The effect of climate change in the 20th century is investigated based on measured mass-balance data. Annual, winter and summer mass balances on Claridenfirn, Switzerland, (since 1914/15) Storglaciären, Sweden, (since 1945/46) Storbreen, Norway, (since 1948/49) Glacier de Sarennes, France, (since 1948/49) and Vernagtferner, Austria, (since 1965/66) are studied with air temperature at high-altitude stations and the longest records of solar global radiation in Europe. The mean mass balances of these glaciers during the 20th century were mostly negative except for the first two decades. The fluctuating mass balance reaches the minimum (largest loss) and maximum (almost equilibrium) around 1940 and 1980, respectively, with a drastic loss in the last 15 years. These variations are mostly steered by the variation in summer mass balance. The change in the summer mass balance is determined to 72% by temperature and the remaining 28% by solar radiation. During the colder period (e.g. 1960–80), the reduction in solar radiation counteracted the warming trend due to the greenhouse effect. Since 1990 the greenhouse effect of terrestrial radiation and the global brightening effect of solar radiation have both been acting to accelerate the melt, resulting in the unprecedented mass loss of the observational era. The glacier mass balance during the 20th century clearly reacted towards temperature and solar radiation changes, which reflected the greenhouse effect and aerosol and cloud variations.