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 projects and institutions providing e.g. 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). It belongs to the national archive (Bundesarchiv) now.
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 two years 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:
- Contact them and tell them what you are looking for. Ask if it is necessary/possible to come by or if the research can be done by the archive. (The latter is often possible for simple tasks like information on the membership in the Nazi party (NSDAP) and other simple research tasks. German Archives usually do not conduct extensive research, you have to do this on your own or use a professional research service.)
- Their reply will contain information on available records, archive use and prices. They will also send you a Benutzungsantrag (application). You have to fill your details, what you are working on and what is the purpose of your research (academic, private (e.g. genealogy), official …) and sign their conditions. To give you an idea about the price tag: In summer 2013 I paid the Bundesarchiv for 30 minutes of research 15,34 EUR and 0,43 EUR for each copy. Visiting a archive and doing research there is usually free of charge.
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:
- notes on camps and relocations
- biographical information about the POW (birth date and place, last known address, language knowledge, membership in political parties, confession, education, profession, family status, possessions, private connections to the Soviet Union, trials, practical skills)
- military information (drafting date, branch of service, unit, dog tag number, rank, function, awards, if surrendered of captured, date and place)
- visual nature and special characteristics of the POW
- biographical information about his parents, wife and siblings (name, surname, age, profession, place of residence) and even more details on the father (possessions)
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.
The German Red Cross Suchdienst provides also access to Vermisstenbildlisten. These lists of casualties missed in action were created in the 1950s. The database was created from inquiries from family members and other parties, it is no collection of all missing soldiers. 125.000 pages in 225 volumes contain 1.400.000 soldiers (and civilians), 900.000 entries with photographs. The lists are online since April 2015, however using them remains complicated as they can’t be searched by name or birth date. You need a Feldpostnummer, a camp number, a field address or a last known place.
Information on Luftwaffe officers is compiled on a private website: Luftwaffe Officer Career Summaries.
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 some Reichsmarine (navy) records, almost all individual documents from the Prussian army are lost. Records on navy members from the years between 1871 and 1947 might available from the Deutsche Dienststelle (as detailed above).
Records on combatants from Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden and Saxony are kept in local archives:
The records from Württemberg and Baden are freely accessible online from the archive. Please see this introduction (in German): Soldaten im Ersten Weltkrieg Findmittel zu den Personalunterlagen des XIV. Armeekorps im Generallandesarchiv Karlsruhe jetzt online. You choose the relevant time period for the personnel rosters and search them by unit (not indexed).
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.
I haven’t used the Saxon archive 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.
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. List of abbreviations (with translations) for different types of injuries and deaths.
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 was also indexed. These lists are sorted by unit and contain information on those to be contacted (mostly family members) as well.
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.
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.
Fallen members of the navy are listed in the Marine-Gedenkbuch (34833 handwritten names) according to their units/ships. This book was indexed as well.
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. Contacting the Volksbund on one of their database entries can be useful. Often they have additional information like the original burial place or the last known military unit of the war victim in their repositories. Their help is free of charge, please consider a donation.
A widely overlooked source on dead combatants are local death registers in the place of last residence. These registers often note rank, place of death, the communicating military office and/or circumstances of death. A copy can be requested from the local Standesamt (register office) or from the communal archive (the registers can be transferred from the register office to the archive after a certain period of time, just ask the register office who holds the documents). Fees apply.
Sometimes, these records were destroyed towards the end of World War II.
The private project Denkmalprojekt.org has a database of war memorials and other lists on combatants from both wars. Unfortunately, they don’t link source files for their lists and the photographs of memorials are tiny.
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. The Krankenbuchlager stopped providing information for private matters in 2007 and was closed in 2013. 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 July could be available) some years ago. The remaining documents (a significant number of them were destroyed in recent decades) – mostly resources on World War II, but also on World War I – were transferred to Deutsche Dienststelle. It is unknown to me to which extend these resources are used to answer requests and what WWI material is available to them.