When it comes to Germany there are a few known facts on German history and some well-meant prejudices that are common worldwide, like Germany is actually some sort of giant Bavaria with us all wearing ‘Lederhosen’ and ‘Dirndl’ while eating ‘Sauerkraut’. Or, that the last Emperor was a humorless weirdo and that we started two World Wars that we also lost. This is German culture and history, at least in short form.
We tend to be greatly amused by those prejudices. We see ourselves as a modern and open country lucky to be in the middle of the post-Cold War Europe, happy to share our rich history and welcome people warmly. We also still feel the heavy weight, loss and sorrow of two great wars.
Of course, German history and identity is so much more and I am sure you know that very well. But to describe some aspects of why genealogical research in Germany can be very difficult at times, there are three main themes that can provide clarity.
1. The Emperor – Why Administrative Sources Are a Problem in Germany
While Emperor Wilhelm II was the last Emperor of the modern German Empire he saw himself as successor of a long tradition. For nearly nine centuries many lands in middle Europe had an Emperor who was of German descent. The realm then was known as the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) and stretched from nowadays Italy in the South to Denmark in the North, from parts of nowadays France, Belgium and the Netherlands in the West up to the Russian Border in the North-East. One might think the title Emperor meant riches and power. The reality is quite different. While countries like France or England established a central organized administration during the High and Late Middle Ages the German lands were fragmentized in small secular and ecclesiastical principalities, larger kingdoms and Free Imperial cities. Even with Vienna as residential city for the Emperors of the house of Habsburg in the 16th century nation building or state administration was only loosely arranged for the HRE.
This fragmentation of ‘the German nation’ leads to some problems doing family research because there was no ‘Germany’ before the establishment of the German Empire in 1871 when the Prussian King Wilhelm I claimed the title Emperor.
While the same language and the same culture was forming a collective identity through centuries the people would rather call themselves Prussians, Bavarians and Saxons, citizens of Cologne or Hamburg or people from the Grand Duchy of Baden – just to mention some. Marital records, land and tax records or emigration records were introduced and carried out when the respective territorial lord decided they could be useful.
Luckily we have church records for birth, marriage and death records and, thanks to Napoleon, also late 18th century civil records in some parts of nowadays Germany. But that doesn’t change the fact of the varying start of records, depending in which part of Germany one is searching for his or her ancestors before the founding of the German Empire in 1871. Not only was the nation united, it also lead to the first establishment of standardized civil records for all Germany which started at the first of January in 1876.
2. The Two World Wars
The German Empire lasted only 43 years until Wilhelm II lead it into the First World War. Four years of slaughter left Europe devastated and lead to the end of the Empire in 1918. It was transferred into the first German Republic (the ‘Weimar Republic’) and due to the loss of the war Germany lost all of its colonies in Africa and Asia and – important for Genealogists – a number of regions like the Alsace (to France), Eupen-Malmedy (to Belgium), the northern part of Schleswig (to Denmark), the Memel Territory (to Lithuania) and Posen, parts of Silesia and Prussia (to Poland).
While the Weimar Republic tried to establish democracy they kept the administration largely unchanged. And while the latter worked very efficiently they failed, resulting in the election of the National Party in 1933 and finally leading to war again in 1939. During the war several regions who formally belonged to the German Empire were reconquered and –again- lost after the end of the war in 1945.
World War II was unquestionably a huge catastrophe. Europe and the world changed afterwards. Millions of people were killed and murdered in the countries of Central Europe. Millions left their homes and immigrated to new countries. Borders shifted once again. East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia became parts of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Russia. Germany again grew smaller and was – like the whole of Europe – eventually divided.
For the Genealogist this often presents a massive problem. People searching for their German ancestors have to face record losses for entire areas which were battlefields during the war. Names of cities changed in the short period between 1918 and 1945 for example in West-Prussia from German to Polish to German and to Polish again- which made records very complicated. The Iron Curtain lead to an abrupt ending of the possibility to stay in contact or do research on your family in eastern Europe and with it –of course – East Germany (GDR). It also formed two different governmental systems, that of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). The separation started in 1949 and ended in 1990 with the reunion of East and West Germany.
3. Bavaria is (not) Germany
As you have seen the former German lands of the HRE were vast and Bavaria was only one among the other 26 states (including the North German Confederation, Saxony, Westphalia, Baden and –most famous- Prussia) when the German Empire was founded in 1871. That was quite late compared to Belgium, Italy or –as mentioned above- France and England.
The German Federal Republic today has 16 states that exist vaguely in the borders of the former kingdoms and grand duchies like –for example- Bavaria. And while we have the main state archives every federal state has its own federal state archive, sometimes in more than one location. They are the successors of the administrational tradition of the Medieval and Early Modern principalities and kingdoms. And they are the heirs to the sources and records of the civil administration of the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich and the FRG and GDR. The history of Germany sounds complicated and sometimes one can get very confused about how to find the traces of ones ancestors. This series on German Genealogy will provide you with information on the circumstances during your ancestors lives. Check back next week for an article about church records and the civil register in Germany!