German Passports and Identification Documents: A History

German Passports and Identification Documents: A History

In browsing the library’s German stacks recently (“KK” call numbers – 3rd floor of the Lewis/ILS building) I discovered a very cool book: an illustrated history of German passports and identification documents from the middle ages to the present.

Der Passexpedient: Geschichte der Reisepässe und Ausweisdokumente – vom Mittelalter bis zum Personalausweis im Scheckkartenformat
Andreas Reisen
Nomos Verlag, 2012

Andreas Reisen (whose last name, interestingly, is the infinitive form of the German verb “to travel”) must have had a lot of fun researching this book and exploring historical and modern examples of German passports and travel/identification documents.  Some have been scanned and included as illustrations, making the book appealing even to those who don’t read German.

When I mentioned this book to one of my colleagues, she asked, “They had passports in the middle ages?”  Well, in a manner of speaking, yes.  They weren’t little books filled with border guard stamps, however.  Instead, for example, they might have looked like this:

According to the caption, this is an “accompanying letter from Kaiser Carl V for Martin Luther for travelling to Worms” from 1521.  This letter was issued during a crucial period in the course of Luther’s life, as he had recently been excommunicated from the Catholic Church and was called to appear before the Diet of Worms to answer for his criticism of the church.  Ultimately, this journey, as a result of which he was a labeled a “convicted heretic,” was a significant stepping stone toward Luther forming the Lutheran Church.

By the 1800s, statutory requirements for passports in the area we now know as Germany were coming into force.  One example of this is the 1813 Allgemeines Paßregelement of the Royal State of Prussia. According to this law, foreign nationals, “regardless of profession, age, gender and religious belief, regardless if [they] arrive by water or land, or through an official post, or otherwise by wagon, horseback, or on foot, whether [they] would like to remain in our territories or simply pass through them,” must provide personal documentation that states one of several acceptable reasons for admission into Prussia.

(By the way, the publication in which this law originally appeared, Gesetz-Sammlung für die königlichen Preußischen Staaten, is available in print through the Harvard Depository.  Harvard’s print copy has also been digitized and is available through the HathiTrust database.  Click here to see page 47 of the 1813 volume, where this law was originally published.)

Examples of passports from the various governing entities in Germany in the mid-1800s follow a common format, with the person’s biographical information listed in the left-hand column, and the description of the reason the person is travelling on the right.

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Photos, however, did not start appearing in passports until the early 1900s.

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The second half of the book describes and shows the evolution of personal identification and travel documentation in Germany throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.  It concludes by discussing the new personal ID card format that was introduced in 2010.

This is a fascinating historical survey of German passports and identification documents, thoroughly researched and well-illustrated with beautiful scanned images.  It’s well-worth a look, even if you don’t read much German.

About: Jennifer Allison

Librarian for Foreign, Comparative, and International Law, Harvard Law School Library.
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