Imagine. Millions of individuals are researching their ancestors. Hundreds of professional researchers have come into being to assist in the reconstruction of these family histories. Original registers are being imaged and indexed to broaden access and facilitate the process of research.
No, not 2011 in North America or Britain or Australia, but the mid-1930s in Nazi Germany.
From April 1933, all citizens in Germany were required to research and document their family tree, at least back to the level of their grandparents, and to obtain as evidence the corresponding certified copies of entries in birth and marriage registers (while SS officers had to zealously research their pedigree back to 1750 and other high level Nazi Party functionaries had to go back to 1800).
The reason for this rush of interest in genealogy was, of course, to validate one’s Aryan credentials, or determine one’s degree of Aryan purity, as the case may be. And one’s genealogy had grave consequences, for those who were non-Aryan (by which was meant Jewish) and for the great many who were Mischlinge or of mixed blood – at the very least, discrimination and persecution. Determining the status of each individual was not as straightforward as one might now think, and such factors as Jewish conversion to Lutheranism or Catholicism, or dropping out of the Jewish community without conversion to Christianity (Austritte), or illegitimacy, or disputed parentage, meant that the state had to interpret and decide upon tens of thousands of moot cases.
Various official Nazi bodies were involved in the process. Foremost was the Reichsstelle für Sippenforschung (the “Reich’s Centre for Genealogical Research”). Once the necessary tree had been recreated and register entries had been found and authenticated, the documentation had to be submitted to the Reichsstelle, where bureaucrats would then rule as to whether one was Aryan, three-quarters Aryan, half-Aryan, quarter-Aryan or non-Aryan.
In 1934 the Reichsstelle für Sippenforschung embarked upon an ambitious project to microfilm parish registers, both to preserve the originals and to make the material more readily available to the state. Accordingly, registers were called in from the churches to a central micro-reprographics studio in Berlin. A copy was returned to the incumbent of the church, and the master held in the Reichsstelle für Sippenforschung archives.
The Reichsstelle für Sippenforschung also created a massive central card index system for ease of reference. This comprised abstracted births and baptisms, with particular attention paid to the baptisms of converted Jews, from which it constructed its own handy Jüdische Personenstandsregister. This Register comprised the so-called Judenkartei, the index cards relating to Jewish converts. In fact there were two copies of these particular index cards. The original Judenkarte remained in the Reichsstelle’s archives, while a copy was gifted to the Evangelical Lutheran Church – the latter is now housed at the Evangelische Zentralarchiv in Berlin.
During the orchestrated Kristallnacht pogroms in November 1938, the Nazis not only razed or damaged synagogues, smashed Jewish property and assaulted Jews, but also carefully removed Jewish vital records from the synagogues, so these could be put to use by the state. Likewise, in 1939, the Reichsstelle für Sippenforschung took over the Jewish genealogical record collection of the Gesamtarchiv der Deutsche Juden. The Gesamtarchiv had been collecting original birth, marriage and death registers from synagogues across Germany for over 30 years, held vital records for hundreds of local communities across Germany and had also created a card index of Jewish births in Berlin (where the sheer size of the community and number of synagogues made it difficult to find a particular record unless one already knew the exact place of registration).
Within seven years, mandatory genealogy had affected the lives of millions in Germany and, of course, impacted in particular upon the lives of the hundreds of thousands of German Jews. Today we do genealogy for a different reason, to affirm identity and heritage, but it is perhaps wise to remember that genealogy can also be put to sinister uses in the hands of eugenicists, racial supremacists and ultra-nationalists.
This blog article owes much to Prof Deborah Hertz. For further information on the uses to which the Nazis put genealogy, see Prof Hertz’s 1997 article “The Genealogy Bureaucracy in the Third Reich” published in the periodical Jewish History (Vol 11, No 2)