Understanding the German Past

German Genealogy is not much different from any other genealogy. You really need to have a plan as you begin your research, especially if you are unfamiliar with the region/ area or time period. Never assume that one locale looks like or offers information or data in the same as another. Each area, region or time frame offers its own unique idiosyncrasies, its own information. German research is really no different in this regard from other places; it is not the US or Canada and the available data is different from that commonly available in North America.  Having said all that, this posting is more of a concrete example on how to approach Genealogy research; what works for me, may or may not work for you.

Let me begin by saying that most of my genealogy researches have taken place in the areas of Germany listed below; also, it is important to note that my research is almost exclusively in the timeframe of 1600-1945.  Most frequently my family and client information are sourced from the provinces of:

  1. West Prussia (Westpreußen)(ethnically cleansed of Germans after WW2, now Poland)
  2. East Prussia (Ostpreußen) (ethnically cleansed of Germans after WW2, now Poland)
  3. Pomerania (Pommern) (ethnically cleansed of Germans after WW2, now Poland)
  4. AlsaceLorraine (Elsaß- Lothringen) (largely ethnically cleansed of Germans after WW1, now part of France)
  5. Hesse (Hessen)
  6. Rhein-Palatinate (Rheinland-Pfalz)

I have provided links to each of the areas I research, as an example; it is important for everyone, me included, to know ‘a little’ about the area and times in which a target population lived. I have provided links to Wikipedia because Wikipedia is easily accessed, reasonably accurate, and readily available.  However, do not assume that the histories in Wikipedia are consistent with others you may find or need to find.  As a matter of fact, if you can read German, look up a single region (above) in the English version of Wikipedia and then in the German version of Wikipedia; often you will discover significant differences in facts and emphasis. More importantly, once you have researched something in Wikipedia, look up the same time or place in a text book (I have numerous historical texts located on ManyRoads, for you to view.). Again, you will notice variations in the accounts of ‘the same history’.

It is worth noting that historical variations are exacerbated by crucial factors such as the loss of a war.  In other words, knowing the American or British account of a battle or war is not the same as knowing a German account.  If you are attempting to understand what may have happened to a relative who was’ on the other side’ of an event; you need to understand ‘their’ perspective, not just the one you may have been taught in school.

So what does all of this mean?

Well as you begin your search, learn a bit about the times (from the perspective of those who lived there).  A balanced view of what was going on, or survived that time, will provide you with good clues on where to search and what you might expect to find. Do not assume that a single account or family story will provide you with an adequate understanding of who your relatives were and what ’caused’ them to act the way they did (ie. emigrate to the US, join the SS, or help Jews escape).

Remember popular history is always written by the victors; Germans rarely found themselves in that role… in the last century.  As a result the history you ‘know’ may not explain the choices your German relatives made or even the options they had.  You simply need to dig a little deeper.