We apply methods from extreme value theory to identify extreme events in high (termed EHOs) and low (termed ELOs) total ozone and to describe the distribution tails (i.e. very high and very low values) of five long-term European ground-based total ozone time series. The influence of these extreme events on observed mean values, long-term trends and changes is analysed. The results show a decrease in EHOs and an increase in ELOs during the last decades, and establish that the observed downward trend in column ozone during the 1970–1990s is strongly dominated by changes in the frequency of extreme events. Furthermore, it is shown that clear ‘fingerprints’ of atmospheric dynamics (NAO, ENSO) and chemistry [ozone depleting substances (ODSs), polar vortex ozone loss] can be found in the frequency distribution of ozone extremes, even if no attribution is possible from standard metrics (e.g. annual mean values). The analysis complements earlier analysis for the world's longest total ozone record at Arosa, Switzerland, confirming and revealing the strong influence of atmospheric dynamics on observed ozone changes. The results provide clear evidence that in addition to ODS, volcanic eruptions and strong/moderate ENSO and NAO events had significant influence on column ozone in the European sector.