This paper, based on a literature review, presents a quantitative overview of the role of natural disturbances in European forests from 1850 to 2000. Such an overview provides a basis for modelling the possible impacts of climate change and enables one to assess trends in disturbance regimes in different countries and/or periods. Over the period 1950–2000, an annual average of 35 million m3 wood was damaged by disturbances; there was much variation between years. Storms were responsible for 53% of the total damage, fire for 16%, snow for 3% and other abiotic causes for 5%. Biotic factors caused 16% of the damage, and half of this was caused by bark beetles. For 7% of the damage, no cause was given or there was a combination of causes. The 35 million m3 of damage is about 8.1% of the total fellings in Europe and about 0.15% of the total volume of growing stock. Over the period 1961–2000, the average annual area of forest fires was 213 000 ha, which is 0.15% of the total forest area in Europe. Most types of damage seem to be increasing. This is partly an artefact of the improved availability of information. The most likely explanations for an increase in damage from disturbances are changes in forest management and resulting changes in the condition of the forest. Forest area, average volume of growing stock and average stand age have increased considerably, making the forest more vulnerable and increasing the resources that can be damaged. Since forest resources are expected to continue to increase, it is likely that damage from disturbances will also increase in future.