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A Local Apocalypse – The Sack of Magdeburg (1631)

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On a single day, this renowned and noble city, an ornament of the entire land, was seen to go up in smoke and flames, and the inhabitants who remained with their wives and children were held captive and led before their enemies. Their cries were heard far and wide, as the wind spread the flames and ashes to Wanzleben, Egeln, and other locations (5). [ . . . ]

The women, young women, daughters, and maids, those who had no husbands, parents, or relatives who could ransom them, could still seek help and advice among high-ranking officers. This led to much evil, for some were raped and dishonored, others kept as concubines. [ . . . ]

The number of those murdered and killed within the city cannot be known with any certainty, because many lives were taken by sword and by fire. After this terrible holocaust, General Tilly (6) ordered that the burnt corpses and other bodies be gathered from the streets, walls, and other places and taken by wagons to be dumped into the Elbe. Furthermore, up to a year after this time, many dead bodies – as many as 5, 6, 8, 10 or more – were found in ruined cellars, where they had suffocated and died. The remnants of those who were badly burned and crushed by falling walls had to be cleared away with pitchforks. Hence, no one can know the total figure. In general, however, it is reckoned that, including the two suburbs and those killed by the Imperial cavalry – who not only took part in the storming of the city but later searched around in the cellars and houses – some 20,000 persons, old and young, lost their lives through such sufferings or in other ways. The dead bodies in front of the watergate that had been carried into the Elbe could not float away because there was no ripple or eddy there to move them. Many also bobbed around there for a long time, some with their heads out of the water, some with their hands stretched to the heavens, giving onlookers quite a horrid spectacle. This sight gave rise to much babbling, just as if the dead were still praying, singing, and crying to God for vengeance. People will gossip about visions, apparitions, and other such things, but no one wants to affirm the truth of them.

(5) These are towns in the district of Magdeburg.
(6) Johan Tserclaes, Count of Tilly (1559-1632), was commander of the Imperial troops.

Source of original German text: Friedrich Wilhelm Hoffmann, Geschichte der Belagerung, Eroberung und Zerstörung Magdeburg’s von Otto von Guericke, Churfürstlich-Brandenburgischem Rath und Bürgermeister besagter Stadt. Magdeburg: Baensch, 1860, pp. 82-87; reprinted in Bernd Roeck, ed., Gegenreformation und Dreißigjähriger Krieg 1555-1648. Deutsche Geschichte in Quellen und Darstellung, edited by Rainer A. Müller, Volume 4. Stuttgart: P. Reclam, 1996, pp. 296-301.

English translation: Julie K. Tanaka

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