Like many of his contemporaries, Jan Tschichold adhered to a kind of “apolitical socialism” during the 1920s. Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and numerous others shared this outlook. He helped design books for the left-wing “Book Circle” series from 1924 to 1926. Tschichold quoted Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution (1924) with approval in the inaugural issue of Typographische Mitteilungen, published that same year:
The wall dividing art and industry will come down. The great style of the future will not decorate, it will organize. It would be wrong to think this means the destruction of art, as giving way to technology.
David Crowley and Paul Jobling suggest that “Tschichold had been so enamored of the Soviet Union that he had signed his works ‘Iwan [Ivan] Tschichold’ for a period in the 1920s, and worked for German trade unions.” Some of this enthusiasm was doubtless the result of his contact with El Lissitzky and his Hungarian disciple László Moholy-Nagy, a legend in his own right.
In 1927, a pen manufacturer accused Tschichold of being a communist, which prompted fellow typographer Stanley Morison to rise to his defense. From that point forward, his work became even less overtly political.
Yet he remained cognizant of the revolutionary origins of modern orthography. “At the same time that he was promulgating the depoliticized functionalism of the New Typography,” writes Stephen Eskilson. “Tschichold still recognized his debt to Constructivism’s Russian, communist roots.” Christopher Burke thus also writes in his study of Active Literature: Jan Tschichold and the New Typography that
Tschichold’s compilation contains the Constructivists’ Program in an edited and abridged — one might even say adulterated — German version adapted by Tschichold himself. The Marxist-Leninist rhetoric of the original is significantly toned down: for example, the proclamation in the original that reads “Our sole ideology is scientific communism based on the theory of historical materialism: loses its reference to scientific communism in Tschichold’s version. He was obviously tailoring the text for his readership in Germany, where the November Revolution immediately after the First World War had been ruthlessly suppressed. The German Communist Party leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, were murdered in cold blood on 15 January 1919 by right-wing, counterrevolutionary troops with the tacit acceptance of the Social Democrat government of the Weimar Republic itself.
Tschichold himself called for an objective, impersonal, collective work destined for all, espousing a vaguely left-wing but not overtly communist point of view common to many statements from this period of International Constructivism in Germany. Despite quoting Trotsky in Elementare Typographie, Tschichold did not belong to the German Communist Party, nor was he associated with any particular “-ism” or group, apart from the Ring neue Werbegestalter later in the 1920s and 1930s, which had no political dimension.
Regardless, the Nazis suspected Tschichold of harboring communist sympathies. Moreover, his criticism of traditional German Gothic or Blackletter script was seen as “degenerate” and modernizing. (His longtime friend and collaborator Herbert Bayer, despite sharing Tschichold’s principles and having a Bauhaus education, ended up working for the Nazis and designed their exhibition of “Degenerate Art.”)
And so he emigrated to Switzerland, and then to Britain, where he began working for Penguin Publishers in the 1940s. Tschichold by then had repudiated many of his modernist principles, having returned to a more classical style. Nevertheless, here is his modern masterpiece, The New Typography, along with some of the movie posters he designed for Phoebus Palast during the 1920s.