The history of Christianity is stained with many massacres. Any "Top Ten" list should include the Sack of Magdeburg in the Thirty Years' War.
The Thirty Years' War began in 1618 as a dispute over the throne of Bohemia, marked by a Protestant uprising, announced by the ejection of ambassadors of the Holy Roman Empire from the second story windows of the city hall of Prague, an act of defiance known to history as the Defenestration of Prague. The Bohemian Protestants were crushed, their country handed over to the Jesuits and mercenaries to be "re-Catholicized". However, political and religious conflict quickly spread to involve all of Western Europe in the affairs of Germany.
Next, the Protestant King of Denmark, Christian IV (r. 1588-1648) sought to extend his German dominions. The Danish King was, however, defeated in battle in 1626, by Albrecht von Wallenstein (1583-1634) and his army of over 100,000 mercenaries. Catholic mercenary armies then occupied (and pillaged) large parts of northern Germany. In 1629, Emperor Ferdinand issued the Edict of Restitution, which purported to restore to the Roman Church all property expropriated to private use by Protestants since the Peace of Augsburg in 1555.
The English, however, supported the Protestants, and the French, although Catholic, were willing to support anyone who opposed the the Spanish Habsburgs and their Austrian cousins. Bankrolled by Cardinal Richelieu, Gustavus Adolfus (b. 1594, r. 1611-1632), the "Lion of the North," the Lutheran King of Sweden and rival of Christian IV, took up the Protestant cause against the Emperor, Ferdinand II.
In June, 1630, Gustavus Adolphus landed in Pomerania, and began a protracted campaign to remove the Catholic League armies fr0m northern Germany. The Catholic League generals, Count Pappenheim and Count Von Tilly, amassed an army of mercenaries from all over Europe: Hungarians, Croats, Poles, Walloons, Italians, Spaniards, French, North and South Germans. They gathered their armies at a strategic crossing over the River Elbe, at Magdeburg. Magdeburg was a fortress, so the Catholic mercenaries lay siege to it.
The archbishopric of Magdeburg, of which the town of Magdeburg was the capital, had long been in the possession of princes of the house of Brandenburg, who introduced the Protestant religion into the province. Christian William, prince of Brandenburg, had incurred the wrath of the Habsburg Emperor by his alliance with Christian of Denmark. The town itself was something of an independent republic: a wealthy, bourgeois Protestant stronghold, a symbol of resurgent German Protestant economic development. Facing both the loss of the religion and their property under the Edict of Restitution, the burgers of Magdeburg announced their rejection of the Emperor and alliance with Gustavus Adolphus.
Catholic League armies lead by Counts Pappenheim and von Tilly then encircled and besieged the town, laying waste to its suburbs and srrounding countryside. Gustavus Adolphus later complained that to lift the Siege of Magdeburg would have required him to expose his supply lines and risk encirclement and destruction by the Catholic League armies. At this point, the Swedes' only sure ally was the French: the Electors of Saxony and Brandenburg were sitting on the fence, and would not guarantee either supply or even passage through their territory. For whatever reason, the Swedes did not lift the siege before the Catholic forces managed, on May 20th 1631, to over-run the city.
As narrated by Otto von Guerike (who thereafter became a burgermeister and particpated in the rebuilding the town) in a contemporary account:
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.
As the Burgermeister then confirms, however, the principal motive in the massacre was the mercenaries' desire to loot the fortress-city to secure payment for their services. Whatever the motive, the slaughter became general, and of a city of thirty thousand, some twenty-five thousand (25,000) were killed, and the city was burned to the ground.
The sack of Magdeburg was a tactical and strategic blunder of the first magnitude. The rampaging mercenaries had destroyed the regional supply dump for their army. When word of the massacre got out, it caused the populations of Bradenburg and Saxony to arise en masse and demand that their princes join the Protestant coalition, and the Protestant rulers of Swabia and Franconia began to levy troops as well. After the imperial forces captured Leipzig, Protestant forces led by Gustav Adolphus moved south to engage the Catholics. On September 18th, at Breitenfeld, just north of Leipzig, the Swedish king secured the first Protestant victory in the war. Later, at the battle of Lützen (November 15, 1632) the Swedes destroyed the Catholic armies, but their king, Gustavus Adolphus, was killed in battle.
The Thirty Year's War reduced the population of Germany by 30-40%. Somewhere between six million (6,000,000) and fourteen million (14,000,000) people died. Peace was finally negotiated in Westphalia in 1648.
- Otto von Guerike, "The Destruction of Magdeburg"; reproduced in Readings in European History, ed. J.H. Robinson, vol. 2 (Boston: Ginn, 1906), 211-212.
J.C. Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805), The History of the Thirty Years' War, tr. Rev. A.J.W. Morrison, Pennsylvania State University (Electronic Classics Series) http://www.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/schiller/30yrswar.pdf
- Chris Atkinson, The Thirty Years War, http://www.pipeline.com/~cwa/TYWHome.htm
The Sack of Magdeburg and the Battle of Breitenfeld (1631-32): www.pipeline.com/~cwa/Breitenfeld_Phase.htm