Sack of Magdeburg

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The Sack of Magdeburg refers to the destruction of the largely Protestant city of Magdeburg on 20 May 1631 by the Imperial Army and the forces of the Catholic League. Also called Magdeburg Wedding (German: Magdeburger Hochzeit) or Magdeburg's Sacrifice (Magdeburgs Opfergang), the incident is considered the worst massacre of the Thirty Years' War. Magdeburg, then one of the largest cities in Germany and about the size of Cologne or Hamburg, never recovered from the disaster.


The citizens of Magdeburg had turned Protestant already in 1524 and joined the Schmalkaldic League against the religious policies of the Catholic emperor Charles V in 1531. During the Schmalkaldic War of 1546/47, the Lower Saxon city became a refuge for Protestant scholars, which earned it the epithet "Lord's Chancellery" (Herrgotts Kanzlei), but also an Imperial ban that lasted until 1562. The citizens openly refused to acknowledge Emperor Charles' Augsburg Interim and were besieged by Imperial troops under Elector Maurice of Saxony in 1550/51.

Shelling of Magdeburg, Theatrum Europaeum by Johann Philipp Abelin (1646)

The Thirty Years' War had been raging for a dozen years by the time that the imperial city of Magdeburg once again rose up against the Imperial authority. The city's councillors had been emboldened by King Gustavus Adolphus's landing in Pomerania on 6 July 1630:[1] the Swedish king was a Lutheran Christian, and many of Magdeburg's residents were convinced that he would aid them in their struggle against the Roman Catholic Habsburg emperor, Ferdinand II. Not all Protestant princes of the Holy Roman Empire had immediately embraced Adolphus, however;[2] some believed his chief motive for entering the war was to take Northern German ports, which would allow him to control commerce in the Baltic Sea.[3] Yet the city of Magdeburg had additional good reason to ally itself with him: the Swedish army was one of the most efficient of the time, and Gustavus Adolphus did not rely on mercenaries as much as other rulers did. His army consisted primarily of his Swedish countrymen, but the armies of the Holy Roman emperor were a mix of Hungarians, Croats, Spaniards, Poles, Italians, Frenchmen, Germans, and others.[4]

In November 1630, King Gustavus sent his colonel Dietrich von Falkenberg to direct Magdeburg's military affairs and promised his personal protection. Backed by the Lutheran clergy, Falkenberg had the suburbs fortified and additonal troops recruited. When the Magdeburg citizens refused to pay a demanded tribute to the emperor, in a matter of months, Imperial forces under the command of Count Johann Tserclaes of Tilly laid siege to the city.[2] The city was besieged from 20 March 1631 and Tilly put his subordinate Imperial Field Marshal Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim in command while he campaigned elsewhere. In fierce fighting, the Imperial troops conquered several sconces of the city's fortification and Tilly demanded capitulation. At the time, about 24,000 Imperial soldiers gathered around the walls.

Assault and sacking

After two months of laying siege, and after the Swedish victory in the Battle of Frankfurt an der Oder on 13 April 1631, Pappenheim finally convinced Tilly, who had brought reinforcements, to storm the city on 20 May with 40,000 men under the personal command of Pappenheim. The Magdeburg citizens had hoped in vain for a Swedish relief attack. On the last day of the siege, the councilors were convinced that it was time to sue for peace, but word of their decision did not reach the Count of Tilly in time.

In the early morning of May 20, the conquest began with heavy artillery fire. Soonafter, Pappenheim and Tilly started marching against Magdeburg. The city's fortifications were breached and Imperial forces were able to overpower armed opposition and open the Kröcken Gate which allowed the entire army to enter the city, plundering its rich stores of goods. The city was dealt another blow when Swedish colonel Dietrich von Falkenberg was shot dead by Catholic imperials.[5] When the city was almost lost, the garrison mined various places and set others on fire.

After the city fell, the Imperial soldiers supposedly went out of control and started to massacre the inhabitants and set fire to the city. The invading soldiers had not received payment for their service and took the chance to loot everything in sight; they demanded valuables from every household that they encountered. Otto von Guericke, an inhabitant of Magdeburg, claimed that when civilians ran out of things to give the soldiers, "the misery really began. For then the soldiers began to beat, frighten, and threaten to shoot, skewer, hang, etc., the people."[6]

It took only one day for all of this destruction and death to transpire. Of the 30,000 citizens, only 5,000 survived, most of them had fled into Magdeburg Cathedral. Tilly finally ordered an end to the looting on May 24, and a Catholic mass was celebrated at the Cathedral on the next day. For another fourteen days, charred bodies were carried to the Elbe River to be dumped to prevent disease. In a letter, Pappenheim wrote of the Sack:

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I believe that over twenty thousand souls were lost. It is certain that no more terrible work and divine punishment has been seen since the Destruction of Jerusalem. All of our soldiers became rich. God with us.[7]


File:Eduard Steinbrück Die Magdeburger Jungfrauen.jpg
The Plundering of Magdeburg - The Magdeburg Maidens, historical painting (1866)

After Magdeburg's capitulation to the Imperial forces, there was much bickering between the residents who had favored resistance against the emperor and those who had been against such an action. Even King Gustavus Adolphus joined in the finger pointing, claiming that the citizens of Magdeburg had not been willing to pay the necessary funds for their defense.[8] Pope Urban VIII expressed his satisfaction that "the nest of heretics" was destroyed. On the other hand, the Imperial treatment of defeated Magdeburg helped persuade many Protestant rulers in the Holy Roman Empire to stand against the Roman Catholic emperor.[9]

Magdeburg further suffered from the loss of its fundamental resources and several epidemics due to the massive destruction. At the time of the Peace of Westphalia, ending the Thirty Years' War in 1648, the city's population had further dropped so that only 450 people were still living in the city.[citation needed] The number of inhabitants did not reach the former level until the 19th century. The Archbishopric of Magdeburg was secularized and finally fell to Brandenburg-Prussia in 1680.

The devastations were so great that Magdeburgisieren (or "magdeburgization") became an oft-used term signifying total destruction, rape, and pillaging for decades. The terms "Magdeburg justice", "Magdeburg mercy" and "Magdeburg quarter" also arose as a result of the sack, used originally by Protestants when executing Roman Catholics who begged for quarter.[10] The massacre was forcefully described by Friedrich Schiller in his 1790 work A History of the Thirty Years' War and perpetuated in a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. A scene of Bertolt Brecht's play Mother Courage and Her Children, written in 1939, also refers to the incident.


  1. Peter H. Wilson, From Reich to Revolution: German History, 1558 - 1806 (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), 128.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "The Sack of Magdeburg (20 May 1631)," in Tryntje Helfferich, ed., The Thirty Years War: A Documentary History, 107.
  3. Peter H. Wilson, From Reich to Revolution: German History, 1558 - 1806 (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), 129.
  4. Dr. James Frusetta. "Foreign Intervention." Hampden-Sydney College. 12 September 2012. Lecture.
  5. "The Sack of Magdeburg (20 May 1631)," in Tryntje Helfferich, ed., The Thirty Years War: A Documentary History, 108.
  6. "The Sack of Magdeburg (20 May 1631)," in Tryntje Helfferich, ed., The Thirty Years War: A Documentary History, 109.
  7. Hans Medick and Pamela Selwyn. Historical Event and Contemporary Experience: The Capture and Destruction of Magdeburg in 1631. History Workshop Journal, No. 52 (Autumn 2001), pp. 23-48. Oxford University Press, 2001.
  8. "The Sack of Magdeburg (20 May 1631)," in Tryntje Helfferich, ed., The Thirty Years War: A Documentary History, 112.
  9. "The Battle of Breitenfeld (17 September 1631)," in Tryntje Helfferich, ed., The Thirty Years War: A Documentary History," 113.
  10. "Magdeburg, Sack of (May 20, 1631)" in Cathal J. Nolan, The Age of Wars of Religion, 1000-1650: An Encyclopedia of Global Warfare and Civilization, Volume 2. London : Greenwood Press, ISBN 0313337349, (p. 561-562).

Further reading

  • Brzezinski, Richard. Infantry (Men-at-Arms). Vol. 1. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 1991. The Army of Gustavus Adolphus. Ser. 1. Print.
  • Firoozi, Edith, and Ira N. Klein. Universal History of the World: The Age of Great Kings. Vol. 9. New York: Golden Press, 1966. pp. 738–739.
  • von Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich. The History of the Thirty Years' War. 1791. pp. 177–190.
  • Ingrao, Charles W. The Habsburg Monarchy 1618-1815. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • The Thirty Years War: A Documentary History, Tryntje Helfferich, ed., Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2009.
  • Wilson, Peter H. From Reich to Revolution: German History, 1558-1806. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004.

External links