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Genealogy and ancestry research in Germany

By Dr. Franz-Josef Burghardt


Dr. Franz Josef BurghardtDr. Franz Josef Burghardt, born in 1952, is a well-known genealogist, having frequently appeared on radio, television, and the Internet. As a lecturer in history, he has conducted over 150 seminars on the topic of genealogy. He is familiar with the questions posed by both beginners and professionals in the field, and is versed in the scholarly standards required for ancestry research. He is one of the most experienced genealogists in Germany and his book, “Familienforschung,” is regarded as the German standard work in this field.

Franz Josef Burghardt: Familienforschung. Verlag Karl Thomas,
208 pages, paperback, € 9.00


More than 150,000 genealogists in Germany want to know more about their family origins, the meaning of their names, and about possible relations in Europe and abroad. Many of these hobby researchers are organized in genealogical associations that offer assistance. You can find an overview of these associations at The starting point in the exciting search for one’s own roots is simple. First of all, collect and write down everything about one’s ancestors that can be found out with the help of family, friends, and neighbors. Locations can be pinpointed with a directory of place names, such as “Müllers Ortsbuch” at and GOV at

Church registers and other sources


Then it is a matter of research in archives or, in some cases, on the Internet. One should bear in mind that it is not permitted in Germany to use the civil register (register of births, marriages, and deaths) after 1875. Researchers therefore have to rely on church registers. Only in Rhineland are civil registers from the period of 1798/1810 to 1875 accessible to genealogists. Church registers vary in when they begin – often from around 1560, yet sometimes only after 1650, 1770, or even later. Today, old church registers are frequently no longer located in rectories, but rather in the central archives of Catholic dioceses or Protestant regional churches. Almost all church registers have been copied to film and can be viewed at branches of the Mormon Church anywhere in the world. Further information on this and also on the “International Genealogical Index,” which alphabetically lists many church registers, can be found on the Mormon web site Digitalized German church registers can be found at


In addition to church registers, there are, of course, many other sources that can be found in the state archives of the German federal states. These preserve court records, resident lists, tax rolls, leases, muster rolls, city council records, funeral sermons, and much more, allowing you to discover details not found in church registers, which usually only list information on dates of births/baptisms, marriages, and deaths/burials, rarely mentioning such details as profession.

Aristocratic heritage?

Increasingly, the holdings of the state archives can be researched via the Internet, but this can be very tedious. The reason for this is the political fragmentation of Germany prior to 1871. Before the establishment of the “German Empire” with its capital in Berlin, Germany consisted of numerous territories, both large and small, including electorates, duchies, counties, dioceses, and imperial free cities. Until 1806, these were loosely united in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation with the emperor at its head. Every territory had its own princely archive, so a researcher has to always know in which territory his or her ancestors lived.

Genealogical research can be particularly fascinating when an ancestor belonged to the nobility, which was rather frequent in the 16th and 17th century, when rich citizens or respected officials preferred to marry women from the lower aristocracy. In this case, you will be able to access a large amount of official records and literature on aristocratic families. You can form an initial impression of the material available from the web site familien- und Don’t be surprised if you discover along the way that you are a descendant of Emperor Charlemagne (+ Aachen 814).

The areas of Central and Eastern Europe from where Germans were expelled after the Second World War pose a special case for researchers. You can nonetheless obtain information from the “Arbeitsgemeinschaft ostdeutscher Familienforscher” ( and with the book “Wegweiser,” published by

Name lists on the Internet

In addition to the genealogical associations, city and local government archivists also provide good support. It is best to call the city or local administration in the morning and ask to connect with the archive. There, one can also find out if they possess books on local history, which often contain a great deal of information on families from the area. Some local historical societies have already collected comprehensive lists of names from past centuries and have posted them on the Internet, such as

Above all, one should try to avoid unnecessary duplicate research. The above-mentioned genealogical associations are pleased to give information as to whether genealogical research has already been conducted in a community and even if a “Familienbuch,” a record of family details, exists. This provides a complete evaluation of an old church register, and arranges the names of all persons listed according to their families. Some associations have posted membership lists on the Internet, offering information where members have already conducted research.

By the way, don’t let yourself be scared off by old German script or Latin. This hasn’t foiled any genealogist yet. Examples and tips on genealogy in Germany can be found at my info center on the ancestry web site at: