The rapid temperature increase of 1°C over mainland Europe since 1980 is considerably larger than the temperature rise expected from anthropogenic greenhouse gas increases. Here we present aerosol optical depth measurements from six specific locations and surface irradiance measurements from a large number of radiation sites in Northern Germany and Switzerland. The measurements show a decline in aerosol concentration of up to 60%, which have led to a statistically significant increase of solar irradiance under cloud-free skies since the 1980s. The measurements confirm solar brightening and show that the direct aerosol effect had an approximately five times larger impact on climate forcing than the indirect aerosol and other cloud effects. The overall aerosol and cloud induced surface climate forcing is ∼+1 W m−2 dec−1 and has most probably strongly contributed to the recent rapid warming in Europe.