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“The past actually happened, but history is only what someone wrote down”, says A. Whitney Brown. From a genealogist’s point of view, it is wonderful that events were recorded and sad when they were not. German national history is eventful, to say the least. Some actions had a major impact in the lives of our ancestors. Following are a few developments which altered the political and social landscape of Germany. To gain a more in depth picture of an event or an area, local histories should be consulted.
The printing press facilitated the spread of ideas swiftly. New ways of communication opened up and attempts were underway to translate the Bible into the language of the people. Martin Luther is one who undertook such a feat. His 95 theses why the Catholic Church should be reformed launched the first political and social revolution in Germany.
In 1525 inflamed through some pastors’ interpretation of the Reformation, the people of Thüringen, Schwaben and Salzburg sought for more equality. Up to this point they were subjects to feudal lords. The revolt helped to even the way to landownership as well as establish a new religion, Protestantism. The serfs established 12 articles (known as the rise of the common man) and demanded basically what much later the Declaration of Independence formulated thus: “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. The serfs had to wait centuries before they could enjoy such freedoms.
The Catholics had a stronghold in Germany as seen on this map http://humanities.ucsd.edu/courses/kuchtahum3/reference/reformation.htm Protestantism fought for equal standing and in 1555 the Protestants were granted comparable rights with the Catholics. An individual, however, was not in a position to choose his religion. He was dependent on his sovereign lord who chose the preferred faith for his land. With the Peace of Augsburg in place, one would think religious strife ceased. This was not the case as this map shows http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/shepherd/central_europe_relig_1923.jpg
In the 1500s we see record keeping in the parishes. This was not mandatory. The priests kept records of their ministrations. We see marriage entries, then births and deaths. Around 1550 it became fashionable to celebrate someone’s death in a more elaborate way. This trend started with the male nobles and wealthy citizens. At their funerals so called “Leichenpredigten” (sermons) were given. These described the life and professional career , the ups and downs in the life , marriage and family of the deceased. This practice spread to cover female and ordinary citizens’ funerals and became a widespread literary product. The printing and distribution of Leichenpredigten were discontinued after 1750.
The religious strife did not cease because it became apolitical issue. The Czech nobility was under the impression that they had been granted religious freedom, which was not the case. Their German overlords favored Catholicism. The tensions came to a peak. When the Catholic envoy came to support the Church’s views, the Czech delegates tossed these men out the window. The Defenestration of Prague on May 23, 1618 produced serious consequences. What seemed to be a conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism was in reality a war between Catholic France and Catholic Habsburg for supremacy in Europe. Four wars were fought to solve this conflict.
Thirty Years War
Sweden, Denmark, France and Bohemia were the nations to engage in these wars. They were fought on German soil and brought much devastation. See http://wps.ablongman.com/wps/media/objects/262/268312/art/figures/KISH312.jpg The destruction lasted one human life time and two to three generations to rebuild. Before 1618 sixteen to seventeen Million people lived in Germany, after 1648 four Million were left. Example: Württemberg was especially hit hard. 450.000 inhabitants lived here before the war, after the war 100.000 were left. It took 10 years to rebuild the population. Record keeping at this time was non-existent in some parishes or occurred in a neighboring parish because of the lack of priests.
Destruction did not just come through wars, but through hunger and disease (plague) as well. Devastation occurred also through overzealous interpretation of the scriptures. Exodus 22:18 “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” gave authorities the right to put those to death whom they deemed possessed with witchcraft. Men and women with knowledge of enhancing or healing herbs, once a highly regarded craft, were especially targeted, accused as devil’s advocates and put to death. Germany with 25.000 such cases was in the lead among Europeans.
After 1648 land became available. People moved eastward to open up new frontiers. Couples married at a younger age. Others had to flee further religious conflicts. The first larger emigration to North America went underway. The Concord delivered Germans to Pennsylvania in 1683. People from the Netherlands fled religious disputes and settled in the marshy areas of Schleswig-Holstein in Northern Germany. They built dykes and established milk processing stations, they went as far as West Prussia to settle along the Weichsel river. http://www.thorn-wpr.de/Grafik/PlanNied.gif Still others followed an invitation of Catherine the Great to settle in the Black Sea regions. Here is a map of areas from which people in large numbers left during the 16 and 1700s to settle elsewhere http://www.progenealogists.com/germany/Images/1700gerem.jpg
In quick succession developments occurred which influenced life in Germany to a great extent. The state of Prussia from a relatively small entity annexed most of the Northern German states by 1871. The Industrial Revolution in England had a tremendous impact on the rest of Europe. The French Revolution brought the ideas of “egalite, fraternite and liberte” and Napoleon’s occupation of German territory along the Rhine and northern parts aroused in the German soul for the first time the thought of nationalism. Moreover, Napoleon inspired the Confederation of the Rhine, dissolved the Holy Roman Empire, reduced the German states to 39, introduced the French Calendar und administrative measures and inspired the March Revolution of 1848. The Revolution of 1848 was unsuccessful. The citizens of Germany tried to achieve national unity and to obtain a political voice. The aspired changes failed because Austria wanted to change the political landscape back to pre-Napoleonic times and Prussia was too fainthearted to go through with any changes. After the failure to achieve political union, many prominent Germans faced prison time if they did not escape to America or Switzerland. ¼ Million people found a new home in America and had quite an impact on the cultural and technological developments of this country.
Emigration and migration was greatly facilitated by the waterways and the railroad system in Germany. http://de.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Datei:Bahnkarte_Deutschland_1849.jpg&filetimestamp=20081117144247
Hamburg and Bremen became the most important Passenger ports in Europe. http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl://www.hausarbeiten.de/faecher/vorschau/94685.html&usg
Emigrants were registered in Hamburg since 1850. While passenger lists from Hamburg still exist the ones from Bremen were destroyed.
The industrialization and Germany’s production of coal and steel brought many people of the land into the cities. The import of cotton in conjunction with slave labor provided a cheaper product and wiped out the century-old profession of the weaver, who processed flax. Many people had to leave the profession and the life they once knew to find work in the cities. Poverty here was prevalent. People did not have cash to pay the church to get married, for instance. From 1800 to 1850 we see many illegitimate children.
Again, emigration was a real option, especially because Germany was in the process of political change which did not entirely evolve without fighting. The Franco-Prussian war of 1870/71 had many leave the country again http://www.volkerjarren.de/GenRes/Images/emigrants.gif
The struggles of a united Germany
Otto v. Bismarck was the driving force to unify Germany. The empire was a constitutional monarchy until 1918 http://www.uoregon.edu/~kimball/images/1871.GRM.unified-CWA168.jpg
After WWI Germany lost the following territories http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.classicistranieri.com/wikipediaschool/images/263/26357.png&imgrefurl=http://www.classicistranieri.com/wikipediaschool/wp/t/Treaty_of_Versailles.htm&usg=__-RVOV8lo9a9LYYd28fO7yxZmdgs=&h=254&w=300&sz=40&hl=en&start=1&tbnid=f-i8oWrpKYGBIM:&tbnh=98&tbnw=116&prev=/images%3Fq%3DGermany%2Bafter%2BVersailles%26gbv%3D2%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DG
After WWII Germany lost the following territories http://www.zum.de/whkmla/histatlas/germany/194956.gif