German Genealogical Resources

Holy Roman Empire - The First Reich

Germany prior to 1871 - Confederation of German States

The widely accepted notion during the 20th century of a strong German national tradition, quite ironically, only existed as goal or vision for hundreds of years. A strong national cultural tradition did exist for hundreds of years, but not a political one. Germany attained unification under centralized rule much later than most other European countries. The powerful German dynasties of the middle ages never succeeded in establishing a German nation-state because they were bound by the legacy of the traditions of the Holy Roman Empire. Underneath the umbrella tradition of the empire, a multiplicity of small states operated under the autonomy and sovereignty of local and regional nobles. In the late 18th century it has been reported that as many as 314 states and 1475 estates comprised Germany, making it look like a patchwork quilt. Centuries of religious struggle contributed to this fragmentation.

Religious strife dominated central Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Reformation (1521) resulted in prolonged and bloody warfare that was largely carried out on German soil. The Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) was the culmination of this devastating period. Large portions of Germany were decimated with an estimated 30% of the population being killed. In the Palatinate, one source estimated only 50,000 people surviving out of a population of one million. The horrors of the Thirty Years' War lived on in popular memory as those of no other war in Europe until the 20th century.

German Unification 1871 - The Second Reich

Under the auspices of Prussia, its largest state, Germany was united into a federal system in 1871. The resulting combination consisted of 22 states and the 3 former city-states or urban republics of Hamburg, Bremen and Lubeck. Kaiser Wilhelm served as the first emperor of the unified Germany which was referred to as the Second Reich. This structure lasted until 1918 when Germany lost extensive portions of territories to France, Poland, Belgium, Denmark and Czechoslovakia. Hitler's period of rule beginning in the 1930's marked the Third Reich. The devastation of WWII resulted in the further loss of territory including the provinces of Silesia, Pomerania, East Prussia and part of Brandenburg to Poland and the Soviet Union. Germany was also split into Eastern and Western republics following the close of the war.

German Emigration to the United States

The religious strife that dominated central Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries provided a backdrop for the first wave of German emigration to the United States. It came largely from the states of Baden, Wurttemburg, Bavaria, Hesse, and from the Munster and Mainz regions. In the early 18th century, they were joined by inhabitants of Swabia and the Palatinate. The mass emigration by the Palatines in 1709 was especially significant. The flow of Germans to the United States slowed in the mid 1700's and was virtually suspended during the French & Indian War (Seven Year's War) from 1756 to 1763.

The bulk of German emigration in the latter half of the 18th century turned toward European countries, especially Russia from 1763 to 1767. As a result of Catherine the Great's Manifesto, nearly 30,000 Germans emigrated to the Volga Region of Russia before the German princes could stop the exodus. Budingen Castle was a gathering point for many of the emigrant families, as well as a place where many couples were married before departing. Many of the descendants of these immigrants in turn began emigrating to the United States 110 years later and continued until about 1920. They came to be known as "Germans From Russia".

The second wave of emigration to America was much larger. After a 25 year lull that occurred during 1789-1815 due largely to revolution and wars, emigration started to accelerate again in the 1820s and 1830s. The wave crested in the late 1840s and early 1850s with 1854 being the peak year. Many of the emigrants were now coming out of the Northern German States as well during this time period. The Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin had a particularly large outflow during this period. During the 1860s the exodus contracted dramatically due to both the American Civil War and the Wars of German Unification.

The third and final wave began in the 1870s and crested in the 1880s. The newly industrialized Germany had become a prosperous nation by the mid 1890s and emigration slowed to a trickle again. Emigration levels in the latter half of the 1890s returned to levels seen in the 1830s. Emigration in the first two decades of the 20th century included many Germans displaced from eastern European countries, especially Volga Germans from Russia.

German Genealogy Sites
Hesse Germany History
Mecklenburg-Schwerin Germany History
German Russian Societies

Copyright © 1995-2004 Herb Femling
Updated May 23, 2004
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