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Civil registration in the German Empire began between 1792 and 1876, depending on the locality. Alsace-Lorraine started in 1792, since it belonged to France at the time. The creation of mairies that kept civil birth, marriage, and death registers was required by the French as they advanced into the German territories between 1808 and 1812. These early records are often written in the French language and use the French Republican Calendar. After Napoleon was defeated, civil registration was discontinued in many parts of Germany and replaced by parish register duplicates used for civil purposes, such as conscription. In Prussia, civil births, marriages, and deaths were kept again beginning in October 1874. Civil registration became mandatory in all German states on 1 January 1876. To learn more about when German Civil Registration began in individual provinces or states, click here.
Because they cover about 98% of the population and often provide more information than church records, civil registration records are important sources for German genealogical research.
For birth, death, and marriage records created before civil registration began, see Germany Church Records.
Civil registration was begun in France with a law passed by the national Assembly on 20 Sep 1792. Alsace and Lorraine, which were under French rule at that time, were the first German areas to keep civil records of births, marriages, and deaths. French occupation of the areas left of the Rhine River in 1796 to 1798 brought civil registration to these areas as well. As the French advanced into other areas of Germany, they required local governments to keep civil records of births, marriages, and deaths. After Napoleon was defeated, civil registration was discontinued in many parts of Germany and replaced by parish register duplicates used for civil purposes, such as conscription. In Prussia, civil births, marriages, and deaths were kept again beginning in October 1874. Civil registration became mandatory in all German states on 1 January 1876. The records are created and kept by the Standesamt.
Between 1792 and 1876, most German states or provinces developed their own separate laws and civil registration systems. Some civil registration offices were established later than others. Therefore, the date a particular state began civil registration is only a general guideline and does not always apply to every town within its borders. In 1876 civil registration began in all of Germany, and since 1876 almost every German has been registered with the local civil government authorities.
Between 1792 and 1798, when France occupied parts of Germany, the government began civil registration in the areas that lay west of the Rhine. These records are usually written in French until about 1815. As France's influence increased in Germany, Hamburg, Hannover, Hessen, Lübeck, Oldenburg, and Westfalen established civil registration between 1799 and 1811. In these areas under French influence, especially Alsace and Lorraine, which remained part of France until 1871, ten-year indexes were usually kept.
After Napoleon's defeat in 1814, many areas suspended civil registration. In some areas civil transcripts of church records replaced civil registration.
Anhalt began keeping civil registration in 1850 and Hamburg in 1866. The prime minister of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck, instituted civil registration in all the provinces of Prussia in 1874. The remaining states, Anhalt, Bavaria, Lippe, Mecklenburg, Saxony, Schaumburg-Lippe, Thuringia, and Württemberg began requiring civil registration in 1876, when the national civil registration law was implemented.
In some areas, duplicate copies of civil registers were also made. The mayor's office (Bürgermeisterei) kept the original copy, and the duplicate was sent to the court (Landesgericht) or another central archive. For example, most of Westfalen and Lippe sent their duplicates to Detmold, and most of the Rhineland sent theirs to Brühl.
Until recently, stringent rights-to-privacy requirements in Germany limited access to all civil registration records created in 1876 or later to the subject of the document and their parents, siblings, and direct-line descendants.
A law passed in February 2007, the Personenstandsrechtsreformgesetz, makes civil registration records more accessible for family history research. Since 1 January 2009 the records are accessible to any researcher after these time periods have passed:
- births: 110 years
- marriages: 80 years
- deaths: 30 years
A direct relationship to the subject of the record sought will only be required in cases where the required time period has not yet elapsed. Even then, the records may be accessible if it can be shown that all "participating parties" have died at least 30 years ago. Participating parties are both parents and the child in birth records, and both spouses in a marriage. Special regulations apply to records of adoptees and other special-needs groups.
If the records were created more recently than these time periods, and the death of the participants cannot be proven, the former restrictions still apply. Paragraph 61 of the Personenstandsgesetz clearly defines who has a legal right to civil registration information under these cirumstances. When requesting a record from the Standesamt (civil registration office), the relationship to the person named in the record should be clearly stated. In 2008, the fee for a copy of a civil birth-, marriage-, or death record was seven Euros plus postage.
Civil registrars often use international extract forms to fill requests from foreign countries. Not all the information present in the original record may be copied onto the extract. As a rule, marginal notes are left out, but other details from the record, such as parents’ names and residences in marriage records, may be omitted.
Prior to the passing of the 2007 law, it was difficult or impossible to obtain any post-1875 civil registration records of birth-, marriage-, or death records for non-direct-line relatives (such as a great-aunt or -uncle), even if they were already deceased. Now it is not only possible to obtain records that meet these time requirements, but these records are even starting to become available online.
The information recorded in civil registration records varies slightly over time. Each state used a different format for civil registration. Preprinted forms have often been used for civil registration. In these instances, the form determined what information the record contains. The early French records sometimes give slightly more complete information than the later records. The most important civil records are birth, marriage, and death registers.
(Geburtsregister) Birth records usually give the child's name; sex; and birth date, time, and place. The father's name, age, occupation, and residence are also usually listed. The mother's maiden name, age, and marital status are usually given, although her age is sometimes omitted. The names, ages, and residences of witnesses are usually provided. The parents' religion is also listed in some states.
Births were usually registered within a few days of the child's birth by the father, a neighbor, or the midwife. Corrections and additions to a birth record may have been added as marginal notes.
(Heiraten, Ehen, or Trauungen) Marriages were usually recorded where the bride lived. After 1792 a civil marriage ceremony was required in areas of Germany under French control. In 1876 this law was applied to all of Germany. Most couples also had a church wedding, so records may exist for both the civil and church ceremonies. The civil marriage records may include more information than the comparable church records. When possible search both the civil registration and church records.
Intention to Marry
If you believe a marriage took place but cannot find a marriage record, search records that indicate the couple's “intent to marry.” Various records may have been created to show a couple's intent to marry:
- Proclamations [Aufgebote or Eheverkündigungen] were made a few weeks before a couple planned to marry. The couple may have been required to announce their intentions in order to give other community members the opportunity to object to the marriage.
- Marriage Supplements [Heiratsbeilagen] were often filed by the bride or groom to support their marriage application. Information included may document their births, their parents' deaths, and the groom's release from military service. Sometimes the records contain information about earlier generations.
- Contracts [Ehekontrakte] are documents created to protect legal rights and property of spouses. These may give the same information as the marriage supplements noted above. They also list property and are usually found in court records rather than in civil registration records.
- Marriage Permission Papers [Verehelichungsakten] are documents created in the process of obtaining permission to get married. Some states required prospective spouses to get permission fom the local city council or mayor before they could be married. For Bavaria and Hessen-Nasssau many of these files have been microfilmed. They may be cataloged under "court records", "civil registration", or "public records."
(Heiratsregister) You may find the following records documenting civil marriages:
- Marriage Registers [Heiratsregister]. Civil officials recorded the marriages they performed, usually on preprinted forms bound in a book and kept in the civil registration office. Marriage registers give the date and time of the marriage. They list the bride's and groom's names, ages, birth dates, birthplaces, residences, occupations, and whether they were single or widowed. The registers also give the parents' names, residence, occupations, marital status, and whether they were living at the time of the marriage. Witnesses' names, ages, and relationships to the bride or groom are supplied. Often a note is made as to whether a parent or other party gave permission for the marriage. The couple's religion is often mentioned, especially after 1874.
- Certificates [Heiratsscheine]. Some couples were given a marriage certificate or a book [Stammbuch] with the marriage entry and space for entering children's births. The certificate or book may be in the possession of the family or the civil registrar.
(Sterberegister or Totenregister) Death records are especially helpful because they may provide important information on a person's birth, spouse, and parents. Civil death records often exist for individuals for whom there were no birth or marriage records. Deaths were usually registered within a few days of death in the town or city where the person died.
Early death records usually give the name of the deceased and the date, time, and place of death. The age, birthplace, residence, occupation, and marital status of the deceased may also be given, along with the name of the parents or spouse and their residences. The informant's name, age, occupation, residence, and relationship may also be listed. Post¬1874 death registers also include the person's religion. Information about parents, the birth date, the birthplace, and other information about the deceased may be inaccurate, depending on the informant's knowledge.
Births, marriages, and deaths were written in the civil registration records as they occurred, and thus they are arranged chronologically. Where available, indexes can help you find your ancestor more easily. The indexes usually cover one year at a time and are located at the beginning or end of each year. You will sometimes also find an alphabetical index at the beginning or the end of a volume. These indexes and volumes may cover many years.
Each civil registrar [Mairie or Bürgermeisterei] in Elsaß-Lothringen has cumulative indexes that cover ten-year periods [Tables décennales]. To use these indexes, you need to know the town or district where a person lived; the approximate year of birth, marriage, or death; and at least his or her surname. The indexes are alphabetical by at least the first letter of the surname. The Family History Library Catalog usually indicates which records have index listings.
Civil registration records were kept at the local civil registration office (Standesamt). To find the records, you need to first determine the town where your ancestor lived, then determine the location of the civil registration office for that town. The civil registration office may have been located in the same town or, for smaller towns and villages, the civil records may have been kept in a larger nearby town. Use gazetteers to help identify the place where your ancestor lived and the civil registration office that served it (see Germany Gazetteers). Large cities often have many civil registration districts. City directories can sometimes help identify which civil registration district a person lived in.
Most civil registers are still located at the local civil registration offices, but some are collected in city or state archives.
FamilySearch has microfilmed many civil registration records. To find civil registration records in the Family History Library Catalog, search the Place Search under:
- GERMANY, [STATE], [TOWN] - CIVIL REGISTRATION
FamilySearch has digitized civil registration records from Hessen. Follow this link to learn more about these records.
The collections of FamilySearch continue to grow as new records are microfilmed or digitized. Do not give up if the records you need are not available. FamilySearch.org is updated frequently and new historical collections are being added continuously. Check it periodically to see if the records you need have been added.
Civil registration records from many towns and states are available on microfilm or online. However, many civil registration records, especially those created in 1876 or later, are still only available in the local civil registration office or archive in Germany that has the originals. To learn about how to access these records, see the article: Locating Records Not at the Family History Library.