French Influence on German Research

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The French Revolution in 1789 and subsequent wars that lasted for a quarter century had a profound effect on society in Europe. Governments were toppled, boundaries changed, revolutionary ideas concerning the equality of man spread throughout the continent, and war with all its concomitant problems engulfed the continent. For the genealogical researcher, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic period is of enormous importance because of the changes that occurred in Germany. The French introduced a number of changes which greatly affected the political and social organization in Germany. These changes can be divided into five areas: boundaries, civil registration, names, French Republican calendar, and military.

At the time of the French Revolution in 1789 Germany was not a unified country. It was made up of hundreds of differing political entities. These included kingdoms, duchies, grand duchies, bishoprics, and others. Click here to see a detailed map of Germany in 1789.

This patchwork of states kept Germany weak and the lack of centralization has made research in Germany somewhat difficult, as each state could determine when and what type of records would be kept. Therefore, the researcher must consult a myriad of gazetteers and archives in order to find records. Fortunately, this state of affairs changed in the 1790s when Napoleon conquered large areas of Germany and merged many of the small states into larger ones. These internal border changes simplified record keeping and administration. Click here to see a map that compares the old states with the newer ones.

Not only did the French effect border changes within Germany, but also between Germany and France. For centuries, the French had wanted the political boundary to follow the natural boundary of the Rhine, rather than the cultural boundary, which lay further to the west. Therefore, as the French were victorious against various armies, they were able to annex parts of Germany, i.e. everything west of the Rhine. Click here to see a map that shows the newer French-German boundaries.

The effect of the annexation of German territory by the French has had, surprisingly, a positive effect on genealogical research. In the 1790s the French introduced civil registration in their newly acquired territories. However, the official language of the documents was French, as the French had the intention of French-ifying the populace. So, the researcher should be prepared to encounter documents in French. There are a number of French language aides on this Wiki.

In addition to the French language being used in documents, both given and surnames, were often translated from German to French. Although any particular person’s name might appear in a record in French, he still went by his German name. Here is a small list of German names with their French counterparts:

Jakob, Jacob        Jacques
Gerhardt    Gérard
Arnold       Arnaud
Carl, Karl        Charles
Wilhelm    Guillaume
Johanna, Jenneken 
Anna, Antje, Anneke    

For an extensive list of names in 23 European languages, see this book:

Janowowa, Wanda, et al. Sownik Imion (Dictionary of Names). Wroclaw, Germany: Ossoliski, 1975. (FHL book 940 D4si; film 1,181,578 item 2; fiche 6000839.)

When the French were expelled from the German territories, the language, including names, returned to German. Unfortunately, some areas ceased keeping civil records at this time.

One of the goals of the French Republic was to create a society based solely on reason. This meant eradicating all vestiges of superstition and religion. One area that has been determined by religion is that of the calendar. Many month and weekdays are named for various gods. The length of the week, for example, reflects the Judeo-Christian tradition and the numbering of years is based on the life of Jesus Christ. Given this, the Republicans felt a new system of time keeping was necessary. So, a new calendar was created whose epoch was to begin with the founding of the French Republic on 22 September, 1792, although it was not put into use until October, 1793. It is crucial to know that the years and months of the Republican calendar do not correspond to those of the Gregorian. The 22nd of September, 1792 was Year One, the 1st of the month of Vendémiaire in the French Republican calendar. Click here for a detailed explanation of the French Republican calendar, including conversion tables.

Finally, we consider the military. The French kept Europe in a constant state of turmoil/warfare for the better part of 25 years, from the early 1790s till 1815. Many of the German states were often on the French side, as they were too weak to withstand French invasion alone. In the later years, particularly in 1813, many states switched sides to the allies. Regardless of which side any particular state fought on, the social consequences were enormous. First, large numbers of men were conscripted into the various armies. Unfortunately, the value of such military records is limited because of the paucity of information that many of them give and difficulty in finding an individual. Searching such records is also often very time-consuming. Click here for further reading about French and German military records.

One result of the wars is that many soldiers were killed far from home, so their deaths may not have been recorded in the place where they came from, if at all. Finding death records for these soldiers may be impossible, given the large numbers who were engaged in various campaigns and battles.