savers, from cuneiforms to corrective fluid.

Neef, however, sees no difficulty in going back in history – or, for that matter, in extrapolating into the future. Her goal is to subvert the seemingly clear-cut distinction between the techniques of handwriting and the printing press: ‘My thesis is that there is no final dichotomy […] between, on the one hand, printing as a mechanical, technical, or digital way of writing and, on the other hand, handwriting as an individual, unique, and singular trace; instead, the two principles of “imprint” and “trace” are always already intertwined, both historically as well as systematically’ (p. 25). In other words, whatever the future may bring, handwriting survives safe and sound.

The individual chapters of the book span a wide range of topics and are refreshingly brief; in general, Neef writes succinctly and avoids long-winded sentences. As a result, her writing tends to be more intelligible than that of her theoretical role models. Nevertheless, it seems that writing in an accessible manner continues to be a professional risk within German-language academia. At the level of terminology, Neef pays heed to the expectations of her academic peers: The average reader will likely need a dictionary in order to make sense of such learned chapter headings and phrases as ‘Manus ex machina’, ‘Exergum’, ‘Dactylography’, ‘Currere’, ‘Ceci tuera cela’, ‘Infra-mince’, and the good old ‘Paralipomena’ (especially given that classics scholars are presumably not the main target group of the book).

Texts in the humanities, especially when they are (as in this case) reworked versions of an earlier PhD or Habilitation thesis, are often meant to demonstrate the author’s originality and independence. However, there is such a thing as too much originality – as Walter Benjamin found out the hard way when his Habilitation was at first rejected by the University of Frankfurt. Perhaps in order to avoid such a painful experience, Neef also dutifully goes over much secondary material. What emerges from this is a thoughtful and plausible assortment of important thinkers (Heidegger, Derrida, various anthropologists), who pondered the significance of hands and hand-writing. In outlining their views, Neef often develops her own theoretical positions, forges new connections, and delineates her argument from the views of others. As a result, the reader is spared the déja-vu experience of thinking that somewhere, somehow, one has read all this before.

Neef’s intellectual tour de force from antiquity to the present comes to a stop already half-way through the book. The remaining chapters are for the most part revised versions of previously published papers on such varied topics as graffiti, Anne Frank’s diary, and tattooing. While these chapters are nicely illustrated with photos and graphic images, thus inviting the reader to browse among them, they do not, as a whole, fit very well with the first half of the book. Towards the end, the book reads more like a collection of essays. All in all, however, Neef’s book not only conveys valuable insights into the cultural-philosophical significance of the ‘old’ medium of handwriting, but also whets the reader’s appetite to dig out that old fountain pen again – irrespective of whether one intends to draw precise block letters on a page or indulge in the magnificent swirls of ornate calligraphy.

Sonja Neef: Abdruck und Spur. Handschrift im Zeitalter ihrer technischen Reproduzierbarkeit
Kulturverlag Kadmos, Berlin 2008
ISBN-13: 978-3865990372
Softcover, 360 pages, EUR 24.90

Frank Berzbach teaches psychology and social sciences at the Ecosign Academy of Design, Cologne University of Applied Sciences (FH Köln).

Where Techno Lives

by Norbert Niclauss

It has been some time since the phenomenon of rave disappeared from the perception of the general public. Nowadays, when one speaks of the ‘techno movement’, one typically does so in the past tense. The images of Berlin’s ‘Love Parade’ are but faint memories, documenting how a carnivalesque subculture has been absorbed by the mainstream of a ‘fun-driven society’ (Spaßgesellschaft). That great musical current of the 1990s, it seems, has turned into a mere trickle.

View of the Berghain (Photo: Bart van Poll, used under cc-by-sa-2.0 Wikimedia Creative Commons licence.)

Tobias Rapp, in his book Lost and Sound, objects to this scenario of decline and attempts to show that, despite its reduced ‘surface visibility’, the culture of techno music in Berlin is alive and well. After the end of the hype, about ten years ago, the techno scene – this is one of Rapp’s central theses – withdrew from everyday culture and went underground, where it went through a period of renewal. One might think that Rapp is dealing with a niche phenomenon, which would be at best of local interest. But the author – who recently moved from being editor of pop culture at the Berlin daily Tageszeitung to a position at news-weekly Der Spiegel – argues convincingly that the clubs of Germany’s capital have shaped how German culture as a whole is perceived at an international level.

Tobias Rapp combines subjective first-person reports from Berlin’s nightlife with other passages that are written in a sober, more analytic mode. At both levels, he describes the astonishing attraction that Berlin has been exerting on DJs, producers, and weekend ‘Easyjet ravers’. Rapp estimates the number of techno tourists, who arrive each weekend on budget flights headed for one of Berlin’s airports, to be (‘not implausibly’) around 10,000. As a main cause for this boom, Rapp identifies not only the emergence of budget air travel, but also the oversupply of real estate in the German capital. Thanks to low commercial rents, a relatively egalitarian clubbing scene has emerged, which – ‘unlike in other major cities’ – does not target the celebrity and luxury segment of the market.

One can read Rapp’s study from different perspectives. As a book about Berlin, it may not provide touristic advice on the city’s hottest night spots, but it provides a well-researched survey of the clubs along the river Spree. To be sure, the author sometimes writes with the passion of a true aficionado, but for the most part he manages to keep a professional distance between him and his topic. Nonetheless, he hardly hides his satisfaction when he recounts, for example, the observation of a female club-goer, who describes ‘Techno in Berlin’ as ‘just like Reggae in Kingston’.

Rapp did not intend to write a music book that would describe the evolution of house, techno, and related genres of electronic music (although his recommendations of recordings, given in the appendix to the book, provide an excellent starting point). Rather, his interest is more in cultural-sociological findings: such as the ‘commune model’ that is being practiced at ‘Bar 25’ (‘Hippie de luxe’), or the only partial visibility of the clubs. Thus, at the ‘Berghain’, the leading club in its segment, a strict ‘no photos’ policy is in place, which not only gives the place an aura of exclusivity but also allows for an element of egalitarianism: what counts is ‘the celebration of a collective subject without celebrities’.

That Rapp’s concern is with general conclusions, not merely with Berlin-specific observations, is especially noticeable in his discussion of online communities. He describes in detail how ‘an authentic local subculture … becomes the topic of discussion in global networks’. This provides a good insight into the structure of a wider public of pop culture, which constitutes itself via the internet with its global reach. For example, in a relevant internet discussion group, Rapp encounters one 17-year old from Toronto who has never been to Europe, but knows everything about the current preferences of the DJs at ‘Berghain’, the place of his longing. One of the interesting aspects of the book is how it makes tangible – via the example of Berlin’s club culture –  the much discussed notion of ‘glocalisation’.

Lost and Sound is not a political book in the narrow sense. However, Rapp’s reference to the asymmetrical perception of techno culture – ‘hardly any in Germany, a lot of attention abroad’ – is nonetheless relevant to cultural policy-makers. With respect to the role of local politics and economic development, Rapp argues that the current boom of medium-sized clubs and venues was only possible against the backdrop of the failure of wholesale urban redevelopment policies in the 1990s. In a detailed and sophisticated manner, he describes how popular criticism led to a referendum against the large-scale redevelopment plans that had been drawn up for the bank of the river Spree. The fact that the controversy about the MediaSpree plans culminated in the slogan ‘place for clubbing or location for investors?’ may well be due to the specific conditions in Berlin. However, looking beyond the political sensitivities within the German capital, this case study may well contain general insights into the relation between, on the one hand, alternative culture with its hedonistic outlook and, on the other hand, institutionalised politics.

Not least from a creative industries perspective, the book is a worthwhile addition to the literature. Rapp describes the change in significance of record labels, which, in times of a crisis-like decline in record sales, have become an integral part of strategies of self-marketing, by DJs who team up with producers (and vice versa). He also explains how it is that certain record shop are able to maintain their economic and cultural function, even in times of crisis, because they cater to a specialised audience. Part of Rapp’s study is also concerned with the interdependence between club culture, fashion, tourism, and technology: for example, DJ software from Berlin is now being exported to the U.S. for use during church services. 

Regarding the clubs themselves, the author arrives at an upbeat conclusion: ‘With a bit of good will and some idealization one could say: the house and techno scene in Berlin has retained the good aspects of independent culture – economic independence, artistic integrity, and an unwillingness to compromise – while simply having done away with the bad aspects: simplistic anti-capitalism, glorification of self-exploitation, and lack of professionalism.’ In times of a global economic crisis, that is not a bad result.

Tobias Rapp: Lost and Sound. Berlin, Techno und der Easyjetset.
Suhrkamp, Frankfurt 2009.
ISBN-13: 9783518460443
Softcover, 268 pages, EUR 8.50

Norbert Niclauss works on music and cultural policy at the German Federal Government’s Commission for Culture and the Media (BKM), Berlin.

The German version of this article first appeared in Berliner Republik, No. 2/2009; translated and reproduced with permission. Translation: The Berlin Review of Books.

“Typocalypse Now?” The Legacy of Jan Tschichold

by John Holbo

“It is the master who establishes the rules and not the pupil,
and the master is permitted to break the rules, even his own.

—  Jan Tschichold to Dorothy Sayers.

No discussion will take place.

—  from a poster announcing a Tschichold
lecture on ‘the New Typography’.

 Jan Tschichold is always described as a pioneer of typographic and design modernism. But if he were invariably described as the prodigal son of classical typography and design—that would be true, too. You could say he had two careers, crowned by achievements that are almost mutually antagonistic, in design sensibility. But there is an aesthetic continuity through it all, a cool, temperamental steadiness. This is interesting not just for what it says about Tschichold but about the limits of labels like ‘modernism’ and ‘classicism’.

One sympathizes with Dorothy Sayers, who didn’t like the asterisks on the title page of her book, and had the temerity to point out to the designer that they were in violation of the designer’s own stated rules concerning the placement of such things. Even if one agrees the asterisks look fine, one might reasonably inquire as to what are the real rules, if everything spoken is only made to be broken.

TschicholdCoverWhich brings us to a new book: Jan Tschichold, Master Typographer (Thames & Hudson, 2008). If we want to judge this master by a life of works, this book is a solid success. We have here a generous and representatively broad sample, judiciously selected and handsomely presented. There are many examples of Tschichold’s ‘new typography’ from the 20’s. The posters—particularly the film posters—are perhaps the most broadly appealing expressions of Tschichold’s modernist dreams, all sans serif, asymmetric boldness and strong color. These early works are what Tschichold’s modernist manifestos never manage to be: true prophecies. (We’ll return to this point.) Master Typographer also showcases book cover designs from all periods of Tschichold’s career. Here the great achievements, in both quality and quantity, are late. Tschichold took the design helm at Penguin between 1947 and 1949. During this brief tenure, he designed and oversaw production of 500 titles (consider what that means, as a daily rate.) Master Typographer also contains numerous type and calligraphic specimens, from early to late. Most welcome are the complete presentations of various modernist faces which, unlike Tschichold’s late, classical masterpiece, Sabon—are not so easy to see today.

But if we want to judge Tschichold by his works and words; or rather, since he was a worker with words, if we want to judge him by what he worked in the medium of other people’s words and by what he meant by his own; if we want to see the unity, solve the puzzle of Tschichold’s apparent departures and reversals of his own line; then, I think, we may find this new book just a bit lacking in discussion at one crucial point.

There might have been something Tschicholdian about that, too. But I think it was a minor breakdown in planning – a thoroughly un-Tschicholdian thing. Master Typographer contains an introduction and four solid essays, by different authors. There is some overlap and not as much synthesis as might have been achieved. One particular quote—an important one, no doubt—is repeated in no less than four places in the book (in the timeline of Tschichold’s career, then on pages 21, 64, 302). But, as the quote (reproduced below) reflects on the overall arc of Tschichold’s career, and as the introduction is relatively short, and the essays more piecemeal in their respective attentions, none of the contributors makes it his or her business to achieve a full synoptic view. What does this quote really mean?

But first, some basics, for the benefit of readers not so familiar with this master. Tschichold (born in Leipzig in 1902) was a child prodigy where letters were concerned. ‘Prodigy’ means wonderful sign. Johannes—later he changed his name to Ivan (1923), then Jan (1926)—was a wonderful sign of wonderful signs to come. He was the son of a lettering artist and sign painter and, by the tender age of twelve, was an earnest, enamored and—what is more remarkable—precociously historicist student of letterforms. The 1914 International Exhibition of Graphic Arts, and his native Leipzig’s Hall of Culture exposed him to the breadth and depths of the European book arts. As a teen he studied calligraphy, etching, engraving and bookbinding. It is worth emphasizing that Tschichold was, at all stages of his career, the purist lover of Form who kept a firm hold on the material basis: practical production methods. He may have been (even into his humane and tolerant old age) ever the dogmatically opinionated dweller in a Platonic Book Heaven of his own devising. But he never took an impractical step when it came to making an actual book.

Perhaps only a man who had deeply studied 16th Century writing masters  before the age of 16 could be so thoroughly of the early 20th Century as to declare, by the time he was in his 20’s, that there is—and must be—a fundamental, henceforth un-bridgeable gap between ‘the old typography (1440-1914)’ and the New. From Tschichold’s The New Typography (1928):

None of the typefaces to whose basic form some kind of ornament has been added (serifs in Roman type, lozenge shapes and curlicues in Fraktur) meet our requirements for clarity and purity. Among all the types that are available, the so-called “Grotesque” (sanserif) or “block letter” (skeleton letters would be a better name) is the only one in spiritual accordance with our time.

To proclaim sanserif as the typeface of our time is not a question of being fashionable, it really does express the same tendencies to be seen in our architecture. It will not be long before not only the “art” typefaces, as they are sometimes called today, but also the classical typefaces, disappear, as completely as the contorted furniture of the eighties.

Skipping ahead, rapidly, through several stages of Tschichold’s career—most dramatically, arrest and brief ‘protective custody’ detention by the Nazis on charges of un-German typography and ‘cultural bolshevism’, followed by emigration to Switzerland, where Tschichold spent most of the rest of his life—we eventually come to our four-times repeated quote, from 1959:

In the light of my present knowledge, it was a juvenile opinion to consider the sans serif as the most suitable or even the most contemporary typeface. A typeface has first to be legible, nay, readable, and a sans serif is certainly not the most legible typeface when set in quantity, let alone readable … Good typography has to be perfectly legible and, as such, the result of intelligent planning … The classical typefaces such as Garamond, Janson, Baskerville, and Bell are undoubtedly the most legible. In time, typographical matters, in my eyes, took on a very different aspect, and to my astonishment I detected most shocking parallels between the teachings of Die neue Typographie and National Socialism and fascism. Obvious similarities consist in the ruthless restriction of typefaces, a parallel to Goebbel’s infamous Gleichschaltung (enforced political conformity) and the more or less militaristic arrangement of lines.

For the benefit of the typographically un- or semi-initiated: serifs are the horizontal sharp bits on Roman letterforms.

Fig. 1: Serif typefaces.

Sans serif (a.k.a. grotesque) faces (fonts) lack the pointy bits. Here are two famous and popular sans serifs.

Fig. 2: Sans serif typefaces

Finally, Fraktur (a.k.a. blackletter, or broken, or gothic type) designates a range of faces that seem distinctively Germanic (the Gutenberg Bible was set in Fraktur); but which can also seem, and are sometimes called, ‘Olde English’.

It is obvious that a typographer must be professionally preoccupied with the shapes of letters. But it can seem ridiculous to take, say, the serif/sans serif divide so seriously. Tschichold’s early statements are almost comic in their ‘Typocalypse Now’ absolutism, their evident sense of bestriding an historic chasm, when surely it is just a question of filing down the little bits (or not), is it not?

Fig. 3: Example of a Fraktur typeface

It helps to know that in Germany in this period (up until the end of World War II) most printed matter was set in some form of Fraktur, in contrast to the rest of Europe, where Roman letterforms have long dominated. Perhaps predictably, the result was intense attachment, elective affinities for particular letterforms, and occasional eruptions of us-vs.-them Kulturkampf: romanticism vs. classicism; (French) civilization vs. (German) culture. (What hand will children first be taught to write in school? This becomes a vital question.) Bismarck declared he would not read a German book set in Roman type. The aphorist Georg Lichtenberg said that he felt such books had been translated. The Nazis mandated Fraktur; then, in 1941, in a dramatic typeface about-face, outlawed it as ‘Jewish’. But situating Tschichold in this cultural context, while it may make some sense of his early proclamations, hardly makes them sound sensible.

Tschichold’s 1959 statement of the reasons for his shift away from the new typography (a statement he might have made already in the 30’s: his change of mind did not occur in 1950’s) seems humane and moderate. Yet it is still in danger of tipping over into equal and opposite extremism. Should shop talk about type be so lightly projected outwards—onto the world of politics? One is tempted to show the absurdity by standing the argument on its head: we would hardly try to prove that fascism was only an aesthetic sensibility by comparing it to the new typography. (‘I was just a graphic designer,’ would hardly have served defendants at Nuremberg, unless the point was to make ‘I was just following orders’ sound convincing by comparison.) Why, then, make the new typography sinister by associating with fascism? Even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that there might be a common denominator at the level of Wille zu Stil [will to style], as Tschichold terms it—some purist drive to eliminate and reduce—surely the fact that this can manifest itself evilly or innocently goes to show the drive itself is neither. (If we cannot tell the difference between fascism and a certain degree of fussiness or minimalist fastidiousness—what difference can we tell?)

To be fair, this is Tschichold’s precise point in 1959: not that modernism was evil but that it wasn’t necessarily good, hence not necessarily necessary. He concluded, in the end, that serifs are not the functionless ornaments he had taken them to be. They are graceful indications of line, efficiently ushering the reading eye on its way down the hall of words. His asymmetric juxtapositions of word and image—all the possibilities opened by New Typography—seemed to him, looking back, not so much a dead-end, let alone a disaster, as a confined, local district. The new typography is fine for a certain class of advertising product: posters, very notably. It is not so suitable for other, more traditional print products: most classic books. Sans serif faces work for eye-catching and eye-aiding display: public signage, anything that must be taken in at a glance, at a distance, on the move. Serifs suit eye-leading reading.

It sounds sensible and moderate, to the point where one wonders whether the expense acknowledged in the following passage from a late Tschichold essay was really necessary:

Fifty years of experimentation with many novel, unusual scripts have yielded the insight that the best typefaces are either the classical fonts themselves (provided the punches or patterns have survived), or recuttings of these, or new typefaces not drastically different from the classical pattern. This is a late and expensive, yet still valuable, lesson.

It makes a good story. The precocious student of classical letterforms, who prematurely consigned all that to the dustbin of history, crowned his career with classic book designs, and a classical typeface named after Sabon, a contemporary and follower of the great Garamond. (Sabon inherited and preserved a portion of Garamond’s type collection upon the master’s death.) To quote T.S. Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Nice travel tale or not: was Tschichold’s journey really necessary? Grant that it was necessary personally, for him—due to peculiar personal situation and idiosyncratic temperament—was it impersonally necessary? (The logic of good typography should always be impersonal: Tschichold says so, early and late.)

Why is ‘Master Typographer’ a good title for a book about Tschichold, when it might be objected that he was not just a typographer, but a book designer and graphic artist as well? Typography is the art of arranging shapes into letters, also the art of arranging letters into shapes. Graphic design is a matter of arranging two-dimensional shapes—some of which are typically letters—into two-dimensional shapes, and book design is a part of that. Tschichold’s contribution was to be a unifier of this field and, at the same time, a distinguisher of it from others. He was one of the first to conceive of graphic designer, particularly where books are concerned, as an autonomous and distinctive field of artistic achievement. Or rather, he was one of the first to make it a reality, by combining vision with will and sufficient practical know-how. His lifelong, formalistic obsession with rules and grids and abstract geometry allowed him to separate the profession of graphic designer from the crafts of production editor, compositor, printer, so forth, giving the former complete control over the latter. (The tale of how Tschichold achieved this at Penguin, by combining four pages of rules with sheer force of personality, is a fascinating one. Richard Doubleday’s essay in the present volume tells the tale.) The common denominator of the new typography and Tschichold’s later, thoroughly classical Penguin work, is fine engineering—a talent for consistent production; something that is neither here nor there, with regard to the ideological lines between modernism and classicism.

We could say that Tschichold’s true competitor was never classicism, while he was a modernist – or modernism, in his late classical phase. The alternative was always ‘Arts and Crafts’-style ‘boutique’ book artistry: William Morris and his Kelmscott Press, very notably. There obviously was a pre-modern period when the ‘book artist’ could enjoy the complete control that industrial methods portioned out along a production line. Hand-copyists and illuminators did it with their own hands. The argument between Tschichold and the likes of William Morris comes down to the question of whether the need to re-establish artistic control necessitates rejection of these modern, industrial methods, or instead their technically-knowing adaptation. Can you break the machines to the yoke of art? Tschichold always took the ‘modernist’ line against the ‘medievalist’ (I would call it) alterative, in this argument. Tschichold was proudest of how, at Penguin, he brought into the world a million well-designed, relatively inexpensive books. That industrial achievement was the trump over cottage ‘book artistry’. (Morris’s Kelmscott Press made handsome books, no question. But they were expensive, exclusive items.)

We can make a related point by considering modernist typography as an inherent paradox. Let us start by noting Tschichold’s (and other modernists’) penchant for rules that aren’t, because they can be broken. How are faux-rules—that is, apparently load-bearing elements that can in fact be omitted, without the roof coming down—different from the faux-classical Greek pillars-as-facades, or mock-Tudor fake beams that are the targets of modernist purism? If it is hideous to perpetrate false-front deceptions in architecture, how not in philosophy of typography? But then all modernist manifestos are hideous, betraying their own ‘form follows function’ spirit with every strictly false, sweeping declaration on behalf of the New.

The trouble goes deeper, where typography concerned. Fashion in type is sometimes analogized to fashion in clothing (a typeface is a suit of clothes for the alphabet); or, more frequently, to architecture. But there is a problem with the former comparison: namely, there is no such thing as ‘naked’ letters ‘in themselves’. This shows up a limitation with the architectural analogy (generally sound though it is). What is the ‘function’ of a letter—of an A, say? Its function is, simply, to look clearly like an A. That is, its function is to imitate, appreciatively, earlier forms that looked like A’s. But if ‘function must follow form’ is the solution to the riddle of how form can follow function, this is a paradox that challenges the coherence of the modernist philosophy.

This is not to say that letter shapes cannot be objectively well-suited to (or ill-suited to) materials or media—stone and chisel, pen and paper, moveable type, software and display. Still, given that the function of an A is to look like an A, there can be no ahistorical reading off of a formal solution to the problem of what ‘functions best’, from the underlying material conditions. This is, in a sense, the burden of at least one late Tschichold essay, “The Importance of Tradition”. It is an insight well illustrated by the diversely successful design products on display in Master Typographer.

In The New Typography, before he sees this, Tschichold discusses the ‘problem’ of ugly proliferation of typefaces as if it were analogous to the problem facing an engineer tasked with getting a train from one end of Europe to the other, before there has been any standardization of track gauges. Such a problem no doubt calls for a simple, uniform, even authoritarian (if you want to put it that way) reduction of the ugly many to the functionally optimal one: an engineering standard. But a reading eye, thrown by a shift from Roman to Fraktur, or from serif to sans serif, is not nearly enough like a train unable to run on a different track gauge to warrant the conclusion that modern typography is an engineering problem like the track problem.

An ‘A’ does not aspire to be (if only we scraped off the ornament) a pure geometrical form. If you design a font with an elegantly minimal triangle A—that’s nice. But it is not ‘truer’ to the nature of A than some ornamental alternative. The puzzle of how to instruct and enable compositors, printers, so forth, to do exactly what is wanted, consistently, is not the same as the question of how to make a really elegantly exact and consistent set of letterforms, or book pages. Tschichold wanted both—and always got them. Still, the problems are quite distinct.

One final thought about Tschichold’s legacy: in time he came to see his youthful modernist enthusiasm as—not so much a mistake, but a blinkered insight about design solutions in an industrial, engineering age. He took the exception—a narrow set of design challenges—for the rule. But, in an odd way, in an internet age, with easy access to Photoshop and all sorts of sophisticated word processing and design software, the exception has become the rule. Perhaps we should now say Tschichold’s limited, modernist truth was a premature post-modern truth (post-something; post-Gutenberg, perhaps). What his modernist associate László Moholy-Nagy called ‘typofoto’—the aesthetically distinctive synthesis of image and type—is now the norm, for better or worse. Mixed words and images are the design default, from which pure text and pure image are the departures. Architecturally speaking, a classic book poses a most worthy, yet non-paradigmatic design problem: namely, how to design a handsome door, leading into a very long hallway, down which one walks until one comes to the exit. (A novel, for example.) One would hardly make the solution to the problem of how to design a hallway the template for evolving solutions to every other sort of problem in architecture.

Tschichold’s modernism becomes ever more irrelevant and fantastic-sounding, insofar as it consists of statements of alleged engineering necessity. I have a thousand fonts on my computer; there is not much point pretending this is much of a technical drag on my system. But Tschichold is ever more relevant, the more fonts I collect, the more Photoshop effects I can generate, as a teacher of ‘tact’ (as he called it), as a master maker of things of beauty worthy of study and admiration.

Cees W. de Jong (ed.): Jan Tschichold — Master Typographer. His Life, Work, and Legacy
Thames and Hudson: New York 2008
ISBN 13: 978-0500513989
Hardcover, 384 pages, 350 illustrations (150 in colour), US$ 75.00

John Holbo is an Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore. He is also a regular contributor to cultural-political blog Crooked Timber.