The long residence time of carbon in forests and soils means that both the current state and future behavior of the terrestrial biosphere are influenced by past variability in climate and anthropogenic land use. Over the last half-millennium, European terrestrial ecosystems were affected by the cool temperatures of the Little Ice Age, rising CO2 concentrations, and human induced deforestation and land abandonment. To quantify the importance of these processes, we performed a series of simulations with the LPJ dynamic vegetation model driven by reconstructed climate, land use, and CO2 concentrations. Although land use change was the major control on the carbon inventory of Europe over the last 500 years, the current state of the terrestrial biosphere is largely controlled by land use change during the past century. Between 1500 and 2000, climate variability led to temporary sequestration events of up to 3 Pg, whereas increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations during the 20th century led to an increase in carbon storage of up to 15 Pg. Anthropogenic land use caused between 25 Pg of carbon emissions and 5 Pg of uptake over the same time period, depending on the historical and spatial pattern of past land use and the timing of the reversal from deforestation to afforestation during the last two centuries. None of the currently existing anthropogenic land use change datasets adequately capture the timing of the forest transition in most European countries as recorded in historical observations. Despite considerable uncertainty, our scenarios indicate that with limited management, extant European forests have the potential to absorb between 5 and 12 Pg of carbon at the present day.