The Sack of Magdeburg

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
6 min readMay 21, 2023

Today is the 392nd anniversary of the Sack of Magdeburg, which occurred on 20 May 1631. In last year’s post on the Sack of Magdeburg, I quoted Frederick Schiller’s account of the sack in his The History of the Thirty Years War, which emphasized the horrors of “Magdeburgization” (“Magdeburgisieren”), which was coined after the sack and used to describe the total devastation suffered by the city, then one of the largest cities in Germany. A rather different account of 20 May 1631 at Magdeburg can be found in Lord Acton’s Lectures on Modern History, in which Lord Acton’s focus is entirely on the actions of Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, and Gottfried Heinrich, Graf zu Pappenheim. The townsfolk of Magdeburg are blamed for the fire and Tilly is presented as the hero for saving the cathedral:

“When at length the way through Silesia to the heart of Austria lay open before him, Tilly arrested his march by laying siege to Magdeburg, which commanded the Elbe, and was a Protestant stronghold in the North. The King of Sweden made no attempt to relieve the besieged city; and in May 1631 Pappenheim, the hardest hitter among the German commanders, took the place by storm. The defenders deprived him of the fruits of victory by setting fire to Magdeburg, and burning it to the ground. Tilly, with difficulty, saved the Cathedral, and handed it over to the Catholics. He then took Leipzig without resistance, hoping to coerce Saxony; but the Elector, in this extremity, abandoned the neutrality he had maintained throughout the war, and went over to the Swedes. At Breitenfeld, a few miles out of Leipzig, Gustavus, feebly aided by the Saxons, defeated the Imperialists in the greatest battle of the war. It was a victory of the musket over the pike, and the beginning of the long struggle between line and column. Tilly’s ranks were ten deep, and the Swedes only three, so that every musketeer fired. The world now perceived that the tardy, patient soldier, who had seemed too cautious about his retreat to prepare his advance, was a mighty conqueror, full of invention and resource and untold design.”

Lord Acton was a traditionalist in history, in a sense, insofar as he made political and military developments the structure of his narrative; the sufferings of Magdeburg and its people, so central to Schiller’s narrative, have no part to play in Lord Acton’s account. Also, Lord Acton was a Catholic, and thus might be suspected of a reluctance to dwell on Catholic atrocities.

Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, commander of Imperial Catholic forces, is said to have written the following to Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II after the Sack of Magdeburg:

“Never was such a victory since the storming of Troy or of Jerusalem. I am sorry you and the ladies of the court were not there to enjoy the spectacle.”

This is quoted in several sources, but I am unable to find any collection of correspondence for Tilly or Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II to verify the quote or the read the letter for myself. Better sourced is this quote from Gottfried Heinrich, Graf zu Pappenheim:

“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.”

In last year’s post, discussing Schiller’s account, I noted that the idea of Magdeburgization is familiar in our own time, although by different names. There are other implications of the account of the Sack of Magdeburg that sound contemporary, meaning that there are elements of contemporary history that likely have their origins in this early modern conflict: terror and propaganda.

There are at least two antithetical attitudes that can be found in the secondary literature on the Sack of Magdeburg: that Tilly and Pappenheim were purposefully employing terror as a weapon of war, thus the atrocities were largely as were claimed, or that the claims of atrocity were wildly overstated, the result of a successful pamphleteering campaign by Protestants who sought to construct a “Black Legend” of the cruelty and viciousness of Imperial Catholic forces.

The idea of a “Black Legend” is another historical construction of interest. The idea was introduced to explain some of the stories of atrocities of the Spanish in Spanish America, some of which atrocity stories were known to be fabrications by the northern European Protestant powers engaged in the settlement of North America, who had an interest in demonstrating the unique cruelty and barbarity of Spanish rule in Spanish America. Constructing Black Legends continues in our own day, with manufactured atrocities spread by social media. Mark Twain famously said that a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on.

But some atrocities do actually occur, and their reportage is often weakened by the manufactured atrocities, which dilute the real atrocities with skepticism. (I found one contemporary account of the Sack of Magdeburg that puts “atrocity” in scare quotes, as I have just done, to emphasize the disputed character of the event.) Since those who experience or witness actual atrocities are horrified by the experience, they may be offended by those not present who are skeptical of their experiences. Not surprisingly, the histories written by eye witnesses tend to be quite different from histories written by those not present. Needless to say, there is an historical window after which all accounts are written by those not present at the events concerned. However, even after all parties present to the event have died, there are still partisans of one interpretation or another in subsequent generations — those for whom questioning an event, or failing to question an event, is treated as an affront to the lived experiences of past generations.

So it will be with the histories of our time. The twentieth century was particularly violent, and can boast some of the worst atrocities in human history. Soon, everyone who witnessed these atrocities (or even those who were merely alive while the atrocities occurred) will be dead, and future historians will be left with only records, though, in the case of the twentieth century, in addition to written records, there are film, television, and audio recordings. There is, in fact, so much material from the twentieth century that future historians will have to be even more selective in the material they use to tell their histories, and this selection offers an avenue for human, all-too-human bias and prejudice to enter. Historians may be forced to develop new methods of source criticism to sort through the mass of material in order to highlight that which is representative.

I fully expect that atrocities, terror, propaganda, and black legends will continue to drive the historical narrative in the twenty-first century and beyond, and those attempting to understand history will be faced with significant barriers to an accurate comprehension of past events. Previously, our failures to understand the past were, in part, due to lack of materials. In the future, our failure to understand the past will be due to the overabundance of materials. Both circumstances are fertile grounds for those who would make mischief with history.