Beyond History Blog

Periods applying to archive material

Heike Leiacker - 12. May 2017 - Archives, Societies, Museums, Genealogy, General, Germany, Historical Documents, Tips and Tricks

Genealogy isn’t always simple. Sometimes legislative restrictions that are in themselves very reasonable can complicate our work. Today we would like to give a short overview of different periods applying to archive material in Germany. This is further complicated by German federalism. Many regulations only apply to one particular federal state. Within this article we therefore won’t be able to name the regulations in every one of them.


Periods of protection

Usually in Germany it isn’t possible to consult files that originate less than 30 years ago. In genealogy we deal with personal information that is especially in need of protection.

The German Personenstandsgesetz (personal statute law) defines for how long birth, marriage and death certificates are subject to data protection. Afterwards they usually can be consulted by everyone. The periods of protection are:

  • For birth certificates: 110 years
  • For marriage certificates: 80 years
  • For death certificates: 30 years

If these periods haven’t passed already, you will need a mandate of the person concerned, or if dead already, the mandate of an immediate relative. According to the Personenstandsgesetz only father, mother, grandparents, children, grandchildren and siblings are immediate relatives. Therefore you will need a mandate if you want to know about for example your uncle. This applies even if you only want to know a date. If you are not an immediate relative, there is a further chance that you can get the information, if the person mentioned in the document that most recently died, is already dead for at least 30 years.

Beyond birth, marriage and death certificates, the periods of protection are defined by several archive laws. On a national level this is the Bundesarchivgesetz (Law of the German Federal Archives). In our news section we already referred to the latest changes of this law in March 2017. For person-related documents that are older than 30 years the period of protection was reduced to ten years after the death of the person. If the year of death can’t be identified, the period of protection ends 100 years after the birth of a person. If even the date of birth can’t be identified, the protection ends 60 years after the documents were created.

For the archives of the federal states like state or city archives, the specifications of the federal archive laws of each state apply. In Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein person-related documents as well can’t be consulted for ten years after the death of a person. But if the year of death can’t be identified, you are able to see the documents already 90 years after the birth. If both can’t be identified you will have to wait for 60 years from the origin of the documents.

Sometimes there might be special periods of protection due to secrecy reasons.

Data from generally accessible sources like telephone books are unaffected by these regulations.

There might be special permissions to access protected documents due to scientific purposes, but genealogy usually isn’t seen as such.

Of course, not only public archives are relevant for genealogy. Church books for example are sometimes to be found in public archives (duplicates for instance), but usually in the respective parish or in church archives. The periods of protections here depend on different church laws of the various federal state churches (Protestant and Catholic). But usually they are similar to those of public achives.


When and where can I find documents?

Again, there is no definite answer. Documents are given to the relevant archives regularly. Usually they should offer them 30 years after they were created at the latest (if there are no other legal regulations or the documents are required for public duties).

Birth, marriage or death certificates are not offered until the above mentioned periods of protection have passed. Until then, you can find them at the relevant registry offices. Afterwards, federal state archive law applies even if they shouldn’t immediately be transferred.

To which archive the documents are transferred is quite different from federal state to federal state. In Hamburg the Staatsarchiv Hamburg (Hamburg State Archive) is responsible for birth, marriage and death certificates.  In Lower Saxony the city archives undertake the task (and under some circumstances the Niedersächsisches Landesarchiv – the state archive of Lower Saxony). In case of doubt, the registry offices will provide you with information, whether the sought information can still be found with them or at which archive you will have to ask.

The departments of the federal archives hold the records of the federal government and its predecessors. This includes documents of the central state apparatus of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as well as military records.

Several public and church records that are relevant for genealogy are already digitalized and can be found online (various providers).

Not everything that might be relevant to genealogists today is still in existence. Unlimited preservation of public records is for example currently provided for Registers of births, marriages and deaths as well as land records. Many other documents aren’t kept by the relevant archives at their own discretion. There are no legal retention periods for economy that are longer than ten years, but documents that are especially important like personnel files are often kept long-term. They might be accessible at company archives or even public achives.

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