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Maastricht University

Second-class Occupiers?

Félix Streicher, Maastricht University


Little Luxembourg – a country one hundredth the size of Britain by area, with a population of only 291,000 in 1947 – was one of the Allied occupation powers in Germany after the Second World War. That there was a political and military intervention by such a small nation might even surprise experts in post-war European history. Yet this curious episode was a historical reality: From November 1945 to July 1955, the newly formed Luxembourgish Army which had been re-established after the country was liberated in late 1944 occupied parts of the German Landkreise of Bitburg and Saarburg, as an Allied occupation power under French high command.

This military occupation enabled the Grand Duchy to cement its place in the new western alliances and to formulate its reparation and annexation claims against a future German state. It also created an important institutional framework for social encounters and interactions between Luxembourgers and Germans in the immediate post-war era. Contemporary views on the events were highly polarised. While Luxembourgish journalists celebrated the occupation as ‘a historical moment for Luxembourg’ or a ‘new period in Luxembourgish history’, their German counterparts regarded the occupation as a national humiliation, with the weekly Die Zeit characteristically mocking the Luxembourgers as ‘wanting to play occupation [in the] poor, miserable Kreis’ of Bitburg.


A dwarf among giants: Luxembourgish occupation policies in Germany

From a political point of view, the Luxembourgish participation in the Allied occupation of Germany constituted one of the Grand Duchy’s first steps on the international stage of post-war Europe. The engagement of the country’s new army alongside other Allied troops in Germany was primarily intended as a demonstration of Luxembourg’s commitment to its wartime allies and as a way of securing its admission as an independent country into the emerging European and transatlantic alliances. In addition, being in control of a zone of occupation of their own constituted a useful bargaining chip in the hands of Luxembourgish diplomats – both in their relationships with the Allied ‘Big Four’ as well as towards a future German successor state.

On the one hand, its occupation troops secured Luxembourg a seat at the Allied negotiating table in Berlin. As a small occupation power, the country was granted diplomatic representation in the Allied Control Council and thus hoped to make its voice heard in the heated debates on the ‘German question’. At the same time, Luxembourg’s diplomats considered their troops on German soil a direct means of applying political pressure against their defeated neighbour. The occupation was intended as a tool to force a future German government to pay reparations for the damage and suffering caused by the war and the German occupation of Luxembourg. In a broader sense, however, it was also expected to promote Luxembourg’s annexation policies towards Germany in an (ultimately futile) attempt to make territorial gains after the Second World War – a role which has been hitherto downplayed by Luxembourgish historians.

Map of the four Allied occupation zones with the two Luxembourgish occupation sectors marked in blue, 1946. (Private Collection)

‘Second-class occupiers’

Military occupation invariably constitutes a form of foreign rule, and the occupier’s authority accordingly does not derive from an intrinsic right to rule, but rather from the assumption of effective control and if necessary, the use of force. As a result, the occupier (as a ruler) suffers from an inherent lack of legitimacy within the eyes of the occupied population.

In the Luxembourgish case, this crucial legitimacy deficit was further exacerbated by the precarious position of its occupation troops in Germany vis-à-vis the French Gouvernement Militaire. Technically, both Landkreise occupied by the Luxembourgish Army still formed part of the French occupation zone and remained under the civil administration of the latter. Even though officials from the Grand Duchy as well as foreign observers frequently referred to the territories in question as a proper ‘Luxembourgish occupation zone’, French views on this matter diverged considerably. In a note to the Allied Control Council in Berlin, General Koenig notified the Allied Powers that Luxembourg was occupying neither a ‘proper’ zone nor a sub-zone in Germany, but merely two (symbolic!) sectors within the French occupation zone.

Luxembourgish troops cross the Moselle into Germany, 13 November 1945. (Revue from 1 December 1945, Courtesy of the Musée National d’Histoire Militaire)

Even though the Luxembourgish occupation troops acted as sole military occupiers in ‘their’ zone (or rather their sectors), their dependence on the French Gouvernement Militaire for all civil matters severely limited their authority. ‘Unfortunately, the role played by our soldiers is that of second- or third-class occupiers’ a Luxembourgish officer noted in January 1946. ‘Our rights are too limited, we depend on the French in every way, and we can neither make an arrest nor a confiscation without first requesting permission from the French. […] The Germans have rapidly noticed that we play a secondary role […].’

In order to compensate for their lack of legitimacy in the eyes of the occupied Germans – both as alien rulers as well as ‘second-class occupiers’ – the Luxembourgish occupation troops initially resorted to harsh policy measures based on coercion and negative sanctions. Collective punishments, arbitrary acts of violence and bully-boy tactics were early features of Luxembourgish rule in Germany and subsequently had a significant impact on the day-to-day life and the dynamic power relationships between Luxembourgish occupiers and occupied Germans in both sectors.


The Forgotten Occupation

The Luxembourgish occupation period in post-war Germany penetrated nearly all aspects of everyday life. The new ‘everyday state of emergency’ disrupted daily routines, sent occupiers and occupied searching for a modus vivendi and resulted in considerable political, social, cultural and material repercussions for both sides.

Nonetheless, the ten-year long occupation remains utterly absent from what the French philosopher Maurice Halbwachs has described as the ‘social frameworks of memory’ that structure the collective memories of the post-war period in both Luxembourg and in Germany. Unlike memories of the düstere Franzosenzeit (the ‘dark time of the French’), when civil measures such as food rationing, requisitioning and denazification left deep mental traces in the heads of German contemporaries, the purely military occupation by Luxembourgish troops did not grow into a symbolically charged lieu de mémoire. While local and personal memories of the occupation period certainly do persist in both countries (especially in Luxembourg where almost every family had a male member who performed his military service in Germany), these memories do not constitute a body of shared recollections, images and representations of the Luxembourgish occupation in Germany. In addition, the departure of Luxembourgish troops from Germany in 1955 was largely overshadowed by the arrival of yet another, more ‘exotic’ occupation power: the over 10.000 US soldiers of the freshly opened Bitburg and Spangdahlem Airbases, whose stationing and everyday presence there continues to this day.

Luxembourgish occupation troops parade through the destroyed city of Bitburg. (©Musée National d’Histoire Militaire, Collection Aloyse Jacoby K336_189)


A microcosm of military occupation

What then, is the ultimate value of studying this forgotten Luxembourgish ‘second-class occupation’, and more generally other occupations of small territories by small states allied to the main players?

Not only does the Luxembourgish occupation in Germany provide an unstudied and fascinating special case amongst the Allied occupation zones – for example, as all Luxembourgers can speak both French and German fluently, it was in fact the only zone (or sector) in which occupiers and occupied spoke the same language – but it can also serve historians as a magnifying glass which shows the phenomenon of military occupation in sharper relief. The reduced size of the territory occupied by Luxembourgish troops, together with the high quality of the sources held in Luxembourgish, German and French archives, allows us to meticulously analyse distinct phenomena, such as personal relations between occupiers and occupied which always form part of the experience of larger occupations, but which remain more difficult to examine in these cases. For instance, the manageable quantity of archival material relating to this small zone makes it possible to study all marriages contracted between Luxembourgish soldiers and German women, instead of just zooming in on a fraction of them.

The case of the Luxembourgish zone thus offers a unique opportunity to cover the full scope of an occupation, and so in some ways can claim to be more representative of occupation in general than microhistories of cities or regions in other Allied occupation zones. This particular Luxembourgish case adds to our appreciation of complex historical phenomena such as post-conflict reconstruction, the complex dynamics and mechanisms of military occupations and issues of post-war retribution and reparation. In this sense, the ‘second-class occupiers’ represent a first-rate object of research.




Halbwachs, Maurice. On Collective Memory, trans. by Lewis A. Coser. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Klostermann, Anne-Cathrin, and Sibel Koç. ‘Tagungsbericht: Der Alltag der Ausnahme. Besatzungsregime im 20. Jahrhundert, 07.12.2017–08.12.2017 Köln.’ [Conference report: The everyday state of emergency. Occupation regimes in the 20th century, 07.12.2017–08.12.2017, Cologne] H-Soz-Kult. (15 March 2018). Accessed 25 August 2021. https://www.hsozkult.de/conferencereport/id/tagungsberichte-7605

Cover photo: Tony Krier ©Photothèque de la Ville de Luxembourg.

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

Félix Streicher is a PhD Researcher at Maastricht University.