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German Genealogy

It is very helpful to have some knowledge of German history to do German genealogy. Below is a brief overview of German history. The thirty-eight provinces or states of the German Empire (1871-1918) are the political jurisdictions that are most frequently used in German genealogy.

Early Settlement of Germany

It is believed that German-speaking tribes and clans began moving south and westward during the time of the Roman Empire. The four main ethnic groups comprising the Germans today were the Franks, the Alemannen, the Saxons, and the Bajuwaren (the Bavarians). The Franks overran a portion of the lower Rhine, but eventually settled in much of Belgium and France, as well as in their lower Rhenish lands. To their south were the Alemannen or Swabians, who were not always on friendly terms with the Franks. Their lands lay south of the Main River to the Alps and included most of Switzerland and the Alsace. Coming from the east were the Saxons to the north and the Bajuwaren to the south. The Saxons settled along the upper Danube to a north-south line which passed near the present city of Augsburg, then a Roman settlement. The four ethnic subdivisions correspond roughly to the dialectic variations of the German language. The cultural and linguistic differences of these groups can still be seen today. (Smith, Clifford. Encyclopedia of German-American Genealogical Research).

First German Empire - 800-1806

Historically, there have been two periods when Germany was a realm (Reich) ruled by an emperor (Kaiser). The first German Reich was called the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation." It began in the tenth century and lasted 850 years until its dissolution in 1806 by Napoleon's conquest of Europe. This Reich was ruled by the dual power of the Kaiser and of the feudal nobles who elected him. From the fifteenth century on, the Austrian House of Hapsburg supplied the heirs to the throne.

The population was divided into Stände (social classes or estates) much like a caste system. At the top was the elected emperor chosen by a small group of electors.  The emperor's ability to rule was limited by noblemen, geography, and ethnic differences. The lives of most people were more affected by the intermediate lords. Directly below the Kaiser was a group of noblemen called the Reichsadel (nobles of the realm).  Below the Reichsadel was a numerous minor nobility, some with the title of count, but mainly Freiherren (free lords or barons), who were tenants of the Kaiser's various tenants-in-chief. Both classes of noblemen might be either clerical or secular. Until 1806 the Roman Catholic Church and its Lutheran and Reformed successors owned much land, and the bishops and abbots exercised secular powers. In addition, there were two orders of religious knights, the Deutschorden (Teutonic order of knights) and the Johanniterorden (Knights of Malta) held vast lands and ruled their subjects absolutely.

Quite separate were the citizens of about 85 cities and towns which had bought from the Kaiser privileges of self-government. The actual rulers of these free towns were patrician elites often called Ratsherren (councilors) who presided over an organized system of guilds and the citizens.

At the bottom of the social structure was a large body of persons who were serfs. In the German East serfs were bound to the soil where they were born, and their lives were controlled by the noble landlords. In northwestern Germany the more prosperous peasants won some amount of freedom over the centuries. (Smith, Clifford. Encyclopedia of German-American Genealogical Research).

Confederation of the Rhine - 1806-1813

From 1793, France invaded and conquered German land west of the Rhine River. Eventually all Prussian land west of the Elbe River came under French rule. Napoleon combined some 300 small independent states, bishoprics and imperial cities into 37 larger units that would be more efficient. France's national border stretched to the Elbe River incorporating Hamburg, Bremen, Oldenburg, parts of Hanover and Westphalia.

German Confederation - 1815-1866

The German Confederation included most of the German lands plus Austria, excluding East and West Prussia and Posen. In 1863 Denmark declared ownership of Schleswig. The Schleswig Wars were fought in 1864 with Prussia gaining Schleswig and Austria overseeing Holstein. In 1866 Prussia devised a plan to get Austria out of any German Confederation. During the Seven Weeks' War Prussia defeated Austria and solidified its power.

North German Confederation - 1866-1870

After eliminating Austria from German affairs, Prussia formed a German confederation (excluded were the four southern states of Baden, Württemberg, Hesse-Darmstadt, and Bavaria (with Rhine Palatinate)). These four southern states made military agreements with Prussia. When France was provoked into declaring war the four southern states came to the defense of German land. The German victory in the Franco-Prussian war set the stage for a united Germany.

Jurisdictions of the Second German Empire of 1871-1918.

The German Empire was created January 1, 1871. All the independent countries became one country. Click the heading above for more information on this empire.

Anhalt / Anhalt (Herzogtum / Duchy) [Presently in Sachsen-Anhalt] Baden / Baden (Großherzogtum / Grandduchy) [Presently in Baden-Württenberg]
Bayern / Bavaria (Königreich / Kingdom) [Presently in Bavaria]  [Presently in Rhineland-Palatinate] Berlin / Berlin (Stadt / City) [Presently in Berlin as city-state]
Brandenburg/ Brandenburg (Provinz / Province) [Presently in Brandenburg] Braunschweig / Brunswick (Herzogtum / Duchy) [Presently in Niedersachsen] [Presently in Nordrhein-Westfalen]
Bremen / Bremen (Freistadt / Free City-State) [Presently in Bremen as city-state] Elsaß-Lothringen / Alsace-Lorraine (Reichsland / State) [Presently in France]
Hamburg / Hamburg (Freistadt / Free City-State) [Presently in Hamburg as city-state] Hannover / Hanover (Provinz / Province) [Presently in Niedersachsen]
Hessen / Hesse (Großherzogtum / Grandduchy) [Presently in Hessen] Hessen-Nassau / Hesse-Nassau (Provinz / Province)  [Presently in Hessen] [Presently in Rhineland-Palatinate]
Hohenzollern/ Hohenzollern (Reichland / State) [Presently in Baden-Württenberg] Lippe / Lippe (Fürstentum / Pincipality) [Presently in Nordrhein-Westfalen]
Lübeck / Lübeck (Freistadt / Free City-State) [Presently in Schleswig-Holstein] Mecklenburg-Schwerin / Mecklenburg-Schwerin (Großherzogtum / Grandduchy) [Presently in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern]
Mecklenburg-Strelitz / Mecklenburg-Strelitz (Großherzogtum / Grandduchy) [Presently in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern] Oldenburg / Oldenburg (Großherzogtum / Grandduchy) [Presently in Niedersachsen]
Ostpreußen / East Prussia (Provinz / Province) [Presently in Poland and Russia] Pommern / Pomerania (Provinz / Province) [Presently in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Poland]
Posen/ Posen (Provinz / Province) [Presently in Poland] Preußen / Prussia (Königreich / Kingdom)
Rheinprovinz / Rhineland (Provinz / Province) [Presently in Nordrhein-Westfalen] [Presently in Rhineland-Palatinate] Sachsen / Saxony (Königreich / Kingdom) [Presently in Sachsen]
Sachsen / Saxony (Provinz / Province) [Presently in Sachsen-Anhalt] Schaumburg-Lippe / Schaumburg-Lippe (Fürstentum / Principality) [Presently in Niedersachsen]
Schlesien / Silesia (Provinz / Province) [Presently mostly in Poland] [Presently in Sachsen] Schleswig-Holstein / Schleswig-Holstein (Provinz / Province) [Presently in Schleswig-Holstein]


Reuß-ältere Linie in Thüringen / Reuß-Greiz (Fürstentum / Principality)
Reuß-jüngere Linie in Thüringen / Reuß-Schleiz-Gera (Fürstentum / Pincipality) Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt in Thüringen / Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt (Fürstentum / Principality)
Schwarzburg-Sondershausen in Thüringen / Schwarzburg-Sondershausen (Fürstentum / Principality) Sachsen Altenburg in Thüringen / Saxe-Altenburg (Herzogtum / Duchy) [Presently in Niedersachsen]
Sachsen Coburg Gotha in Thüringen / Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Herzogtum/ Duchy) [Presently in Niedersachsen] Sachsen Meiningen in Thüringen  / Saxe-Meiningen (Herzogtum / Duchy) [Presently in Niedersachsen]
Sachsen Weimar-Eisenach in Thüringen / Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach (Großherzogtum / Grandduchy) [Presently in Niedersachsen] Waldeck / Waldeck (Fürstentum / Principality) [Presently in Nordrhein-Westfalen]
Westfalen  / Westphalia (Provinz / Province) [Presently in Nordrhein-Westfalen] Westpreussen  / West Prussia (Provinz / Province) [Presently in Poland]
Württemberg / Württemberg (Königreich / Kingdom) [Presently in Baden-Württemberg]  

Weimar Republic - 1918-1933

Following World War I, parts of the German Empire were lost to Germany. The northern tip of East Prussia went to Lithuania; five West Prussian Kreise (counties) went to East Prussia; the Grenzmark Posen-Westpreussen was eventually added to Pomerania and Brandenburg; the rest of West Prussia and Posen made up the Polish Corridor; parts of East Prussia and Silesia were plebiscite areas which later voted if they would remain German; Alsace-Lorraine went back to France; the Saar went to France for 15 years but returned to Germany; some small areas went to Belgium from the Rhineland; northern Schleswig was returned to Denmark; Danzig became a free city; Germany lost all of its foreign colonies.

Third Reich - 1933-1945

Chancellor Adolph Hitler planned to return, by force if necessary, all land with large German-speaking populations. This included Austria, parts of Bohemia and Moravia, Memelland, and the small areas ceded to Belgium. This led to World War II, which lasted until May 8, 1945 in Europe.

German Democratic Republic and Federal Republic of Germany - 1949-1990

The Allied Occupation lasted from 1945-1949.  Germany was under the control of the Great Britain (Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, Lower Saxony, Northern Rhineland, Westphalia, and West Berlin), France (Southern Rhineland, Palatinate, Saarland, Baden, Württemberg-Hohenzollern, and North Berlin), the United States (Bremen, Hesse, Bavaria, Württemberg-Baden, and South Berlin) and the Soviet Union (West Pomerania, Mecklenburg, Brandenburg, Thuringia, Saxony, and East Berlin).

The Soviet controlled area became East Germany (German Democratic Republic / Deutsche Demokratische Republik). It  was divided into five areas: Pomerania, Mecklenburg, Brandenburg, Thuringia, and Saxony. In 1952 these five areas were divided into fifteen Bezirke: Rostock, Schwerin, Neubrandenburg, Magdeburg, Potsdam, Berlin, Frankfurt an der Oder, Halle, Erfurt, Suhl, Gera, Leipzig, Karl-Marx-Stadt, Dresden, and Cottbus.

The French, British and American controlled areas in 1949 became the Federal Republic of Germany / Bundesrepublik Deutschland. West Germany was comprised of Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, Bremen, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland, Hesse, Baden-Württemberg, and Bavaria.

States (Länder) in Germany today (Federal Republic of Germany)

In 1990 East and West Germany were unified to form the Federal Republic of Germany / Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Click on the heading for more information.

German States Today