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“The Germans and Germany,” by Angus Baxter (Part One)

"The Germans and Germany," by Angus Baxter

[This article is condensed from the chapter by the same name in the 5th Edition of Mr. Baxter’s classic how-to book, In Search of Your German Roots. Readers should note that, in the interest of brevity, a number of tables in the book which describe the migration and distribution of the German population and the contemporary archival holdings of other nations that have a bearing on German genealogy have been omitted from this except.]

The development and coalescence of the German nation took many centuries. The word “Deutsch” (German) was first used in the eighth century, but it only referred to the spoken language of the area known as eastern Franconia. This empire reached its height of importance under the Emperor Charlemagne (Karl der Grosse), and after his death in 814 it disintegrated. The western section eventually became the area we now know as France. The eastern section varied in area over the centuries, but the main area–the heartland–became known as the Deutschland (the land of the Germans). By 911 the Duke of Franconia was elected King of the Franks, and later King of the Romans. By the 11th century the area became known as the Roman Empire, and by the 13th the Holy Roman Empire. In the 15th century the words “German nation” were added.

Before and during all of these dynastic and political events, the German tribes overran most of the original Roman Empire as far east as the Elbe River–beyond it were the fierce Slavic tribes. During this period the tribes took firm root in what we now know as Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, northern Italy, the Netherlands, and the Baltic states. They were also invited into Transylvania by the Hungarian king in 1150. Siebenburgen–the German name for Transylvania–derives from the seven fortified towns established by the Germans. Although they came from the Rhine and Moselle areas, they were known as “Saxons.” Some 5,000 settlers were given as much land as they could cultivate and allowed to retain their own customs and language. Some did not stay long but moved south into the area known as the Banat, or west into Hungary proper. After eight centuries their descendants are still in Transylvania. However, there are now only some half-million of them, since the rest fled to Germany when the Communists took over after the Second World War. 

During this period there were also smaller migrations to Schlesien (Silesia), which is now divided between the Czech Republic and Poland, and to Bessarabia–until 1945 Romanian and now largely in Moldova. In the reign of the empress Maria Theresa of Austria (1740-1780) many Germans–the so-called Danubian Swabians–migrated to four areas of Hungary: Bacska, the Banat, the Kingdom of Croatia, and part of Slovakia. A number of these settlers later moved into Ukraine, Bessarabia, and other areas of southern Russia. Others, like the Zipsers, settled in Slovakia.

After the First Partition of Poland in 1772, Frederick the Great of Prussia (1740-1786) settled West Prussia and the area around Bromberg with German immigrants from Wurttemberg and Baden-Durlach. 

In the middle of the 18th century, the empress Catherine the Great of Russia (1762-1796) invited all foreigners who possessed skills of some kind to come to her country as settlers and colonists. In cases of financial hardship, the cost of transportation was paid. In addition, all settlers received a loan of money toward the cost of building a house and buying livestock and farm or trade equipment, with repayment required in ten years.

The proclamation of the empress was distributed throughout Europe but did not meet with any great response except in the Germanic area and, to a much smaller degree, Sweden. Most of the colonists came from Hesse (Hessen) and the Rhineland, but all German-speaking areas were represented in varying numbers.

The areas opened up for settlement by the empress were under-populated and open to frequent attacks by the Ottoman Turks. The Germans, for their part, were eager to settle for a variety of reasons. Germany as we know it today did not exist. It was a vast conglomeration of 1,789 kingdoms, principalities, grand duchies, dukedoms, electorates, free states, and free cities–down to tiny independent states of a few hectares. Men were dragged off into various warring armies, women and children were raped or killed or both, agriculture was ruined by the constant wars, and people starved. There was also religious persecution, high taxes, civil disturbances, and in many areas a high population density. Life was miserable and dangerous for ordinary people, and it was no wonder the grass in the next field looked much greener.

The whole story is documented in a remarkable two-volume work by a very remarkable man, Dr. Karl Stumpp. It is entitled “The Emigration from Germany to Russia 1763-1862” and was published by the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia (AHSGR). This work lists the names of some 50,000 German settlers, with their places of origin and settlement. 

When the German armies invaded the USSR in 1941, they were welcomed by the majority of the Germans living in Ukraine. When the Wehrmacht retreated in 1942, many of the German settlers left too, fearing reprisals from the Red Army, and they were wise. They made their way back to Germany, the fatherland their ancestors had left more than a century before, and those left behind in Ukraine were killed or imprisoned.

Millions of Germans in other areas of Europe became refugees after the Second World War. In 1945 Czechoslovakia regained the Sudetenland. This German-speaking area had been taken from Austria in 1919. In 1938 it was reunited with Germany. After 1945 the three-and-a-half million German inhabitants were expelled and their property and possessions confiscated. Other refugees from Poland and the USSR brought the total number of Germans returning home to over 13 million.

Quite apart from the mass movements of population shown above, there was, of course, a continual movement to and from the multitude of German states before and after unification in 1871. Most of these movements of individuals were recorded, and the records are in the various state archives. If a man wished to move from Hannover to Brunswick, for example, he would notify the Hannover police of his impending departure and his destination. On arrival in Brunswick he had to report to the police within three days. They, in turn, notified the Hannover police that he had arrived.

Although these tremendous upheavals will have a major effect on your ancestor-hunting, you must also become aware of other problems ahead. For example, there are large numbers of Germans still in Denmark, Belgium, and Alsace (Elsass), and many German speakers in the South Tirol–now in Italy.

In addition, you must consider the “lost territories” of Germany and what has happened to their genealogical records. These territories consist of the following areas:

To Belgium: In 1919 Eupen, Malmedy, and Moresnet

To Czechoslovakia: In 1945 the western part of Silesia (Schlesien)

To Denmark: In 1920 North Schleswig

To France: In 1919 Alsace (Elsass)

To Poland: In 1945 the eastern parts of Brandenburg, Pomerania (Pommern), the southern part of East Prussia (Ostpreussen), Posen, the western part of Silesia (Schlesien), West Prussia (Westpreussen), and Danzig

To the USSR: In 1945 the northern part of East Prussia (Ostpreussen) and Memel