Can you find out if you have German ancestry?

There are various ways to explore and uncover the mysteries of your German ancestral past.

In 1990, the modern-day concept of Germany was born as the Berlin wall fell, reuniting East and West Germany in one of history’s most powerful moments. What many people don’t know is that a little over a century before that, in 1871, Germany first began life as a ‘united nation’, making it relatively young in comparison to Portugal which, at over 3,000 years old, is Europe’s oldest country.

This youth is one of the main obstacles that have to be overcome in the search to find your German ancestors, many of whom beyond 150 years ago might not even have used the word ‘German’. Back then, Germany was a widely spread assortment of kingdoms, dutchies, and free cities, some of which may sound familiar: Bavaria, Prussia, Saxony, Wurttemberg, Baden, Hamburg, Bremen, and many more. Each of these was ruled with its own laws, records of history, and systems of management, making a German ancestry research project more complicated than many would hope

Can you actually find out if you have German ancestry?

Yes! Despite the hurdles mentioned in the intro, there are various ways to explore and uncover the mysteries of your German ancestral past. Here are few things you’ll need:

  1. Any information you know about family names (including translations), hometowns, villages, dates of birth, death, baptism, or marriage, and any surviving paperwork
  2. A willingness to read and fine comb handwritten data - back then, many German recordkeepers hadn’t moved into the columns and rows format, so historical data was written into paragraphs, making the search for key information a more time consuming one
  3. Lots of persistence - many records have been destroyed by fires, floods, wars, and disposals over the centuries, meaning the document that might once have existed is now lost to the past
  4. A good translator - some parts of what is now Germany once kept records in Latin and French, whereas some used an antiquated version of German., With fancy handwriting styles too, it can be quite hard to decipher what is written.
  5. Many Germans translated their names to English when they emigrated - Zimmerman became Carpenter, Müller became Miller, Koch became Cook, and so on. The same happened to place names, which makes things even more chaotic!

We warn you, it won’t be as easy as some other international ancestries, with these being some examples of reasons you might be thrown off your search:

- In some parts of Germany a patronymic system typically found in Scandinavia, meant that sons took their father’s names. For example, Jan Schmidt’s son would have the surname Jansen

- A change of calendar system may also hinder your efforts, sorry to be the bearer of bad news! In the older calendar, the year began in March, the yearly structure was different, and Roman numerals were commonly used, as were holy days as points of reference.

Historically and genetically speaking, what is a German?

German is an ethnicity forged by the combination of the early Germanic peoples of Central Europe, of which there are around 100 different documented groups, including:

  1. Franks
  2. Saxons
  3. Frisians
  4. Thuringii
  5. Alemanni
  6. Baiuvarii (Bavarian)
  7. Burgundians
  8. Jutes
  9. See more

In modern terms, Germans and Austrians are seen as brothers due to a shared language, however, when we look at genetics, Austrians are actually more similar to Hungarians than Germans. Modern-day Germans have such a diverse and interesting mix of haplogroups and genetic markers that it’s hard to pinpoint them, however, the three most common are:

- R1b - Celtic, Basque, Italic, Frisian, Saxon

- L1 - Germanic (Nordic)

- L2b - Germanic (Saxon)

What are the best ways to find out about your German ancestry?

  1. Ask your living family members for everything they know, have, or remember, and keep asking, because jogging their memory may help them to remember more
  2. The best information you can have is the birthplace of your ancestor and their name, whether anglicised, translated, or not. You may be able to try multiple variations and find what you are looking for. If your ancestors emigrated to the US, there will be passenger lists to help your search. Once you have the name of the town, try to find it, and if it doesn’t exist anymore, look for the new name or where it once stood
  3. Census records are available from 1871 onwards, although there’s no central database so finding them may involve local searches, or approaching the Family History Library
  4. German Parish Registers in some areas go back to the 15th century, providing a record of who lived in the area

Take an ancestry test with LivingDNA. We are able to provide information about recent ancestry, sub-regional ancestry, extended ancestry, and DNA matches on our system.

How can I confirm my German ancestry suspicions?

If you believe you have some German ancestry, we recommend purchasing a full ancestry DNA kit from us and uncovering truths from the past through your genes. The information provided about your ancestors may aid your continued search or provide the final conclusion to what you have already found.