script, unique to Germanic
languages, was first developed in the sixteenth century as a modification of an angular script called Textura
. It developed a cursive counterpart called the Kurrent
script, which bears many similarities to handwritten Antiqua
(the more widely disseminated Latin script used by English among dozens of other languages) but differs dramatically for several letters. Fraktur and Kurrent coexisted with the Antiqua script throughout the periods from the sixteenth to twentieth century. Artistic and literary works were generally written in Fraktur, while scientific and technical works used Antiqua. Antiqua within a Fraktur text served as an italics
of sorts, used for the writing of foreign names, words, and quotes. The Antiqua script gradually gained an association of the international, cosmpolitan, or educated while Fraktur was more localized and simple.
These semiotic connotations contributed to a fight throughout the nineteenth century over the retention of Fraktur. Organizations like the Verein für Altschrift (Association for Antiqua Script) butted heads with reactionary organizations like the Allgemeiner Deutscher Schriftverein (General German Writing Association). At stake was more than just the choice of writing system; the debate over Fraktur involved national pride, linguistic purism, and liberal vs. conservative disagreements. Fraktur generally had the upper hand as the main writing system for not only German, but also Scandanavian languages like Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian until World War II.
After the rise of Adolf Hitler to power, Fraktur became a symbol of the Nazi movement. Use of the script increased dramatically, especially for propaganda, and its writing was institutionalized in schools. There were several variations to make the script appear more rune-like and cater toward Nazi aspirations for a pure Aryan society. But suddenly in 1940, Joseph Goebbels ordered all new propaganda to be written in Antiqua, not Fraktur. In the wake of this change, Hitler prohibited Fraktur wholesale. His justification was that they had all been deceived, and Fraktur was in fact a Schwabacher Judenletter (Schwabacher Jewish script). The actual motive for this reversal was that the conquered nations under Germany's grip could not be properly flooded with propaganda they couldn't understand. The Fraktur script was not universal enough for spreading beyond Germanic countries.
Since its downfall, Fraktur has never really recovered. It is no longer taught in schools, and now only finds use in archaic or ceremonial text. Kurrent has been almost completely eliminated from use, except in vestigal traces of influence on regular cursive writing. Once and awhile certain nationalistic organizations will advocate its reëstablishment, but the associations with a bloody past are too strong.
Fraktur still asserts its presence in a peculiar aspect of German, the capitalization of nouns. Linguistically, there is no particularly good reason for doing this; it is inefficient. Many German linguists have attacked the system, most famously Jakob Grimm. It is suspected, however, that the large nature of Fraktur capital letters in comparison to their Antiqua counterparts aided in retention of the alphabet as a whole, and thus promoted the use of widerspread capitalization to more than just proper nouns. Although unnecessary for Antiqua, the preservation of noun capitalization is still a goal of many national and conservative organizations in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.
One quality that especially distinguishes Fraktur from Antiqua is its widespread use of ligatures for more than just vowels. The most common of these are st, ch, ck, and tz, though others exist. The ligiture for sz, the eszet, developed its own Antiqua counterpart from the Fraktur model, ß. Until the German spelling reform this was equivalent to a double s in most cases.
Daniels, Peter T., Bright, William. The World's Writing Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.