Research the history of 50 common German surnames in About.com, which has an article titled: "German Surnames - Meanings and Origins. What Does Your German Last Name Mean?" by genealogy expert, Kimberly Powell. According to Powell, the four major classifications of German surnames are given names, occupational last names, descriptive surnames and geographical last names. Wikipedia also carries an entry on German-derived surnames.
Patronymic and matronymic last names derive from a parent's given first name and are not as common in Germany compared to other European countries. In Germany, patronymic last names are typically found in the northwestern part of the country. For example, the name Niklas Albrecht means "Niklas, the son of Albrecht," and other first names turned last names include Ahrends, Friedrich and Benz. Occupational last names derive from the person's job, trade or noble designation and comprise the largest proportion of German surnames compared to any other culture. For example, the last name "Fischer" means "fisherman," "Schumacher" means "shoemaker" and "Muller" means "miller."
Descriptive last names come from a physical feature or unique quality of an individual, and may have originated from nicknames. For example, the last name "Braun" means "brown hair," "Klein" means "small" and "Schwarzkopf" means "black head." Geographical surnames derive from the town, city or region where one was from. For example, "Kissinger" means someone from the town of "Kissingen," while "Bohm" means someone from Bohemia and "Cullen" indicates a person from Cologne.