Germany, as we know it today, is a much different country than it was in the time of our distant ancestors. Germany’s life as a unitary state did not begin until 1871, making it a much “smaller” country than most of its European neighbours. This can make locating German ancestors more difficult than many think.
What is Germany?
Before its unification in 1871, Germany consisted of a loose union of kingdoms (Bavaria, Prussia, Saxony, Württemberg…), dukes (Baden…), free cities (Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck…), and even possessions Personal – each has its own laws and record keeping systems. After a brief period as a united country (1871-1945), Germany was again divided after World War II, with parts of it given to Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Soviet Union. What remained was then divided into East Germany and West Germany, a division that lasted until 1990. Even during the unified period, some parts of Germany were handed over to Belgium, Denmark, and France in 1919.
What this means for people looking for German roots, is that their ancestry records may or may not exist in Germany. Some of them can be found among the records of the six countries that received parts of the territory of former Germany (Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Poland and the USSR). Once the search was done prior to 1871, you might also deal with records from some of the original German states.
What and where was Prussia?
Many people assume that Prussia’s ancestors were Germans, but this is not necessarily the case. The name Prussia was actually the name of a geographical area that originated in the area between Lithuania and Poland, and later grew to include the southern coast of the Baltic Sea and northern Germany. Prussia was an independent country 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 exists only in reference to the former province.
While this is a very brief overview of Germany’s path through history, we hope this helps you understand some of the obstacles German genealogists face. Now that you understand these difficulties, it’s time to get back to basics.
Start with yourself
No matter where your family is, you can’t research your German roots until you learn more about your newer ancestors. As with all genealogy projects, you need to start with yourself, talk to your family members, and follow the other basic steps of starting a family tree.
Select the birthplace of your immigrant ancestor
Once you have used a variety of genealogical records to trace your family back to your original German ancestry, the next step is to find the name of the specific town, village or town in Germany in which your immigrant ancestor lived. Since most German records are not centralized, it is nearly impossible to trace your ancestors back to Germany without this step. If your German ancestors immigrated to America after 1892, you’ll likely find this information in the passenger arrival record of the ship they sailed to America on. The German to America series should be consulted if your German ancestor arrived between 1850 and 1897. Or if you know which port in Germany they departed from, you may be able to locate their hometown on German passenger departure lists. Other common sources for determining the birthplace of an immigrant include vital records of birth, marriage, and death; Census records Naturalization records and Church records. Learn more tips for finding your immigrant ancestor’s birthplace.
Locate the German city
After determining the birthplace of immigrants in Germany, you must then locate it on the map to determine if it is still there, and in which German state. Online German dictionaries can help to identify the country in Germany where a town, village or city can now be found. If the place seems to no longer exist, turn to historical German maps and find aids to find out where the place used to be, and in what state, region or country the records may now be located.
Birth, Marriage & Death Records in Germany
Even though Germany didn’t exist as a unified nation until 1871, many German states developed their own systems of civil registration prior to that time, some as early as 1792. Since Germany has no central repository for civil records of birth, marriage, and death, these records may be found in various locations including the local civil registrar’s office, government archives, and on microfilm through the Family History Library.
Census Records in Germany
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 WWWII.
Some counties and cities of Germany have also conducted separate censuses at irregular intervals over the years. Many of these have not survived, but some are available in the relevant municipal archives or on microfilm through the Family History Library.
The information available from German census records varies greatly by time period and area. Earlier census returns may be basic head counts or include only the name of the head of household. Later census records provide more detail.
German Parish Registers
While most German civil records only go back to around the 1870s, parish registers go back as far as the 15th century. Parish registers are books maintained by church or parish offices to record baptisms, confirmations, marriages, burials and other church events and activities, and are a major source of family history information in Germany. Some even include family registers (Seelenregister or Familienregister) where information about an individual family group is recorded together on a single place.
Other sources of Germany family history information include school records, military records, emigration records, ship passenger lists and city directories. Cemetery records may also be helpful but, as in much of Europe, cemetery lots 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.
Where Are They Now?
The town, kindom, principality or duchie where your ancestor lived in Germany may be hard to find on a map of modern Germany. To help you find your way around German records, 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.