War and the Muses - The Sack of Magdeburg
Perhaps the most ghastly conflict in Europe before the slaughters of the twentieth century, the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), a complex religious, political, dynastic, and nationalist struggle the ultimately involved virtually every country on the continent, was marked by extraordinary atrocities by all concerned, perhaps the most famous of which was the Sack of Magdeburg, in 1631.
In November of 1630 a largely – but not exclusively – Catholic army in the service of the House of Hapsburg and the “Holy Catholic League” of the Holy Roman Empire, commanded by Imperial Marshal Johan Tilly and Gottfried zu Pappenheim invested the largely Protestant city of Magdeburg, on the Elbe in Central Germany. It was a difficult siege, for the garrison was strong and well supplied, and conducted an active defense, while the besiegers found great difficulty supplying themselves from local resources.
By May of 1631, the situation of the besiegers was growing desperate, having made little headway against the city’s defenses, short of food, and with a Swedish relief army approach under the redoubtable King Gustavus Adolphus II, the “Lion of the North.” Tilly and Pappenheim resolving to attempt to storm the city. On May 20, 1631, with the Swedish relief army still far off, the Imperialists stormed the city, amid great slaughter, with perhaps 30,000 dead, only about 5,000 of the inhabitants and garrison surviving.
In 1798, Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), one of the glories of German literature, completed his monumental The History of the Thirty Years' War, with the following account of the sack of Magdeburg.
Even a more humane general would in vain have recommended mercy to such soldiers; but Tilly never made the attempt. Left by their general's silence masters of the lives of all the citizens, the soldiery broke into the houses to satiate their most brutal appetites. The prayers of innocence excited some compassion in the hearts of the Germans, but none in the rude breasts of Pappenheim's Walloons. Scarcely had the savage cruelty commenced, when the other gates were thrown open, and the cavalry, with the fearful hordes of the Croats, poured in upon the devoted inhabitants.
Here commenced a scene of horrors for which history has no language – poetry no pencil. 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 defenseless 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; Pappenheim's Walloons with stabbing infants at the mother's breast. Some officers of the League, horror-struck at this dreadful scene, ventured to remind Tilly that he had it in his power to stop the carnage. "Return in an hour," was his answer; "I will see what I can do; the soldier must have some reward for his danger and toils." These horrors lasted with unabated fury, till at last the smoke and flames proved a check to the plunderers.
To augment the confusion and to divert the resistance of the inhabitants, the Imperialists had, in the commencement of the assault, fired the town in several places. The wind rising rapidly, spread the flames, till the blaze became universal. Fearful, indeed, was the tumult amid clouds of smoke, heaps of dead bodies, the clash of swords, the crash of falling ruins, and streams of blood. The atmosphere glowed; and the intolerable heat forced at last even the murderers to take refuge in their camp. In less than twelve hours, this strong, populous, and flourishing city, one of the finest in Germany, was reduced to ashes, with the exception of two churches and a few houses. The governor of Magdeburg, Christian William, after receiving several wounds, was taken prisoner, with three of the burgomasters; most of the officers and magistrates had already met an enviable death. The avarice of the officers had saved 400 of the richest citizens, in the hope of extorting from them an exorbitant ransom. But this humanity was confined to the officers of the League, whom the ruthless barbarity of the Imperialists caused to be regarded as guardian angels.
Scarcely had the fury of the flames abated, when the Imperialists returned to renew the pillage amid the ruins and ashes of the town. Many were suffocated by the smoke; many found rich booty in the cellars, where the citizens had concealed their more valuable effects. On the 24th of May, Tilly himself appeared in the town, after the streets had been cleared of ashes and dead bodies. Horrible and revolting to humanity was the scene that presented itself. The living crawling from under the dead, children wandering about with heart-rending cries, calling for their parents; and infants still sucking the breasts of their lifeless mothers. More than 6,000 bodies were thrown into the Elbe to clear the streets; a much greater number had been consumed by the flames. The whole number of the slain was reckoned at not less than 30,000.
Note: This translation uses Gregorian dates, though in his account, Schiller uses the Julian calendar, which was ten days behind the Gregorian.