In Germany civil registers in Germany were not known until the French period (1794-1815). During those years most of Northern Europe was under French rule or at least influence. The “code civil des Français” introduced civil registers for birth, marriage and death and replaced the parish registers for baptism, marriage and burial as official records. Religious ceremonies still took place of course but stopped having legal effects.
From 1871 until 1876 the German Empire developed and introduced an own universal system of registration based on the French Code Civil which was part of the “Code Napoleon“. This system, with lots of adjustments of course, is still in place in Germany.
Registering births and deaths is mandatory. Civil marriages were a compulsory pre-condition for a church wedding until 2008 but nowadays church marriages don’t have any legal binding at all. You’ll find those Offices of Vital Records if you search for “Standesamt” which you’ll usually find in the “Rathaus” (administrational town hall).
Consequences for genealogy
Until the introduction of the French Code Civil the church records for baptisms, marriages and burials were the only official records available. Even though they actually documented church rites, they had a binding effect for many aspects of social life.
In the first decades those records didn’t even contain many details. A record of baptism would contain the names of the father, the child and the godfather or godmother as well as the date of baptism but very often not the monther’s name or the names of the bride’s or groom’s parents.
When over time the records became more detailled, date and place of birth as well as witnesses’ names became part of the baptism entries. Burial records now mostly included date of death and very often either the age or the exact birth date of the deceased.
When the French introduced the civil registers in Germany, those contained the official dates for birth and death which until then were just a side info in the church registers. Parish registers lost their status as official records for administrational purposes.
Civil registers and blocking periods
Germany has quite strict data protection laws which include blocking periods for documents with personal data. I’m no lawyer so bear with me while I try to sum up the sometimes complicated German federal, state, municipal and church regulations and fees as far as I know about them.
In general documents with sensitive data are blocked when the document is finished and closed, like personal or medical records.
- The documents are usually unblocked after a 30 years blocking period. If it’s a document with personal information the 30 year blocking period starts with the person’s death.
- If the death date can’t be identified, the blocking period ends 110 years after the person’s birth.
- Very often the documents then become available for inspection after the end of the respective year.
Examples for blocking periods:
- A birth record of someone born in 1904 will be transferred from the Standesamt to the Stadtarchiv on January 1st, 2015 (1904 + 110 years blocking period = 2014, has to stay in the Standesamt until end of the year). After that date no proof of descendancy is needed. Stadtarchiv fees schedule applies to any (re)search by the clerks or copies for that entry.
- A marriage record of 1937 will become available to the public on January 1st, 2018 (1937 + 80 years blocking period = 2017, has to stay in the Standesamt until end of 2017). Until then it’s available on request in the Standesamt, but only with proof of descendancy. You aren’t allowed to thumb through the volume. A clerk will do that for you and charge you according to the Standesamt fees schedule. That schedule also applies to any copies of the entry you request.
Current German civil registers
… are kept in the municipal “Standesamt” (Office of vital records, see above) and are only available for inspection if you prove that you have a rightful interest to see a particular document. Genealogy is one of those “rightful interests” but you have to prove you are a descendant of that person.
- If you are looking for civil archives you’ll find a list of (not only) governmental archives on the website “Archivportal D” with various options to search by “Bundesland” (German state), “Sparte” (archive type) and “Anfangsbuchstabe” (first letter). From there you’ll get to your desired archives’ webpages with their contact information.
- Contact the archives/offices and ask about your desired documents. At least staff members should know whether your documents still exist at all, and if yes where you can view them. They can also tell you where you can find possible register copies if there are any.
- If your desired source is not available any longer, ask the clerks if there are other sources that might include your ancestors’ information, like duplicates/copies. They also can counsel you on which other townships or parishes were responsible for your ancestors’ places of residence at a particular time.
- If you don’t choose the economic option of emailing the archives but opt to give them a call instead, don’t forget to replace the phone number’s leading zero with the international area code for Germany.
- Some of those archives allow you to work with the original documents, others only provide copies, some offer both options.
Documents in the “Standesamt”
- You won’t be allowed to thumb through the whole volume. That’s because it also contains other persons’ personal data you aren’t entitled to see. The clerk usually copies the entry for you.
- Because copying the documents is a legally attested administrational act they have to charge you for that, according to their Standesamt fees schedule. Search or ask for the “Gebührenordnung” before you order copies!
“Current” means the following periods:
- Births: 110 years after event
- Marriages and registered domestic partnerships: 80 years after event
- Deaths: 30 years after event
- The complete volumes are transferred from the Standesamt to the Stadtarchiv (municipal archive) after Dec. 31st of the unblocking year. If a volume covers a span of years, it is unblocked after the last year is over. As soon as the volumes arrive in the municipal archive and are properly added to the archive’s stock, they become available to the public.
Documents im “Stadtarchiv”
- When you visit the municipal archive you may search the documents and volumes yourself.
- If you neeed copies or the archive clerks have to search something for you, you will be charged as well. But the archives have own fees which usually are less expensive than the Standesamt fees.
Visiting German archives
- If you plan to visit German archives you ought to make an appointment with the respective archive to book a reading desk well in advance! Otherwise you run the risk of being rejected and losing precious time! Only very few archives have sufficient reading desks or staff members to provide help and advice for unanticipated guests!
- It is possible that your desired documents and/or books aren’t available in the particular archive, due to various reasons. Church registers might be still in the parish or documents are in high need for restauration resp. in a current digitization process for example. If the documents or books have been microfilmed or digitized already and the archive has microfilm readers or computers you will then probably get access to the copies.
- Check with the archive whether they’ll hand you the originals or the copies. If it’s the latter you might have online access to those from the States as well. Contact the archive before your visit and ask about this possibility.
What are your experiences with German Standesamt and Stadtarchiv? Were the different languages a problem?