Investigating the processes that led to the end of the last interglacial period is relevant for understanding how our ongoing interglacial will end, which has been a matter of much debate (see, for example, refs 1, 2). A recent ice core from Greenland demonstrates climate cooling from 122,000 years ago driven by orbitally controlled insolation, with glacial inception at 118,000 years ago. Here we present an annually resolved, layer-counted record of varve thickness, quartz grain size and pollen assemblages from a maar lake in the Eifel (Germany), which documents a late Eemian aridity pulse lasting 468 years with dust storms, aridity, bushfire and a decline of thermophilous trees at the time of glacial inception. We interpret the decrease in both precipitation and temperature as an indication of a close link of this extreme climate event to a sudden southward shift of the position of the North Atlantic drift, the ocean current that brings warm surface waters to the northern European region. The late Eemian aridity pulse occurred at a 65°N July insolation of 416Wm-2, close to today's value of 428Wm-2 (ref. 9), and may therefore be relevant for the interpretation of present-day climate variability.