Genealogical Research in Big German Cities 

by Friedrich R. Wollmershäuser, 1997


I. The biggest German cities.
II. Special research problems in big cities.
1. Is it really the city?
2. Many parishes.
3. Many bearers of the same name.
4. Losses of archival records.
5. Difficult administrational structures.
6. Unprofessional archives.
III. Special sources and research methods.
1. Address directories.
2. Police registration.
3. Printed vital registers.
4. Abundant sources.
5. Indexes to genealogical material.
6. Special occupations and professions.
7. Patricians.


The Biggest German Cities

Towards the end the 15th century, the biggest German cities, such as Nürnberg, Strasbourg, Augsburg and others, had just about 15,000 or at highest 20,000 inhabitants.  The population increased during the 16th century, but rapidly decreased during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648).

During the 19th century, the industrialization drew many people from the countryside into the growing cities (while many others went overseas at the same time).  The population growth went on until the 1970's, when a temporary opposing movement made people move to the countryside.

Special Research Problems in Big Cities

Is it really the city?

Did an emigrant come from the city which is indicated as his place of origin in an American source?  Many large cities were at the same time the capitals of territories, and their names were at the same time the names of states.

For instance, Hanover as place of origin in an American record usually denotes the kingdom and later Prussian province of that name.  Baden usually means the grand duchy of Baden, not the town of Baden- Baden (formerly just called Baden).  Stuttgart stands for any place in the kingdom of Württemberg, and Berlin may mean anywhere in Prussia, which covered half of Germany from 1866 onwards.

Many parishes

Even before 1800, some cities (Augsburg, Nürnberg) had more than one parish;  in others (Stuttgart, Berlin) the number of parishes was increased as the population increased.  Parishes of nearby villages became city parishes when those villages were swallowed by the expanding city.

In order to locate a birth, marriage or death entry, it is often necessary to check the registers of various parishes.

Many bearers of the same name

Obviously in a city there are more bearers of a certain name than in a village.  This may raise problems when trying to identify someone with the help of an address directory, or when trying to find a death entry whose date is unknown.

Losses of archival records

The bigger cities were the main target of air raids during the war. Therefore, many records in such cities were lost or destroyed.

Difficult administrational structures

Before 1800, many cities had incomprehensible administrative structures. There were many offices whose functions are not evident at first glance. It may be a time-consuming enterprise, for example, to locate an entry concerning a grant of citizenship without knowing which authority made the grant.

Unprofessional archives

Most of the big cities were not required to deliver the bulk of their records to the state archives and keep them in their municipal archives. These are often not attended by good archivists, and many records are not or badly catalogued and this more or less lost.

Special Sources and Research Methods

Address directories

The earliest directories are for Halle an der Saale (1701), K”nigsberg in Preußen (1704), and Berlin and Frankfurt an der Oder (both 1706). They were first published as appendices to annual calendars and were published separately only later.

For most of the medium sized towns, address directories are available from the early or mid-1800's onwards.

These directories indicate when someone is first and last mentioned, who else was living in the same household, and which church was nearby.

Police registration

The registration of all inhabitants, every person of family on a separate sheet, started in the 1790's or early 1800's.  The sheets often include additional documents, such as birth or citizenship certificates, and they indicate the date when someone moved in and out, where he came from and where he went.

The older files (maybe before 1920) are usually kept at the municipal archives and (as in Bavaria) not open to the public, but inquiries on individuals are answered in writing.

Information on current inhabitants can be obtained from an office by the name Einwohnermeldeamt.

Printed vital registers

Some cities (such as Stuttgart from the 1690's onwards) published their vital registers. The entries in the printed version may not be as extended as in the handwritten original. Anyway, the printed version offers an easy consultation for those who do not want to bother with the old handwriting.

From the late 1700's onwards, the newspapers in most cities printed copies of the vital registers.

Abundant sources

In the middle ages, the city administrations started much earlier than countryside offices to write down their negotiations.  Of the 1400's and 1500's, when one may be glad to find occasional mentions of peasants names at all, there may be complete series of tax books, citizenship registers and other sources.

This goes hand in hand with a good preservation, and unless there were losses during the war, the records in the municipal archives survived the early 1800's to a much larger extent than the records of the villages and at the state archives.

For a listing of the published registers of the acquisition of citizenship (Bürgerbücher), see Wolfgang Ribbe and Eckart Henning, Taschenbuch für Familiengeschichtsforschung (10th ed.; Neustadt an der Aisch: Degener, 1990), pp. 138-180.

Indexes to genealogical material

Due to the strong demand, the parish registers and many other genealogical sources have been indexed. Historical bibliographies for many cities are available, which include references to local families.

Special occupations and professions

The bigger cities had a large percentage of officials, professionals and craftsmen. Many entries for craftsmen are found in the guild records, if they happen to be still there.  Details about the life and career of officials are found in their service record (Personalakte), either at the municipal or at the state archives.


Membership in the city nobility (Patriziat) was inherited, so these families kept good records about their descent. This is also true for other families who participated in inheritable rights (in saltworks, for instance).

Quite generally, the higher level of education in the cities produced and left a much higher number of biographical sources, diaries, poem books and other potential genealogical sources than among rural families.

Genealogies of many families of the city nobility have been published. When the special status of the Free Imperial Cities was waived in 1806, the city nobility families were considered to rank as noblemen, and subsequently they intermarried with other noble families.


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