Count Tilly, a Bavarian, commanded the army of the Catholic League during the first half of The Thirty Years War. On May 20, 1631, he and Count Pappenheim stormed Magdeburg, a prominent city in north central Germany that dated back to at least the 9th century. The Protestant city was weakened by being under siege from imperial forces of the Holy Roman Empire since the previous year.

Tilly’s army was so enraged at the lengthy resistance provided by the Magdeburgers that they put the garrisons of the city to the sword. They then sacked Magdeburg and massacred the population despite Tilly’s efforts to stop them. Fires mysteriously broke out in various quarters and by the following day virtually the entire city had burned down. Twenty-five thousand people (85% of the population!) perished in the conflagration and the sacking. Those remaining were driven into the already-devastated countryside.

Otto von Gericke, Burgomeister in 1631, graphically and chillingly recorded the destruction of the city by imperial troops. His following description is reprinted here courtesy of the Hanover College Historical Texts project, adapted from “Readings in European History”, J. H. Robinson, editor (Ginn & Co. 1906).

A Personal Account of the Destruction of Magdeburg

“…General Pappenheim collected a number of his people on the ramparts by the New Town and brought them from there into the streets of the city. Fires were kindled in different quarters; then indeed it was all over with the city, and further resistance was useless. Nevertheless some of the soldiers and citizens did try to make a stand here and there, but the imperial troops kept bringing on more and more forces – cavalry, too – to help them, and finally they got the Krockenthor open and let in the whole imperial army and the forces of the Catholic League – Hungarians, Croats, Poles, Walloons, Italians, Spaniards, French.

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…

Thus in a single day this noble and famous city, the pride of the whole country, went up in fire and smoke; and the remnant of its citizens, with their wives and children, were taken prisoners and driven away by the enemy with a noise of weeping and wailing that could be heard from afar, while the cinders and ashes from the town were carried by the wind to Wanzleben, Egeln, and still more distant places…

In addition to all this, quantities of sumptuous and irreplaceable house furnishings and movable property of all kinds, such as books, manuscripts, painting, memorials of all sorts,…which money could not buy, were either burned or carried away by the soldiers as booty. The most magnificent garments, hangings, silk stuffs, gold and silver lace, linen of all sorts, and other household goods were bought by the army sutlers for a mere song and peddled about by the cart load all through the archbishopric of Magdeburg and in Anhalt and Brunswick. Gold chains and rings, jewels and every kind of gold and silver utensils were to be bought from the common soldiers for a tenth of their real value…”

The sack of Magdeburg produced shock and made an immense impression across Europe. It caused the irresolute German Protestant princes to form a closer alliance that was necessary to eventually defeat the imperial army. After the Peace of Westphalia ended The Thirty Years War in 1648, Magdeburg was rebuilt and trade revived. Today Magdeburg is a prosperous city of about one-quarter million residents.

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