This study aims to reveal whether complexity, namely, community and trophic structure, of chronically stressed soil systems is at increased risk or remains stable when confronted with a subsequent disturbance. Therefore, we focused on a grassland with a history of four centuries of patchy contamination. Nematodes were used as model organisms because they are an abundant and trophically diverse group and representative of the soil food web and ecosystem complexity. In a field survey, a relationship between contaminants and community structures was established. Following, two groups of soil mesocosms from the field that differed in contamination level were exposed to different disturbance regimes, namely, to the contaminant zinc and a heat shock. The zinc treatment revealed that community structure is stable, irrespective of soil contamination levels. This implies that centuries of exposure to contamination led to adaptation of the soil nematode community irrespective of the patchy distribution of contaminants. In contrast, the heat shock had adverse effects on species richness in the highly contaminated soils only. The total nematode biomass was lower in the highly contaminated field samples; however, the biomass was not affected by zinc and heat treatments of the mesocosms. This means that density compensation occurred rapidly, i.e., tolerant species quickly replaced sensitive species. Our results support the hypothesis that the history of contamination and the type of disturbance determine the response of communities. Despite that ecosystems may be exposed for centuries to contamination and communities show adaptation, biodiversity in highly contaminated sites is at increased risk when exposed to a different disturbance regime. We discuss how the loss of higher trophic levels from the entire system, such as represented by carnivorous nematodes after the heat shock, accompanied by local biodiversity loss at highly contaminated sites, may result in detrimental effects on ecosystem functions. © 2007 by the Ecological Society of America.