For most of Germany’s history, vital events like births, marriages, and deaths were largely only recorded in church records. During some parts of history in some German regions, some civil recording of vital events also began to take place (especially in areas under French occupation during the Napoleonic wars). In the mid 1870s, after the unification of many of the Germanic territories into a national empire, civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths became the norm.
A registrar where citizens go to report their vital events was called a “Standesamt”. Not every town had a Standesamt, but there would have been at least one Standesamt within several miles of any given village. If a German’s village was too small to have a Standesamt, they would have had to go to the nearest Standesamt in a larger town.
When you are doing genealogy research in German records, especially research in the 1870s and later, you will inevitably need to request documents from a town’s Standesamt. If your ancestor’s town was too small to have a Standesamt, don’t assume that they just didn’t register their vital events with any civil authority. You will have to check the Standesamt registrars of larger nearby towns to see if they were responsible for recording the vital events in your ancestor’s village.
Some provinces of Germany are beginning to post their Standesamt records online for family history researchers. One province that has been very good about this is Hessen. (Click here to read a tutorial I created on how to access Hessian Standesamt records online.)