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History of Luxembourg

For centuries the territory of Luxembourg was at the center of wars of succession and several European conflicts. In this article we will take a journey through time to visit this territory, the people who inhabited it, and the conflicts it went through to become the prosperous and wealthy nation it is today.

Last time updated
15.05.24

The rich history of Luxembourg continues to shape its present-day identity, evident in its current form of government, a representative democracy and constitutional monarchy with a Grand Duke as Head of State, making it the world's only remaining sovereign Grand Duchy.

Luxembourg territory in the Ancient Age

The territory of present-day Luxembourg was inhabited by Celts during the Iron Age (approximately from 600 BCE to 100 CE). Among these Celtic tribes were the Treveri, who reached their peak prosperity in the 1st century BCE. The Treveri constructed several oppida, fortified settlements typical of the Iron Age, near the Moselle Valley. These settlements spanned what is now southern Luxembourg, western Germany, and eastern France.

Roman Empire

Unlike many Celtic tribes, the Treveri maintained relatively cooperative relations with the Romans. Despite two rebellions in the 1st century BC, which did not permanently damage their cordial ties with Rome, the Treveri readily embraced Roman civilization. Roman occupation persisted until 53 BC when it ended under the command of Julius Caesar.

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The Gauls on the eve of the Roman conquest, source: Wikipedia

The Middle Ages and the foundation

If you're wondering when Luxembourg was established, the answer may not be straightforward. In its current geographical and political form, the Grand Duchy is a product of 19th-century diplomacy. However, the history of what is now Luxembourg dates back much further.

Foundation of Luxembourg

Referring to the ancient Luxembourg, we have to say that its real history begins with the construction of the Luxembourg Castle in the Middle Ages. The name first appears in 963 when a nobleman named Count Sigefroi, hailing from a wealthy family in the Meuse-Moselle region, exchanged some of his lands with the Saint-Maximin Abbey of Trier for a small rugged terrain—a rocky promontory upon which stood a small fortress, likely built in Roman times and known as "Lucilinburhuc," meaning "little fortified castle."

Sigefroi soon erected a larger castle here, around which grew the town of Lucilinburhuc, becoming the center of a small yet strategically significant state, valued by France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

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Luxembourg fortifications, Wenzel wall. Source: Luxembourg City

Territorial consolidation

Luxembourg's origins are rooted in the castle on Bock Mountain, but what about the rest of the territory?

When Sigefroi settled in Bock, he owned lands along the Moselle, Sûre, and Alzette rivers, as well as in the Ardennes, but his possessions remained scattered. The County of Luxembourg, as a territorial principality, was established by Sigefroi's descendants. With the creation of the County of Luxembourg in 1059, the center of power shifted from Trier-Echternach to the city of Luxembourg. Conrad I was the first to explicitly bear the title of comes of Luccelemburc.

The castle of Lucilinburhuc became the anchoring point from which territorial consolidation occurred throughout the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries. The castle was gradually rebuilt, expanded, and reinforced until it became one of Europe's most powerful fortresses in the 19th century. The territory expanded through marriages, land purchases, vassalage, and, notably, warfare. The Counts of Luxembourg managed to subdue their rivals, though they sometimes faced setbacks. By the late 13th century, the County of Luxembourg encompassed a vast area between the Meuse and Moselle rivers.

Luxembourg and it's Holy Roman Empire

At the beginning of the 14th century, the House of Luxembourg ascended to the imperial throne. In 1308, Count Henry VII, born around 1278/1279 in Valenciennes, was elected King of the Romans by the prince-electors under the influence of his brother Baldwin, Archbishop of Trier, and Peter of Aspelt, Archbishop of Mainz, both of Luxembourgish origin. Shortly thereafter, in 1312, a papal legate crowned him emperor in Rome.

Where the Duchy comes from?

Later, in 1354, Charles IV of the Holy Roman Empire elevated the county and its "dependencies" (particularly the counties of Durbuy and La Roche and the Marquisate of Arlon) to the rank of duchy. Thus, the Duchy of Luxembourg was born. Bohemia and the Empire passed to the House of Habsburg through marriage.

The Modern Age and its periods

Luxembourg's history in the Modern Age is marked by shifting powers and strategic importance on the European stage.

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French period
Spanish period
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With so many changes of power, you may wonder what language is spoken in Luxembourg?
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The Contemporary Age of Luxembourg

Luxembourg's journey into the contemporary age is a tale of shifting sovereignties, territorial adjustments, and the emergence of its unique identity within the heart of Europe.

Departments of the French Empire in the North between 1792-1815, source: Wikipedia
Departments of the French Empire in the North between 1792-1815, source: Wikipedia

Luxembourg, Department of the Forests of France: 1795 

During the French Revolution, specifically under the Convention, France once again conquered the Duchy of Luxembourg in 1794 (the fortress of Luxembourg capitulated the following year), annexing its territory. By 1795, two-thirds of Luxembourg's territory were transformed into a French department known as the Department of the Forests. The remaining third was used to form two new departments: Sambre-et-Meuse and Ourthe.

Creation of the Grand Duchy at the Congress of Vienna: 1815 

Luxembourg remained more or less under French rule until Napoleon's defeat in 1815, when the Congress of Vienna granted formal autonomy to Luxembourg. While slightly reduced in size, Luxembourg was elevated to the status of a Grand Duchy and placed under the rule of William I of Orange-Nassau, King of the Netherlands.

Consolidation of Autonomy: 1839-1890

With ever-changing borders, a legitimate question is: Where is Luxembourg on the map? Well, it is time to put an end to this question, with the Treaty of London in 1839, Luxembourg acquired its current shape and borders. Despite losing nearly half of its territory to the newly created Belgium (present-day Belgian province of Luxembourg), the Treaty of London defined its current borders. Although still under the dominion of the King of the Netherlands, Luxembourg was far from being fully independent. However, 1839 marked a turning point in its history.

Perpetual Neutrality and European Engagement: 1867 

In 1867, Prussia and Napoleon III's France were poised to go to war over Luxembourg, or rather its formidable fortifications. A last-minute conference in London averted what could have escalated into a massive continental conflict. The Luxembourg Crisis of 1867 and the subsequent Treaty of London saw the famous fortifications of Luxembourg City demolished and conferred upon the country its status of perpetual neutrality.

Finally, Luxembourg City was able to develop and reinvent itself as a European capital. The country retained its strategic position in the heart of Western Europe, although not based on military power: the focus shifted to the economy and peaceful engagement with neighbors. The ensuing decades witnessed the evolution of a powerful industrial complex, some elements of which still endure today.

Important dates in history of this period

1815

In this year the Congress of Vienna granted formal autonomy to Luxembourg

1839

During the Treaty of London, Luxembourg acquired its current form

1867

In this year Luxembourg acquired its neutrality status

The 20th century

As we move into the 19th century, Luxembourg's history shifts from one foreign dominion to another, which begs the question: when did Luxembourg gain its independence? Well, this is almost happening, let's look at this in detail and the history of the country since then.

World War I and independence question

During World War I, Luxembourg was occupied by Germany, violating its neutrality. However, the government and Grand Duchess Marie-Adelaide were permitted to remain in their positions during the occupation (until 1918), leading to accusations of collaboration from France.

Following World War I, there were numerous annexationist aspirations in France and especially in Belgium regarding Luxembourg. However, negotiations at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 ultimately confirmed the country's independence. A popular referendum in September 1919 solidified the country's independence and monarchy.

Occupation during World War II

During World War II, the Third Reich once again violated Luxembourg's neutrality in May 1940 and occupied the Grand Duchy. To avoid the risk of being held hostage by the Nazis, the Grand Ducal family and the government went into exile in London, anchoring Luxembourg's legitimate authority within the Allied camp. Similar to French Alsace-Lorraine, the Nazi regime considered Luxembourg as German territory, leading to the forced enlistment of Luxembourgers into the Wehrmacht. The country was liberated in September 1944 by American troops but suffered immense losses and destruction during the von Rundstedt counter-offensive in December of the same year.

Joining the European Economic Community

As early as 1944, the Benelux Union was established with Belgium and the Netherlands. From then on, Luxembourg became part of the European integration process. In 1948, Luxembourg became a founding member of the Brussels Treaty.

In 1952, Luxembourg City became the headquarters of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) with the involvement of Robert Schuman, a Luxembourger by maternal origin and born in Luxembourg in 1886, one of the "founding fathers" of Europe. Joining the European Economic Community marked the beginning of economic expansion and a significant increase in immigration.

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Participation in NATO

Luxembourg has long understood the importance of international cooperation. Having been invaded and occupied twice within thirty years, the country learned the hard way that neutrality is rarely respected and isolationism is often futile. In the aftermath of World War II, Luxembourg became one of the staunchest supporters of both the European and Euro-Atlantic projects, mediating disputes between its larger neighbors and laying the groundwork for European economic recovery and lasting peace on the continent. 

When Luxembourg and eleven other states established NATO in 1949, the country's population overwhelmingly aspired to join and see the country contribute to the unification of Western Europe within a defensive alliance. The vast majority of Luxembourgers were firmly in favor of NATO, as the memory of the troops liberating the country from Nazi Germany was still fresh in their minds. Every citizen understood and approved of Luxembourg's new solidarity with its allies and accepted the economic and military consequences, both positive and negative. Despite being the smallest NATO member in terms of land area, Luxembourg has over time made numerous and highly valuable contributions to the Alliance, including effective military capabilities.

Luxembourg has a national army?

If you want to know more about the Luxembourg army and their military forces we have a dedicated article about the fleet and those who protect the country.

Economic changes after 1945

After 1945, the Grand Duchy experienced remarkable economic development, leading to a steady improvement in living standards and ensuring social peace. However, due to the monolithic nature of its economy, Luxembourg was severely affected by the structural crisis in the steel industry from 1974 onwards. Between 1974 and 1992, steel production declined by more than 50%, and steel industry employment decreased by two-thirds. In 1997, the last blast furnace went out of operation. Only a few modernised sites survived the crisis. Sensing the danger, the authorities had initiated industrial diversification policies since the late 1950s. However, ultimately, it was the tertiary sector that took over from the steel industry and became the main driving force of the Luxembourgish economy.

The 1960s saw the emergence of the financial center. The Grand Duchy benefited from restrictive foreign legislation and the development of the eurodollar market. International banks flocked to Luxembourg in large numbers. Today, the financial sector, which has diversified its activities, represents more than a quarter of the gross domestic product, more than a tenth of national employment, and at least a third of the state's tax revenue.

Recent years in history of Luxembourg

The first two decades of the new millennium saw strong growth in Luxembourg. Despite the 2008 global financial crisis affecting its banking sector, the Grand Duchy maintained remarkable economic performance. Heavy investments in infrastructure modernisation, research, and innovation supported economic development. The University of Luxembourg, established in 2003, quickly rose to international excellence. Efforts in economic diversification focused on logistics, digital economy, and space technologies. 

To be continued...

Economic growth coincided with rapid population growth, reaching nearly 600,000 by 2017, including a significant portion of cross-border workers. Foreign residents now comprise nearly half the population, aiding in offsetting population aging effects. However, this rapid development poses challenges in urban planning, mobility, and quality of life, central to government and municipal policies.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What were the major events that shaped Luxembourg's history?

How did Luxembourg gain independence?

What were the impacts of World War I and World War II on Luxembourg?

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We took photos from these sources: Johny Goerend on Unsplash

Authors: Luz, Maria
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