Unparalleled Slaughter: The Sack of Magdeburg

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“For suffered martyrdom Cologne on the Rhine / Lauds eleven thousand virgins / I mourn thirty thousand souls!”

– A line from ‘The Magdeburg Maiden’ – a poem composed by a survivor of the Sack of Magdeburg.

In the early morning of 20 May 1631, 18,000 troops of the Imperial Alliance – an association of Catholic states headed by the Holy Roman Empire – stormed the Protestant city of Magdeburg in modern day North-Eastern Germany, starting a fire that would, according to one source, leave only 10 houses standing in the city. The death toll was horrific, with most estimates agreeing that around 80% of the city’s 25,000 inhabitants were killed. The rest, left homeless, were forced to flee.

Indeed, such was the destruction wrought that even Pappenheim – an Imperial Field Marshal – admitted “no more terrible work and divine punishment has been seen since the destruction of Jerusalem”. Christian II of Anhalt – a German Prince and favourite of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand – shared this sentiment. He declared, “If this great and beautiful city has been destroyed in such a short time and reduced to ashes, it is pitied and its downfall to be lamented.” Even for the Thirty Years’ Wars (1618-1648) – a ruinously destructive period of European history characterised by violence and bloodshed on a previously unimaginable scale – the Sack of Magdeburg was exceptional in its brutality.

Magdeburg’s leaders had adopted Lutheranism at a relatively early stage of the Reformation, in 1524. Seven years later, it joined the Schmalkaldic League – a collection of Lutheran princes allied against the Holy Roman Empire. This decision proved unpopular with Catholic powers. For instance, in 1551, during Charles V’s attempt to reimpose Catholicism upon the Empire, the city was besieged and captured.

Later, in 1598, Christian William of Brandenburg – a avid and open Lutheran – was elected Prince-Bishop of Magdeburg. The Roman Catholic Church refused to acknowledge his leadership due to his religious beliefs, and so, he was forced to officially change his title to ‘Administrator of Brandenburg’.

Christian William’s reign was controversial. In 1625, he declared in favour of Protestant Denmark during the Danish Intervention in Germany. This provided the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II with the ideal justification to depose the Lutheran and install his own son, the Catholic Leopold Wilhelm.

However, Ferdinand’s plan was opposed by some of the local canons, who in theory were responsible for choosing the administrator of the region. They decided instead to vote for another candidate, the Protestant Augustus of Wettin. Ferdinand was not particularly interested in anything that resembled democracy, particularly if it led to a Protestant being placed in charge. He expected his military commander, Wallenstein, headquartered nearby, to secure the election of Leopold by whatever means necessary.

Wallenstein – a Bohemian Duke who served as Supreme Commander of the Imperial Army – was less than thrilled about the prospect of appointing Leopold. He feared that if Leopold were to administer the region, local revenue and influence would be directed away from his own forces and instead towards the Imperial Prince.

Therefore, when in 1628 Christian William was officially deposed, Wallenstein chose merely to blockade the city, refusing to embark upon a siege. Not only did he perhaps wish to delay Leopold’s enthronement, but he was also eager to avoid angering the Hanseatic League (of which Magdeburg was a member), whose support he needed to expand his control over the Baltics.

Nevertheless, by July 1630, Wallenstein was forced to stop his delaying tactics. The deposed Christian William had returned to Germany, entered the city in disguise and declared that Magdeburg was thenceforth allied with Sweden. Gustavus Adolphus, the King of Sweden, had indeed recently landed on the North German coast in the ‘Sweden Intervention’ and so the risk of a strong anti-Imperial alliance centred around Magdeburg seemed acute.

Magdeburg itself was not wholly behind William’s outspoken declaration of war. Many councillors still hoped to bribe away the Imperial troops, although others, notably a group of outspoken Lutheran pastors, denounced any form of compromise with the Catholic enemy.

Wallenstein was dismissed as the Emperor feared his influence, and Tilly, his replacement, was given the same order: to suppress the city and bring it under Imperial control. After a final attempt at a negotiation was refused by the officials of Magdeburg, the Imperial troops were ordered to launch their attack in May 1631.

At this point, just before the city was invaded, the councillors suddenly had a change of heart. At 4am on May 20, the morning of the attack, a council had been convened by Falkenberg, a Swede appointed as Commandant of the city guard. A majority of the councillors reportedly believed that the city could not withstand the Imperial army and so wished to remain neutral, allowing Imperial officers to enter Magdeburg unopposed. Falkenberg thus decided to resume negotiations with Tilly and sent a trumpeter to announce this news.

Falkenberg, rather ironically, insisted that the danger, according to Guericke, a councillor, was “not as acute as they believed” and that “since relief (from the Swedens) was only hours away, each hour more they resisted was worth more than a ton of gold”. Mere moments later, a citizen rushed to the council to report that the hills were “full of cavalry”. The final attempts at peace had been ignored.

After sustained artillery fire, repeated Imperial infantry attacks breached the cities’ fortifications, leading to the opening of the Kröcken gate which allowed Tilly’s army to pour into the city. Around the same time, the Imperial forces set the city on fire in order to distract the defenders, creating the inferno which would reduce Magdeburg to ruins.

The extent of destruction was indescribable: one eyewitness recounted that the corpses “were burnt and all black so that one could not tell whether they were male or female”, whilst others recite tales of murder, rape, starvation, and the mutilation of corpses. As was so often true of the Thirty Years’ War, the suffering fell disproportionately on civilians.

One poem, titled the ‘Magdeburg Maiden’, compared the sack of the city to the rape of Lucretia:

“Maid and castle, might city / To God through Roman deed / Did sacrifice her virginity.

So the Lutheran Lucretia / Righteous German Constantia / Am I in eternal gloria.”

For the Catholics, it was a moment of celebration. Pastor Michaelis notes, “All Protestants were terribly saddened and appalled by the wretched downfall of the city of Magdeburg, but the papists rejoiced and were glad”; similarly, in Mainz, there were joyful gun salvoes, followed by processions and drum and pipe performances.

Magdeburg would not face any further destruction over the course of the war (there was little left to destroy), but the same could not be said for the rest of central Europe. The Thirty Years’ War still had 17 years of rampage, chaos and perdition left.

Asch, R., 1997. The Thirty Years War: The Holy Roman Empire and Europe 1618-48. Macmillan Education UK.

Wedgwood, C. V., 2005 The Thirty Years War. New York Review Books.

Wilson, P. H., 2010 The Thirty Years War: A Sourcebook. Macmillan Education UK.

Wilson, P. H., 2011. The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy. Harvard University Press.