On May 20, 1631, as the violence and chaos of the Thirty Years’ War embroiled Germany, Catholic troops sacked the Saxon city of Magdeburg. Founded by Charlemagne in 805, the city named for the Virgin Mary had served as the de facto capital of Emperor Otto the Great. Located on the Elbe, Magdeburg prospered, becoming one of Germany’s wealthiest and most important medieval cities.

In 1524, Luther preached in the city, and the populace quickly adopted the Reformation, expelling its Catholic archbishop. Magdeburg joined the Schmalkaldic League, taking a prominent place among the leading Lutheran cities and as a center of Protestant printing.

During the Thirty Years’ War, the Protestant stronghold paid the ultimate price for its defi ance against Catholic authorities. In 1629, Magdeburg had withstood a siege from the Catholic mercenary com-mander, Albrecht von Wallenstein (1583–1634). It was not so lucky in 1631, when Catholic League troops commanded by the Bavarian general Johann Tserclaes, count of Tilly (1559–1632), besieged the city.

After a grueling six-month siege, Magdeburg fi nally fell, and Tilly’s troops rampaged through the city, burning, looting, and slaughtering the unarmed townsfolk.The horrors of the sack of Magdeburg were recorded by one of the survivors, Otto von Guericke (1602–86), the city’s mayor and inventor of the vacuum pump:

Then was there naught but beating and burning, plundering, torture, and murder. Most especially was every one of the 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 a thousand castles.

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 the 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, nor no tears to bewail it. . . . (Robinson 1906: 345)

The once proud city was burned to the ground, and more than 20,000 of its inhabitants were slaughtered. Just 15 percent of its population survived the fury of the siege. It is reported that it took 14 days to throw all of the burned bodies of the soldiers’ victims into the Elbe.

The traumatized survivors were driven into the devastated countryside to starve. By the end of the war, fewer than 500 Magdeburgers remained alive. Even in an age of religious violence, the gruesome atrocities that accompanied the sack of Magdeburg horrifi ed all of Germany, galvaniz-ing Protestant resistance to the imperial forces.