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Researching German Ancestors

German Census & Parish Records

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<< Introduction & Civil Registration

Census Records in Germany

Regular censuses have been conducted in Germany on a countrywide basis since 1871. These "national" censuses were actually conducted by each state or province, and the original returns can be obtained from the municipal archives (Stadtarchiv) or the Civil Register Office (Standesamt) in each district. The biggest exception to this is East Germany (1945-1990), which destroyed all of its original census returns. Some census returns were also destroyed by bombing during World War II.

Some counties and cities of Germany have also conducted separate censuses at irregular intervals over the years. Many of these have not survived, but some are available in the relevant municipal archives or on microfilm through the Family History Library.

The information available from German census records varies greatly by time period and area. Earlier census returns may be basic head counts, or include only the name of the head of household. Later census records provide more detail.

German Parish Registers

While most German civil records only go back to around the 1870s, parish registers go back as far as the 15th century. Parish registers are books maintained by church or parish offices to record baptisms, confirmations, marriages, burials and other church events and activities, and are a major source of family history information in Germany. Some even include family registers (Seelenregister or Familienregister) where information about an individual family group is recorded together on a single place.

Parish registers are generally kept by the local parish office. In come cases, however, the older parish registers may have been forwarded to a central parish register office or ecclesiastical archives, a state or municipal archive, or a local vital registration office. If the parish is no longer in existence, the parish registers may be found in the office of the parish which took over for that area.

In addition to the original parish registers, parishes in most areas of Germany required a verbatim copy of the register to be made and forwarded annually to the district court - until the time when vital registration took effect (from about 1780-1876). These "second writings" are sometimes available when the original records are not, or are a good source for double-checking hard-to-decipher handwriting in the original register. It is important to keep in mind, however, that these "second writings" are copies of the original and, as such, are one step removed from the original source, introducing a greater chance of errors.

Many Germany parish registers have been microfilmed by the LDS church and are available through the Family History Library or your local family history center.

Other sources of Germany family history information include school records, military records, emigration records, ship passenger lists and city directories. Cemetery records may also be helpful but, as in much of Europe, cemetery lots are leased for a specific number of years. If the lease isn't renewed, the burial plot becomes open for someone else to be buried there.

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