Germany Historical Geography
Back to Germany Page►
The territory of Germany has varied considerably over the centuries. Until 1871 Germany consisted of numerous independent kingdoms, duchies, principalities, and states, whose borders often changed and merged. These changes often make it hard to determine which archive has the particular records you need. In 1871 all states except the Austrian states were consolidated into the German Empire under the leadership of Preußen.
Place-names and county, province, and state jurisdictions have also changed, often more than once. Because of these changes, you may not be able to find the name of your German ancestor's town on a modern map. You may also have trouble determining the jurisdiction where their records were kept. This section describes the changes that have taken place in Germany's state structure. This information will help you find records in the Family History Library Catalog for the place where your ancestors lived.
The Family History Library Catalog is based on German jurisdictions as they existed from 1871 until World War I, regardless of earlier or later changes. Places that are now under foreign jurisdiction but were part of the German Empire in 1871 are listed under both GERMANY, PREUßEN, [PROVINCE], [TOWN] and also under their present location, such as POLAND, RUSSIA, LITHUANIA, FRANCE, or DENMARK.
Several boundary changes occurred after World War I. Elsaß-Lothringen (Alsace-Lorraine) was returned to France in 1918. A few towns and villages of Rheinland were ceded to Belgium. The northern tip of Ostpreußen (East Prussia) was given to Lithuania.
The northern part of Schleswig-Holstein passed from Germany to Denmark in 1920.
After World War II, other former Prussian areas, such as Posen, most of Schlesien, Westpreußen, and parts of Pommern, became part of Poland. Russia and Poland split Ostpreußen, and a tiny part of Schlesien went to the Czech Republic.
Boundaries and Atlases:
As a result of wars and political realignments, the internal and external boundaries of Germany have changed several times. A Web site that discusses German Empire boundary changes (with maps, lists, etc.) is:
Compare Germany Maps to see how the boundaries have changed.
A good historical atlas with chronological overview maps beginning in the early 19th Century and short descriptive explanations of each time petriod (in English) is found here.
A good tool for understanding the political divisions of the later German Empire is this set of maps showing each German state or kingdom in 1789 found at http://www.hoeckmann.de/germany/index.htm .
Online German historical Atlases
F. W. Putzgers Historischer Schul-Atlas, 1905 is in many ways as useful for showing the various regions, states, and political divisions of the German Empire and the World. Additional maps found in the 1914 edition and 1923 edition are also available online. This atlas is in German.
Links to additional historical atlases for Germany and other countries are found at http://www.maproom.org/c/index.php .
Printed Historical Atlases
Several good historical atlasses showing progressive boundary changes within the area that becomes the Emire of Germany, with accompanying explanations are available in print. They are written in German.
Kleiner Atlas zur deutschen Territorialgeschichte Authors: Bernhart Jähnig; Ludwig Biewer Publisher: Bonn : Kulturstiftung der Deutschen Vertriebenen, 1991. Edition/Format: Map: Atlas: German: 2., erw. AuflView all editions and formats ISBN: 3885570963 9783885570967 OCLC Number: 25075122
Grosser Atlas zur Weltgeschichte Author: Joachim Dornbusch; Ekkehard Aner; et al Publisher: Braunschweig: Westermann, 1997. ISBN: 3075095206 9783075095201 OCLC Number: 40326798 FHL Call # INTL 940 E7wg 2001
Map by Ludwig Ravenstein:
An atlas of the German Empire compiled by Ludwig Ravenstein is found at this site.
States and Provinces:
Each nation or state determined its own record-keeping practices. You may find that records differ in what they contain and where they are kept, according to who ruled that area when the record was created.
The German Empire, created in 1871, was made up of a patchwork of German-speaking duchies, principalities, and states. These areas often had little in common. The Locality Search of the Family History Library Catalog uses 38 state or province divisions for Germany. For a list of these states and provinces, see the chart found in Germany Gazetteers
More State Information:
More information about four of the most complex states follows.
The largest, most powerful German state was Preußen (Prussia). It was divided into 13 large provinces (see p. 35). Only two of the provinces had the name “Preußen” in them, but citizens from all 13 provinces were Prussians. Thus, a resident of Rheinland often said that he or she was from Preußen.
Most Prussian emigrants to foreign countries came from the provinces of Rheinland, Hessen-Nassau, or Westfalen. The catalog lists each town in Preußen behind its state and province, as in this example:
GERMANY, PREUßEN, RHEINLAND, THÜR.
Sachsen (Saxony) covered a wide band of Germany from the North Sea to the Czech Republic.
The three modern German states carrying this name are Niedersachsen, Sachsen, and Sachsen-Anhalt. The Family History Library Catalog lists several old Empire states under Sachsen:
Sachsen (the kingdom)
Preußen Sachsen (the province)
Thüringen (the Duchies of Sachsen)
When using the International Genealogical Index on compact disc, you can filter on “Sachsen” (the kingdom), "Prussia" (including the province of Sachsen), and “Thuringen” (including the Duchies of Sachsen).
Eight duchies and principalities of Sachsen became the state of Thüringen (Thuringia) in 1920. Records for towns in Thüringen are listed twice in the catalog: once under Thüringen and once under the duchy or principality. For example, the same record is cataloged under both GERMANY, THÜRINGEN, SULZE and GERMANY, SACHSENALTENBURG, SULZE.
The duchies and principalities of Sachsen (Thüringen) were Reuß ältere Linie, Reuß jüngere Linie, Sachsen-Altenburg, Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha, Sachsen-Meiningen, Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach, Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt, and Schwarzburg-Sondershausen. The Coburg part of Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha joined Bayern in 1920 and is listed under Bayern instead of Thüringen in the catalog.
The Pfalz (Palatinate) on the French border in southwest Germany was devastated in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). After the war, settlers from other parts of Germany and Switzerland were attracted to help repopulate the area. In the 1800s, more people emigrated to foreign countries from the Pfalz than from any other part of Germany. The Pfalz has been associated with Bayern most of the time since 1214.
Therefore, the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog lists towns in the Pfalz under BAYERN. For example, the town of Kaiserslautern in the Pfalz would actually be listed as GERMANY, BAYERN, KAISERSLAUTERN.
The following books explain more about Germany's historical geography. You can find these and similar materials at the Family History Library and many other research libraries.
The Columbia Lippincott Gazetteer of the World. Morningside Heights, New York, NY, USA: Columbia University Press, 1962. (FHL book 910.3 C723g.)
Kirn, Paul. Politische Geschichte der deutschen Grenzen (Political history of the German borders). Mannheim, Germany: Bibliographisches Institut, 1958. (FHL book 943 H2ki.)
Jensen Publications. Maps of the German Empire of 1871. Revised Edition. Pleasant Grove, Utah, USA: Jensen Publications, 1987. (FHL book 943 E7m.)
Online information is found at this site. Check out the "General Help" section.
The Family History Library Catalog may contain research information to assist in your historical Germany research under:
GERMANY - HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHY
GERMANY - HISTORY
GERMANY, [STATE] - HISTORICAL
GERMANY, [STATE] - HISTORY
The historical atlases described in the “Maps” section contain maps depicting boundary changes, migration and settlement patterns, military actions, and ethnic and religious population distribution. Gazetteers and histories are also helpful sources of information about name and boundary changes. See the “Gazetteers” section.