Finding German Genealogy Data

So where are the best places to find German Genealogy data?

I hear this question, or something similar, often.  Perhaps it is because I am an American that I notice, but it seems most Americans I hear from expect to find German Genealogical record keeping and data ought to mirror that in the US. Unfortunately, they do not.  A number of historical factors impact the quality and type of genealogical records to be found in Germany today.

researchWhat follows are a few points regarding German history that merit understanding:

  1. A number of fairly destructive wars ran over German lands.  These wars not only destroyed people and buildings, but also innumerable records. The big ones were WW1 and WW2 (they made all the newspapers…).
  2. About 30% of German historical lands were ethnically cleansed by the allies following the second World War (some 100,000 square miles of land including West Prussia, East Prussia, Silesia, Suedetenland, Pommerania, etc.).  This forceable removal (up rooting) of some 14+/- million people, scattered families (and their histories) to the four corners of the world; additionally some 3+/- million died in the removal. Many who were left had no possessions or historical documentation, of any type. You may read more on this topic here.
  3. Before 1871, Germany did not exist as a single  political entity.  As a result, pre-1871 records vary greatly in terms of type, style and quality.  Each government did ‘their own’ thing.
  4. German governments have historically not maintained the same type of separation between Church and State as was originally promised in the US constitution and their records reflect this different relationship.

So where does one look?

  1. In my experience, the single greatest well of information are German Church records.  Nearly all births, deaths, marriages, were recorded by German Churches.  All you need to know is the village, town or area, and religion of your family member and you can begin a search.  The two primary state supported faiths in Germany were Lutheran (Evangelisch) and Roman Catholic (Katholisch).  Here are a couple additional tips on this subject. In small communities Menonnites and Jews were often listed in Lutheran Churches, less often in Catholic. In communities where these smaller faith communities had their own institutions, those should be searched.  Most German Church records are available from the LDS Church (You can look them up here.).  If the Church you are seeking did not receive a ‘Volltreffer’ (direct hit) from the allies before its records were pulled, the LDS Family History Archives likely have a copy (Note: not all LDS data is available in Germany).
  2. Addressbooks for many communities do exist (they become more frequent as you get nearer to 1900).  You may view numerous examples on ManyRoads.
  3. Few civil records exist from the German Eastern provinces, although Poland is making those that remain in their jurisdiction available through dlibra as well as other sources (see links here).  I sure hope your Polish is better than mine!
  4. And lastly, if you are very lucky, there are some limited Census records for select regions.

As I get the inclination, I’ll post other thoughts on this subject. In the meantime, feel free to send me any questions you might have and I’ll include them in a future post on this subject.