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German Family (Heritage) Books

Lately, I have become very interested in genealogy research as have many other people judging from the numerous websites, databases, guides, and other resources dedicated to that topic. To get my family history research started, I interviewed my parents who directed me to our family (heritage) book.

What are Family Books?

In Germany, events like births, marriages, and deaths must be registered within a certain time frame with the local registrar. (Personal Status Act, § 15). For every marriage that was registered between December 31, 1957 and January 1, 2009, the local registrar’s office would automatically start a paper family “book” – index cards in DIN-A4 format that contained a collection of documents of several personal status events. It included the relevant data with regard to the marriage as well as the names of the parents of the couple. Subsequent events like name changes, the birth of a common child, or the dissolution of the marriage were added to the family book. When a couple moved to a different town, the family book “moved” with them, meaning that it was mailed to the respective registrar’s office in their new domicile. In 2007, there were an estimated 20 million (!) family books in Germany and the number was continuously growing. As people were becoming more and more mobile, family books were constantly mailed from one place to the next – a requirement that was very cost-intensive and impractical. As a result, the German Personal Status Act was amended and paper family books were abolished. Today, all personal status books are kept electronically.

Are Family Books the Same as Family Heritage Books?

Family books are oftentimes confused with family heritage books. Family heritage books contain a collection of private personal status documents that can be requested at the registrar’s office. Most couples order a family heritage book from the registrar’s office when they get married. (In Germany, only civil marriages performed in front of the registrar are legally recognized. (Civil Code, § 1310, 1311)). In addition to the marriage certificate, birth certificates of common children and death certificates are added. The registrars used to fill in the information by hand, but nowadays the information will either be typed in or a certified copy of the respective document will be glued into the family heritage book. Unofficial documents may be added to the book, like a child’s baptismal certificate. Official documents are indicated by a red frame around the edges. In addition to the personal status documents, family heritage books often contain a summary of relevant family and inheritance law provisions and a list with suggested baby names and their meanings.

German Family Heritage Books. / Photo by Jenny Gesley.

My parents gave me two family heritage books; one dating from the 1930s and the other one from the 1960s. The design of the family heritage book, the German eagle with intertwined wedding rings, was created in 1921 and registered with the German Patent and Trade Mark Office. I was particularly intrigued by the family law section at the end of the family heritage book. It was interesting to see how the law has evolved over time.

One section on the “profession of the wife” in the 1930s book stated:

Whether or not the wife may pursue a career will depend on the particular circumstances of the marriage. She is obligated to help out in her husband’s business to the extent that this is customary in the couple’s household. If the wife agrees to perform services for a third party without the husband’s consent, he is allowed to terminate this employment relationship with the authorization of the guardianship court.

Another section on “adultery” read:

If a marriage is dissolved due to adultery, the adulterous spouse as well as the accomplice will be subject to a term of imprisonment of up to six months. The crime is only prosecuted upon request. A spouse that was divorced due to adultery is not allowed to marry the accomplice if it is pronounced in the judgment that the divorce was due to adultery. The president of the higher regional court may grant an exemption from this impediment to marriage…

The 1960s book was already more progressive and described a marriage as an “intimate union of completely equal partners”. The obedience that a wife used to owe her husband was replaced with the necessity of mutual understanding. Both spouses were declared to be responsible for supporting the family, although the book pointed out that it would generally still be the husband who earns a living. It was noted though that there have been cases in which the woman works and the husband stays at home!

The 1960s book also contained an amusing description of the reasons for a termination of a marriage. It stated that a marriage generally ends upon the death of one of the spouses. However, the book acknowledged that “the government must take the imperfections of mankind into account” and therefore allow other reasons to terminate a marriage while the spouses are still alive…

As I am continuing with my genealogy research, I am still hopeful that I will unearth some famous dead relative, maybe even royal blood. Isn’t every European a descendant of Charlemagne anyway?

One Comment

  1. Kurt Carroll
    November 9, 2017 at 5:02 pm

    Nice post on a fun hobby! Also look into the Village/Town Family Books which are printed (no handwriting to decipher!) and contain histories of all families in a village. These were a great help to me for mid-19th century Saarland.

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