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Civil registration records are records of births, marriages, and deaths kept by the government. German terms for these records include Standesamtsregister, Zivilstandsregister, or Personenstandsregister. They are an excellent source for fairly accurate information on names and dates and places of births, marriages, and deaths. These records are kept by the civil registrar [German: Standesbeamte] at the civil registry office (Standesamt).
Civil registration in the German Empire began between 1792 and 1876, depending on the locality. Elsaß-Lothringen 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 Preussen, 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.
General Historical Background
Civil registration was begun in France with a law passed by the national Assembly on 20 Sep 1792. Elsaß-Lothringen, which was under French rule at that time, were the first German areas to keep civil births, marriages, and deaths. French occupation of the areas left of the Rhein 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 Preussen, civil births, marriages, and deaths were kept again beginning in October 1874. Civil registration became mandatory in all German states on 1 Jan 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 the area west of the Rhein River, the government began civil registration in parts of the Pfalz, Oldenburg, Hessen, and the Rheinland west of the Rhein. These records are usually written in French until about 1815. Hamburg began keeping civil registration records in 1799. As France's influence increased in Germany through the Confederation of the Rhein, the states of Braunschweig, Hannover, Westfalen, Bremen, Lippe, more of Hessen, the rest of Oldenburg and Lübeck established civil registration between 1808 and 1812. But when Napoleon's power began to fade in 1814, many of these states suspended civil registration.
By 1838 most of the province of Waldeck was recording marriage contracts. The prime minister of Preußen (Preussen), Otto von Bismarck, instituted civil registration in all the provinces of Preussen in 1874. The remaining states — Anhalt, Bayern, Lippe, Mecklenburg, Sachsen, Schaumburg-Lippe, Thüringen, and Württemberg—began requiring civil registration in 1876.
In areas under French influence, especially Elsaß-Lothringen, ten-year indexes were usually kept. 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 Rheinland sent theirs to Brühl.
Rights-to Privacy Laws
Stringent rights-to-privacy requirements in Germany limit access to post-1875 civil registration records to the subject of the document, parents, siblings, and direct-line descendants. Under the current system it may be difficult or impossible to obtain birth, marriage, or death records for non-direct-line relatives [such as a great-aunt or -uncle], even if they are already deceased. Paragraph 61 of the Personenstandsgesetz clearly defines who has a legal right to civil registration information. 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.
Recent Changes in Rights-to-Privacy Laws
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 researchers 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 record may be accessable if it can be shown that all "participating parties" have died at least 30 years ago. Participating parties in a birth record are both parents and the child, and both spouses in a marriage.
Special regulations apply to records of adoptees and other special-needs groups.
Information Recorded in Civil Registers
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.
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.
Marriages [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.
Records of 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".
Marriage 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.
Deaths [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.
Locating Civil Registration Records
Civil registration records are kept at the local civil registration office [Standesamt]. You must therefore determine the town where your ancestor lived before you can find the records. In a few places, such as Detmold and Speyer, duplicates have been gathered into a central archive.
If your ancestor lived in a small village, the civil records may have been kept in a larger nearby town. You may need to use gazetteers and other geographic references to identify the place where your ancestor lived and the civil registration office that served it (see Germany Gazetteers). You also need to know at least an approximate year in which the birth, marriage, or death of your ancestor occurred.
Large cities often have many civil registration districts. City directories can sometimes help identify which civil registration district a person lived in. The Family History Library Catalog lists books showing registration districts for street addresses in Berlin, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Breslau, and Stettin.
Records from Towns now in Poland
Extracts of German records requested from towns now in Poland will be written in Polish. Addresses of civil registration offices in formerly German areas of Poland, along with an inventory of available German civil registration records, are found in:
Brόzka, Tomascz. Deutsche Personenstandsbücher und Personenstandseinträge von Deutschen in Polen 1898 bis 1945. Frankfurt a/Main und Berlin: Verlag für Standesamtswesen, 2000. ISBN 3-8019-5674-1. (Int’l Ref area 943.8 V23b copy 3).
The addresses of Civil Registration Offices in Poland can be found online at this link.
Indexes to Civil Registration Records
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.
Records at the Family History Library
The Family History Library has microfilmed civil registration records up to around 1900 for Alsace-Lorraine, and from 1874 to approximately 1884 for various parts of Prussia, as well as various records from the Napoleonic era and a few sets that go beyond 1900. The use of sets containing post- 1900 records may be restricted.
In Hannover, Hessen-Nassau, and Westfalen the filmed civil registration records mostly cover 1808 to 1812, and sometimes 1874-1875. In the Pfalz [Palatinate] early 19th century marriage supplements are often cataloged under "[town name] - civil registration".
The Family History Library has records from many towns and states. However, the library does not have records that were destroyed, have not been microfilmed, were not available in the registrar's office at the time of microfilming, or are restricted from public access by the laws of the country. You may use the records at the library for your family research, but you must contact the civil office holding the records if you want an official certificate for living or deceased individuals.
To find civil registration records in the Family History Library Catalog, search the Place Search under:
GERMANY - CIVIL REGISTRATION
GERMANY, [STATE], [TOWN] - CIVIL REGISTRATION
The library's collection continues to grow as new records are microfilmed and added to the collection. Do not give up if the records you need are not available. The Family History Library Catalog is updated regularly. Check it periodically to see if the records you need have been added to the library's collection.Learn more about Locating Records Not at the Family History Library.