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Maastricht University

Revenge and Retribution in the Luxembourgish Occupation Zone in Germany (1945-46)

Félix Streicher, Maastricht University

On 11 and 13 November 1945, two infantry battalions (roughly 1,600 men) of the newly created Luxembourg Army occupied parts of the German Landkreise of Bitburg and Saarburg under French high command. ‘May 10th, 1940 [the Nazi invasion of Luxembourg] has been splendidly avenged’, the left-wing Escher Tageblatt exulted on 13 November 1945. ‘The tables have turned: the Nazis, the former oppressors, now have to obey the once-oppressed, the fellow victors of today. Schadenfreude rises, like it or not.’ In the winter of 1945, the soldiers of Luxembourg’s occupation army thus found themselves shifting from vanquished to victors, from occupied to occupiers. In the eyes of the Grand Duchy’s society, this inversion of roles not only amounted to a ‘symbolic reparation’ for their collective suffering under Nazi occupation, but it also provided individual soldiers with an outlet to channel their desires of retaliation, retribution, and violent reprisal. By drawing on approaches from the history of emotions, this article focuses on the emotional repertoire that motivated soldierly violence in the Luxembourgish occupation zone in Germany: humiliation, shame, resentment, hatred, and honour – amongst others.

An Army of Revanchists?

The soldiers of Luxembourg’s small post-war army may have worn the same uniform, but this could not hide the patchwork character of the new institution. Even though most of the officers and men were of similar age and had all joined up over a short period of time, their earlier war-time experiences were very disparate. While nearly all soldiers of Luxembourg’s post-liberation army had actively fought in the preceding war, they had done so in different and sometimes even opposite uniforms. In a certain sense, this made the Luxembourg Army an exceptional case within post-war European history. It merged former resistance fighters and ‘forced conscripts’ of the Wehrmacht, concentration camp survivors and volunteers of the Allied liberation armies, as well as weary French Foreign Legionnaires and youthful cadets, producing a rather explosive social group characterised by its strong internal differences.

Yet, in one point, their ‘space of experience’, and accordingly also their ‘horizon of expectation’ converged: Almost all Luxembourgish soldiers had experienced personal suffering and injustice during the war and regarded themselves and their families as victims of the Nazi regime. In essence, Luxembourg’s post-war army formed an ‘emotional community’ that was tied together by wartime sentiments of hatred and resentment towards everything German – and driven by an even stronger impulse for revenge. In the eyes of Captain Guillaume Albrecht, his 1st Infantry Battalion, for instance, was only waiting ‘to strangle the Prussians’ neck’.

Imagining Revenge

While many soldiers viewed their participation in the occupation of Germany as a personal punitive expedition against their former Nazi oppressors, the occupation acquired its true societal and cultural meaning only when set in broader terms. For most Luxembourgers, it was nothing less than a straightforward turning of the tables. The interplay between the wartime situation of the Grand Duchy under Nazi rule, and the post-war Luxembourgish occupation of German territories was both rhetorically and visually exploited by Luxembourgish print media to emphasise how thoroughly power positions had been reversed. The first weeks of the occupation thus saw a flow of political caricatures, drawings, and photomontages that both jubilantly and humorously depicted the inversion of occupations. The young caricaturist Pierre Bergem, for instance, presented the readers of the conservative Luxemburger Wort with various revanchist caricatures, among which Chacun son tour stands out. In this dichotomous drawing, two different occupiers stride triumphantly side by side in the same pose: On the left, a Wehrmacht soldier marches across Luxembourg City’s landmark Adolphe Bridge during the Second World War; while on the right, a Luxembourgish lieutenant struts through occupied Bitburg in late 1945.

“Chacun son tour”, c. 1945/46. Musée National d’Histoire Militaire (Luxembourg)

The imagery of role reversals did not remain confined to the visual, however, but extended even more to the written word. By re-appropriating the ‘Lingua Tertii Imperii’ (the Language of the Third Reich), print media conjured up memories of the recent past under Nazi rule, only to contrast them with the post-war reality of total German defeat and Luxembourgish occupation. The Grand Duchy’s occupation zone was thus derided, in satirical terms, as urgently needed Lebensraum and the entry of Luxembourg’s troops into Germany mocked as a belated implementation of the Nazi Heim ins Reich (Home to the Reich) policy.

At the same time, however, this shifting of roles from occupied to occupiers also plunged many contemporaries into a moral dilemma: if the Luxembourgish occupation was to be the result of a fundamental role reversal, what was the difference, if any, between Luxembourgish and Nazi rule? The 1946-issued army handbook Les Luxembourgeois en Allemagne took a clear position on this matter: ‘When the Luxembourgers fight against the Barbarians, they do not think for a minute of resembling them, because they are well aware that this would be a step back towards barbarism for themselves’. In practice, however, the desire for quick-and-dirty revenge often outweighed such moral quandaries.

Practicing Retribution

For many Luxembourgish soldiers with particular grudges to settle, their role reversal from occupied to occupiers allowed them take power back into their own hands and to exorcise the humiliating experience of 1940-44. As such, the Luxembourgish occupiers consciously replicated everyday practices and behaviours of their former Nazi rulers for dramatic effect. In direct emulation of the Nazi Fahnenappell (the daily Nazi salute of the swastika flag), the freshly-baked occupiers thus obliged the German population to salute the Luxembourgish flag in the street by bowing down or by removing their hat. This measure was not only meant to underpin the new rulers’ claim to power; it was also a gesture that allowed the occupiers to engage in the effective public punishment and shaming of the German population. In the eyes of many occupiers, this measure was the perfect example of poetic justice: had not the Germans themselves inculcated the Luxembourgers with such customs?

Those Germans who omitted or refused to salute this ‘symbolic pillory’ were often subjected to an elaborate ritual of shaming. Under blows and kicks, they were forced to run around the flagpole for minutes or made to submissively kneel in the muddy street. Drivers or farmers with horse-drawn carts were made to circulate around the flagpole up to 50 times and had to remove their hat at each turn. Such public displays of humiliation served a double purpose: not only did they openly ostracize those who were shamed (the Germans), but they simultaneously also exhibited the superior power of those doing the shaming (the Luxembourgers).

As such, the humiliation and violence perpetrated by the Luxembourgish soldiers was strongly gendered. Women were, for instance, spared from acts of direct physical violence, but were locked up in the barracks and forced to carry out kitchen duties. Since their families and friends were not informed of their whereabouts, their disappearance often caused uncertainty and fear (notably of sexual violence). The punishment of German men, on the other hand, revolved much around their honourability and respectability as members of a bourgeois and patriarchal society. In the shaming rituals involving German men, their hat – as a symbol of their bourgeois integrity – thus played a central role. In Bitburg, for example, Luxembourgish soldiers confiscated the hats of German men who refused to salute the flag and hung them on a clothesline in front of the barracks. In the village of Nittel, a respectable elderly man was forced to use his hat to shovel dirt and mud from the street next to the flag post.

Even though the Army leadership finally stepped in on 12 March 1946 to put an end to such public displays of humiliation by Luxembourgish soldiers, it still decided to maintain the obligation for male German citizens to salute the Luxembourg flag. As a result, the hazing and shaming of Germans by revengeful occupiers went on sporadically until the early 1950s. Individual and collective score-settling by Luxembourgish occupation soldiers remained widely spread and accepted ­­– or at least tacitly tolerated.


Photo credits:

Cover photo and illustration: Pierre Bergem, “Chacun son tour”, c. 1945/46. Musée National d’Histoire Militaire (Luxembourg), Fonds Pierre Bergem, BER_255.

This research is supported by the Luxembourg National Research Fund (AFR-PhD Grant 14581674).

Félix Streicher is a PhD Researcher at Maastricht University, Netherlands.