by Tom Philipps
“We want to remain what we are” is the translation of the sentence depicted in the photo, and it also the Luxembourgish national motto that reflects the country’s identity through the previous centuries. World War I was an especially formative period in shaping the Luxembourgish identity, but it is often overlooked, due to the Second World War, despite the great instability it brought to the country and the monarchy.
The history of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is a tenuous one. Dating back to 963, Siegfried of Luxembourg laid the foundations of the County of Luxembourg that was ruled by the Luxembourg dynasty until the end of the 15th century when it went extinct, due to a lack of a male heir to the throne. The centuries to follow saw Luxembourg become a playground for larger kingdoms and nations moving between Habsburg, French and Prussian possession. Modern Luxembourgish history began only in 1839 with the Treaty of London, which confirmed the sovereignty and neutrality of Luxembourg and which was to last until the 2 August 1914.
On this day, the Kaiser’s troops invaded Luxembourg, an occupation that was to last until the end of the war. During these years, however, no armed fighting took place in the country, despite its proximity to the front lines. At the center of the storm was Grand Duchess Marie-Adélaïde. Being the head of state, she was tasked to guarantee the neutrality and independence of the state. Nevertheless, her protests against invasion were in vain.
From this moment the political situation was a diplomatic minefield, and many Luxembourgers hoped that the experienced and popular Prime Minister Paul Eyschen, who had already governed for 26 years, could maneuver Luxembourg out of this crisis. Unfortunately, Eyschen died in 1915 and a period of political instability followed with no fewer than five different successive prime ministers.
This situation did not come at the best moment for the Grand Duchess and the Luxembourgish people. Marie-Adélaïde was a very young head of state — she succeeded her father in 1912 when she was only 17. The population was suffering under the occupation and a food crisis broke out obliging many people to rely on soup kitchens and rations. Indeed, only serving to undermine confidence in the Grand Duchess. As a result, discontent and disbelief in Luxembourgish politics and in Marie-Adélaïde was spreading among the Luxembourgers.
The German sympathies of Grand Duchess Marie-Adélaïde, though there was really no alternative, led to the end of her young reign. A vote took place in the Chambre des Députés and even though the motion was rejected, she was forced to abdicate in favour of her sister Charlotte. Following her abdication, Marie-Adélaïde retired to a convent and eventually died from influenza in 1924 at the age of 29. She was and still remains a tragic figure in Luxembourgish history.
Princess Charlotte of Luxembourg then became Grand Duchess at the age of 23. She was only two years younger than her sister and was destined to a far longer and more successful reign, becoming a national symbol for Luxembourg during World War II. Exiled in London along with the government, she became a symbol for national unity unlike her older sister. Charlotte brought confidence back into the monarchy, and the people of Luxembourg, which was evidenced in a referendum that decided to maintain the monarchy. She passed away in 1985 at the age of 89 and is remembered in history for her prominent role in the post world war period.
Eventually the United Kingdom recognized Luxembourg’s legitimacy by sending a representative to the wedding of Charlotte and Prince Félix in 1919, terminating all annexation claims by its neighbors. At the end of the day, Luxembourg remained what it was before the war and what it would be in the future: a small and proud independent country.