German History

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Effective family research requires some understanding of the historical events that may have affected your family and the records about them. Learning about wars, governments, laws, migrations, and religious trends may help you understand political boundaries, family movements, and settlement patterns. These events may have led to the creation of records that mention your ancestors, such as land or military documents. Your ancestors will become more interesting to you if you learn about the events that shaped their lives. For example, by using a history you might learn about the events that occurred in the year your great-grandparents were married.

Below are some key dates and events in German history:

1517:  Protestant Reformation. The first significant non-Catholic religions begin in Germany.

1524: Protestant church records begin in Nürnberg.

1563:  Council of Trent. Catholic priests are ordered to start keeping baptism and marriage records.

1583:  Catholic areas begin using the Gregorian calendar.

1618: Thirty Years' War. Many records are burned.

1622: The Pfalz suffers great destruction in the war.

1648: Treaty of Westphalia ends Thirty Years' War.  Many borders are shifted.

1683:  The first permanent German settlement in the United States is founded at Germantown, Pennsylvania.

1700: The last German Protestant areas finally switch to the Gregorian calendar.

1709:  Large numbers of emigrants, called Palatines [Pfälzer], leave the Pfalz region of Germany for England and America.

1722:  Austro-Hungarian monarchs begin inviting Germans to settle parts of their empire.

1742: Prussia (Preußen) annexes Silesia (Schlesien).

1763: Catherine the Great begins inviting Germans to settle in Russia.

1772: First Partition of Poland: Prussia annexes West Prussia.

1792: France starts civil registration west of the Rhein. Some church records are interrupted.

1793: Second Partition of Poland: Prussia annexes Posen province and parts to the east.

1795: Third Partition of Poland: Prussia annexes most of the rest of today's Poland, incl. Warsaw, Bialystok and parts of Lithuania.

1795: Napoleon begins to conquer most of Europe.  Civil registration introduced in parts of Germany held by France.  Jews treated as citizens, encouraged to adopt fixed surnames.

1806: Europe reorganized under Napoleonic design.  "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" no longer exists, replaced by Austrian (later Austro-Hungarian) Empire and various kingdoms and principalities across Germany.  Prussia is defeated; loses almost all territories from Partitions.

1812: Emancipation of Prussian Jews.  Surname adoption mandatory.  Jewish vital records kept by local governments.

1814:  Napoleon weakens. German states begin to reorganize under the leadership of Preußen.

1815: Congress of Vienna effectively sets most of Europe's national boundaries for the next century.

1828: Patronymic naming is abolished in Schleswig-Holstein (then part of Denmark).

1833: Prussia offers citizenship to some of Posen's Jews.

1848: The European revolutions of 1848, not only in Germany, but in other countries as well.

1850:The Hamburg passenger lists begin to document the origins or places of residence of Europeans leaving for the Americas, Africa, and Australia.

1863-4: War with Denmark for Schleswig-Holstein, first war of the German Wars for Unification.

1866: War with Austria for unification. Bismarck didn't want to include Austria in his unification of Germany's tiny states.

1871:Franco-Prussian War ends. Elsaß-Lothringen comes under German rule.  German Empire established as a single nation state.

1874:Preußen introduces civil registration.

1876: Civil registration is required throughout Germany and begins wherever it is not already in effect.

1914: World War I begins.

1918:World War I ends.  Elsaß-Lothringen (Alsace-Lorraine) is returned to France. Northern Schleswig-Holstein returned to Denmark. Posen and parts of Schlesien and Westpreußen are ceded to Poland. Northern tip of Ostpreußen goes to Lithuania.

1939:  World War II begins.

1945: World War II ends.  Ostpreußen divided between Poland and Russia. All other German territories east of the Oder-Neisse line ceded to Poland: Hinterpommern, Westpreußen, Neumark region of Brandenburg and Schlesien come under Polish administration.

The Family History Library has many published national, regional, provincial, and local histories for Germany. You can find histories in the FamilySearch Catalog under:





The following are only a few of the many historical sources that are available:

  • Historical Background Affecting Genealogical Research in Germany and Austria. Salt Lake City, Utah, USA: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1977. (FHL book 929.1 G286gs ser. C no. 19; fiche 6,000,035.) This work emphasizes religious minorities and emigration.
  • Detwiler, Donald S. Germany: A Short History. Second Edition. Carbondale, Illinois, USA: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989. (FHL book 943 H2dds.)
  • Reinhardt, Kurt Frank. Germany: 2000 Years. Revised Edition. Two Volumes. New York, NY, USA: F. Ungar, 1989. (FHL book 943 H2rk.)

Local Histories[edit | edit source]

Local histories describe the settlement of an area and the founding of churches, schools, and businesses in that area. They may contain information about families. Some county and town histories include separate sections or volumes containing biographical information. Even if your ancestor is not listed in a history, information on other relatives may be included and may provide important clues for finding the ancestor. A local history may also suggest other records to search.

A special type of local history book with extensive genealogical information, called a village lineage book [Ortssippenbuch], is available for many towns in Germany. For more information about these books, see the “Genealogy” section.

In addition, local histories should be studied and enjoyed for the background information they can provide about your ancestors' lifestyle and the community and environment in which they lived. The Family History Library has some local histories for towns in Germany, and similar histories are often available at major public and university libraries and archives.

Bibliographies that list local histories are available for most states and provinces of Germany. These are listed in the Place Search of the FamilySearch Catalog under:





Calendar Changes[edit | edit source]

The Gregorian calendar is the calendar in common use in the world today. It is a correction of the Julian calendar that had been in use since A.D. 46. Leap years were miscalculated in the Julian calendar, so that by 1582 the calendar was ten days behind the solar year.

In 1582 Germany was a collection of small principalities, duchies, city-states, and feudal estates. The new calendar was officially adopted by the Catholic dioceses and states in Germany between 1582 and 1585, but many Protestant states did not accept the new calendar until the 1600s. As a result, there were two different dating systems used in various areas of Germany throughout this time period. In some cases, Catholic and Protestant congregations in the same city may have used different calendars at the same time.

The Gregorian calendar was finally accepted throughout Germany in 1700, when the Protestant commission adopted the new calendar. In that year, 18 February was followed by 1 March.

Feast Dates. Date calculation tables are available to convert church feast dates to days of the month (see “Feast Dates” under the “CHURCH RECORDS” section), but there are separate tables for calculating dates in Julian and in Gregorian years. It is, therefore, important to know the year in which the calendar changed in the area you are searching. You can find a list of over 30 German territories showing exactly when they officially shifted to the Gregorian calendar on pages 317 to 318 of Ribbe's Taschenbuch für Familiengeschichtsforschung. Individual parishes or villages in a region may have lagged behind the rest of the region in making the change.

Double Dating. When an area changed from Julian to Gregorian calendars, the first day of the year changed to 1 January. Before the change, the first day of the year was 25 March. Pre-change dates may be confusing. For example, before the change, 24 March 1565 was followed by 25 March 1566. Many researchers record dates between 1 January and 24 March with two years, using a technique called double dating. An example of a pre-change date using double dating is 16 February 1573/1574.

French Republican Calendar. From 1793 to 1805, many parts of Germany under French control used the French Republican calendar. This calendar was based on the founding of the French Republic, and its days and months were unrelated to the Gregorian calendar. For details see the French Republican Calendar.