What is genealogy and what it means


genealogy (Alt GR.geneá 'Ancestry' as well as genesis 'Origin' and lógos , Customer, teaching, word ‘) in the broader sense denotes the genetic connection of a group of living beings, in the narrower sense family history research, popularly genealogy, which is an auxiliary historical science.

Genealogy is concerned with the descent of a living being from other living beings. In animal breeding, it is the prerequisite for an ancestry assessment. People involved in human genealogy are called genealogists.

In a figurative sense, one speaks of genealogy as a historical method that focuses on various contemporary issues (e.g. morality, psychiatry, sexual orientation, personal identity) and researches and analyzes their historical genesis. The changing conceptions or ideas of these facts are less in the foreground, but the surrounding disciplines that constitute these facts. Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, reconstructs how morality is not derived from absolute values, but is merely something that has become (and therefore contingent) in the course of history. (Friedrich Nietzsche: On the genealogy of morals).

Subject of genealogy

Starting from a certain person as a test person, one researches in the genealogy the descent in ascending line and thus the ancestors (also: ancestors; hence the popular name "genealogy") of this person; or in descending line their descendants. People who are genealogically related are related. As soon as the description of the connections goes beyond the representation of the descent, one speaks of "family history research".

An independent field of knowledge for family researchers is name research, which examines the origin, distribution and meaning of family names.

Presentation of the results

Family tree of the Bluntschli family

The research results are presented in genealogical boards that occur with both ascending (ascending, ancestor) and descending (descending, descending) contents. Both directions can be in the form of a table or a list.

With the ascending line one speaks of a pedigree or ancestor list, with the descending line of descendants or descendants list. A combination of both tables, in which all ancestors and descendants of a selected person are shown, are generally also called "hourglass" tables due to their shape.

Are only the descendants of a person recorded who have the same family name or who have had the same family name or who were married to these persons (although strict adherence to this rule is not always possible, for example due to name changes, adoption, foreign naming rights and others), so it is a family tree or family list. In reference works, the family name is a sorting criterion and thus the family tree or family list is the natural form of representation, also in family histories. In monographs dealing with a specific person and their descendants, tables and lists of descendants predominate.

Whether the table or list form is selected for the presentation of genealogical results depends, among other things, on how extensive the data material is and how clearly it is to be presented. Basically, the more generations to be shown, the more likely it is to use the list form.

In addition to the representation of the ancestors or descendants alone, one knows:

  • Consanguinity tables and consanguinity lists (also known as kinship or kin tables), in which all blood relatives are shown starting from a test person, both in ascending and descending order, with consequent increased problems with the representation, as well as
  • Affinity tables and affinity lists that, in addition to consanguinity, also include persons in law and their families in the display.

The family relationships of the inhabitants of a place are shown in a place family book; limited to the homeowner only, in a house book.

Research methods

The interest in genealogy usually comes from one's own family. You start with questions to parents, grandparents and relatives about family relationships and the origin of the ancestors. Family books, family photos and a possibly still existing ancestral passport provide further information. In some regions, the tradition of death cards or death notes has existed for decades, which are ideal for genealogical research, as they often contain a photo of the deceased as well as dates of birth and death as well as other information (names of relatives, name at birth, references to the Type of death etc.) included. In addition, especially in the younger generations, you will also find something in the cemetery. There are also often interesting dates on the graves. Photos, documentary evidence and documents as well as the biographies or life pictures of the grandparents, great-grandparents and other relatives are the basis for a family chronicle.

However, further research requires dealing with the sources. This requires specialist knowledge that cannot be studied and that every genealogist acquires in the course of his research.

Research on older sources such as church registers or court books requires the ability to read ancient scriptures (see palaeography) and, in Catholic areas, mostly knowledge of Latin. Variability of family names and an extensive marriage circle of the persons to be researched must be taken into account. Research sometimes comes to the so-called dead point that needs to be overcome. With the doubling of the number of ancestors in each generation, the image of personal ancestry expands to include topics such as home history, social history, economic history and population history of entire places (see local family book) or regions.

Instead of your own, you can also research the ancestors and descendants of historical personalities or outstanding representatives of certain professional groups. At a more mature stage, the researcher comes to ever greater accuracy and detail in the collection of the data. For example, one can include the siblings of the ancestors, their spouses, their children and the social status of their respective in-laws, which makes scientific secondary analyzes of the data meaningful and particularly meaningful.

The basic problem of data collection and presentation in genealogy, which is largely carried out by lay researchers, is to qualify and motivate the researchers to such an extent that the data collected meet the criteria of quality and scientific quality and are seen as part of a larger whole.

Special questions


Family table of the emperors of the German Empire
Gatterer's manual of 1763

“There was more genealogy among people than history,” said the historian Johann Christoph Gatterer (1727–1799), who in 1788 made one Outline of the genealogy published. In the ancient civilizations, the genealogy of heroes and kings was the form of historical chronology par excellence (think of the first chapters of the Bible). The early medieval genealogy was above all a history of the lineage of the high nobility. The nobility as a whole needed proof of parentage in order to assert property claims or to prove qualification for certain offices.

It was only at the turn of the modern age that wealthy middle-class families began to write down their ancestors. The guilds required a birth certificate from every foreigner who wanted to learn or practice a trade in the city. With the clubs The Herald (1869, Berlin) and The Eagle (1870, Vienna) the first genealogical associations for heraldry and genealogy emerged. 1902 was The Roland founded in Dresden as the first civil association in the world.

At the same time, the parentage assessment in animal breeding developed. Since the 18th century, stud books have also been kept for racehorses, for example, followed later by herd books for numerous farm animal breeds.

At the turn of the 20th century genealogy began to develop in breadth and depth. The Gotha Genealogical Pocket Books ("Almanach de Gotha" or "Der Gotha" for short), which originally appeared as a court calendar in Gotha since 1763 and were published by the Justus Perthes publishing house in Gotha from September 1785 (until 1944), are now also open to bourgeois families and indicated their origins, partly from rural and other roots. In 1904 the Central Office for German Personal and Family History was founded in Leipzig. In 1913 the “Handbook of Practical Genealogy” appeared. In this pioneering time, the young genealogy was shaped by forward-looking and interdisciplinary thinking personalities who wanted to put genealogy in the service of the social sciences. In genealogy, which is largely based on lay research, there was little response to these suggestions. In the twenties, the anthropologist Walter Scheidt and his colleagues began to evaluate church records in terms of population genetics, for which he sought the collaboration of genealogists. Encouraged by several pastors, a line of work began to emerge under the heading of folk genealogy that no longer only focused on the genealogy of the wealthy classes, but on the entire population. Even before 1933 there were a large number of regional genealogical associations and journals in the German-speaking area. In her lectures and publications a naivete about catchphrases like heredity, race and homeland was common.

From 1933 National Socialist politics tried determinedly to bring the genealogical associations into line, and genealogy was placed in the service of blood and soil ideology and anti-Semitism. The law on civil servants required proof of so-called Aryan descent (for example through the ancestral passport), and genealogy became research on clans. In 1939, work on village clan books was carried out in 3,000 communities. In 1934 the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Genealogy and Demography was founded in Munich, where a series of papers on the inheritance of mental illnesses, but also the genealogy of gifted people, were completed.

Karl Förster (1873-1931) recognized the need to better organize genealogical lay research and to collect data centrally for research purposes. As early as 1921 he founded the ancestral list circulation, the data of which was incorporated into the ancestral index of the German people. These factual achievements could not prevent genealogy (the vernacular actually only spoke of genealogical research for the purpose of Aryan evidence) from being increasingly viewed as an accompanying phenomenon of the Third Reich. This had the catastrophic consequence that in 1945 almost the entire organizational basis of genealogy was dissolved.

Until then, the development of the factual references of genealogy to population history, economic history and social history in the German-speaking area had a lead in time, after 1945 new impulses came from France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Great Britain and the USA, where family history research is in has become a widespread leisure activity over the past few decades. The Utah Genealogical Society took on an international organizational leadership and leadership role in the use of computers in genealogy. Around 1950 the genealogists in Germany and Austria began to reactivate old associations, publishers and magazines from the time before 1933 or to found new ones. In 1969 the first working group on genealogy was founded in the GDR in Magdeburg as part of the cultural association.

Although "International Genealogy Congresses" have been taking place since 1929, the emphatically regional and national language character of the sources has prevented the development of an international and theoretically comprehensive genealogy. Undoubtedly, however, the development of genealogical computer programs has an increasingly international character.

Computer genealogy

With the boom of the Internet, genealogy has also experienced a strong boom. Worldwide contacts between researchers can be established quickly and inexpensively through the medium of the Internet. In genealogical databases on the Internet today there are many millions of researched pedigrees and family trees to be found. With GEDCOM, a standard for the mapping and structuring of genealogical data has also been established that is supported by a large number of genealogical programs.

With some genealogists the attitude is observed that this way of working is genealogy itself; and it is sometimes neglected that the material for such databases can only be created through thorough work on the sources.

Data protection and viral marketing

Some American and also German companies use the topic of genealogy to determine personal data inexpensively. Users of web portals enter addresses and dates of birth about their relatives - but these are misused in the course of viral marketing or by affiliate networks. In this way, unusually large amounts of personal data about living and deceased persons can be marketed. Data protection law often does not apply here if, for example, the user has consented to cross-border processing in the terms and conditions; thus German law is not applicable.

Genealogical clubs and societies

Supraregional organizations

In the German-speaking area there are around 100 genealogical associations, mostly specialized in geographical regions, the majority of which are the umbrella organization founded in 1949 German Working Group on Genealogical Associations (DAGV), who succeeded Working group of German family and coat of arms associations which was founded in 1924.

The following is responsible for national interests of general importance and the topic of computer genealogy in particular:

This association focuses on the publication of genealogical research results on the Internet. In addition to many databases, there is also a wiki that deals exclusively with genealogy: GenWiki

Regional associations

The genealogists often join associations in the regions where their ancestors come from. If you live in another area yourself today, you are usually a member of the genealogical association or homeland association of your place of residence and of the association that is responsible for the home of your ancestors.

The largest and most active regional genealogical associations include:

  • West German Society for Family Studies (WGfF),> 2065 members
  • Herold, Association for Heraldry, Genealogy and Related Sciences in Berlin e. V. Around 1000 members
  • Association for Family and Heraldry in Württemberg and Baden e.V. (VFWKWB), 1331 members
  • Society for Family Research in Franconia e.V. (GFF),> 1000 members
  • Working Group for Central German Family Research (AMF),> 800 members
  • Lower Saxony State Association for Family Studies,> 500 members
  • Hessian Family History Association (HFV),> 900 members
  • Bavarian State Association for Family Studies (BLF),> 800 members
  • Genealogical Society Hamburg e.V. (GGHH),> 600 members
  • Die Maus, Society for Family Research e.V. Bremen. > 650 members
  • Genealogical-Heraldic Society of the Basel Region (GHGRB. > 500 members
  • Heraldic Genealogical Society "Adler" in Vienna ≈ 700 members
  • Schleswig Holsteinische Familienforschung e.V., ≈ 300 members
  • Genealogical-Heraldic Society Bern,> 300 members

Several associations are responsible for the regions that belonged to the German-speaking area until the 20th century, including:

  • Association for Family Research in East and West Prussia e.V. (VFFOW),> 1000 members
  • Working Group of East German Family Researchers (AGoFF),> 900 members
  • Working Group for Transylvanian Cultural Studies (AKSL) ≈ 850 members
  • Association of Sudeten German Family Researchers (VSFF) > 500 members
  • Working Group of Danube Swabian Family Researchers (AKdFF) > 700 members

Associations with special research topics

Other associations are dedicated to the descendants of refugees who came to Germany because of religious persecution, for example:

  • German Huguenot Society
  • Salzburg Association

Clubs abroad

There are also associations abroad whose members research their ancestors in Germany, for example:

  • Werkgroep Genealogisch Onderzoek Duitsland
  • Centraal Bureau voor Genealogie (Nederland)
  • Nederlandse Genealogische Vereniging

Family associations

In addition, there are also family associations and clubs in which the descendants of a specific person, the bearers of a family name or people who are related to one another are organized, such as:

Sources for genealogists

Central Europe is one of those parts of the world in which suitable sources for family history research have been available since the 16th century in the form of church registers and court trade books, and since the end of the 18th century also in the form of civil status books, in which the main life dates for every person have been available can be proven, provided that the relevant sources have not been destroyed.

Immigrant passenger list

Other important source groups of genealogy are, for example, citizen registers, funeral sermons or personal documents, university registers, parish registers, wills and other files from which the relationship of the people to one another or at least - so that the dead point of the research can be overcome - their hometown is recognizable, such as the passenger lists of the emigrant ships from the 19th and 20th centuries and the muster lists. Another group of sources are lists and files that prove the existence of people in a specific place and time and their social position, such as tax lists and address books. Often these and other sources are only available for certain population groups, such as the social upper class.

Aids were then developed on the basis of the sources already mentioned and other sources: cards, files and books. This includes the local family books, house books, property chronicles and servant books, but also the ancestral index of the German people.


Page from a baptismal register of a Protestant parish from 1660 to 1759

The parish registers are in the parish archives of the respective parish and denomination. In some territories the originals of the church registers or their copies and film adaptations are concentrated in central archives and accessible there for use. These central archives can be church or state archives, in the responsible diocese, such as in Münster, in the responsible regional church archive, such as in Kassel, or in the archives based on an agreement with the church in the regional archive, such as in Innsbruck for Tyrol the Swiss cantons and Alsace. The respective responsibility and the storage location must be determined in each case.

The court trade books and other important sources can be found in the responsible state archives, other source groups in the city archives. Since 1875 there have been registry offices in Germany in which the civil status registers are kept.

Ancestral research has an important religious meaning in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (→ Mormons). Therefore, the Utah Genealogical Society microfilm church records and other genealogically important documents. These church record films can also be viewed by non-members at many Family Genealogy Centers around the world.

Numerous church book adaptations, especially from the former East German regions, can also be found in the German Central Office for Genealogy in Leipzig.

Scientific working method and meaning

Since scientific research requires representativeness for many questions, genealogical sources were considered unsuitable for a long time. For example, in the work of Jacques Dupaquier on the social history of France, representative samples were collected, with Dupaquier based on master lists.

For genealogists, too, the scientific nature of working methods means the objectivity of research, regardless of the person who conducts it. This means that ancestry can only be considered proven if other researchers, who start from the available sources, have to arrive at the same results. If there are doubts and uncertainties, these are to be marked as such in the ancestral lists etc. Calculated values ​​or mere assumptions must be recognizable as such.

Even established academic disciplines usually do not have permanent supervisory bodies, but rather require all researchers to strive for truthfulness. The criterion that separates the researcher from the fantasist (for example with an unknown father for an illegitimate child) or even the cheater is the repeatability of the parentage verification by other researchers. Careful work, for example by including new, previously unknown sources and methods (see also paternity report) can in individual cases lead to revisions of ancestry that was previously considered to be sufficiently proven.

Family tree with job titles

There is a mutual relationship between conceptual history and genealogy that has so far received little attention. Because language and concepts are changeable in space and time, over which genealogical research extends. Family names, place names, field names, job titles, relatives, legal terms and ethnographic terms - including the formulas used by pastors to denounce premarital sexual intercourse and illegitimate birth - are contained in thousands of good lists of ancestors. For example, if you map out the names of the occupations from hundreds of such lists, separated decade by decade, then the regional distribution, for example for the names of farmers and the change in terms, can be proven, which in turn is the prerequisite for correct classification of social history.

The genealogist can help to increase the informative value of his work by reproducing information on different spellings of family names and occupations etc. in his work true to the source and not modernizing or overly generalizing them. This includes some experience of local history and a sure instinct: to differentiate between "baker" and "becker" is almost meaningless, "butcher" from "butcher" is significant in terms of language and concept and the line between "Wagner" and "Stellmacher" even separates dialects. Spaces.

Family relationships can be illustrated with the help of genograms.

Genealogy and Inheritance

Inheritance of hemophilia on the example of Queen Victoria of Great Britain

The beginning of the 20th century was shaped by the naive idea that genealogical data could make a direct contribution to clarifying the inheritance of numerous characteristics (“genetic genealogy”). One simply took given linguistic wholes for psychological variables, such as “ambition” and “good faith”, just as one took “blonde hair” and “blue eyes”, and examined the inheritance of “ambition” and “good faith”.

Serious results could not be achieved with these methods, since the effects of upbringing and other environmental influences on the development of psychological properties are neglected. Only a few, mostly monogenic characteristics (such as hemophilia) follow a genealogically traceable inheritance. In the case of many more complex (polygenic) issues, it has proven difficult or so far impossible to identify individual gene effects.

Local history and genealogy

Most of the time, the genealogist is not only familiar with the local history of certain areas, but also captures a living image of history in his work and explores the historical heritage. In almost every list of ancestors, the ancestors accumulate in certain communities in the 16th to 18th centuries, and even make up a considerable percentage of the population in some villages. Basic knowledge of local history is therefore indispensable for the classification and evaluation of professions, the purchase prices of goods and houses, or concepts related to the landscape. In many cases, the existing literature on local history (chronicles; supplements in daily newspapers; series of values ​​from our German homeland) is a valuable genealogical source, in other cases the genealogist is working on the local family book, the local chronicle or compiling local history contributions and portraits of life. Local history connected with genealogy and with personal reference to the present is not an abstract history. The connection of people, events, dates, houses and the living conditions of the past with their social conflicts and struggles, often with the inclusion of legends of origin, creates a comprehensive picture.

Permanent backup of genealogical results

Safeguarding requires the permanent storage of research results that is accessible to the public.

Of all the materials compiled by genealogists in the 20th century (lists of ancestors, church book mapping, etc.), half are likely to have been destroyed and lost in the meantime. With the current state of computer-aided printing and copier technology that is accessible to everyone, this should no longer be a problem today.

If the publication of the work in a magazine or book series does not make sense or is possible, at least half a dozen printouts or copies of the original should be made of each genealogical work. The German Library (which also has funds available for partial reimbursement of costs for such submissions) should and must receive two of them, one copy belongs in the responsible state library of the respective federal state, one in the German Central Office for Genealogy in Leipzig, and further copies in the regional responsible state archive, the responsible rectory (in the case of a local family book) and at least one important regional scientific library and a city archive. This distribution key for the locations should be indicated on the title page at the top right. If such works that are not available in bookshops are cited, the location should always be stated.

In the estate, suitable materials (i.e. ordered and provided with a list of sources) should be handed over to archives, museums or libraries based on clear, written specifications made during their lifetime. According to all experiences, materials remaining in private ownership (with the biological heirs) for public use and thus for further research are often completely lost. Even card files, even if they get into archives, are unique as they are not protected against disorder and theft of individual cards. Their use is tied to a single location and is therefore more difficult. Here, too, a coherent manuscript with several printouts is the safest solution. This is the only way to make the immense work usable for further research. File files that end up in any archive as a disordered legacy often remain undetectable and practically lost for decades.

Securing does not only mean safekeeping, but above all guaranteeing further public use, which for the genealogist was also the prerequisite for his own work.

On the subject of securing the genealogical results of European noble families, see WW-Person.


  • Eduard Heydenreich: Handbook of Practical Genealogy. 2 volumes. 2nd Edition. Degener, Leipzig 1913 (digitized volume 1)
  • Helmut Ivo: Family research made easy (instructions, methods, tips). ISBN 3-492-24606-0
  • Astrid Küntzel, Yvonne Leiverkus: Genealogy for the ages? Family research, history and archives together in the digital age, in: Archivar, Vol. 61 (2008), pp. 48f., ISSN 0003-9500
  • Eckart Henning, Wolfgang Ribbe: Handbook of Genealogy. Neustadt / Aisch 1972
  • Association for Computer Genealogy (Ed.): Genealogy - on the trail of ancestors. A guide for beginners and advanced users. ISBN 3-9808739-4-3 (content)
  • Wolfgang Ribbe, Eckart Henning: Family history research paperback. 13th edition. Degener, Neustadt / Aisch 2006, ISBN 3-7686-1065-9 (standard work)
  • Joachim Wolters: Family and family tree research made easy. ISBN 3-442-13677-6

See also

Web links

Individual evidence