Does anyone know where I can find information on German soldiers from World War I and World War II? I'd be curious to find out about my ancestors' role in the wars, i.e. what rank they had, where they where fighting, with whom and anything else. I suppose these documents get archived, just where? All my ancestors are German and were fighting in the German military.
My answer consists of three parts. I start with World War II because more (individual) records are available and I assume people are more interested in it. The second part focusses on World War I and possible research difficulties. The last part covers two online projects providing information on burial sites and memorials of both wars.
World War II
Your primary source for historical records on German armed forces, especially for World War II, is the Deutsche Dienststelle (WASt, Deutsche Dienststelle für die Benachrichtigung der nächsten Angehörigen von Gefallenen der ehemaligen deutschen Wehrmacht).
Please see their list on their records.They include personnel documents, listings, documents on military losses and a register containing over 18 million soldiers from World War II.
You have to fill a request form, provide known information (obligatory: name and birth date) on your ancestors, check options what kind of information you are interested in. You also have to state your relationship, e.g. „grandson“.
(They may ask you to provide additional information to prove your relationship, especially if your family name differs or you are looking for ancestors other than your direct ancestors. It could help to provide this information in your first query. To give an example: If you are looking for a brother of your grandfather, the WASt most likely will send you information if you truthfully state that this brother was never married and died without known children.)
Your application will cost at least 8 Euro. You can set a limit on what you are willing to spend. Most people get a dossier with two pages that costs around 16 Euro. The report usually contains basic biographical information (father, date and place of birth), drafting date, dog tag number, training units and units in the course of war, ranks, notes on injuries and captivity.
You may have to wait up to a year before you receive these information.
Important: Please note that these compiled reports will not tell you what your ancestor experienced, whether he participated in war crimes, or what kind of man he was. It's a mere bureaucratic listing of his military career. A lot of records were destroyed, so there might be gaps and the military career might be reconstructed from listings only, not from individual personal records. Read publications on certain units (often written by veterans with a strong bias), literature on a particular theatre and modern literature on the general history of World War II for a broader perspective.
If your ancestor was an officer or official in the Wehrmacht, the Bundesarchiv in Freiburg (Bundesarchiv, Abteilung Militärarchiv) holds personnel documents. They also have documents on military trials and awards for all ranks. The Bundesarchiv in Berlin has records on members of SA, SS and Waffen-SS. For access and costs please contact the Bundesarchiv.
General note on using German archive resources:
Information on war captivity might be contained in your dossier from the Deutsche Dienststelle. The German Red Cross, Suchdienst München has access to records on prisoners in Soviet captivity and missing soldiers. A soviet record on a German prisoner of war usually consist of five pages. It contains information that might also be helpful for genealogical questions other than those concerning the POW himself:
They send you the records within several weeks. The records are in Russian. They usually add a letter with a translation of notes on camps and relocations. They do not translate biographical and military details. You’ll get a summary where you can see which column contains which information and have to look for translation elsewhere.
As far as I know, this service is free of charge. They ask for donations. Please keep in mind, that the Suchdienst also helps to find missing individuals in modern conflicts.
World War I
Looking at World War I it is important to know where in Germany your ancestors lived. Within the forces of the German Empire, dominated by Prussia, the contingents of Bavaria, Württemberg and Saxony remained semi-autonomous and also kept their own records.
A lot of of records on participants of World War I were destroyed when the Prussian military archive in Potsdam burned down in 1945. Except for the Reichsmarine (navy), almost all individual documents from the Prussian army are lost. Records on navy members from the years between 1871 and 1947 are available from the Deutsche Dienststelle (as detailed above).
Records on combatants from Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden and Saxony are kept in local archives:
I haven’t used these archives on my own, so I don’t know if research for individual military records is conducted by the archive. Please see my general hints above.
The Bavarian records (Kriegsranglisten und -stammrollen des Königreichs Bayern) are also available on Ancestry.com. They usually contain short biographical information like occupation and place of residence, military career (rank, participation in battles, awards) and information on the soldier’s parents.
What to do if your ancestor fought in the Prussian army? During the war the army announced deaths, injuries, missing soldiers and prisoners of war in the so-called Verlustlisten. These lists were on public display. They contain names, places of births and complete or incomplete (just day and month) birth dates. The names are listed according to the soldier’s units, so if your ancestor was killed or injured, was missing in action or became a POW, you can reconstruct where he was fighting and which unit he was a member of around this time. There are a lot of publications on units from WWI, written by veterans. These books often give a detailed insight on routes and military action and sometimes also contain photos and listings.
The German genealogy association Verein für Computergenealogie has the only complete, indexed and freely accessible collection of them. You can search the indexed records using this search mask. A list of Prussian soldiers missed in action is currently indexed in another project. These lists are sorted by unit and contain information on those to be contacted (mostly family members) as well. The scans can already be accessed.
For officers, other compiled lists exists, e.g. Friedrich Uebe: Ehrenmal des preußischen Offizier-Korps : alphabetisches Verzeichnis der im Weltkriege 1914/1918 gefallenen Angehörigen des preußischen Offizier-Korps. 1939. (Worldcat entry). This book contains an alphabetical list of surnames of fallen officers naming the last unit, date and place of death. A source for promotions and transfers of officers is the military journal Militär-Wochenblatt, available on Ancestry.
The archives of the International Prisoners-of-War Agency hold 500,000 pages of lists and six million index cards regarding prisoners of war (WW I), including German POW.
World War I and World War II
For military losses of both wars you can use a search engine (“Gräbersuche”) provided by the Volksbund. Their database of cemeteries contains information like date and place of death. It contains also information on soldiers missed in action or death soldiers not buried on known cemeteries.
The private project Denkmalprojekt.org has a database of war memorials and other lists on combatants from both wars.
The so-called Krankenbuchlager was a collection of documents especially used for veterans services and other social services. It contained a large number of records from military hospitals from both wars, but only a small fraction of all these documents ever created. According to the Bundesverwaltungsamt, e.g. only 2 % of all records from the period between 1934–1945 are still available. Accessing these documents remains an enigma among German genealogists: The Krankenbuchlager stopped providing information for private matters in 2007 and was closed in 2013. They are hoping to hand over the documents to a federal institution. Contingents of the collection became part of the Bundesarchiv, Abteilung Militärarchiv in Freiburg (birth cohort from 1802-1899, from the period between 1891 and 1899 only records from servicemen born in the months of January and June could be available) the WASt some years ago.