Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in Germany began following the French Revolution in 1792. Beginning with regions of Germany under French control, most German states eventually developed their own individual systems of civil registration between 1792 and 1876. In general, German civil records begin in 1792 in Rheinland, 1803 in Hessen-Nassau, 1808 in Westfalen, 1809 in Hannover, Oct 1874 in Prussia, and Jan 1876 for all other parts of Germany.
Since Germany has no central repository for civil records of births, marriages and deaths, the records may be found in several different locations:
Local Civil Registrar's Office:
Most civil birth, marriage and death records in Germany are maintained by the civil registration office (Standesamt) in the local towns. You can usually obtain civil registration records by writing (in German) to the town with the appropriate names and dates, reason for your request, and proof of your relationship to the individual(s). Most cities have websites at www.(nameofcity).de where you can find the contact information for the appropriate Standesamt.
In some areas of Germany, duplicate civil records of births, marriages and deaths have been sent to the state archives (Staatsarchiv), district archives (Kreisarchive), or other central repository. Many of these records have been microfilmed and are available at the Family History Library or through local Family History Centers.
The Family History Library:
The Family History Library has microfilmed the civil registration records of many towns throughout Germany up to about 1876, as well as copies of records sent to many of the various state archives. Do a "Place Name" search in the online Family History Library Catalog for the name of the town to learn what records and time periods are available.
Parish Records of Birth, Marriage & Death:
Often called parish registers or church books, these include records of births, baptism, marriages, deaths, and burials recorded by German churches. The first surviving Protestant records date back to 1524, but Lutheran churches in general began requiring baptism, marriage, and burial records in 1540; Catholics began doing so in 1563, and by 1650 most Reformed parishes began keeping these records. Many of these records are available on microfilm through Family History Centers. Otherwise, you'll need to write (in German) to the specific parish which served the town in which your ancestors lived.