The grey wolf (Canis lupus) is an iconic large carnivore that has increasingly been recognized as an apex predator with intrinsic value and a keystone species. However, wolves have also long represented a primary source of human–carnivore conflict, which has led to long-term persecution of wolves, resulting in a significant decrease in their numbers, genetic diversity and gene flow between populations. For more effective protection and management of wolf populations in Europe, robust scientific evidence is crucial. This review serves as an analytical summary of the main findings from wolf population genetic studies in Europe, covering major studies from the ‘pre-genomic era’ and the first insights of the ‘genomics era’. We analyse, summarize and discuss findings derived from analyses of three compartments of the mammalian genome with different inheritance modes: maternal (mitochondrial DNA), paternal (Y chromosome) and biparental [autosomal microsatellites and single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs)]. To describe large-scale trends and patterns of genetic variation in European wolf populations, we conducted a meta-analysis based on the results of previous microsatellite studies and also included new data, covering all 19 European countries for which wolf genetic information is available: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, Belarus, Russia, Italy, Croatia, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Spain and Portugal. We compared different indices of genetic diversity in wolf populations and found a significant spatial trend in heterozygosity across Europe from south-west (lowest genetic diversity) to north-east (highest). The range of spatial autocorrelation calculated on the basis of three characteristics of genetic diversity was 650−850 km, suggesting that the genetic diversity of a given wolf population can be influenced by populations up to 850 km away. As an important outcome of this synthesis, we discuss the most pressing issues threatening wolf populations in Europe, highlight important gaps in current knowledge, suggest solutions to overcome these limitations, and provide recommendations for science-based wolf conservation and management at regional and Europe-wide scales.