The Sack of Magdeburg


On 20 May 1632 Magdeburg, in modern day Germany, was stormed, looted and burned, having been besieged for months. Out of something like 20,000 inhabitants, perhaps only 5,000 survived; some say fewer. In German history, Magdeburg became shorthand for atrocity: Schiller wrote:

‘Neither innocent childhood, nor helpless old age; neither youth, sex, rank, nor beauty, could disarm the fury of the conquerors. Wives were abused in the arms of their husbands, daughters at the feet of their parents; and the defenceless sex exposed to the double sacrifice of virtue and life. No situation, however obscure or however sacred, escaped the rapacity of the enemy. In a single church fifty-three women were found beheaded. The Croats amused themselves with throwing children into the flames.’

We need to start with grandmother and egg territory: there was no state called Germany until one was created in 1871. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the territories where German became the primary language were ruled by an enormous variety of Kings, Princes, Electors, Bishops and even city-states: some of these states were little more than over-sized villages. The fact that There were so many German states meant that there were frequent disputes about succession, and big states (from within and without Germany) tended to intervene. Thus, there were also disputes about the authority of the Emperor. In the middle ages and beyond, the Holy Roman Emperors claimed authority over them, though didn’t always have much authority. Thus, there were wars over that issue too. With the coming of the Reformation, some German states became Protestant, others remained Catholic: there were, therefore, wars of religion also. The Thirty Years’ War was about all three issues.

Given the history of Germany in the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th century, we tend to think of Germany and war rather differently, but for a fair bit of its history the story was very different. Most often, wars happened to Germany rather than being started there. The sate which built modern Germany, is often associated with the much vaunted Prussian militarism that many have blamed for two world wars. It is perfectly possible to view that as a reaction to the militarism of others, none more so than the French (or, indeed, the Danes and the Swedes).

The casus belli of the Thirty Years’ War was the Second Defenestration of Prague (defenestration being something of a Czech speciality): in essence, two Catholic lords and their secretary were thrown from a window. At length, the result was the Thirty Years’ War.

I will make no attempt to explain the ins and outs of the war itself, on the grounds that it was long, complex and I don’t really understand it. Instead, I want to think about the Magdeburg in the context of that war, of course, but of 17th century warfare and warfare in general, and of war crimes and atrocity in general.

We do need to offer two important points of specific context about the Thirty Years’ War, however. The first is that it was as much a series of inter-connected wars as one simple conflict. The second is that its impact upon Germany was terrible, but once again more complex than we used to think. It does seem that population of some parts of Germany fell by between 20%-40%, but that had as much to do with migration and disease as it did with warfare. Furthermore, whilst armies did terrible damage to rural Germany, towns and cities were usually too valuable to destroy: Magdeburg wa, thus, something of an exception.

To understand it though, we do need to understand something of the nature of 17th century warfare. The essential problem was logistical: how to provision armies on campaign, or beyond their native territory, or over long periods. In essence, 17th century armies had to quarter locally, which meant living off the land and the locals. To do that successfully, the needed to control the countryside to ensure supply: to do that, they had to garrison it. The result was a kind of military inflation: armies had to get bigger to quarter themselves. In 1632, the Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus, had an army of 175,000 in total. However, in the big battle of that year, Lutzen, he could only get 19,000 onto the battlefield itself. In 1626, the Imperial commander Wallenstein told the emperor he could maintain a self-financing army of 50,000, but not one of 20,000. Armies got bigger to feed themselves.

Then there was the fact that many of those doing the fighting were mercenary soldiers, notably from Scotland and Croatia, for example. However, their employers were not merely overstretched in terms of supply; they were also often on, or over, the edge of bankruptcy. Thus, the mercenary soldiers were commonly not paid on time, or simply not paid at all. Traditionally, mercenary troops were often hard to discipline, even when commanders wanted them to, and they had no tie to the land in which they fought, or were quartered. If we add to that the long-lived military traditions of booty and plunder and rapine in war, an explanation for the impact of the Thirty Years’ War might come more readily. Here, Jacques Callot’s The Miseries of War depicts that plunder vividly.

 And then there is the whole business of wars of religion, and of wars against what we might call the other. Atrocities are always more likely and more likely to be worse when the enemy are the others, whether Irish in the English Civil War, or Catholic and Irish in Cromwellian Ireland. The Thirty Years’ War was, in part, a war of religion, and Magdeburg was a (mostly) Protestant city being attacked by a (mostly) Catholic army; many of that army were not German, and they were attacking mostly Protestant Germans. Here, Callot depicts the hanging of heretics.


Then there were what amounted to the rules of war. The word quarter had two related meanings. One was to supply; the other was the willingness to take prisoners (and thus supply them). Of all the forms of war, the bloodiest has often been siege warfare. The rules of no quarter specifically allowed that, if the defenders of a besieged fortress or town did not accept terms, then they would be give no quarter: that is, they would be killed. Medieval armies routinely gave no quarter in this circumstance and that often extended to civilians, including plunder, rape and murder: many readers of this will be familiar with the story of Jerusalem in 109 or Constantinople in 1204.

At Magdeburg, all the ingredients outlined above were present: it was a war or religion, non-Germans were attacking Germans, and it was a siege. To complete the picture, the governor of the city, Diedrich Falkenberg, refused the offer of terms and this time, unusually for the Thirty Years’ War, no quarter was given.

The words of Otto von Gericke, Burgomeister, still chill:

‘Thus it came about that the city and all its inhabitants fell into the hands of the enemy, whose violence and cruelty were due in part to their common hatred of the adherents of the Augsburg Confession, and in part to their being embittered by the chain shot which had been fired at them and by the derision and insults that the Magdeburgers had heaped upon them from the ramparts.

‘Then was there naught but beating and burning, plundering, torture, rape and murder. Most especially was every enemy bent on securing much booty. When a marauding party entered a house, if its master had anything to give he might thereby purchase respite and protection for himself and his family till the next man, who also wanted something should come along. It was only when everything had been brought forth and there was nothing left to give that the real trouble commenced. Then, what with blows and threats of shooting, stabbing and hanging, the poor people were so terrified that if they had had anything left they would have brought it forth if it had been buried in the earth or hidden away.

‘In this frenzied rage, the great and splendid city that had stood like a fair princess in the land was now, in its hour of direst need and unutterable distress and woe, given over to flames, and thousands of innocent men, women and children, in the midst of a horrible din of heartrending shrieks and cries, were tortured and put to death in so cruel and shameful a manner that no words would suffice to describe, not no tears to bewail it…’

Magdeburg mattered precisely because it was the exception. There were similar acts in the Thirty Years War, but most of them in the countryside. Magdeburgisieren entered the language In Britain, the phrase ‘turn Germany’ was coined: Magdeburg helped feed Protestant fears of Catholicism, that would become manifest in reactions to the Irish Rebellion of 1641, for example. The fear of Catholicism acquired a newly terrifying note, prints  (such as those by Granger, after Callot, show. As such, it was used to justify atrocities in its turn: Ireland, for example, acquired its own Magdeburg in the form of the Cromwellian siege of Drogheda.   

Tragically, neither siege warfare nor atrocity was to die with the 17th century. Indeed, the 20th century saw much of both. On the grandest scale, the Nazi Hunger Plan, the plan to starve vast swaths of the Slav and Jewish populations of the Soviet Union following the hoped for quick victory in 1941, should remind us that with the coming of industrial warfare, war’s capacity for inhumanity can be opened out on a vast scale. It is only a few years since modern-day Europe saw the horrors of the siege of Sarajevo, or Srebrenica. Magdeburg still speaks to us today.

Jacques Callot’s was perhaps the first Great War artist, and was very influential upon the greatest war artist of them all, Goya. Callot’s masterpiece is covered well by this article here.

2 thoughts on “The Sack of Magdeburg

  1. ” It is only a few years since modern-day Europe saw the horrors of the siege of Sarajevo, or Srebrenica.”

    nothing major happened at those two instances, both were minor military operations, but a great and horrible genocide actually happened to Serb civilians in world war 2 by the fascist croatian ustashi, the same ”non german” butchers of magdeburg


    1. HistoriaCroatica February 6, 2021 — 1:56 pm

      Its funny, Serb minorising genocide and occupation of one city which lasted 4 years (longest since Warsaw), genocide of innocent people in Vukovar and Srebrenica(in 6 days 8000 children, women and men killed by Chetnik-Serbs). How to apologate atrocities ask Serb, nation that grew complex because of 500 year old Turkish occupation, with no language, literature and laws till 20.century.


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