Irish Roots

Nazi genealogy


Deborah Hertz’s How Jews Became Germans (Yale University Press, 2009) makes shocking reading for a genealogist. Well before gaining power, the Nazis were fascinated by genealogy.

From its foundation, admission to the Party required a three-generation family tree demonstrating Aryan race purity back as far as grandparents. For advancement up the Party hierarchy, ever more generations had to be uncovered.

Three months after they came to power in 1933, the Nazi government passed new laws obliging all German citizens to do the same: documenting racial descent became compulsory. Eventually this would result in the so-called “Aryan Pass”, a sort of genealogical identity card carried by the entire population. But its first effect was to create a huge demand for genealogical information.

Parish registers, then as now, there as here, were the primary sources. Thousands of Verkartunstruppen, “carding troops”, began to transcribe millions of baptisms, marriages and burials to index cards. A huge genealogical bureaucracy of archivists, researchers and transcribers, the Reichsippenamt, the Kinship Research Office, was created to centralise all family history records. Among other projects, it organised the microfilming of all surviving German parish registers. About 350,000 volumes were covered, containing somewhere in the order of 800 million records.

The reasoning behind all of this was simple and consistent and led directly to Auschwitz. The clear borders drawn around ethnicity by genealogical research would make it possible for the Nazis to attempt to excise Jewishness and “re-purify” the German race. Of course, the Nazis were simply wrong. What research showed (and still shows) is that all races melt into and overlap with each other. But the echoes with the processes of collection and transcription of genealogical information in Ireland over the past two decades are still uncanny and unsettling.

I advanced the notion a while back that genealogy can make you a better person. Maybe not.