Researching German Nobility
9/28/2009
Expert advice on researching nobles in your German ancestry.

Q. Would you know of any sources for researching German nobility records? They're difficult to find.

A. If you're looking for noble ancestors, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that nobles are well-recorded. The bad news is that sometimes family stories of noble ancestry are exaggerated, and many children of nobles came from extramarital unions that aren't recorded in nobility books.

Still, nobility records can be a source for clues about "average" ancestors, too. German nobles were both the rulers over and protectors of their subjects. So a German noble lord's Hausbuch (list of occupants) would contain records of even lower-class peasants. You could compare a Hausbuch to plantation records in the southern United States.

First you need to determine the nobleman and his noble family archive. Then head to the library (and brush up on your deutsch—resources from Germany will, of course, be in German). Private nobility records are generally kept at the ancestral castle by a family member or an honorary (ehrenamtlich), unpaid part-time archivist. You'll find a good list of these archives in the set Minerva: Handbuch der Archive under Privatarchive. Several are mentioned in Clifford Neal Smith's Encyclopedia of German-American Genealogical Research (R. R. Bowker Co., out of print). You could also look under the noble's name in Das Telefonbuch Deutschland. If it appears with the nobility predicate v. (which stands for von) and at the ancestral seat, you probably have the location of the family archive.

Other publications listing nobility (Adel) of various levels include Genealogisches Handbuch des Adels, Der Gothaische genealogische Hofkalendar (or its French version Almanach de Gotha), Genealogisches Taschenbuch der gräflichen Häuser (counts), Genealogisches Taschenbuch der freiherrlichen Häuser (for barons), Ernst Heinrich Kneschke's Neues allgemeines Adels-Lexikon and the modern Adelslexikon. You'll find an index to the Starke Genealogical Index of German Nobility on RootsWeb.

Try to obtain these books via interlibrary loan (your library's genealogy or reference desk can help with this). For multi-volume sets, check the index volume first. If they're totally unavailable, you'll have to go to a major genealogical library.

A Web site that looks promising for preliminary searching is Institut Deutsche Adelsforschung (Institute for German Nobility Research). There you'll find an amazing number of periodicals dealing with German nobility. It's in German, but click the English link for a Babel Fish translation.

You also might find research advice on the GERMAN-NOBILITY mailing list.