Forest succession depends strongly on the life history strategies of individual trees. An important strategic element is the ability to survive unfavourable environmental conditions that result in strongly reduced tree growth. In this study, we investigated whether the relationship between growth and mortality differs among tree species and site conditions. We analysed 10 329 trees of nine tree species (Picea abies, Taxus baccata, Fagus sylvatica, Tilia cordata, Carpinus betulus, Fraxinus excelsior, Quercus robur, Betula spp. and Alnus glutinosa) from unmanaged forests of Europe: the continental Białowieża forest (Poland) and several oceanically influenced Swiss forest reserves. For each species, we calculated a set of flexible logistic regression models with the explanatory variables growth (as measured by relative basal area increment), tree size and site. We selected the species-specific model with the highest goodness-of-fit and calculated its discriminatory power (area under the receiver operating characteristic curve, AUC) and calibration measures. Most models achieved at least a good discriminatory power (AUC>0.7) and the AUC ranged from 0.62 to 0.87; calibration curves did not indicate any overfitting. Almost all growth–mortality relationships differed among species and sites, i.e. there is no universal growth–mortality relationship. Some species such as F. excelsior showed reduced survival probabilities for both unfavourable and very good growth conditions. We conclude that the growth–mortality relationships presented here can contribute to the life-history classification of trees and that they should also help to improve projections of forest succession models.