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Military records identify individuals who served in the military or who were eligible to serve. Germany had a large army and a small navy. Since most German states had conscription laws, most young men were required to register for military service. A young man who had not yet served had to get special permission to emigrate.
Evidence that an ancestor actually served in the military can sometimes be found in family records, biographies, censuses, photographs, emigration papers, medals, probate records, civil registration records, and church records.
The crucial information needed to find military records is the soldier's regiment or the sailor's ship.
This is usually difficult to find, making military records hard to use for genealogical research. Search the sources cited above to find your ancestor's regiment, ship, or commanding officer. Commanding officers can be identified with their units relatively easily. Photographs sometimes show insignia that identify a regiment or ship.
Types of Military Records
The earliest German military records, which began around 1485, usually list only the names of the soldiers.
Records from the middle 1800s often give information about promotions, places served, pensions, conduct, and other details concerning the soldier's military career. In addition, these records may include the soldier's age, birthplace, residence, occupation, and physical description as well as the names of family members.
However, many German military records provide very few details about individuals other than those who served as officers.
Military records include the following:
- Military church records [Kirchenbücher]. These records include garrison [Garnisons-] records, parish registers, and regimental [Regiments-] church records. They date from 1672.
- Personnel files [Stammrollen] of common soldiers and noncommissioned officers
- Published officer files [Offizier-Stammlisten]
- Officer rolls [Ranglisten]
- Regimental histories [Regimentsgeschichten] Foreign Military Service
Germans frequently served with the armies of foreign countries.
Denmark. Before 1772 the Danish army was made up mostly of German soldiers and officers. After 1772 the army began to recruit more Danes, and by 1803, the army was entirely Danish. If your German relative served in the Danish military before 1803, you may be able to find valuable genealogical information in Danish military records. For more information, see the Denmark Research Outline.
American Revolution. Germans served on both sides of the American Revolution. To find information about Germans who fought for the Americans, see the U.S. Military Records Research Outline.
About 25,000 mercenary troops raised in Germany worked for the British. They may have come from any part of Germany, but they are usually called “Hessians.” Some deserted or were sold to Americans as laborers.
Many remained in the United States or went to Canada after the war. The following source is a major index of German mercenaries:
Hessische Truppen im amerikanischen Unabhängigkeitskrieg (HETRINA) (Hessiantroops in the American Revolution). Six Volumes. Marburg, Germany: Archivschule, 1971-1976, 1987-. (FHL book 943 M2mg; films 1,320,516 items 6-7 and1,320,542 items 5-6.) Indexes from this series list each soldier's name, year of birth, place of origin, rank, and military unit and the source of the information.
The following source indexes thousands of American and British records of German mercenaries:
Smith, Clifford Neal. Cumulative Surname Index and Soundex to Monographs 1 through 12 of the German-American Genealogical Research Series. McNeal, Arizona, USA: Westland Publishing, 1983. (FHL book 973 W2smn no. 13.) This index lists only the soldier's surname and the series number of the monograph where information about that soldier can be found. Each monograph is individually indexed. The monograph normally lists the soldier's name, rank, and unit. Some of the following may also be listed: birthplace; age; occupation; promotions; where the soldier resided or was recruited; and whether he was wounded, killed, missing in action, captured, deserted, or sold, and where.
American Civil War About one in ten Union soldiers was born in Germany. Over 200,000 German immigrants to the United States were recruited by the Union, many as they stepped off the boat. Some were drafted. Some Germans served in the Confederate military. To find information about Germans who fought in the Civil War, see the U.S. Military Records research outline.
Locating Military Records
German military records can be of great genealogical value, but getting access to them is often a problem.
For example, it is very hard to get information from military records through correspondence. Also, the Family History Library has microfilmed only a few German military records. Those that have been microfilmed are hard to read, incomplete for several years, poorly arranged, and not indexed.
If you write to archives for information from military records, you must indicate the regiment or company to which your ancestor belonged. Also include the garrison town or commanding officer's name and your ancestor's rank if you know that information.
Two books help identify where regiments from Preußen were stationed. Although the records they describe were burned in World War II, the garrison towns listed are locations to look for other records:
Lyncker, Alexander von. Die altpreußische Armee1714-1806 und ihre Militärkirchenbücher (Old Prussian army and its military parish records, 1714-1806). Berlin, Germany: Verlag für Standesamtswesen, 1937. (FHL book 943 M2lv.1; film 477,806.)
——. Die preußische Armee 1807-1867 und ihresippenkundlichen Quellen (Old Prussian army and its genealogical sources, 1807-1867). Berlin, Germany: Verlag für Standesamtswesen, 1939. (FHL book 943 M2l v. 2; film 477,807.)
Records at German State Archives
There is no central archive for German military records. German states each had their own system of keeping military records before 1867. These records are now stored in several German state archives. The following pamphlet lists the archives where existing military records for each state are found:
Reschke, Horst A. German Military Records as Genealogical Sources. Salt Lake City, Utah, USA: Reschke, 1990. (FHL book 943 M2r; fiche6,001,596.)
In 1867 the armies of all but three German states were integrated into the armies of Preußen. From that time, soldiers of any German state (except Bayern, Sachsen, or Württemberg) were recorded only in the military records of Preußen. Unfortunately, the Preußen military records were almost completely destroyed in 1945.
Records at the Family History Library
Only a few German military records are available at the Family History Library. They are mostly military parish registers, a few published officer rolls [Stammlisten and Ranglisten], and regimental histories. German military church records are usually listed in the Family History Library Catalog with other church records. For other German military records, see the Place Search of the catalog under:
GERMANY - MILITARY RECORDS
GERMANY, [STATE] - MILITARY RECORDS
Germans were involved in the following military actions, among others:
- 1618: Thirty Years' War. Protestant and Catholic.
- 1648: States fought. Sweden, Denmark, and France all seized German territory. Parts of Germany were decimated.
- 1688-1697: Palatine Wars of Succession – destroyed mainly Southwestern Germany.
- 1740: War of Austrian Succession. Preußen invaded.
- 1748: Schlesien.
- 1756: Seven Years' War. Preußen kept Schlesien. 1763.
- 1775-1783: American Revolution. Several German states led by Hessen, provided troops to fight for the British.
- 1805-1815: Napoleonic Wars. German troops served throughout Europe. Rheinland was temporarily occupied by France.
- 1864: War with Denmark. Preußen seized Schleswig-Holstein.
- 1866: Seven Weeks' War. Preußen consolidated power in a fight with Austria.
- 1867: Army Reorganized. Preußen absorbed the armies of all other states except Bayern, Sachsen, and Württemberg.
- 1870-1871: Franco-Prussian War. Germany annexed Elsaß-Lothringen.
- 1914-1918: World War I. Elsaß-Lothringen returned to France. Parts of eastern Germany ceded to Lithuania and Poland.
- 1939-1945: World War II. Many German records were destroyed.
For more historical information about the German military, see the following sources:
- Alfoldi, Laszlo M. The Armies of Austria-Hungary and Germany, 1740-1914. Pennsylvania, USA: Carlisle Barracks, 1975. (FHL book 943 A3a v. 1, film 1,045,372 item 3.)
- Sigel, Gustav A. German Military Forces of the 19th Century. New York, NY, USA: Crown Publishing, 1989. (Not at FHL.)
Other military histories are listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
GERMANY - MILITARY HISTORY
GERMANY, [STATE] - MILITARY HISTORY
Cemetery Records of German Soldiers in Russia, Finland and Norway
A website that collects German military field mail and has a free database im Zweiten Weltkrieg.