Researching German Ancestors

Tracing Your Roots Back to Germany

Research German Ancestors
Villagers in costume at beer festival in the village of Klais in Bavaria, Germany.

Tim Graham/Getty Images

Germany, as we know it today, is a much different country than it was during the time of our distant ancestors. Germany's life as a unified nation didn't even begin until 1871, making it a much "younger" country than most of its European neighbors. This can make locating German ancestors a bit more challenging than many think.

What Is Germany?

Prior to its unification in 1871, Germany consisted of a loose association of kingdoms (Bavaria, Prussia, Saxony, Wurttemberg...), duchies (Baden...), free cities (Hamburg, Bremen, Lubeck...), and even personal estates - each with its own laws and record keeping systems. After a brief period as a unified nation (1871-1945), Germany was again divided following World War II, with parts of it given to Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the USSR. What was left was then divided into East Germany and West Germany, a division that lasted until 1990. Even during the unified period, some sections of Germany were given to Belgium, Denmark, and France in 1919.

What this means for people researching German roots, is that the records of their ancestors may or may not be found in Germany. Some may be found among the records of the six countries which have received portions of former Germany territory (Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Poland, and the USSR). Once you take your research prior to 1871, you may also be dealing with records from some of the original German states.

What and Where Was Prussia?

Many people assume that Prussian ancestors were German, but this isn't necessarily the case. Prussia was actually the name of a geographical region, which originated in the area between Lithuania and Poland, and later grew to encompass the southern Baltic coast and northern Germany. Prussia existed as an independent state from the 17th century until 1871, when it became the largest territory of the new German empire. Prussia as a state was officially abolished in 1947, and now the term only exists in reference to the former province.

While an extremely brief overview of Germany's path through history, hopefully, this helps you understand some of the obstacles that German genealogists face. Now that you understand these difficulties, it's time to go back to the basics.

Begin With Yourself

No matter where your family ended up, you can't research your German roots until you have learned more about your more recent ancestors. As with all genealogy projects, you need to begin with yourself, talk to your family members, and follow the other basic steps of starting a family tree.

Locate the Birthplace of Your Immigrant Ancestor

Once you've used a variety of genealogy records to trace your family back to the original German ancestor, the next step is to find the name of the specific town, village or city in Germany where your immigrant ancestor lived. Since most German records are not centralized, it is nearly impossible to trace your ancestors in Germany without this step. If your German ancestor immigrated to America after 1892, you can probably find this information on the passenger arrival record for the ship on which they sailed to America. The Germans to America series should be consulted if your German ancestor arrived between 1850 and 1897. Alternatively, if you know from which port in Germany they departed, you may be able to locate their hometown on the German passenger departure lists. Other common sources for locating an immigrant's hometown include vital records of birth, marriage, and death; census records; naturalization records and church records. Learn more tips for finding the birthplace of your immigrant ancestor.

Locate the German Town

After you've determined the immigrant's hometown in Germany, you should next locate it on a map to determine whether it still exists, and in which German state. Online German gazetteers can help locate the state in Germany in which a town, village or city can now be found. If the place appears to no longer exist, turn to historic German maps and finding aids to learn where the place used to be, and in which country, region or state the records may now exist.

Birth, Marriage & Death Records in Germany

Even though Germany didn't exist as a unified nation until 1871, many German states developed their own systems of civil registration prior to that time, some as early as 1792. Since Germany has no central repository for civil records of birth, marriage, and death, these records may be found in various locations including the local civil registrar's office, government archives, and on microfilm through the Family History Library. 

Census Records in Germany

Regular censuses have been conducted in Germany on a countrywide basis since 1871. These "national" censuses were actually conducted by each state or province, and the original returns can be obtained from the municipal archives (Stadtarchiv) or the Civil Register Office (Standesamt) in each district. The biggest exception to this is East Germany (1945-1990), which destroyed all of its original census returns. Some census returns were also destroyed by bombing during World War II.

Some counties and cities of Germany have also conducted separate censuses at irregular intervals over the years. Many of these have not survived, but some are available in the relevant municipal archives or on microfilm through the Family History Library.

The information available from German census records varies greatly by time period and area. Earlier census returns may be basic head counts or include only the name of the head of household. Later census records provide more detail.

German Parish Registers

While most German civil records only go back to around the 1870s, parish registers go back as far as the 15th century. Parish registers are books maintained by church or parish offices to record baptisms, confirmations, marriages, burials and other church events and activities, and are a major source of family history information in Germany. Some even include family registers (Seelenregister or Familienregister) where information about an individual family group is recorded together on a single place.

Parish registers are generally kept by the local parish office. In some cases, however, the older parish registers may have been forwarded to a central parish register office or ecclesiastical archives, a state or municipal archive, or a local vital registration office. If the parish is no longer in existence, the parish registers may be found in the office of the parish which took over for that area.

In addition to the original parish registers, parishes in most areas of Germany required a verbatim copy of the register to be made and forwarded annually to the district court - until the time when vital registration took effect (from about 1780-1876). These "second writings" are sometimes available when the original records are not, or are a good source for double-checking hard-to-decipher handwriting in the original register. It is important to keep in mind, however, that these "second writings" are copies of the original and, as such, are one step removed from the original source, introducing a greater chance of errors.

Many Germany parish registers have been microfilmed by the LDS church and are available through the Family History Library or your local family history center.

Other sources of Germany family history information include school records, military records, emigration records, ship passenger lists and city directories. Cemetery records may also be helpful but, as in much of Europe, cemetery lots are leased for a specific number of years. If the lease isn't renewed, the burial plot becomes open for someone else to be buried there.

Where Are They Now?

The town, kindom, principality or duchie where your ancestor lived in Germany may be hard to find on a map of modern Germany. To help you find your way around German records, this list outlines the states ( bundesländer) of modern Germany, along with the historical territories that they now contain. Germany's three city-states — Berlin, Hamburg, and Bremen — predate these states created in 1945.

Baden, Hohenzollern, Württemberg

Bavaria (excluding Rheinpfalz), Sachsen-Coburg

The western portion of the Prussian Province of Brandenburg.

Free City of Frankfurt am Main, Grand Duchy of Hessen-Darmstadt (less the province of Rheinhessen), part of Landgraviate Hessen-Homburg, Electorate of Hessen-Kassel, Duchy of Nassau, District of Wetzlar (part of the former Prussian Rheinprovinz), Principality of Waldeck.

Lower Saxony
Duchy of Braunschweig, Kingdom/Prussian, Province of Hannover, Grand Duchy of Oldenburg, Principality of Schaumburg-Lippe.

Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (less the principality of Ratzeburg), western portion of the Prussian province of Pomerania.

North Rhine-Westphalia
Prussian province of Westfalen, northern portion of Prussian Rheinprovinz, Principality of Lippe-Detmold.

Part of the Principality of Birkenfeld, Province of Rheinhessen, part of the Landgraviate of Hessen-Homburg, most of the Bavarian Rheinpfalz, part of the Prussian Rheinprovinz.

Part of the Bavarian Rheinpfalz, part of the Prussian Rheinprovinz, part of the principality of Birkenfeld.

Former Duchy of Anhalt, Prussian province of Sachsen.

Kingdom of Sachsen, part of the Prussian province of Silesia.

Former Prussian province of Schleswig-Holstein, Free City of Lübeck, Principality of Ratzeburg.

Duchies and Principalities of Thüringen, part of Prussian province of Sachsen.

Some areas are no longer part of modern Germany. Most of East Prussia (Ostpreussen) and Silesia (Schlesien) and part of Pomerania (Pommern) are now in Poland. Similarly,​ Alsace (Elsass) and Lorraine (Lothringen) are in France, and in each case, you must take your research to those countries.

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Your Citation
Powell, Kimberly. "Researching German Ancestors." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Powell, Kimberly. (2021, February 16). Researching German Ancestors. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "Researching German Ancestors." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).