March 19th, 2013

The Expert Guide to German Ancestry

Finding German ancestors can be quite the genealogical challenge.Germanyhas been through many political and geographical changes over the years that can make relatives hard to find.Germanyas we know it today however did not come into existence until 1871, and as such it is a younger country than many of its European neighbors. Though you might think this would make it easier to finds ancestors, it’s really not the case. The key to understanding this complexity lies in understanding a bit of the history ofGermany.

Before 1871

The initial unification ofGermanytook place in 1871, but prior to that it was an association of small kingdoms (Saxony,Württemberg,Bavaria, andPrussia), free (self-governing) cities such asBremen,HamburgandLubeck, and even the personal estates of various prominent and wealthy families. Each of these entities in turn had its own system of record keeping.

Germanyremained unified until after the Second World War when it was divided into East andWest Germany, while parts of it were awarded toPoland,Czechoslovakia, and theUSSR. Even while it was unified between 1871 and 1945 however, parts of it were given toFrance,Belgium, andDenmarkin 1919 following the First World War.

What this means for family historians is that the records for the German ancestors they are searching might not be found inGermany. You may need to search the records of the countries that received portions of German territory (France,Belgium,Poland,Denmark,Czechoslovakiaand theUSSR), or if researching prior to 1871 in the records of the original states such asPrussia, or even in personal estate records. As you can imagine, this presents some unique challenges for genealogists, but they can be overcome by following some basic steps.

How to Find Your German Ancestors

Begin With You

As with every genealogical search, one for your German ancestors begins in your own home. Your more recent ancestors can provide you with links to the past, so speak with your family members and ask them to share any information they have. This can include photos, family bibles, and vital documents. If you need to brush up on your interviewing skills or refresh your genealogical knowledge, consult our Basics of Tracing Family Genealogy Insiders Guide.

Locate Your Immigrant Ancestor’s Birthplace

Once you have traced your family history back to your German ancestor, you’ll want to find out the name of the city or village they were born in. This is a crucial step, as most German records are not held in a central location. You may be able to find this information in passenger lists if they immigrated toAmerica after 1892. A record of them may also be held by the city or port from which they departed, so if you have that information you should check out German passenger departure lists. Other records that may contain their city of birth are naturalization records, church records from the area around the port they entered, census records, and BDM records.

Find Their Birthplace on a Map

Once you have found the name of the town or city where your ancestor was born, look for it ion a modern map to make sure it still exists. You can use online German gazetteers for this. If you can’t locate their birthplace on a modern map, consult historic maps or records to find out where it used to be and where those records might now be held.

German Birth, Death, and Marriage Records

Some German vital records date back to 1792 as many German states had their own civil registration systems. These records are held in the area that the event took place, as there is no central repository inGermany. You can find them in government archives and the local civil registrar’s office. Some are held on microfilm by the LDS Family History Library.

German Census Records

Censuses have been conducted inGermanyon a regular basis since the unification in 1871. Though they are deemed as national censuses, they were and are still carried out by each state or province, where the records can be found. You can get original returns from the Civil Register Office (Standesamt)in each area, or from the municipal archives (Stadtarchiv). Unfortunately,East Germanydestroyed all of the census returns for that area, and some records were destroyed by bombings during the war.

You may be able to locate some records from individual regions, as occasionally some cities and provinces conducted their own censuses between the national ones. The information you’ll find in German census reports varies according to the time period, and earlier ones may only record how many people occupied a household, though usually the name of the head of the household id given.

German Parish Registers

Some parish registers inGermanydate back as far as the 1500’s, and they can be a valuable source of ancestral information. Baptisms, marriages, burials, confirmations, and other events are recorded in them, and sometimes a complete family record is written containing information about an entire family.

Registers are generally kept by local parish offices, though some smaller churches may send their records to a larger central register. If you find that the parish no longer exists, the parish which took over may still hold those records. Some hand copied registers were sent to the district court, and they can sometimes serve as a substitute if the original records can’t be located. Keep in mind however that they are hand copied, and so may contain errors.

As with any genealogical search in any geographical location, research can sometimes be painstaking. Sticking to the task though will generally see you reap the fruit of your labors.