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Sack of Magdeburg
Part of Thirty Years' War
Magdeburg 1631.jpg
Engraving of the Sack of Magdeburg by Matthäus Merian
Date20 May 1631
52°08′N 11°37′E / 52.133°N 11.617°E / 52.133; 11.617Coordinates: 52°08′N 11°37′E / 52.133°N 11.617°E / 52.133; 11.617
Result Destruction of the city
Holy Roman Empire Holy Roman Empire
Catholic League (Germany).svg Catholic League
Commanders and leaders
Holy Roman Empire Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim
Catholic League (Germany).svg Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly
/ Sweden Dietrich von Falkenberg
Christian Wilhelm von Brandenburg
24,000 2,400
Casualties and losses
300 killed
1,600 wounded[1]
20,000 inhabitants[1]

The Sack of Magdeburg (German language: Magdeburgs Opfergang or German language: Magdeburger Hochzeit) refers to the siege, the subsequent plundering, and the massacre of the inhabitants of the largely Protestant city of Magdeburg by the forces of the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic League during the Thirty Years' War. The siege lasted from November 1630 until 20 May 1631.


The Thirty Years' War had been raging for about thirteen years by the time that the imperial city of Magdeburg rose up against the Holy Roman emperor. The city's councilors had been emboldened by King Gustavus Adolphus's landing in Pomerania on 6 July 1630.[2] The Swedish king was a Lutheran Protestant and many of Magdeburg's residents were convinced that he would aid them in their struggle against the Catholic Habsburg emperor, Ferdinand II. Not all Protestant rulers within the Holy Roman Empire had immediately embraced Adolphus, however.[3] Some believed that his motive for entering the war was the possession of northern German ports that would allow him to control commerce in the Baltic Sea.[4] Regardless, the city of Magdeburg had good reason to ally itself with him; the Swedish king had one of the most efficient armies of that time period and he did not rely on mercenaries as much as other rulers did at the time. While his army was made up primarily of his Swedish countrymen, the armies of the Holy Roman emperor included a mix of Hungarians, Croats, Spaniards, Poles, Italians, Frenchmen, Germans, and others.[5] In a matter of months, imperial forces under the command of the Count of Tilly laid siege to the city and significant military assistance from the king of Sweden was nowhere to be found.[3]

Assault and sacking

On the last day of the siege Magdeburg's 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. The siege was ended and Imperial Field Marshal Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim, and Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, attacked Magdeburg for its rich stores of goods. 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. The city was dealt another blow when Colonel Dietrich von Falkenberg, a nobleman sent by King Gustavus to direct Magdeburg's military affairs, was shot dead by Catholic imperials.[6] When the city was almost lost, the garrison mined various places and set others on fire. After the city fell, the Imperial soldiers 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." [7] It took only one day for all of this destruction and death to transpire. Of the 30,000 citizens, only 5,000 survived. For fourteen days, charred bodies were carried to the Elbe River to be dumped to prevent disease.

In a letter, Pappenheim wrote of the Sack:

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.[8]


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 Adolphus joined in the finger pointing, claiming that the citizens of Magdeburg hadn't been willing to pay the necessary funds for their defense.[9] Magdeburg's defeat convinced many Protestant rulers in the Holy Roman Empire to take a stand against the Catholic emperor.[10]

At the time of the Peace of Westphalia ending the war in 1648, the city's population had further dropped so that only 450 people were still living in the city.

The devastation was 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 Catholics who begged for quarter.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Peter H. Wilson. The Thirty Years War: Europe's Tragedy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2009. p. 471.
  2. Peter H. Wilson, From Reich to Revolution: German History, 1558 - 1806 (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), 128.
  3. 3.0 3.1 "The Sack of Magdeburg (20 May 1631)," in Tryntje Helfferich, ed., The Thirty Years War: A Documentary History, 107.
  4. Peter H. Wilson, From Reich to Revolution: German History, 1558 - 1806 (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), 129.
  5. Dr. James Frusetta. "Foreign Intervention." Hampden-Sydney College. 12 September 2012. Lecture.
  6. "The Sack of Magdeburg (20 May 1631)," in Tryntje Helfferich, ed., The Thirty Years War: A Documentary History, 108.
  7. "The Sack of Magdeburg (20 May 1631)," in Tryntje Helfferich, ed., The Thirty Years War: A Documentary History, 109.
  8. 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.
  9. "The Sack of Magdeburg (20 May 1631)," in Tryntje Helfferich, ed., The Thirty Years War: A Documentary History, 112.
  10. "The Battle of Breitenfeld (17 September 1631)," in Tryntje Helfferich, ed., The Thirty Years War: A Documentary History," 113.

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

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