A BRIEF HISTORY OF LUXEMBOURG
Situated in the heart of Europe, nestled between France, Belgium and Germany, Luxembourg has always been an integral part of European history, reflecting major European political, dynastic and territorial changes through the centuries.
The Pre-Roman era
The periods before 600 BC-AD 100 show only scattered archaeological remains of civilisation in Luxembourg’s territories. However, we do know that the region was populated by Celts (roughly 600BC-100AD), notably by the Treveri. The area came under complete Roman control by AD 53, AD 406. Roman civilization spread throughout the area and relations with the local tribes was generally cordial. A Roman fort was built on the Bock cliffs at the crossing point of Roman roads. Over the next centuries after the defeat of the Romans by the Franks in 406AD, the territories of the future Luxembourg were part of Merovingian Austrasia, the Carolingian Empire, Middle Francia and Lotharingia.
The origins of the city of Luxembourg
In 963 Count Siegfried acquired the small fort of Lucilinburhuc through a deed of exchange with the Abbey of St. Maximin in Trier. The fort was located on the rocky outcrop of the Bock dominating the valley of the Alzette River. The counts of Luxembourg managed to enlarge Luxembourg’s territories over the next three centuries until the County of Luxembourg stretched from the Meuse to the Moselle rivers.
The Middle Ages and the Holy Roman Empire
In the 14th and 15th centuries Luxembourg’s counts wore the crown of the Holy Roman Empire.
Henry VII, count of Luxembourg, was elected king of Germany in 1308 and crowned emperor four years later in Rome. The son of Henry VII, John the Blind, married Elisabeth, heiress to the Kingdom of Bohemia and thus became King of Bohemia. John the Blind was killed while in service to the king of France in the Battle of Crécy in 1346.
After Henry VII, three further members of the Luxembourg dynasty went on to wear the imperial crown: Charles IV (1346-1378), Wenceslas (1376-1400) and Sigismund (1410-1437), the last emperor of the house of Luxembourg. Charles IV promoted the County of Luxembourg to a Duchy. The fact that the emperors from the House of Luxembourg had such vast territories to administer meant that Luxembourg itself was neglected and consequently fell into the hands of the Burgundian dukes. In 1443 Philip the Good conquered the city and the Duchy became a province of the Low Countries. This was to determine the Duchy’s destiny for the next four centuries.
The Early Modern Period
Through successive wars, marriages and inheritances, Luxembourg passed through the hands of the Burgundian dukes, the Habsburgs (notably Charles V) and the Spanish Habsburgs (Philip II, 1555-1598). It was during Philip II’s reign that the northern Low Countries, wanting to cede from Catholic domination after the Reformation swept through their area, succeeded in gaining independence from the Spanish crown.
However the southern Low Countries remained in the hands of the Spanish Habsburgs. Following the Thirty Years War and the resulting Treaty of the Pyrenees, the Duchy ceded its southern territories to France (including Thionville). Using this treaty as an excuse Louis XIV expanded his conquests in Luxembourg resulting in a brief period of French occupation (1684-1697). It was during this time that major fortification works were carried out in the city of Luxembourg by the French military architect Vauban.
Following the Spanish War of Succession (1715) Luxembourg passed into the hands of the Austrian Habsburgs and a period of reform and peace ensued.
In 1795 Luxembourg was occupied by French revolutionary troops and annexed to France as the Département des Forêts.
1815: Luxembourg becomes a Grand Duchy
As a result of the collapse of the Napoleonic Empire the European map was redrawn by the great powers gathered at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. This was when Luxembourg was created as a separate political entity. It became a Grand Duchy under the rule of the king of the Netherlands, William I of Orange-Nassau. In order to contain Prussian aspirations, the great powers decided that Luxembourg should cede a vast region situated to the east of the Moselle, Sûre and Our rivers (2280 km2).
1839: Luxembourg becomes a sovereign and independent state
It was not until 19 April 1839, with the Treaty of London, that Luxembourg acquired its current territorial shape. The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg remained under the sovereignty of the Orange-Nassau dynasty, but was granted a separate administration. Belgian Luxembourg became a province of Belgium. During the 19th century Luxembourg also developed its steel industry to become one of the 6 largest steel producers worldwide by 1914.
1890: Luxembourg establishes its own Grand Ducal dynasty
The personal union with the Netherlands came to an end in 1890, with the death of William III. Adolf of Nassau-Weilburg became Grand Duke of Luxembourg. The country henceforth had its own dynasty. It was also from this time onward that Luxembourg became a country that attracted immigrants to bolster its labour force.
Early 20th century: neutrality violated
Despite its neutrality, the Grand Duchy was invaded and occupied during both world wars by German troops on 2 August 1914 and on 10 May 1940.
During the second invasion, Grand Duchess Charlotte and the government went into exile and the country was placed under Nazi occupation. On 10 September 1944, the city of Luxembourg was liberated by the Americans. During the Battle of the Bulge, German forces devastated the north and the east of the country (December 1944 to February 1945).
Post WW II period: Toward European leadership
After the Second World War, the Grand Duchy “abandoned its status of neutrality and ensured its place within the international community that formed after 1945” (1). It was a founding member of the Benelux Union (1944) the UN (1945), NATO (1949), the ECSC (1951), the EEC and Euratom (Treaties of Rome) (1957), etc. Over the course of the second half of the 20thcentury, the prosperous and dynamic country played a catalytic role in the unification of Europe, playing host to many of the European Union’s institutions.
The collapse of the steel industry in the 1970s was counter-balanced by the rapid growth of the financial sector from the 1960s on, a sector which continues to play a significant role in the country’s GDP.
In closing a final quote from Thewes:
“Today, the rapid increase of its (Luxembourg’s) population is due almost exclusively to immigration. In contrast, the number of Luxembourgers has remained almost constant, owing to low birth rates. The result is an increasing imbalance between ‘nationals’ and foreign residents as well as a risk of a fragmentation of society. Current authorities are therefore counting on political participation and the use of Lëtzebuergesch as the common language for all nationalities living in Luxembourg as powerful factors of integration.” (2)
For further information and fun maps, photos, and articles about the history of the city of Luxembourg, please click here.
- ^ Thewes, Guy, About… History of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, p. 17.
- ^ Thewes, Guy, About… History of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, p. 19.