Historical Events and Their Impact on German Research

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Successful research in German records requires at least a basic knowledge of important historical events and their impact on the culture, geography and record keeping. This study focuses on events that affected the broad spectrum of German life.  A study of the history of your ancestor's specific town and nobility area is recommended.  Search for specific place articles within this site and also articles can be located at en.wikipedia.org  

German history can be divided into the following time periods:
• The First Reich 843-1806
• The Second Reich 1871-1918
• The Weimar Republic 1919-1933
• The Third Reich 1933-1945
• Post World War II and the Reunification of Germany 1945-1990-Present

Medieval Germany:
Charlemagne established the First Reich of the German Empire. He was known for his military prowess –prior to Charlemagne the Slavic tribes had gradually pushed their territories westward; Charlemagne stopped this progression, expanded the Germanic territories, and brought them under German rule. Culturally the German Empire was divided into the Germanic and Slavic areas. These cultural nuances were evident in the dialect and naming practices. In the 16th century there was also a consonant shift in the German dialect. In the North, Plattdeutsch, or Low German was spoken. In the South, Hochdeutsch, or High German was spoken.

Germany was a conglomerate of nobility areas including kingdoms, provinces, duchies and principalities. In 1789 there were over 1,700 independent German States. Germany did not exist as a “nation” until 1871. Social standing defined one’s rights and obligations in pre-1900 German society. The belief system was the Nobles were to protect, the Clergy were to pray and the Peasants were to work. Your station was believed to be determined by God and therefore unchangeable - upward mobility was almost impossible. Farmers were tenants rather than land owners and feudalism empowered those who owned the land. The largest land owners were the nobility and the clergy. As landowners, the Manor Lord was responsible for protecting his serfs. In return for cultivating the land, the serfs were obligated to provide to the Manor Lord: labor, produce, military service and taxes. As serfs, they could not marry, change occupations, or move without the permission of their Lords. Feudalism existed in some parts of Germany up until WW I.

The Protestant Reformation: 1517-1648:
Though the ground work was laid by many, the Protestant Reformation officially began in 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Several wars came about as various rulers embraced differing religious views. The conflict ended 1648 at the close of the Thirty Years’ War through the Peace of Westphalia. Many Lutheran parishes began keeping records around 1540.

The Council of Trent and Counter Reformation: 1545-1563:
In response to the rapid growth of Protestantism, the Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent to clarify Church doctrine and establish Church policies. The Council was held in three periods consisting of 25 sessions, spanning almost 20 years. In session 24, it was decreed that a record must be kept of marriages and church sacraments, resulting in the keeping of Catholic parish registers around 1564. Another part of the Counter Reformation in the 1550’s involved pressuring many noble lords to control heretics within their jurisdictions. This resulted in the imprisonment, torture and death of Protestants. Thousands of non-conformists migrated, sometimes hundreds of miles, to areas where they were allowed religious freedom.

The Peace of Augsburg: 1555:
The Peace of Augsburg was the treaty between Charles V and an alliance of Lutheran Princes granting legal status to the Lutheran religion within the Holy Roman Empire. The Peace established Cuius regio, eius religio, “Whose realm, his religion”. The religion of the ruler dictated the religion of his subjects. Subjects who did not agree with the specific Prince’s decision were granted a period of time in which to move to another nobility jurisdiction to worship as they chose. Calvinist and Anabaptist groups living under the rule of a Lutheran or Catholic Prince found themselves in danger of being charged with heresy. Cuius regio, eius religio represented a subtle shift in power and went against the previous Catholic teachings that the king should faithfully obey the Pope. The new decree placed the religious leaders, to a degree, into a position of subjection to the will of the rulers. The Peace of Augsburg was shattered by the Thirty Years’ War.

The Thirty Years’ War and Peace of Westphalia: 1618-1648:
The Thirty Years’ War was one of the most destructive conflicts in European history. The land was ravaged; homes, churches, and crops were destroyed. In Baden, one-half of all the buildings were razed, with its population forced to live in caves. Famine and disease followed the devastation and nearly one-third of the population of Germany died. In the Palatinate, it is estimated that only 50,000 of the original one million inhabitants survived. Population shifts occurred. Swiss immigrants settled in the decimated areas of Baden and the Pfalz. Youth were encouraged to marry young in order to work the land and re-populate the country. The Peace of Westphalia officially ended the Thirty Years’ War. The Reformed Church (Calvinism) received legal status as a state religion.

1799-1815: Napoleonic Wars:
The Napoleonic occupation wrought changes in German rule and record keeping, though most only remained in effect while Napoleon was in power. Napoleon enforced separation of Church and State and by 1806 had dissolved the Holy Roman Empire. He abolished serfdom in the areas he conquered and implemented civil registration – once again separating the affairs of Church and State. The French Republican Calendar was in use from 1792 to 1805. Most of Napoleon’s changes were reversed upon his defeat. Serfdom was reinstituted in many areas of Germany and civil registration was not mandated on a national level until 1876, (though in many areas the local governments saw value in reporting birth, marriage and death records and required clerics to submit a yearly copy of their church registers). The Gregorian calendar replaced the French Republican Calendar by 1806. Napoleon’s reign ended at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

Emigration Prior to 1800:
Influences on emigration/immigration prior to 1800 were religious persecution, economic, environmental conditions, (wartime destruction, severe weather, droughts, and famines), political conditions and the enticements of America – land, money and freedom. In 1762 Catherina II Empress of Russia opened areas within Russia for German colonization. During the American Revolution the Hessians fought for England and the Palatines fought for the Colonies. Many soldiers remained in America or were given land grants in Canada. In 1781 Joseph II of Austria opened the area of Galicia for German colonization and provided for religious tolerance of Protestants. As a consequence, thousands of families, mostly from the Palatinate, immigrated to Galicia and settled in newly-founded German-speaking communities in the country or as craftsmen in the cities.

Emigration after 1800 and the Industrial Revolution:
Some influences upon emigration after 1800 were mass production and overpopulation. The Industrial Revolution began in the 1830’s in Germany, though it was not until the 1870’s and 1880’s that it truly succeeded. A population shift occurred in Germany. People who a generation before had earned their living off the land flooded the larger cities to work in factories. Mass manufacturing threatened individually hand crafted items and goods. Political changes also affected internal emigration and immigration. The repeated calls for freedom, democracy and unity from the middle and upper class led to the failed Revolution in 1848. Faced with the choices of imprisonment or death, many of the educated and skilled middle class emigrated from Germany to America and other countries. In the 1700’s in many states in Germany it was illegal to immigrate. By the 1820’s immigration was legalized and in the 1840’s-1850’s many areas, on a governmental level, encouraged the emigration of the poor. The improvement in the conditions, cost and modes of travel had a positive effect. The voyage to American became more convenient and less expensive. By the mid-1890’s the number of immigrations decreased and internal mass migrations within Germany increased. Of all of the ports used by German emigrants, only the Hamburg Passenger List, post-1850, has survived. Fragments of records of other ports have survived.

World War I & Treaty of Versailles: 1914-1918:
On 28 Jun 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophia Duchess of Hohenberg were assassinated by a young Serbian. Kaiser Wilhelm II joined forces with Austria-Hungary in retaliation, escalating into the First World War. After its defeat in 1919, Germany was summoned to Versailles to sign the peace treaty. There were a total of 440 clauses in the final treaty, 414 clauses spelled out Germany's punishment - the severity of which resulted in widespread German economic collapse.

Weimar Republic: 1919-1933:
The German Revolution in 1918-1919 finally ended serfdom and feudalism in Germany. A parliamentary republic was established called the Weimar Republic. The new republic was plagued by debt incurred in the Treaty of Versailles and Hyperinflation between the years of 1921-1923. In the early 1930’s the Depression spread. By 1932 over three million Germans were out of work. The conditions in post World War I Germany were economically desperate - an advantage to Adolph Hitler and his rise to power. Hitler promised a stronger, brighter Germany.

The Third Reich/World War II/The Holocaust 1933-1945:
In 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. He quickly eliminated his government partners and established Germany as an authoritarian state and himself as Dictator. In direct defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler rebuilt the German military and sought world domination through military power. He also desired to purge Germany of all he deemed to be “undesirable.” In 1939 a nationwide census was taken, predominantly focusing on Jews and other minorities. The term Holocaust is used to define the genocide of approximately six million European Jews during World War II. To include the systematic murder of all of the other groups targeted by the Nazis, the estimated death toll was between 11 and 17 million.

Post WWII and Reunification of Germany 1945-1990-Present:
In 1945 German signed The Instrument of German Surrender and became the Occupation Zone Germany. It was divided among the Allied Forces France, Britain, Russia and United States. By the end of World War II, most of the German population fled or was expelled from areas outside the territory of post-war Germany and post-war Austria. It is estimated that between 12 and 14 million ethnic Germans and their descendants were displaced from their homes. By 1949 the Allied forces relinquished control over the United Zones to the parliamentary democracy of West Germany. Russia retained control of East Germany under the dictatorship of Stalin. In 1961 a concrete barrier, the Berlin Wall, was built to divide East Berlin from West Berlin. After protests within East Germany, the Peaceful Revolution resulted in the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In 1990 the “Two Plus Four” Treaty was negotiated between the German Democratic Republic of Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany and the Four Powers occupying Germany. The Four Powers renounced any rights they formerly held on Germany, and Germany agreed to not attempt to regain pre-World War I boundaries. The Reunification of Germany was official 13 Oct 1990.

Further Reading:

http://en.wikipedia.org – varied and multiple articles relating to German history
http://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/about.cfm –collection of documents, images and maps.
http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ac62 – historical overview beginning in 7th century AD.
http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0107568.html – includes modern history.
http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/german1.htm – German economic history.
http://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/europe/detimeln.htm –historical timeline.
http://www.pressefoto-lothar-kucharz.de/3.htm – photographs of recreations of many historical occupations.
www.wiki.familysearch.org - keyword search Germany for access to a vast number of articles.