Context Current diversity and species composition of ecological communities can often not exclusively be explained by present land use and landscape structure. Historical land use may have considerably influenced ecosystems and their properties for decades and centuries. Objectives We analysed the effects of present and historical landscape structure on plant and arthropod species richness in temperate grasslands, using data from comprehensive plant and arthropod assessments across three regions in Germany and maps of current and historical land cover from three time periods between 1820 and 2016. Methods We calculated local, grassland class and landscape scale metrics for 150 grassland plots. Class and landscape scale metrics were calculated in buffer zones of 100 to 2000 m around the plots. We considered effects on total species richness as well as on the richness of species subsets determined by taxonomy and functional traits related to habitat use, dispersal and feeding. Results Overall, models containing a combination of present and historical landscape metrics showed the best fit for several functional groups. Comparing three historical time periods, data from the 1820/50s was among the most frequent significant time periods in our models (29.7% of all significant variables). Conclusions Our results suggest that the historical landscape structure is an important predictor of current species richness across different taxa and functional groups. This needs to be considered to better identify priority sites for conservation and to design biodiversity-friendly land use practices that will affect landscape structure in the future.