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Research in Germany


Large Map of Germany

A very difficult and complex arena for the inexperienced.

The first thing to note is that there was really no such thing as "Germany" - at least nothing like as we know today - pre 1871.   Prior to its unification in 1871, Germany consisted of a loose association of kingdoms:

  • Bavaria
  • Prussia
  • Saxony
  • Wurttemberg

Then we have duchies, free cities and even personal estates each with its own laws and record keeping systems. (see list below).

After a brief period as a unified nation (1871-1945), Germany was again divided following World War II, with parts of it going to Czechoslovakia, Poland and the USSR.

What was left was then divided into East Germany and West Germany, a division that lasted until 1990. Even during the unified period, some sections of Germany were given to Belgium, Denmark and France in 1919 at the end of World War One.


Sovereign Ancestry Lincolnshire - Germany Large Image 1

What this means for anyone researching German ancestry is that the records of their ancestors may be just about anywhere and may not be found in Germany. Some may be found among the archives of the six countries which have received portions of former Germany territory (Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Poland, and the USSR).

Once researching prior to 1871 one may also be dealing with records from some of the original German states.

The Prussian Question:

Large Map of Prussia Many people assume that Prussian ancestors were German, but this isn't necessarily the case. Prussia was actually the name of a geographical region, which originated in the area between Lithuania and Poland, and later grew to encompass the southern Baltic coast and northern Germany. Prussia existed as an independent state from the 17th century until 1871, when it became the largest territory of the new German Empire.

Prussia as a state was officially abolished in 1947, and now the term only exists in reference to the former province.


Starting Point:

As ever before research can even begin we have to determine where in Germany and individual originated.

The next step is to access contemporary maps to determine whether the place still exists and if so in which German state.

If the place looks to no longer exist we have to turn to historic maps and gazetteers to establish where the place used to be. This hopefully leads to which country, region or state any extant material is now held.

Birth, Marriage & Death Records:

IAs discussed Germany didn't exist as a unified nation until 1871 but many German states developed their own systems of civil registration prior to that time, some as early as 1792.

Germany has no central repository for civil records of birth, marriage and death, these records are therefore found in various locations including the local civil registrar's office and government archives for further details.


Census Records:

Regular censuses have been conducted in Germany on a countrywide basis since 1871. These "national" censuses were actually conducted by each state or province, and the original returns can be obtained from the municipal archives (Stadtarchiv) or the Civil Register Office (Standesamt) in each district. The biggest exception to this is East Germany (1945-1990), which destroyed all of its original census returns. Some census returns were also destroyed by bombing during World War II.

Some counties and cities of Germany have also conducted separate censuses at irregular intervals over the years. Many of these have not survived.

The information available from German census records varies greatly by time period and area. Earlier census returns may be basic statistical head counts, or include only the name of the head of household. Later census records provide more detail.


Parish Registers:


While most German civil records only go back to around the 1870s, parish registers can go back as far as the 15th century. Some even include family registers (Seelenregister or Familienregister) where information about an individual family group is recorded together in a single place.

Parish registers are generally kept by the local parish office. In come cases, however, the older parish registers may have been forwarded to a central parish register office or ecclesiastical archives, a state or municipal archive, or a local vital registration office. If the parish is no longer in existence, the parish registers may be found in the office of the parish that took over for that area.

In addition to the original parish registers, parishes in most areas of Germany required a verbatim copy of the register to be made and forwarded annually to the district court - until the time when vital registration took effect (from about 1780-1876).

These are comparable to our Bishop's Transcripts and similarly are sometimes available when the original records are not. As with the BTs it's important to bear in mind they are copies of the original and, as such, are one step removed from the original source.

Other Sources:


School Records, Military Records, Emigration Records, Ship's Passenger Lists and Local Directories. Cemetery records may also be helpful but, as in much of Europe, cemetery places are leased for a specific number of years. If the lease isn't renewed, the burial plot becomes open for someone else to be buried there!


German States:


This list outlines the states (bundesländer) of modern Germany, along with the historical territories that they now contain. Germany's three city-states -- Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen -- predate these states created in 1945.

  • Baden-Württemberg: Baden, Hohenzollern, Württemberg

  • Bavaria: Bavaria (excluding Rheinpfalz), Sachsen-Coburg

  • Brandenburg: The western portion of the Prussian Province of Brandenburg.

  • Hesse: Free City of Frankfurt am Main, Grand Duchy of Hessen-Darmstadt (less the province of Rheinhessen), part of Landgraviate Hessen-Homburg, Electorate of Hessen-Kassel, Duchy of Nassau, District of Wetzlar (part of the former Prussian Rheinprovinz), Principality of Waldeck.

  • Lower Saxony: Duchy of Braunschweig, Kingdom/Prussian, Province of Hannover, Grand Duchy of Oldenburg, Principality of Schaumburg-Lippe.

  • Mecklenburg-Vorpommern: Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (less the principality of Ratzeburg), western portion of the Prussian province of Pomerania.

  • North Rhine-Westphalia: Prussian province of Westfalen, northern portion of Prussian Rheinprovinz, Principality of Lippe-Detmold.

  • Rheinland-Pfalz: Part of the Principality of Birkenfeld, Province of Rheinhessen, part of the Landgraviate of Hessen-Homburg, most of the Bavarian Rheinpfalz, part of the Prussian Rheinprovinz.

  • Saarland: Part of the Bavarian Rheinpfalz, part of the Prussian Rheinprovinz, part of the principality of Birkenfeld.

  • Sachsen-Anhalt: Former Duchy of Anhalt, Prussian province of Sachsen.

  • Saxony: Kingdom of Sachsen, part of the Prussian province of Silesia.

  • Schleswig-Holstein: Former Prussian province of Schleswig-Holstein, Free City of Lübeck, Principality of Ratzeburg.

  • Thuringia: Duchies and Principalities of Thüringen, part of Prussian province of Sachsen.

Some areas are no longer part of modern Germany.

Most of East Prussia (Ostpreussen) and Silesia (Schlesien) and part of Pomerania (Pommern) are now in Poland.

Similarly Alsace (Elsass) and Lorraine (Lothringen) are in France, and in each case you must take your research to those countries.