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 in 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. See German Vital Records
for further details.