Marriage and the State in Imperial Germany

Principal Investigator: Dr Julia Moses

Events: "Marriage, civil partnerships & gay rights: contemporary debates in historical perspective" - video available online.

October 22nd 2014.

"Ties that Bind: Marriage, Cultural Norms and the Law, c. 1750 to the present"

October 18th-19th 2013.


When it unified in 1871, Germany consisted of numerous regions that were not only culturally distinct but also possessed differing legal systems and population groups. One of the new country’s first major laws targeting the social sphere was that on civil marriage, which would require marriage throughout the land to be standardised. Whether Catholic, Protestant or Jewish, ethnically German or a minority, one would need to get married in a civil registry office. Marriage was now a matter for the state.

Die gemischte Ehe picture of text

What drove Germany to enact this policy? Why had marriage come to be a political issue rather than simply the result of love or familial expectations? And, what do debates about marriage in Germany at the close of the nineteenth century have to tell us today about the role of government in legislating on family life?

By investigating the adoption of the Civil Marriage Law of 1875 and its implementation on the ground, this project focuses on a defining moment in the construction of citizenship in the new German Empire. In secularising the registration of marriage, the policy constituted a major step not merely in removing quasi-legal responsibilities from the churches, but also in establishing the right of the new German authorities to regulate what might be regarded as a private domain of the citizen. Marriage henceforth had to accord with the rules laid down by the state, both disciplining populations, but also establishing new forms of legal redress which could empower citizens in their marital arrangements.

Marriage and the State in Imperial Germany - painting of wedding

The AHRC has provided funding for an academic year as part of its ‘Translating Cultures’ programme. The grant will take Dr Moses to archives and libraries across Germany, including those in Berlin, Dresden, Munich, Bochum and elsewhere. The project will result in several academic articles and popular publications and will contribute to a book on the topic. It will also result in a public lecture on the history of marriage in modern Europe and an international workshop on regulating marriage across the globe since the eighteenth century. More details on both events, including information on registration, will be posted in due course.