Luxembourg Feature

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Luxembourg History

Long, long ago …

First inhabited more than 3,000 years ago by pre-Celtic tribes, the area now known as Luxembourg was part of the northern region of the Roman Empire. The country's modern history starts in 963, when Charlemagne's descendant Sigefroid, a beneficiary of the disintegration of Central Europe that followed Charlemagne's death, chose a small gooseneck, carved by the Alzette, to develop as a fortress and the capital of his considerable domain. Thanks to his aggressions and the ambitions of his heirs, Luxembourg grew continuously until, by the 14th century, its count, Henry IV, was powerful and important enough to serve as Henry VII, king of the German nations and Holy Roman Emperor. During that epoch, Luxembourg contributed no fewer than five kings and emperors, including Henry VII's son, the flamboyant John the Blind (Jean l'Aveugle), who, despite leading his armies to slaughter in the Battle of Crécy (1346), remains a national hero.

The Golden Age

After John the Blind's death, Luxembourg commanded the greatest territory it would ever rule—from the Meuse to Metz and the Moselle—and its rulers, Charles IV, Wenceslas I and II, and Sigismund, carried the name of the House of Luxembourg to European renown. If Luxembourg had a golden age, this was it, but it was short-lived. Plague, the decay of feudalism, marital and financial intrigues among leaders who rarely, if ever, set foot in Luxembourg—all these factors finally left the duchy vulnerable, and Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, took it by storm in 1443.

Under Siege

From that point on, Luxembourg lost its significance as a geographical mass and took on importance as a fortress. It was controlled from 1443 to 1506 by Burgundy, from 1506 to 1714 by Spain (with a brief period, 1684–97, under Louis XIV of France), and from 1714 to 1795 by Austria; Napoléon took it from the Habsburgs in 1795. Each, in taking the fortress, had to penetrate miles of outworks whose battlements filled the countryside. After having penetrated the outer defenses, the aggressors then faced a citadel perched on sheer stone cliffs, from which weapons pointed at them and within which the soldiers outnumbered the citizens. To take it by frontal attack was out of the question; the solution, usually, was siege and starvation.

Independence from the Dutch

Having been torn and ravaged for 400 years by its conquerors' games of tug-of-war, Luxembourg continued to provoke squabbles well into the 19th century. The Congress of Vienna gave a territorially reduced Luxembourg independence of a sort. The Grand Duke of Luxembourg was also King of Holland when Belgium rebelled against Dutch rule in 1830. Only the presence of a Prussian garrison kept Luxembourg in the Dutch camp. Nine years later, Luxembourg was again partitioned, with the western half becoming a Belgian province. William II became the first and last Dutch Grand Duke to achieve popular acclaim; he created a parliament and laid the foundations for modern Luxembourg. In 1867 Luxembourg was declared an independent and neutral state by the Treaty of London, and its battlements were dismantled, stone by stone. What remains of its walls, while impressive, is only a reminder of what was once one of the great strongholds of Europe.

The 20th Century

The grand duchy's neutrality was violated by the Germans in 1914. When World War I ended, the people of Luxembourg gave their confidence, by popular vote, to Grand Duchess Charlotte, who remained a much-loved head of state for 45 years until abdicating in favor of her son, Jean, in 1964. Grand Duke Jean, married to Grand Duchess Joséphine-Charlotte, the daughter of Belgium's King Leopold and his Swedish-born Queen Astrid, abdicated to their son, Henri, in September 2000. The reigning family has remained untouched by the types of scandals that have marred the reputations of other royal houses.

Although more than two-thirds of the country had immigrated to the Americas due to economic hardships in the late 19th century, breakthroughs in both farming and mining technology turned the country around. A new, efficient technique for purifying iron ore created an indispensable by-product, fertilizer, which started a boom that put Luxembourg on 20th-century maps. A steel industry was created and, with it, more jobs than there were local workers. Thousands of workers came from Italy, and later Portugal, to take up residence in Luxembourg. About 20% of the workforce lives outside Luxembourg and crosses the border daily going to and from work. Another 30% are foreigners who reside inside Luxembourg's borders; in the late 1990s they were given the right to vote under EU rules.

Most recently, Luxembourg has become one of the world's top financial centers, with 225 banks from throughout the world established in the grand duchy. The broadcasting and communications satellite industries are also important to the national economy.

Hitler was convinced that Luxembourg was part of the greater Germanic culture. Suppressing Lëtzebuergsch (Luxembourgish, the local language) and changing French names into German, he launched a campaign to persuade Luxembourgers to Heim ins Reich—come home to the fatherland as ethnic Germans. A visit to any war museum shows that the Luxembourgers were having none of it. As a nation they have yet to forget how the German invasions left Luxembourg hideously scarred, or how thousands of its men were conscripted during the German occupation and sent as so much cannon fodder to the Russian front.

And Today

The experiences of two world wars convinced Luxembourg that neutrality does not work. Native son Robert Schuman was one of the founding fathers of the Common Market that eventually became the European Union, with Luxembourg a charter member. The European Court of Justice and other European institutions are in the Kirchberg section of Luxembourg City.

Soldiers from Luxembourg serve with young men from France, Germany, and Belgium in the European Army. The small force is a powerful symbol of the unity that has replaced old enmities. The men from Luxembourg can communicate with their European brothers readily, because they are fluent in both French and German. French is the official language of the grand duchy, and the teaching of German is mandatory in the schools. Luxembourgers' own language, Lëtzebuergsch, descended from the language of the Rhineland Franks, has the added advantage of being understood by virtually no one else. This is the language in which the national motto is expressed: Mir wölle bleiwe wat mir sin, "We want to stay what we are." Today that means being a powerful, viable grand duchy in the heart of modern Europe.

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