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Visiting archives in Germany: a guide to discovering and using them: What you need to know

This guide is designed to help you finding your way through German archives and to enable you identifying exactly what you need for your research - quick and easy.

Archives on the web

On the pages of "Discover German Archives" you find lists of the most important German archives that have a website.
Far from all archives, however, have one. Quite possibly you will only get a postal address off the internet for some of the smaller archives.
To identify these archives please use Find it. Via the internet-portals listed there you can browse all archives of a specific region or a specific German state.

Archive or Digital Archive?

Particularly the big German archives have nowadays digitised some of their holdings. These so called "Digital Archives" are accessible via the website of these archives. So if you are lucky you can deal with your archival work whilst sitting at home at your own desk.
But beware! Digitisation is far from complete! Often you will not even be able to look at all the finding aids online. So in most cases it will still be necessary to pack your bags and travel to inspect the originals.

Some brief notes on the history of German archives

In the 19th century the German states started to set up archives systematically. They were used to keep records of the government or the ruling dynasty. Archives such as these were now slowly being established all over Germany. Each of the numerous German states that comprised the "Deutsche Bund" of 1815 divided its territory into "Archivsprengel". These were clearly defined areas that were assigned a specific state archive. All institutions of these areas were legally required to hand over all records to the archive that were of historical interest. Hence, a national archive did not exist at the time and was not considered before 1871. But it was not before 1919 that the "Reichsarchiv", the first German national archive, was established.

The German Reich is long gone now, but its varied archival structure still survives.This is mainly due to the federal structure of Germany. There is a strict division of responsibilities between federal government, state government and the communities. The archives of the German states are completely independent of the federal state ("Kulturhoheit der Länder").

Therefore the Deutsche Bundesarchiv is no central archive that all other archives are subject to as it is the case e.g. in France.

Municipalities and communities are also able to set up their archives independently. The state government merely issued laws providing guidelines.

Historians, however, are not only concerned with governmental records as collected by public archives but have to work with material of varied provenance. In Germany there are a great number of private archives - for instance archives of noble houses, the church, parties, unions, or corporations. Many of these archives are being run professionally. They are not much different from public archives with regards to access and service. But there are many smaller archives that may consist of a cellar or a storeroom and that the owners are reluctant to grant access to. It is impossible to tell what kind of answer you may receive to your requiry.

Identifying the right archives

Quite often it is rather easy to find the right archives. But sometimes even the seasoned historian might be in for a surprise.
It is important for you to know which kind of institution was at any given point in time responsible for what in Germany. Then you will also know - theoretically at least - which archive should hold their records today. Or better: which archives, because it is more than likely that the records you will need for your research are scattered across several archives.

Three basic considerations will help you along at the outset of your research:

1. The territorial jurisdiction of an archive

Every archive has a region that it is responsible for – this is called “Archivsprengel”. For instance a diocesan archive keeps the records of all ecclesiastical institutions of its diocese. A state-archive is responsible for the records of all public institutions of a particular governmental district. A regional economic archive holds all records of businesses, chambers of commerce, or trade associations of a region or Federal state. The specifics of the various “Archivsprengel” are generally among the basic information that you will find on an archive’s homepage.
This does not, however, work the other way round. Let’s assume, for instance, that you are studying the history of a particular town. Will you find all records you need for your research in this town’s archive? Most certainly not! Because at any given point in time a town lay at the intersection of interests of various clerical, secular, or private institutions. And, quite probably, all of them left some records – records that you need for your study and therefore have to find in the archives responsible for these institutions.


2. The constitutional context of your research topic

In which territory and under whose rule did the events you are investigating take place? Monastery, village, business – in most cases the subject of your research was part of a specific territory. Even “jurisdiction”, “education”, or “social networks” did not only occur during a certain period of time but also in a particular (political) sphere. As a historian you are more than familiar with political upheavals: especially the secularization of the 16th to the 19th century, the Mediatisation of the 19th century, or the two World Wars. The relevant thing for you in these matters is called “Archivfolge” – “archival succession”. This means archives and records were passed on to the legal successor. When the Fulda monastery was dissolved in 1803, for instance, its records ended up in the hands of the Elector of Hesse. Today you will find them in the State-Archives in Marburg, which keeps the records of the electorate of Hesse and of the territories absorbed by said electorate.
Another Example: The Reichskammergericht


3. The subject-matter jurisdiction of your research topic

With reference to your research interest you should find out, which institutions or offices – quite often there is more than one – had jurisdiction in that area.
“Primary education” during the 18th century is a good example, because you should note that well into the 19th century it was primarily the church that ran elementary schools.
If your chief interest is in genealogy than ecclesiastical authorities are the right address for you as well. Because up until the second half of the 19th century parish registers are the main source for information on births, marriages, and deaths. As of January 1st 1876 the register offices (Standesämter) in the German Reich were in charge of collecting and preserving these data.
If you are concerned with economic policy and mills in the Landgraviate of Hesse you should know that the Hessian Privy Council and the Hessian Chamber had the main jurisdiction in that area.


Feeling confused?

Do not despair, it’s not that complicated. Remember the checklist and work systematically.

  1. Read up on your topic thorougly.
  2. Note down all institutions and people that are relevant to your research.
  3. Finally, consider which archives are responsible for what.


Public and Private

The difference between public and private archives is crucial for you.

Public archives
These are the archives of public institutions, for instance federal archives, state archives, and community archives. University archives fall into this category too. These archives are state run and access to them is guaranteed and regulated by law.

Private archives
- for instance of noble families or corporations - are not bound by these laws. If and on what conditions they allow access is entirely up to them.