The relationship of interpopulation genetic divergence and within-population diversity has been studied for many temperate species in Europe, but not for the cold-adapted fauna. Here we present the first European-wide phylogeographical study of an arctic–alpine distribution in invertebrates, focusing on wolf spiders of the Pardosa saltuaria group. One hundred twenty-seven (127) specimens from 14 populations were examined. Within Europe, these populations were distributed among six high mountain ranges and Scandinavia. We sequenced the whole 921 base pair mitochondrial (mt) ND1 gene. The resulting 55 unique haplotypes form three monophyletic phylogroups of deep divergence: a Pyrenean, a Balkan and a ‘northern’ clade. Genetic distances (3.6–4.0%) between the major clades indicate that the arctic–alpine range disjunction was initiated by vicariance events, which precede the four major Alpine glaciations. However, low divergence and incomplete lineage sorting within the ‘northern clade’ suggest a late Pleistocene separation of the Alpine, Scandinavian, Carpathian and Sudetian populations. Thus, we provide evidence for a multiglacial origin of arctic–alpine distributions in Europe, i.e. the current disjunction results from range fragmentation in several glacial cycles. The pattern of genetic diversity within populations seems predominantly determined by historical factors, but is modified by contemporary aspects. Overall, diversity and divergence are negatively correlated. We suggest that low diversity values might result from (i) ancient bottlenecking during warm interglacial periods, as seen in the Pyrenees and Balkans; (ii) recent bottlenecking in small modern areas, as seen in the Giant Mountains and Bohemian Forest; and (iii) dispersal bottlenecking in northern Scandinavia.