The Three Partitions Of Luxembourg

Among students of history, the three Defenestrations of Prague [1] have been a previous subject examined here on this blog, while the Three Partitions of Poland that ended that once-powerful kingdom and that left its people as second-class citizens within the rapacious empires of Prussia, Austria, and Russia are well known and lamented by patriotic Poles and those who have supported their cause throughout history. Less well known, though, are the three partitions of Luxembourg, which took what had been a sizable buffer state between France and Germany and turned it into the very small realm that it is today. Today, I would like to examine how and why this took place, at least briefly.

In order to understand how Luxembourg got to be the small state it is today, it is necessary to know at least something about the “glory days” of the Duchy of Luxembourg, when it controlled an area in northern Europe at four times its current size and had among its leaders three of the Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire [2] before the final rise of the House of Hapsburg. The first factor that led to the decline of the fortunes of the Duchy, as is so often the case, was the failure of the male line of the House of Luxembourg to have any children. For any kind of dynastic realm, there is a great necessity of sons to carry on the family line and to provide someone who can be expected to help defend the realm. The failure of the male line of the House of Luxembourg meant that the area would no longer be led by a powerful and energetic royal house, but would instead find its destiny a minor annex of other realms (like Austria).

When the House of Luxembourg failed in 1437 and had a succession crisis, the duchy was sold by the reigning Duchess Elisabeth to Philip of Burgundy (who sought the realm in order to help connect his realms in what is now Belgium and Franche-Compete in order to help secure Burgundy as an independent kingdom apart from Valois rule. A couple of generations, Philip’s house failed because Charles “The Rash” was foolish enough to engage in a ruinous war against the Swiss Confederation (encouraged by the French) that led to three crushing defeats, the last of which cost him his life. Of course, Charles was too busy fighting to have a son himself, and with his death his realms were partitioned between the Hapsburgs and the French, Luxembourg itself eventually joining the rest of the Austrian Netherlands.

The first partition of Luxembourg itself came about because of one of those interminable wars of the period, the Franco-Spanish War, which served as part of the Thirty Years War and continued after its conclusion. In the Treaty of the Pyrenees that ended that war, France was rewarded for its capture of much of the Spanish Netherlands (in alliance with England) with the gain of the French-speaking fortresses of Stenay, Thionville, and Montmèdy and their surrounding areas, taking about 10% of the area of the Duchy of Luxembourg at that time [3]. Given the position of the Duchy of Luxembourg between the French and the Germans, it was a harbinger of times to come.

During the French Revolutionary Wars, Luxembourg again became an object of contention between its neighbors. The Austrian Emperor, its lord, was unable to protect the area from the French armies, and the area was taken over in 1795 and remained under French domination and incorporation until the Treaty of Paris in 1814, which led to the first abdication of Napoleon. Its final status, ominously, was determined the following year at the Congress of Vienna, where it was joined (along with Belgium) into a personal union with Belgium and the Netherlands. As a sop to this incorporation (which was much like the enforced unification of Yugoslavia after the first world war, and equally successful if less bloody, the area was promoted from a mere duchy to a grand duchy. On the negative side of the ledger, the newly expanded Kingdom of Prussia demanded, and received, the fortress of Bitburg along with a few neighboring towns, in order to bolster its control over the western frontier of the German Confederation. Since the House of Orange was gaining enough land for itself, there was no defense of the interests of the territory of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, which lost at this time about a quarter of its remaining territory to a rapacious Prussia just as it had previously lost land to a rapacious France.

The third partition followed soon after that. In 1830, Belgian patriots revolted from the Netherlands. Given that much of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg that remained was French-speaking, the rebels ended up taking over most of Luxembourg except for the capital city and main fortress. By holding on to that area, the House of Orange was able to preserve its rule over the vast majority of the part of the Grand Duchy that speaks Luxembourgish, unfortunately, the resulting Treaty of London in 1839 led to the loss of all of its western territories, including such notable areas as Bastogne and Neufchâteau, and left Luxembourg as a small principality surrounding the capital city. While the Netherlands was compensated for this loss with the Duchy of Limburg [4], the area of Luxembourg has remained ever since 1839 as a small state that has suffered the rapaciousness of all of its neighbors, even Belgium.

What had led to this sad state of affairs? There are quite a few conclusions that can be drawn from this tale, even sketched out as it is briefly here. For one, the strength of a realm depends on the strength of its leadership. A royal house, depending as it does on the presence of a son to pass on the family name and (until recent constitutional regimes) defend the realm from enemies, had as a primary task the raising up of strong sons to defend the family patrimony. A family that failed to do this, as the House of Luxembourg failed, could find its territories reduced in size from the dominant position within the entire Holy Roman Empire to a tiny nation. It is more of a wonder that Luxembourg survived at all.

There are at least a couple of reasons why Luxembourg (like Paraguay, another buffer state that Luxembourg resembles in terms of its position as a buffer state with two major powers as neighbors and a somewhat weak but nonetheless still larger third neighbor [5]) survived at all. For one, it started out with enough of a pedigree that even after its ruling house was extinguished by a failure to produce male heirs, the cultural cachet of the name Luxembourg was enough that the name and duchy itself survived, rather than simply being swallowed up by its neighbors. Second, like Paraguay, it was helped in its efforts to survive by having neighbors that did not want to see any rivals take over the land entirely, even if they too wanted to take it over. As a result, they were more or less willing to let a small state survive rather than let it be entirely incorporated by the others.

Third, and perhaps most interesting, is that the area of Luxembourg speaks its own sufficiently distinctive language (called Luxembourgish, which is a Germanic language) that it has benefited from the post-19th century forms of nationalism that has granted a legitimacy to the efforts of regions for greater autonomy and even independence. Thus Luxembourg is a rare example of a state that combines historical legitimacy extending from tradition and reputation and past as well as a nation with legitimacy based on cultural and linguistic grounds. Neither of these was in itself sufficient to preserve the full expanse of Luxembourg’s territory, but each was vital in preserving an independent identity for the nation apart from its grasping neighbors.

What lessons can we draw from this historical fate? For one, the fact that there are far fewer people of Luxembourgish descent (as opposed to Polish descent) has made the story of the partitions of Luxembourg far less known than that of Poland, because there are fewer people who would know or care about such an area. For another, the citizens of the territories that were taken, French speakers taken over mostly by France and Belgium and German speakers mostly taken over by Prussia (and some of these ironically taken by Belgium as compensation for the horrors of German barbarity in World War I), were given full citizenship in the realms that took them over, and often were a part of the same linguistic majority of those regions, leading to the fact that many of those people may not even realize their areas were part of Luxembourg’s borders to begin with [6]. For a small buffer state to survive in this world requires a great deal of vigilance, a high amount of danger, as well as a certain savoir faire in diplomacy to play off powers against each other to preserve that essential middle space, as well as defensible fortresses to protect one’s claims. These cannot be taken for granted. Fortunately for us all, the people of Luxembourg have managed to protect their independent identity in a dangerous part of the world. Let us appreciate their survival.






[6] A notable exception is, of course, the territory that was taken to become the Belgian province of Luxembourg.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Military History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Three Partitions Of Luxembourg

  1. Pingback: Guns And Butter | Edge Induced Cohesion

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