When you pour over German history....especially anything prior to the 1900s.....you come to the topic of serfs, and it requires a bit of understanding. As a kid in an American high school....when the topic of serfs came up, I can remember the definition of serfs being laid out as "slaves". Course, as a southern kid, I have a certain view of this definition....which doesn't relate to Germany. In college, it went into a three-minute explanation....which wasn't any better.
So, to understand serfs....put aside your current view of Germany as a modern place, and put yourself into 1600s Germany. Rural situations, with counts, lords, bishops, knights, and princes in charge.
There are two categories of people.....those with authority, and everyone else (serfs). When you control a village, a valley, a certain territory.....you dominate the land, the structures and the people who reside there. It's not a slave-master situation....more of a domineering leader with people who utilize his property.
The best way to describe the initial step into serf status....is that there is a need or a feeling of helplessness. The authority figure or family will have something that you desire....safety. The authority figure will have a few men, or a number of men....who have fought in wars either nearby or distant, and they fight for a living.
A deal will be struck in a way.....you get to stay on some land owned by the authority figure, and will gain protection. You might ask at this point....is the protection necessary? Well....in the period prior to the 1900s....you had brigandage.
I know....it's an odd word....brigandage. It is a an all encompassing word to cover highway robberies, theft, armed assault, kidnappings (ransom appeal), and murder. If you lived in the woods, the odds are pretty good that some group of six thugs might come along....burn down your barn, take your daughter away to sell, and put a knife into your side. So the local baron or lord was a method of being part of a bigger structure....a village....and having protection. In exchange....you gave up some of your personal freedoms. You were.....a serf.
What is generally said....is that it was a honor in some ways because there was often an oath or ceremony in the village or valley, where you agreed to your status, and to honor the Lord, or Baron.
There's no iron-clad rules about how this whole thing works. Some will talk of different status groups within a village or valley. Some Lords had written rules which everyone knew as the standard. To say there was one way of doing a serf situation....would be wrong.
In the original state of mind, there were just plain serfs, who did farm work. Agriculture was the survivor skill of society for a long period of time. At some point, with construction in demand....some guys learned the skill of roofing, or masonry, or baking, or how to butcher.
As these skills came along....different classes of serf started to exist. The trade class became an important development tool. If you had a certain skill....it meant something. You were becoming the middle-class of German society. By the 1600s....the trade craft meant something in every community.
In the mid-1700s in Europe....serfdom started to dissolve. Various states had significant dates attached to the end. For most states and city-states in Prussia/Germany.....it was the early 1800s where the end occurred. Some European countries had it later.....Iceland for example went to 1894 when it ended.
Today? There's little said or mentioned over serfdom. No statues. You might have a German TV series which features some element of the life of a serf. It's kind of a forgotten part of history.