Germany Getting Started
Search home sources
Thoroughly go over all home sources available to you, including family history papers, copies of records, pictures, old letters (i.e. with an old address), family bibles, journals/dairies, copies of vital record certificates and church records, memorabilia etc. Interview extended family and close relatives as well as former neighbors--all of which may prove very helpful in gathering as much knowledge about an ancestor as possible.
Evaluate your sources
Evaluate what you have searched. This is a lot easier if you have documented your sources during your initial gathering of information.
Organize your material
Enter your data using software or record it on paper by using family group sheets. Enter your sources, record also what has not been found, so you will not repeat unnecessary steps. Establish a research log, so you have a comparison for later when the time comes to check dates and names for accuracy.
What you need to know to begin research in Germany
It is essential that you know
1. The given and surname of your ancestor
2. The exact place name
3. The time frame
4. The religion of your ancestor.
Before you can embark in meaningful research, you need to be clear about the name of your ancestor. Many names have been Americanized or have been recorded according to sound. Following the paper trail of your ancestor may give you clues. Search ship lists, naturalization records, church records, civil records or any record where your ancestor had to sign his name.
Another very important piece of evidence to find the correct origin of an ancestor is the place name. Again, you may run into problems here because many ancestors gave a place name as a point of reference. Also, a given place name may be spelled according the recorder’s understanding. Sometimes it helps to know what language your ancestor spoke and something about topographical features of the homeland. It is not enough information to just know that your ancestor came from Germany or Prussia. Even to know the German state, such as Hessen, sometimes proves futile, because there are states called Hessen, Hessen-Nassau, Hessen-Darmstadt, Kurfürstentum Hessen etc.
It is also most helpful to know the time frame when you search for a German ancestor. Germany was never a united state until 1871. Before that it consisted of hundreds of little states which had their autonomy, their own sets of laws, their own ways of administration. A general search by looking at census records is not possible in Germany nor do there exists any centralized data bank from which to extract information. All successful research is based on knowing general and local historical backgrounds of the area in question, and the availability of records for a given time period. For instance, the Principality of Hannover, the Kingdom of Hannover and Hannover under Prussia had all different administrative measures in their time, and the records are not the same. One would not find civil registration records in the Duchy of Hannover because civil registration records are not available until 1808. The Duchy of Hannover existed in the 1600s.
If you know the religious affiliation of your ancestor you may also get faster results in locating your ancestor. Most Germans were Catholics or Protestants, however, in some areas, the records of people of other faiths were kept by the predominant church. For example, Jewish or Mennonite births were occasionally recorded at Catholic parishes, especially in areas where the Church was used as the civil registration office.