Your ancestors in Germany

Your ancestors in Germany

Germany is a Country we tend to know through two world wars and the European Union. Many German speaking people migrated to the United Kingdom and settled before and after the major wars of the 20th Century. Like many European countries Germany has a complex history and records are generally kept locally. State and Church Archives should be consulted for original or duplicate records. Don’t dismay; this blog will help you get started.


The Federal Republic of Germany (to give its official title), Deutschland or Germany as most British people know it is a relatively young country. Comprising 83 million inhabitants it is the largest country by population in the EU. Its capital is Berlin (the largest metropolis) and seat of political power. Frankfurt is the financial capital and the country’s busiest airport.

A number of Germanic Tribes had inhabited the northern parts of modern Germany since antiquity. Germania was documented before 100AD. German territories formed a central part of the Holy Roman Empire. In the 16th C Northern German regions became a centre of Protestant Reformation. The German Confederation was formed in 1815 after the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire. The Frankfurt Parliament established major democratic rights after the German revolutions of 1848-49.

In 1871 Germany became a nation state, where most German States unified into the Prussian dominated German Empire (minus Austria and Switzerland). After World War One the Empire was replaced by the Weimar Republic. In 1933 the Nazi’s seized power, leading to the annexation of Austria and a dictatorship under Adolf Hitler. At the end of World War Two Austria was re-established as an independent country and two new German States were founded; West and East Germany. Roughly a quarter of Germany’s pre-war territory was annexed by Poland and the Soviet Union. The Country was re-unified in 1990.

Germany is made up of 16 Constituent States (collectively known as Bundesländer). Each State is largely autonomous having its own constitution. Germany is further divided into 401 districts at a municipal level and these consist of 294 rural districts and 107 urban districts.

In 1871 Germany was roughly two-thirds Protestant and one-third Roman Catholic. There was a notable Jewish minority. In 2011 Christianity was the largest religion (67%), 32% were Protestant and 31% Roman Catholic. 33% were not members of an official religion. Islam is the second largest religion with other religions minor by comparison (Buddhism, Judaism and Hinduism.


Family History records are created and organised locally. Germany was unified in 1871 and the German Empire consisted of 26 States, These States included four kingdoms, six grand duchies, five duchies, seven principalities, three free Hanseatic cities and one Imperial territory.

FamilySearch: “An important gazetteer, Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-lexikon des deutschen Reichs, “Meyer’s Gazetteer” for short, details the place names of villages, towns. counties (kreise), and higher jurisdictions used at that time.” Some websites use the format of this Gazetter to organise their records (i.e.

Civil Registration (birth, marriage and death) are kept at a local civil registration office (some maybe in City or State Archives) and church records (christening/baptism, marriage and burial) kept in the local parish of the Church, State or Church Archives.

If you are unsure of your ancestors town in Germany follow the advice in the FamilySearch Wiki.



Births, marriages or deaths (Standesamtsregister, Zivilstandsregister or Personenstandsregister) are civil records. After 1876 Germany established civil registration and therefore these records are important sources for research. For a more detailed breakdown of the start of civil registration refer to the FamilySearch Wiki.

The records are kept by the civil registrar (Standesbeamte) at a civil registry office (Standesamt). Information recorded varies over time due to States using a different format for civil registration.

The differences only between English and Welsh Birth, Marriage and Death registrations are given below.

Births (Geburtsregister)

  • birth time
  • father’s age
  • mother’s age and marital status
  • names, ages and residences of witnesses
  • parents’ religion is also listed in some states.

Source: FamilySearch

Marriages (Heiraten, Ehen, or Trauungen)

Marriages were usually recorded where the bride lived.


Intention to Marry

Search these records if you believe a marriage took place but cannot find a marriage record.

Proclamations [Aufgebote or Eheverkündigungen] made a few weeks before a couple planned to marry.

Marriage Supplements [Heiratsbeilagen] often filed by the bride or groom to support their marriage application.

Contracts [Ehekontrakte] are documents created to protect legal rights and property of spouses.

Marriage Permission Papers [Verehelichungsakten] are documents created in the process of obtaining permission to get married.

Marriage Records

Marriage Registers (Heiratsregister) give

  • the [date and] time of the marriage
  • bride’s and groom’s birth dates and birthplaces
  • the parents’ names, residence marital status
  • witnesses’ ages and relationships to the bride or groom
  • the couple’s religion, especially after 1874.

Source: FamilySearch

Deaths (Sterberegister or Totenregister)

  • the birthplace of the deceased
  • the name of the parents or spouse and their residences

Source: FamilySearch


A snapshot of a family, on one night of the year; the Census gives an invaluable insight into our ancestors lives.

Only a few censuses have been taken and none were taken nationally in Germany. Those that exist do so for a limited number of places and times. Civil registration and church records maybe a more reliable source of information for your German ancestors.

Check out the available census material on the FamilySearch website:

  • Mecklenburg-Schwerin
  • Schleswig-Holstein
  • Lübeck Censuses
  • 1852 Kingdom of Hannover Census
  • 1938 Census for Minorities
  • 1939 Census for Minorities
  • Other Census or Census-Like Records

The earliest census seems to be for 1769.


Emigrants and Immigrants

Emmigration (leaving) and Immigration (arriving) records tend to be passenger lists, permissions to emigrate or records of passports issued.

Most emigrants from Germany occurred during the following periods:

  • 1683 to 1820: to Southeastern Europe, North America, Russia, England, Scotland, and Ireland.


  • 1820 to 1871: caused chiefly by economic hardships, including unemployment and crop failures.


  • 1851 to 1929: Microfilms of passport protocols, 1851-1929; movement from and to new ocations in Germany.


  • 1871 to 1914: Emigration was more affordable. Political and economic problems continued. Large numbers of emmigrants from the eastern provinces of Preußen [Prussia].


  • 1914 to 1945: Emigrants included political dissenters, Jews, and others who were uncomfortable with post World War I developments.


Emigration and immigration sources list the names of people leaving (emigrating) or arriving (immigrating) in Germany. These sources may be passenger lists, permissions to emigrate, or records of passports issued.

Source: FamilySearch

To access records and research this area further check out the FamilySearch Wiki.


Parish Registers

Parish Registers generally detail Baptism, Marriage and Burial. They may be used as an alternative or substitute for civil registration.

  • Lutheran church records start in 1540
  • Catholic church records start in 1563
  • Between 1618-1648 the 30 years war meant the destruction of many church records

The differences only between English and Welsh Birth, Marriage and Death registrations are given below.

Baptisms (Taufen)

  • status of legitimacy
  • sometimes:
  • the child’s birth date,
  • the father’s occupation and
  • the family’s place of residence


Marriages (Heiraten)

Sometimes the bride and grooms:

  • ages, their birth dates and places
  • residences
  • occupations,
  • birthplaces
  • parents’ names (after 1800)
  • the names of previous spouses and their death dates.


Marriage Banns or Proclamations (Aufgebote)

Burials (Begräbnisse)

  • the date and place of death or buria
  • the names of survivors
  • deceased’s birth date and place and
  • parents’ names

Source: FamilySearch

Church records will be kept in the local parish of the Church. Some may be online, alternatively you may have to write to the local church or archive where they are stored.

State Archives may hold duplicate records for some Parishes. Church Archives may hold records or duplicates. Check out FamilySearch for further resources and guidance.

Key contacts and useful websites

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