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Researching your Heritage while in Germany

Like many others, Americans love researching their roots, may it be heading you south of the border, the Asians or heading towards Africa… But if your family lines bring you to Germany, you should defiantly come prepared if you want to pursue your research “in the field”.

Family Tree Many do not know that German nationality is not only given by where you are born, but your bloodline. That means if you have Grandparents that where both born in Germany, you may actually be a German citizen

1. Does Germany have a system of ius sanguinis or ius soli?

Germany has traditionally always been a ius sanguinis country, meaning that citizenship is passed on to the next generation by birth, irrespective of the place of birth. Only recently (1999) has the law been amended to incorporate ius soli, giving German citizenship to a child born in Germany to two parents of foreign citizenship. I will explain these different ways of obtaining citizenship in more detail below.

2. Does ius sanguinis mean that I am entitled to German citizenship if I have German great-great-grandparents, even if they left Germany generations ago?

Possibly, but not automatically. You are a German citizen under ius sanguinis if your ancestors had German citizenship at the time of the birth of the next generation and passed on this citizenship respectively. It is therefore necessary to find out the exact timeline of events to determine if your ancestors might have lost their German citizenship (e.g. by giving it up voluntarily, or by accepting a foreign citizenship) or if they still had it and could thus pass it on. You see that this requires a lot of research into your family history and into the respective laws of the relevant points in time. But if you are lucky, you might have German citizenship even if your parents never knew about it and neither you or them have ever been to Germany or even have a German passport.

If you have German ancestors, it would be a good idea to bring copies of any documents you may have.

  1. Birth records
  2. Marriage Licenses
  3. Death certificates
  4. Pictures
  5. Addresses
  6. WW1 or WW2 listings

To begin, I have to say Germany is much more stricter with their Data . So looking up records online is not very common. If you try to get copies of Death or Birth records, you have to consider that unless you are a direct ancestor of the person you have to wait a certain amount to gain access to the papers, plus you have to be related.

You should know that the registry offices in Germany exist since 1874. All Individual data before 1874 are in the so-called church books of the respective localities.

Since 1875 the registry offices manage the complete civil status in Germany. There is birth, marriage and death registers.

Here lies the problem with the policy now. The Data Protection Act provides that no citizen can get extracts from the records of the registry office, unless he has a legitimate interest. Since the study of one’s ancestry is a “legitimate interest”, we must provide the registrar’s office with prove that we are the descendants of the people from whom we want to get data.

If we know from what place are our ancestors, we write a letter to the authority.

What follows is a sample letter:

Letter to a registry office

RTF format, e.g. for Word

PDF format for Acrobat Reader

You will normally receive a copy of the books with certification stamp. The copy will be – depending on the fees – 5.00 to 6.00 €.

The certificate entries are mostly very accurate and provide information on further guidance to our ancestors:

The birth records contain information on date of birth and details of parents.

The marriage certificates include disclosure of civil marriage, the age of the bride and groom and their parents.

The death certificates include the exact dying day, the age of the deceased and indicating the place of birth and date.

Cemetary Some registry offices can take a lot of time with processing such requests. However, one should be patient. My experience is that the processing in small towns is relatively quickly performed (about a week). In larger towns you must wait 3-4 weeks before results

The next step is to find the ancestors in the church books.

The church records in Germany start at different times. Very old church books are mainly in Catholic areas. Most church records begin, however, only in the period after the 30 Years War, so after 1648.

Here we must first of all identify, the location in which the church books are , which one we would like to see.

The best way is to turn to the right parish. Church books can be found in the relevant parish offices, their addresses and phone numbers in the telephone book. This can be clarified with questioning the responsible minister:

Are the church records available at the Rectory?

When will the church records be available to be viewed?

Can the church records be viewed where and at what times?

Is there a person located on site that researches the church books and can give help?

Does a local chronicle exist?

Many so-called national churches, church groups or dioceses have partially centralized archives, which are generally available to the public. Here one cannot usually work on the originals, but only gets the microfilming.


In the church records it is not birth, marriage and death registers, but baptism, marriage and burial books. These mainly include the ecclesiastical duties. In most cases, however, birth and death dates are given. Older books are found almost exclusively on the other hand, the baptismal and burial data.


If you are looking for burial sights or gravestones, you may be out of luck,

Traditionally people were buried in church yards and their graves would remain there forever, provided it was looked after. The time came when the church could or would no longer maintain all graves. The local administration then provided plots outside the city/village boundaries. The graves there would be rented for a certain time (15 to 30 years).

In earlier times, most people could afford to only bury their dead without elaborate ceremonies and have the death registered in the local church book. Many of these entries consist of one line, giving very scanty information.

From the middle of the 16th century on funeral sermons became very popular. They spread with the Reformation and were around for 200 years. Leichenpredigten, as they were known in German lavished generous tribute on the deceased. What initially was reserved for the prominent deceased male became customary for burials of females and ordinary people as well.

What information does one find in Leichenpredigten? They come in several parts:

the sermon held at the grave side, the curriculum vitae and genealogy, the tributes in form of poems or dicta and music.

Leichenpredigten were printed privately and depending on social and economic status of the deceased richly ornamented and distributed. The genealogical value of a Leichenpredigt is sometimes questionable. The content and accuracy can vary. Therefore, it is advisable to not rely entirely on the information, but compare it with other sources. Leichenpredigten can be found in libraries, archives and universities. To browse online for them, check out , Family History Library, Key word search: Leichenpredigten or go to

While most Germans choose burial over cremation, they usually have a limited stay in the cemetery of their choice. Because of space limitations, most German cemeteries allow their “guests” to rest in peace only for a maximum of 10 to 30 years. After that they must relinquish their grave to another deceased soul. Or re-rent the plot if it is a family grave.

Only in some, mostly historical German cemeteries will you find the graves of people who died over a century or so ago.

If you are looking for information of your ancestors that came to America by boat, there is a huge Center for that in Bremerhaven, you can check out their Facebook page.

Also if you are using programs like, try their German version for document searches, it brings up very different lists from the us site.


Hope this helps,

Good Luck in researching your family roots