Second World War The toughest ordeal for the people

In the morning of 10 May 1940, German troops crossed the Luxembourgish border. The Second World War had just begun in the Western World. For Luxembourg, the ordeal will be the toughest of its existence, as the aim of the occupying forces was to re-educate the people to make it a part of the Reich. At the end of the conflict, a part of the country was in ruins and there were thousands of dead and missing people, but independence was saved.

Operation Thunderclap - 10 May 1940

When the first German units entered the Moselle, the Sûre and the Our in the morning of 10 May, they experienced a country that was prepared for invasion albeit powerless in the face of the war machine going against it. Following a few skirmish battles, Luxembourgish armed forces had no choice but to give up their weapons. Luxembourg's neutrality was violated for a second time, in the space of less than 25 years.

Learning from the past, the Grand Duchess Charlotte  and the Luxembourgish government, notified that very night,  went on the run. Their flight first brought them to Portugal, then to Canada. Finally, the Grand Ducal family and the government settled in London to encourage the Luxembourgish resistance. This proved to be a fortunate move, since its commitment to the camp of the Allies ensured that Luxembourg was awarded full international recognition immediately following the war.

The country reorganised by the occupying forces

German occupation meant the end of Luxembourg independence. Many Luxembourgers adopted a wait-and-see attitude and the Luxembourgish economy now produced for the Reich. In the absence of the government, an administrative committee was created, collaborating with German occupying forces with the aim of preserving the country's sovereignty.

However, the German plans were to annex Luxembourg to the Reich. In July-August 1940, Luxembourg was placed under direct German administration. Gustav Simon, head of the Koblenz-Trier Gau, was appointed head of the civil administration. With the support of Luxembourgish collaborators (known as Gielemännercher, the 'yellow men', because of their brown-yellow uniform), the German rule reorganised the entire public sphere in Luxembourg.

From the outset, these initiatives were aimed at a de facto annexation of Luxembourg to the Reich and the Germanisation of its population. All the structures of the Luxembourg state were disposed of. The use of French was forbidden. An intense propaganda campaign attempted to promote the adherence of the Luxembourg people to the Nazi regime.

Under the influence of the allies' first victories, the imposed Germanisation of society and deteriorating living conditions, a growing part of the population began to oppose the German occupation.

The Grand Duchess Charlotte on the balcony of the palais, cheered by the crowd
Collection MNHM / © Tony Krier – Photothèque Ville de Luxembourg

Incorporation within the Reich

The occupying forces organised a  population census in 1941 in order to legitimise Luxembourg's incorporation within the Reich, asking questions regarding national, ethnic and linguistic affiliation. In spite of the German propaganda, a staggering majority responded with 'Luxembourgish' to the three questions, which was a clear slap in the face for the Germans.

On 30th August 1942, Germany established the forced incorporation of Luxembourg into Germany. A large number of Luxembourgers immediately suspected the consequences: young Luxembourgers were going to be treated as Germans, which implied that it would be mandatory for them to do their military service.

This measure caused strikes all over the country. The German response was blistering. German authorities declared martial law and summarily executed 21 strikers by the Standgerichte, the Martial Courts. The movement was crushed.

The price to pay

Overall, around 10,000 Luxembourgers were forcibly conscripted  into the German armed forces. Over a third of them refused to wear the German uniform, driving them underground, often with disastrous consequences for their families, as the occupying forces responded to any form of opposition with terror: deportations to the east, imprisonment in concentration camps (Hinzert camp in particular) and executions.

It was the Jewish community that particularly suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime. Among the 4,000 Jewish people living in Luxembourg before the war (approximately one fourth of which were Luxembourgers, the remaining being refugees from other European countries), over 90% never saw the country again. A third were killed.

Groups of Luxembourgers who sometimes came from the scouting movement or disbanded political parties gradually organised themselves to fight against the occupation. In its initial stage, this 'Resistance' organised the smuggling of fugitives and allied aviators who escaped prison to French and Belgian resistance groups, as well as the dissimulation of Luxembourgish members of the resistance.

At the end of the war, the different resistance movements joined forces as the Unio’n.

'Saint Nick' visits the children of Wiltz in his Jeep
© MNHM Signature: K035-03

Sweet for children in Wiltz from 'American Saint Nick'

In December 1944, Richard W. Brookins was garrisoned in Wiltz with the US 28th Infantry Division. As Saint Nicholas Day neared, him and his fellow soldiers saw that nearly 5 years of war had left Luxembourgers with very little to give their children as a way of present, so they decided to stage Saint Nicholas themselves. They pooled together sweets from care packages and army cooks lent a hand as well, so that on 5 December, 'American Saint Nick' was parading through Wiltz in a Jeep, to the glee of the childrenThis gave birth to a tradition that has been observed in Wiltz ever since.

Liberation - at last

On 10 September 1944, Luxembourg was liberated by the American army. Nevertheless, the Germans succeeded in stabilising the front along the Moselle and launched a counter-attack in December 1944. The Battle of the Bulge wreaked havoc in the north and east of the country.

The liberation of Vianden on 22 February, the return from exile of Grand Duchess Charlotte on 14 April and finally the unconditional surrender of Germany on 8 May 1945 marked the end of the war.

The final toll was high: as a result of the armed conflict and the Nazi terror, Luxembourg suffered 5,700 deaths, accounting for approximately 2% of the total population. From among the 1,300 Jews that had been deported, only 69 survived the ghettos and camps.

The immediate post-war period was characterised by reconstruction. Thanks to the American aid received as part of the Marshall Plan, significant progress was achieved in terms of modernisation and infrastructure. It was also a time to settle scores against the collaborators, via legal proceedings and sometimes via reprisals.

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