Once you know the town in Germany your ancestor came from, you can try to get your hands on the birth or marriage records they left behind in the nearest town that had a church, or the records the government took, which are now in a civil registration office, or a local or state archive.
There are two ways to look through these records (other than buying a plane ticket to Germany, that is.) One way is to write to the church or the archive and have them search the records for you. Even though you might not speak their language, and it might take a few months to get an answer, you should still try, on the slim chance that if the records were moved, they should know where the records from your town are now.
However, before you resort to writing directly, you should take advantage of the fact that the Salt Lake Family History Library (FHL) has already microfilmed (or acquired microfilms) for over 43% of the parish church records and 26% of the civil registration records! -- even more for some areas of Germany.
Even though the library happens to be run by the Mormon Church, it is open for free to anyone of any religion or nationality. And you don't even have to travel to Salt Lake City, -- for a few dollars you can have microfilmed records sent to any of the thousands of local centers in North America.
Some of the busiest churches and archives gladly let the FHC have copies of their records, and insist that genealogists help themselves and leave the archivists alone to do other work. On the other hand, some of the small out-of-the-way churches refuse to have their records filmed, because the fees that genealogists send along with their letters are a major sources of income for the church.
The FHC categorizes the records in their catalog under the state of Germany the town was in according to the boundaries Germany had 1871-1918. I'll list the states of Germany and their approximate location, and what percentage of the church records (from the1500's on) and government civil registration records (generally after 1876 but starting in 1800 west of the Rhine River) have been microfilmed.
FIRST: the area of former "West Germany"
In northern West Germany are the states of Schleswig-Holstein: 16% of parish records and 35% of civil registrations, plus check for genealogy collections they filmed.
Oldenburg: 40% of parish records, 20% of civil registrations.
Hannover: 15% of parish records, plus check for land tax records they filmed.
Westphalia: 90% of parish records!! Plus check for collections of genealogies on film.
Rhineland: 44% of parish records and 57% of civil registrations, plus check for collections of genealogies and court records they filmed.
Hesse - the Kingdom: (big success) 97% of parish records and 68% of civil registrations.
but Hessen-Nassau (the province in Prussia): only 9% of parish records and half of the civil registrations, but also check for land tax records they filmed.
In southern "West Germany" are
Baden: 91% of parish records and 13 % of civil registrations, plus many records under "citizenship".
Wuerttemberg: 86% of parish records, plus many emigration and probate records.
Bavaria: only 28% of parish records are filmed, BUT two-thirds of the marriage contracts!
If they were from the Palatine area belonging to Bavaria: 96% of parish records and 91% of civil registration records!
Alsace Lorraine (which was part of Germany from 1871 to World War I): has been completely filmed for two decades, 96% of parish records, 91% of civil registrations.
The small states of Lippe, Waldeck, Luebeck and Hohenzollern are also almost completely microfilmed too.
However, ancestors from Bremen or Hamburg had only a third of the parish records filmed, but 2/3 of Bremen civil registrations plus the city directories of the two cities have been filmed.
Now for former "East Germany"
This is unfortunately bad news since the Mormon church has a bad reputation there. Why? In the 1980's the Soviets allowed the Mormons to build a temple at Freiburg and cut the price on land and building materials for them, and ran a special gas line to the building. The Lutheran Church authorities in Germany still hold a grudge over that today.
However, even though the church says NO, the civil government has said YES! and ALL the records in the state archives have been filmed.
The exception to the parish records are Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Mecklenburg-Strelitz (in the north) which have half their parish records filmed. and the city of Berlin has a fourth of theirs filmed.
Other than those areas, it's generally less than 5%.
... but check for "probate records" in Brandenburg and the Province of Saxony,
and land tax records in the Kingdom of Saxony and the small state of Brunswick
and for city directories in Berlin and Kingdom of Saxony.
Areas of Germany that are now in Poland/Lithania.
Moderate success here. Pomerania has 25% of parish records and 20% of civil registrations filmed.
The state of West Prussia has 66% of parish records and 25% of civil registrations filmed, plus check for "public records" they've filmed.
For the state of East Prussia, 82% of parish records and 20% of civil registrations, plus check for land tax records and guild records.
Posen has 44% of parish and 69% of civil registrations filmed, plus check in the category of "public records"
and finally Silesia has 42% of parish records and 26% of civil registrations filmed, plus some of their city directories.
Also, for ancestors in areas that are now in Poland & Lithuania, check for the records of the Centeral Office for Genenealogy in Leipzig (look under Leipzig).
And for Germans in the military living abroad, the Kriegsarchiv in Austria is now two-thirds filmed (a massive project that was started in 1978!), and the state archives in Poland are also now finished.
So, when you look for records in the Locality Catalog of the Salt Lake Library, don't just look under the town your ancestor was from,
... look under the closest town with a church,
... look under the city the state archive was located in,
... look under the state (such as "Germany - Bavaria"),
... as well as just "Germany" for some of the larger collections.
This lecture was based on an internal report from the Salt Lake FHL
Titled "Update of the German collection: Family History Library"
that was compiled by Larry O. Jensen as of 3 October 1996.
Go back to Guide to German Genealogy at the Los Angeles Regional Family History Center