“Kill them all. God will find his own.”

During the Thirty Years’ War, Magdeburg was the most important city on the Elbe River and had been an Imperial target for some time. The Imperial army under Pappenheim besieged it since November of 1630 and, after a series of setbacks, he was joined by Count Tilly and the larger Imperial army in April of 1631.

Although the city bravely repulsed assaults on May 17 and 18, the city finally fell on November 20 when Pappenheim attacked again. After the city was captured, even though it was populated by both Catholics and Protestants, the victors of Maximilian’s Catholic League ordered soldiers to: “Kill them all. God will find his own.” The Imperial troops careened out of control and a horrible massacre resulted. Around midday, twenty or more fires were started, and the conquerors could or would not put out the fire. Only 5,000 of the 30,000 population of the city survived the siege and fire.

From Friedrich Schiller’s The History of the Thirty Years’ War. 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 one 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 Wilhelm, 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. (End)

Note: Perhaps modern historians will lower the death toll and start a “Magdeburg debate...”

Another account of the siege by Otto von Guericke, Burgomeister of Magdeburg as he recorded the destruction of the city by imperial troops in May of 1631:

.... So then 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. Von Falckenberg was shot, and 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, North and South Germans. 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 imbittered 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, 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....

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, paintings, 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.... (End)

J.H. Robinson, ed. Readings in European History 2 vols.Boston: Ginn, 1906