The German occupation of Luxembourg in World War II was the period in the history of Luxembourg after it was used as a transit territory to attack France by outflanking the Maginot Line. Plans for the attack had been prepared by 9 October 1939, but execution was postponed several times. On 10 May 1940, the German Wehrmacht invaded Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Eve of the invasion
The outbreak of World War II on 1 September 1939 put Luxembourg’s government in a delicate situation. On the one hand, the population’s sympathy lay with Belgium and France; on the other hand, due to the country's policy of neutrality since 1867's Treaty of London, the government adopted a careful non-belligerent stance towards its neighbours. As of 1 September, Radio Luxembourg stopped broadcasting. In spring 1940, fortifications were erected along the borders with Germany and France. The so-called Schuster Line, named after its constructor, consisted of massive concrete roadblocks with steel doors. The official aim of these road blocks was to slow down the progress of any invading army and give time for the guarantors of Luxembourg's neutrality to take counteractions against the invaders. However, compared to the massive power of the German forces, it only had symbolic character and helped to calm down the population. Except for its small Luxembourgish Volunteer Corps, Luxembourg did not possess an army, due to the treaty's restrictions.
After several false alarms in the spring of 1940, the probability of a military conflict between Germany and France grew. Germany stopped the export of coke for the Luxembourgish steel industry.
The steel doors of the Schuster Line were ordered closed on 10 May 1940 at 03:15, following movements of German troops on the east side of the border rivers Our, Sauer and Mosel. In the meantime, German special forces dressed as civilians and supported by Germans living in Luxembourg - the so-called Stoßtrupp Lützelburg - tried to sabotage radio broadcasting and the barricades along the German-Luxembourgish border but their attempt failed. The Royal Family was evacuated from its residence in Colmar-Berg to the Grand Ducal palace in Luxembourg City.
The German invasion, made up of the 1st, 2nd, and 10th Panzer Divisions began at 04:35. They did not encounter any significant resistance save for some bridges destroyed and some land mines, since the majority of the Luxembourgish Volunteer Corps stayed in their barracks. Luxembourgish police resisted the German troops, however, to little avail; the capital city was occupied before noon. Total Luxembourgish casualties amounted to 75 police and soldiers captured, six police wounded, and one soldier wounded. At 08:00, elements of the French 3rd Light Cavalry Division (3 DLC) of General Petiet, supported by the 1st Spahi Brigade of Colonel Jouffault and the 2nd company of the 5th Armoured Battalion (5 BCC), crossed the southern border to conduct a probe of German forces; these units later retreated behind the Maginot Line. On the evening of 10 May 1940, most of the country, with the exception of the south, was occupied by German forces. More than 90,000 civilians evacuated from the canton of Esch-sur-Alzette as a consequence of the advance. 47,000 fled to France, 45,000 fled into the central and northern part of Luxembourg.
Grand Duchess Charlotte and the government of Premier Pierre Dupong fled to France, Portugal and the United Kingdom, before finally settling in Canada for the duration of the war. Charlotte, exiled in London, became an important symbol of national unity. Her eldest son and heir, Jean, volunteered for the British Army in 1942. The only official representative left behind was Albert Wehrer, head of a governmental commission, as well as the 41 deputies.
The Nazi regime in Luxembourg
At first, the people thought that they could accommodate themselves with the occupying regime without further harm, just as they had done in World War I. However, it was soon made clear by the authorities that their fate would be very different this time. The Nazis considered the Luxembourgish people as just another Germanic ethnic group and the Grand Duchy a German territory.
On 17 May 1940, the Volksdeutsche Bewegung was founded in Luxembourg City under the leadership of Damian Kratzenberg. Its main goal was to push the population towards a German-friendly position by means of propaganda and thus to lead Luxembourg Heim ins Reich. After a short period under military administration between 1 May and 2 August, Luxembourg was included into the CdZ-Gebiet Luxemburg on 29 July under the guidance of Gustav Simon. Simon was the civil administrator of the Gaue Trier-Koblenz (later Moselland) and led a propaganda and later terror campaign, known as Heim ins Reich, to convince the population that they were ethnic Germans and a natural part of the Third Reich. As Gauleiter, he was responsible to Adolf Hitler only. His two goals were very clear:
- The Germanisation of Luxembourg, i.e., the extinction of everything that was not of German source, like French names and words of French origin or a French way of life, i.e., wearing a beret (a traditional cap from the Northern Basque Country).
- The destruction and dismemberment of the Luxembourgish state.
His very first series of decrees made this policy very clear:
- 6 August 1940. The usage of the French language was banned. The ban included names of streets and towns; even expressions of courtesy such as 'Bonjour', 'Merci', 'Monsieur', 'Madame', etc. were banned. French names were translated into their German counterpart or simply replaced by something sounding more Germanic. Henri became Heinrich, Dupont became Brückner.
- Autumn 1940. The political parties and independent labour unions, the Parliament and the Conseil d'Etat were dissolved. All civil society organisations and the press were subjected to Nazi control.
- Till end 1940. German law was introduced including the Sondergerichte and the Nuremberg Laws.
- From 1941 many Luxembourgish youth were ordered to participate in the Reichsarbeitsdienst.
A massive propaganda campaign was launched to influence the population, while not only dissidents and critics but also teachers, officials and leading business figures were threatened with losing their jobs unless they joined Nazi organisations, which led to much increased recruitment from all professions. A central registry documented the personal opinion regarding the Nazi regime of almost every citizen. People who were openly opposed to the regime lost their jobs or were deported, mainly to eastern Germany and in the worst cases sent to the death camps where many of them died.
The fate of Luxembourg's Jews
Before the invasion, 3,800 Jews lived in Luxembourg, many of them refugees from Germany. On 10 May 1940, 1,800 of them still remained. After Simon introduced the Nuremberg Laws, life became unbearable for the Jewish population. Their shops, possessions and money were confiscated and all Jewish employees were fired. They were not allowed inside public buildings or to keep pets. Between August 1940 and October 1941, 619 Jews left the country on the orders of the authorities. The Gestapo accompanied them to France and Spain but, since they were rejected there, they went on an endless odyssey.
On 23 August 1941, a curfew was introduced for the Jewish population and they were degraded to second class citizens. The synagogues in Luxembourg City and Esch-sur-Alzette were destroyed; the ones in Ettelbruck and Mondorf-les-Bains were devastated. The Nazis concentrated the remaining Jews in the old monastery of Fünfbrunnen. On 16 October 1941, their transportation began to the Ghetto of Litzmannstadt and after April 1942 to the death camps of Hinzert/Hunsrück, Belsen, Sobibor, Majdanek and Theresienstadt. With the last transport in June 1942, 11 people were sent directly to Auschwitz. Two of them survived.
One prominent Jewish survivor was Alfred Oppenheimer, a member of the Consistoire (similar to the Jewish Councils of occupied eastern Europe). Together with his family, he was deported to a concentration camp, where his wife was killed and then to Auschwitz where his son Rene was gassed. Alfred Oppenheimer survived the death camp and was one of the witnesses at the trial of Adolf Eichmann. He returned to live in Luxembourg until his death aged over 90, and was known for his involvement in public education about the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. The Prix René Oppenheimer was created in memory of his son.
On 17 June 1943, Gustav Simon announced Luxembourg to be Judenfrei. From the 683 deported, only 43 survived.
The population’s reaction
The general public were slow to react at first, still feeling shock from the invasion of 1914–1918. Furthermore the royal family and the government had silently fled into exile. In general the different reactions of the population can be grouped in the following categories:
The Luxembourgish resistance was carried out by only a small fraction of the population. Its formation was spontaneous and slow at first. The first groups were formed in autumn 1940–1941. In the beginning they worked without coordination and from different motivations, for instance Liberals opposed to the anti-Jewish policies and in favour of democracy as well as conservative Roman Catholics with sometimes more or less anti-Jewish tendencies. Some of the latter category also were at the same time opposed to the Soviet Union and "Judeo-Bolshevism", hoping that Prussian generals of the Wehrmacht would defeat Joseph Stalin and the Red Army, while at the same time hiding Jews and anti-Nazi clergy mixed together in their farms. The Luxembourg Resistance was joined by the Communist Party of Luxembourg after June 1941 (Operation Barbarossa).
The different groups were:
- L.P.L., Lëtzebuerger Patriote Liga, (Eng: Luxembourgian Patriot League), founded 1940
- LFB, Lëtzeburger Freihétsbewegong, (Eng: Luxembourgish Freedom Movement), founded 1940
- LFK, Lëtzeburger Freihétskämpfer, (Eng: Luxembourgish Freedom Fighters), founded January 1941
- L.V.L., Lëtzeburger Volleks Legio'n, (Eng: Luxembourgish Peoples Legion), founded June 1941
- L.R.L., Lëtzeburger Ro'de Lé'w, (Eng: Luxembourgish Red Lion), founded October 1941
- PI-Men, Patriotes Indépendants, (Eng: Independent Patriots), founded 1941
- LFB, Lëtzeburger Freihétsbond, (Eng: Luxembourgish Freedom Alliance)
- Alweraje, 1941.
The different groups merged in March 1944 into the Union. The actions against the Nazi regime were largely limited to psychological warfare and armed actions were less common. Many young men joined the armed resistance in France and Belgium. The main accomplishment of the Luxembourgish resistance, which should not be underestimated, was the moral support for the population through the distribution of leaflets; graffiti; and by hiding youths who refused to serve in the German Wehrmacht.
Several well-known Catholic and Communist households, and many parishes and priories, also kept a number of Jewish Luxembourgish civilians and foreign Jews hidden and safe.
The Luxembourgian general strike of 1942 was a pacifist resistance movement organised within a short time period to protest against a directive that incorporated the Luxembourg youth into the Wehrmacht. A national general strike, originating mainly in Wiltz, paralysed the country and prompted the occupying German authorities to respond violently by sentencing 21 strikers to death.
Collaboration with the Nazi occupation is an aspect less often talked about in Luxembourg. These collaborators were mainly found within the Volksdeutsche Bewegung, an organisation which supported the Nazi regime and participated in the dismantlement of the Luxembourgish state. The most loyal members were joined by individuals who gave way to either pressure or opportunism. Some historians estimate that the size of the collaboration was approximately similar to that of the resistance. About 2,000 collaborators were found guilty of treason after the end of the war, including nine individuals who were executed. Others remained incarcerated until the 1950s, when most were amnestied. (See also: Luxembourgish collaboration with Nazi Germany)
The majority of the population
The majority of the population kept their heads low to avoid any conflict with the authorities; however, they did not hide their resentments completely. This attitude became obvious through subtle but effective actions:
- During the impressive parade of the German police force on 6 August 1940 in Luxembourg-City, some spectators wore a pin bearing the Luxembourgish coat of arms. This pin originated from the 100th anniversary celebrations of the independence of the country in 1939. Consequently those who had worn the pin were severely beaten by the authorities.
- On 21 October 1940, the national monument “Gëlle Fra“, a memorial for Luxembourgish volunteer soldiers who had fought in World War I with the French, was demolished. Hundreds of people protested and were brutally dispersed by the Gestapo. 13 people were arrested.
- 10 October 1941: Expecting their propaganda campaign to be successful, the occupation authorities organised a census, which included seemingly innocuous questions about nationality, mother tongue and ethnicity. Resistance organisations were quick to recognise this as a thinly disguised attempt to incorporate Luxembourg into the Reich and mounted a massive underground awareness-raising campaign (‘’Dräimol Lëtzebuergesch, eng: Three times Luxembourgish’’), turning the census into a referendum. The result was that 97% declared their Luxembourgish identity, often writing Mir wëlle bleiwen wat mir sin (We wish to remain what we are) on the census forms. When the regime became aware of the fiasco, the census was immediately stopped. For the suppressed population, this was an enormous moral victory.
- 30 August 1942, the Reichsarbeitsdienst and military draft for the men born between 1920 and 1927 was introduced. The drafting into the Wehrmacht provoked a general strike against the occupying authorities, which started in Wiltz on 31 August 1942 and soon spread out over the rest of the country. The action was violently suppressed – 21 strikers were executed and hundreds more deported to concentration camps. The peaceful uprising of this small nation against a powerful oppressor became largely known abroad.
- About 40% of the men drafted for service refused to serve in the German Wehrmacht and went into hiding, half of them inside the country's borders. Those who escaped to Britain joined the Allied Forces and took part in the Battle of Normandy as part of the 1st Belgian Brigade also known as the Brigade Piron.
- Some Luxembourgish refused to give the Nazi salute, i.e. rising one's arm while shouting "Heil Hitler". Instead, they said "Drei Liter" ("Three liters", understood as "three liters of beer") as fast as possible and with a strong Luxembourgish accent, which fooled any German who could hear it.
The Terror Regime
Faced with opposition from the general public the regime felt compelled to take brutal measures against any form of resistance. After the general strike of 1942, Gustav Simon proclaimed a state of emergency and introduced the German Standgerichte. Thousands were arrested and tortured. Hundreds died in the concentration camps. Whole families were deported to eastern Germany and replaced by German families, mainly from South-Tyrol and Eastern Europe. The headquarters of the Gestapo, the Villa Pauly, became the symbol of this terror.
Luxembourg was liberated by Allied forces in September 1944. They entered the capital city on 10 September 1944. The Germans retreated without fighting. One month before the start of the Battle of the Bulge, 250 soldiers of the Waffen-SS had unsuccessfully tried to recapture the town of Vianden from the Luxembourgish Resistance during the Battle of Vianden. During the Battle of the Bulge, the northern part of the country was hit by artillery from a special unit that the Germans designed to send shells up to 40 km (25 mi) away (see V3), but the Germans did not take the city.
Casualties and damage
In total, 5,703 citizens died during World War II. This corresponds to 1.8% of a pre-war population of roughly 309,000.
- Luxembourg in World War II
- German occupation of Luxembourg in World War I
- National Museum of Military History (Luxembourg)
- Luxembourgish government-in-exile
- 1942 Luxembourgish general strike
- Battle of Belgium
- Battle of the Netherlands
- Horne, Alistair, To Lose a Battle, p.258-264
- Powaski, Ronald E. (2003). Lightning War: Blitzkrieg in the West, 1940. John Wiley. ISBN 978-0-471-39431-0.
- Powaski, Ronald E. (2008). Lightning War: Blitzkrieg in the West, 1940. Book Sales, Inc. ISBN 978-0-7858-2097-0.
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