Researching Your German Ancestry by James Thornber

Published on 12 May 2022 at 08:00

Researching Your German Ancestry

 

\I’ve been researching parts of my German Ancestry for just over 7 years.  I certainly don’t consider myself an expert, but I thought it might be useful for me to share my personal thoughts and experiences relating to how I researched my own German Ancestry.  When it comes to researching your German ancestry, it can be quite different to what you might typically expect if you’re coming from a UK or US perspective.  Many different topics come into play whilst you’re doing your research, such as the history of Germany, modern German citizen’s attitudes to privacy, the role of the church amongst others, but don’t fret there’s also a couple of real gems that I’ll share with you, that will be hopefully incredibly helpful to your German genealogy research.

A very, very brief history of Germany (1806-1871)

Germany as a country, that we at least know today, did not really exist until about 1871.  Before that time, it was a complete melting pot of various kingdoms, duchies, and principalities.  From 1806-1871 rather than be known as Germany, it was called the Deutscher Bund (German Confederation).  To cut a long historical story short, then after some squabbling with Austria, the existing kingdoms and duchies united to create a Germany as we might recognise it now.  Post-WW2, Germany became a federal republic, and many of the existing kingdoms, principalities, and Duchies pre-1871 have been merged into the existing modern German states, or indeed in some cases into other countries. 

German individuals’ attitude to privacy & German Privacy Laws

Germans in general are very keen on protecting their privacy, both online and offline, which impacts Genealogical research even today.  Further, current German law does not permit the release of any information about a particular person until 30 years after their death, or if the date of death is unknown, then that automatically expands to 100 years after their date of birth. So, using 2022 as an example, this effectively covers anyone born since 1922.  Don’t under-estimate this law, it can trip you up often as I’ll explain to you later on.  Whilst this might not impact your research if you’re tracing your ancestors back to Germany, however in my own research then I’m starting with a living German, and as she doesn’t remember her great-grandparents names then I’m completely stymied as I can’t get past 1871 to be able to trace further back!

These 2 important pieces of information are incredibly good to know, and it would be good to keep in mind as you do your family research, as they will permeate almost everything that you research into your family tree!  So, let’s see how this is likely to impact your German Genealogy research, on a practical level.  

I can’t find Prussia (or other historical areas)!

If you’re looking for ancestors in a number of the historical pre-1871 parts of Germany such as Prussia then post-WW2 it no longer exists and has been merged, along with Schlesien (Silesia) and Pommern (Pomerania), into Poland, or into other modern German federal states.  This also applies to looking for ancestors originating from Elsass (Alsace) and Lothringen (Lorraine) which are now part of France.  If you’re looking for ancestors from any of these places then you’ll need to look at the Polish, and the French archives as they will not typically be stored in Germany.  Sachsen (Saxony) remains within post-WW2 Germany, but it was split into 2 federal states; Niedersachsen (Lower-Saxony), and Sachsen-Anwalt so it might be prudent to look into both of these state archives, if you have ancestors from the historical Sachsen region.

This handy table should hopefully help you to place historical areas to the modern Federal states.

German State Archives

If you live in the UK, then you’ll understand how useful it is to have the National Archives, a single institution that has so much useful genealogical and historical information.  We’re spoilt in that regard, and whilst a similar institution does exist in Germany, generally speaking all the important records are held at either a State Archive level or sometimes still at a town/village level in which case they’re stored at the Rat Haus (Town Hall).  You’ll need to visit these archives in person to be able to get the information that you need on your ancestors.  If visiting a Rat Haus, then you’ll also need to make an appointment in advance, you can’t really just turn up, which you can with a state archive.  I’ve also made links to the state archives in the table above, so hopefully that will be useful as a starting point for you.  

German Emigration

The petty squabbles I mentioned previously that happened between kingdoms, principalities, and Duchy’s pre-1871, was a major cause of emigration to predominantly the United States, and some other European countries during this time.  The main ports that people would have left from would be Hamburg, or Bremen in Germany.  So, it’s worth checking for emigration records from these ports.

German Census records

If you’ve ever tried to look for German census records online, then I bet you won’t have found them, and unfortunately, it’s not always a matter that they have not yet been indexed.  There are some census records, but they generally occurred for very specific reasons, and they certainly are not taken as regularly, say every 10 years, as they are in both the UK and the US.  Any census records as we might think of them, are stored at a federal state level, and some of the more important censuses are:

  • 1834-1867: Various years and were taken in conjunction for the Zollverein (Custom’s union) which was created as an early predecessor to the German confederation.
  • 1871 to 1910: The census resumed in the newly united German Reich (German Realm), and they continued every 5 years between these dates.
  • 5 December 1916 and 1917: this census was created to know where to distribute food during WW1.
  • 1933 and 1939: You need to be careful with the information contained in these 2 censuses as they were affected by the bias of the Nazi government in power at the time; so any Polish, Jewish, or gypsies that are part of your family tree will probably have, understandably, lied on the census form to simply protect their lives.  Remember during this time there would have been attacks on Polish and Jewish shops, and repression of other minorities by the Nazi government which would have formed the backdrop to these census records.
  • 1945/1946: The Allied nations held a census post-WW2
  • 1980: Attempts at introducing a census on West Germany sparked strong popular resentment since some citizens felt that the questions asked were quite personal (remember the privacy attitudes I mentioned previously). 

German Churches

There are 2 main churches in Germany, the main church is the Evangelisch Kirche (Evangelical Church), which covers protestants, Lutherans etc.  The 2nd church is the Katholische Kirche (Catholic Church) and it’s strongest in the south-west of Germany.  An interesting note is that if your ancestors are from a small village then typically there will only be one church, and it’s often shared between the different church denominations!  It would not be unusual to say have a catholic wedding in the church in the morning, followed by an evangelical wedding in the afternoon!  Just the names of the vicar, pastor, priest will change, and helpfully all births, marriages, and deaths will be stored in the same church book.  This scenario won’t generally apply to towns or cities where it’s more usual to have separate churches.

Church Books & Church records

In the UK and US then church books are highly structured, and they record the usual births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths with generally standardised information across them all.  In Germany then the church has had more flexibility in what they record, and it’s also stored in a less structured way.  There can be notes in the church book margin containing pertinent pieces of information relating to an individual, or a family.  Further each church often also had something called a Familien Buch, which simply doesn’t exist in the UK, or US.  A Familien Buch which you’ll be able to find on archion.de, will be in effect a mini family tree, births, marriages, and death dates, and any other information about them. It will usually note if anyone has emigrated, and often include the country that they went to.  Helpfully they also list all family members in the same house.  So, if you come across a church Familien Buch on archion.de, it can be incredibly useful to have a look through these books for your ancestors.  The familienbuch in some ways makes up for the lack of census information. 

 

Over 125,000 church records are available on https://archion.de, and be aware that they’re not indexed nor are they searchable.  The collection however is growing very quickly indeed, as more church books are being scanned in on a daily basis.  For each parish then there will typically be a birth, baptisms, marriage, death, and usually a familienbuch too.  So, you’ll need to use the table above to try to find out where the parish now resides. They do have an English section in their forum, which can be quite useful.  A church book (Kirche Buch) is often abbreviated in online forums to be KiBu, so if you see this abbreviation online, then you now know what it means.  

Also, it would be good to brush up on your alt Deutsch or Kurrent Schrift, as all the books will be written in that style, and you will not be able to find many church books after 1871 for reasons explained previously.



Old German writing ‘Kurrent Schrift’, and modern phonetic spellings

If you were to look at historical UK or US genealogical documents, then it’s quite easy to read and they may use what’s called copperplate/roundhand scripts.  Most German historical church and civil records are written in a script sometimes called Altdeutsch (old German) or Kurrent Schrift, which will certainly take some time to get used to reading, here’s what I mean:

By Deutsche_Kurrentschrift.jpg: AndreasPraefckederivative work: Martin Kozák (Deutsche_Kurrentschrift.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

As you undertake your research it would be a good idea to have the above printed out, many modern Germans are unable to read the script, so please don’t get too despondent! But it will be a very useful skill to have.

 

Phonetic spellings are also sometimes used, so the following examples can all be read in exactly the same way:

  • in family trees, documents, emails, website etc:
  • Ü becomes ue
  • Ö becomes oe
  • Ä becomes ae
  • ẞ becomes s
  • Surnames can be spelt differently due to phonetics:
  • Müller is the same as Mueller 
  • Möckler and Moeckler are also the same spelling.
  • Same applies to Federal States, towns, etc.
    • Ostprüssen is the same as Ostpruessen
    • Düsseldorf is the same as Duesseldorf

 

DNA Testing in Germany

DNA Tests are really not very common in Germany, because - at least the last time I checked - they’re illegal!  There are of course some Germans that have taken them, and the biggest collection that I have found is on ftdna.com, in the Y-German project:

 https://www.familytreedna.com/groups/germany/ 

 

Also, with individual’s attitudes to privacy in Germany, it can also explain why so few people have taken personal DNA tests.  But it’s always worth a look, in case one of your relatives has taken one.

 

German Burial Plots

This is another example of how things are different in Germany.  Graves are typically rented for an amount of time, typically 100 years, but the actual length is determined by each federal state.  After this time, then the gravestone is removed, and another body is interred into the grave.  This doesn’t apply to military or famous people though.  Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that most people are still buried in Germany, rather than cremated.

 

German Genealogical Association

This is a great organisation (www.dagv.org) but whilst they do no research nor hold information themselves, they will however be able to point you in the right direction, to either the town hall or the relevant state archive, and let you know what the process is to get the information that you need.  So, if you’re not sure where to find information, then this organisation is a good starting place.

 

Ortsippenbuch

If you translate the title, then it means something like “village tribe book”.  If you can find one of these for the village that your German ancestors are from, then it’s utter gold-dust!  There is no equivalent in the UK or the US.  So, imagine a poor soul sitting in the church archive quite literally for years, pulling together and cross-linking all the families and individuals from the earliest church parish records to 1871, into a single book.  The ortsppenbuch will include all birth, baptism, marriage, death, familienbuchs into a single complete volume, with no need to understand alt-deutsch! If you’re lucky enough to have one of these for the town or village where your ancestors come from then you’ll be able to, in less than an afternoon(!), take your family history right back to the earliest records for that village. I’m being serious too.  I did exactly this for one part of my family tree, as the whole family line had stayed in the same village from approximately 1612 to 2022, which meant that I was able to complete a whole family surname line in a couple of hours.  The books are not cheap, I think I paid about €60/£50/USD60, but it will be worth every penny, I promise.  Just google ortsippenbuch and the name of the village to see if there’s one available.  

 

Useful German genealogy notations

You’ll sometimes see online, or in ortsippenbuchs, the following notations, and it’s useful to know what they mean:

  • * means birth
  • ∞ or sometimes written oo means marriage
  • + means death
  • = Means burial 
  • KiBu means Kirche Buch
  • V means Vater (Father)
  • M means Mutter (Mother)

 

Useful German Genealogical words:

  • Taufe - Baptism 
  • Konfirmation - confirmation 
  • Abendmahl - communion 
  • Trauung / Hochzeit / heirat - Wedding 
  • Be-erdigung - Deaths/Burials 
  • Familienbuch - Family books

 

I hope that this guide to researching your German family history has been useful, and you’ve hopefully learnt something new to help you move forward with your research.  I think I’ve covered really quite a lot of information, and I’ve tried to cover both online, and offline resources, whilst deliberately ignoring what’s available on the main sites such as Ancestry etc. as they should be pretty easy to figure out.  In either case, I wish you the best of luck with researching your German family tree!

 

Thank you to James Thornber for being our History & Heritage guest blogger this month. To learn more about how you can contribute and become a guest writer with Dividing Ridge Genealogy please visit our Home page for guidelines and further details. A new article is available every month.


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