Highlights: Chapter 4: The History of Germanic Lands

In understanding one’s German ancestors one has to understand the history of Germany. That is where Chapter 4 of The Family Tree German Genealogy Guide comes in. James Beidler gives an overview of the complicated history of 2,000 years of moving borders and times of war and religious upheaval. Wars and peace time brought moving borders, changing alliances, changing religious affiliations, and many events that affected the lives of those living in Germanic-speaking areas. To us it was history, but to our ancestors it was current events that helped shape their ultimate decision to leave the country of their birth. If you want to know about how your ancestors lived you have to understand what was going on in the country and what would have affected them. Below are quotes from this chapter that highlight the history of Germany.

James Beidler mentions at the beginning of the chapter three points:

  • “Germany wasn’t unified until 1871

  • “Many small states preceded the united Germany and some German-speaking areas were or are a part of France, Poland, Austria, or other nations.”

  •  “People of the German States had to follow the religion of their rulers”. (p. 59)


 He then goes into a short history highlighting the history of Germany, but especially pertaining to the changing borders and why some records are available, and others are not. He starts with the tribes during the invasion of Rome, establishing that “In the chaos during and after Rome’s fall, the tribes established rough, decentralized feudal mini-states throughout western Europe…” (P. 62) This decentralized states of German speaking peoples lasted in many various forms until 1871, so almost 2,000 years. He goes into the Holy Roman Empire and the rule of Charlemagne, but highlights that, after Charlemagne, “The Carolingian version of the Holy Roman Empire began to divide in the very next generation, however when Louis the Pious’ sons partitioned the holdings among themselves: Charles the Bald received areas that would form France, the share of Louis the German, (also called Ludwig) was known then as “East Francia” but later would be the core of present-day Germany; and their brother Lothair was given a trip of land between Charles and Ludwig that eventually was divided by successors of the other brother (the only remnant of the “Middle Francia” became known as Lorraine, called Lothringen in Germany, in memory of its first ruler)”. (p 63)

 A lot of the history of Germany is border changes, wars won and lost, but Beidler also discusses the social hierarchy that lasted longer in Germany than most of other countries in Europe, that of feudalism. Feudalism was “a social order in which virtually every commoner was bound in some way to a superior-peasants to knights, knights to local lords, local lords to higher nobility such as counts, princes, dukes, and kings and those higher nobles to emperor. In exchanged for being bound as serfs, the commoners received some measure of military and economic protection of their “betters”. While this social structure began dying out in other countries, it remained the social order in the German states well into modern times. (p. 63)

below are some more quotes from the book. I highly suggest that you read Chapter 4 for more information or other books on the history of Germany to get a better idea of what your ancestors lives were like.

  •  The Thirty Years War occurred in the second half of the 16th century. “This War began when Bohemia rejected Ferdinand as their king in a most interesting way: The Bohemian officials threw two of Ferdinand’s officials out a third story window of the hall where they were meeting. It was a highly destructive war that turned the German states into a battle ground for a generation, severely altering everyday life for many common people. Many farming areas were ruined, and some villages were entirely wiped out as a result of this long conflict…. The Thirty Years War also destroyed many records; for example, relatively few German church books date from earlier than the end of the conflict.” The peace that came after the war put the Lutheran religion “on equal par with Lutherans and Catholics”. The peace didn’t stop the “fragmenting of states”. In the Holy Roman Empire there were 1600 political entities, “Some no larger than a city, others consisting of several disconnected pieces and relatively few large enough to sustain full economic independence. The depopulation from the wars “led rulers to make invitations to people from other areas to become their subjects; for example, the Elector of the Pfalz solicited Swiss farmers from their mountainous domains to bring his domain back into cultivation. “(p. 67)

  • “The Second half of the 1700s also saw many German-speakers immigrate to the Russian Empire at the invitation of Catherine the Great (who was born a German Princess in Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornberg). These German enclaves in Russia endured until the twentieth century. He goes on to say that “as much as 85 percent of the emigration from German States in the 1700s went east, rather than west to America. Those 15 percent to went west to North America totaled about eighty thousand people who became the ancestors of millions of people living in America today.” (p. 68).

  • “The nobility for their part, discouraged emigration because in this pre-capitalistic society, they looked at their population as part of their wealth. Among the creative laws to tamp down the urge to leave was a requirement to prepay taxes on future inheritances (some of these tax records have survived). Those who chose to leave legally had to pay an “exit tax” on any property they took with them to be released from their serfdom. It is estimated that between a quarter and a third of those leaving for America in the 18thcentury left illegally—often under cover of night—but sometimes still turn up in later German records. “(p. 69)

  • “The balance of powers was altered profoundly by the French Revolutionary Wars. …” France went on the offensive in 1794 and overran the German States west of the Rhine River… A happy byproduct was that the French, who had intruded civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths within France starting in 1792, required the occupied German states also to keep such records, (p. 70). …Napoleon enticed most of the remaining German states to secede from the Holy Roman Empire and form the Confederation of the Rhine in 1806. (p. 73).

  • Prussia was awarded Sachsen, the Rhineland, Westfalen, and Wittgenstein, making their holdings as significant as Austria. (p. 72)


  • Prussia’s” King Friedrich Wilhelm IV had gone from initially promising major republican reforms to imposing his own version of a constitution on the Prussian people. (P. 73)


  • Otto von Bismarck “engineered three wars to move Preussen from this emerging preeminence among the German states to the formation of a second German empire or Reich. First, he defeated Denmark in the second war of Schleswig in 1864 and added the Danish border duchies of Schleswig and Holstein to Prussia. In 1870 Bismarck engineered his final war—The Franco -Prussian was and it would prove to be the confirming catalyst for German Unity. … Bismarck offered the Southern German states some of the concessions of the war on the condition that they agreed to be unified as part of the new empire.