Following the German invasion of Luxembourg on May 10, 1940, Luxembourg was briefly placed under military occupation. On August 2, 1940, the military government was dissolved and replaced by a civilian government under the leadership of the German civilian administrator of the adjoining German district.
The Luxembourg population was declared to be German and was to use German as its only language; the German authorities, under the orders of the Gauleiter Gustav Simon, developed a robust policy of germanization.
In August 1942, German authorities announced the formal annexation of Luxembourg by the Third Reich into Nazi Germany. Following the announcement was a program of ‘Germanization,’ or the forceful imposition of the German language. At all levels of the administration, important positions went to German nationals and very rapidly the Nazi Party machinery assumed far-reaching control of all aspects of social and family life.
On August 30, Gustav Simon announced that all Luxembourger males of military age were to be conscripted into the Wehrmacht to fight against Allies. It was this decision that motivated the people of Luxembourg from anger to action, sticking to their national motto, “Mir woelle bleiwe waat mir sinn” (We want to remain what we are).
The Luxembourg population responded quickly against the forced conscription. Within hours citizens began organizing a general strike. On August 31, the strike officially began in the town of Wiltz. Local town officials, Michel Worré and Nicolas Müller, gathered other officials and refused to go to work. Slowly they were joined by other workers as the movement spread. Leaflets were printed and distributed secretly throughout the country.
Soon after the striking in Wiltz, workers from the southwestern industrial towns of Schifflange and Differdange were alerted and also refused to go to work. In Schifflange, Hans Adam, a worker of German origins sounded an alarm across the valley to alert all workers. In Differdange, news of the strike spread by word of mouth and increased in intensity. On September 2, over 150 Differdange mill workers refused to take their shifts, inciting death threats from the German director of the mill. Approximately 50 workers still refused and declared that they were on strike.
The strike spread also to Esch-sur-Alzette, the capital of the Luxembourg mining area. Here, all aspects of the economic life were paralyzed, including administration, agriculture, industry, and education structures. The central post office in Luxembourg received formal confirmation of the strike soon after. Few mailbags were even opened as a mere semblance of work continued. At the approach of any German employee, the postal workers dispersed back to their work-places and pretended to work. Only letters and packages clearly addressed to Luxembourgers who had been deported to Germany for forced labor, were handled with care.
Throughout the country, schoolchildren were kept away from school, teachers refused to teach, laborers refused to work, there was little or no production of steel, milk, and other products. News outlets in Allied countries began covering the protest as the first general strike to be held in a German-occupied territory. For the rest of the world, it exposed German propaganda, which claimed that the people of Luxembourg were voluntarily joining German forces.
German authorities, alert to any sign of resistance and fearing further escalation of protests, mobilized immediately. An order declaring a state of emergency and introducing martial law was signed by the Chief of Civil Administration, Gustav Simon, threatening that strikers were to be immediately shot.
Beginning September 1, German officials began arresting strike leaders. Within days, 21 leaders, many of whom were teachers, were arrested for interrogation and then executed. This group included six leaders from the Differdange mill and Michel Worré and Nicolas Müller, from Wiltz. Most were tried by a military tribunal, sentenced to death, and deported to the Hinzert concentration camp were they were shot.
According to a German officer who witnessed the executions of Worré and Müller, their lasts words were, “Vive Lëtzebuerg” (Long live Luxembourg!). Hans Adam, who had sounded the alarm in Schifflange and had German origins, was considered to be a traitor and was decapitated. Many of the leaders’ families were sent to prison and work camps in Germany.
At least 200 other Luxembourgers were arrested. Over 80 were further tried by the special tribunal and transferred to the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police. Hundreds of high school children were arrested and send to re-education camps in Germany along with several dozen industrial worker trainees and several young postmen.
There is little information available about any further organized striking after German suppression. The strike was effectively halted. A series of posters were later posted throughout Luxembourg announcing the death of the strikers as a consequence of the strike, bearing the names, occupation, and residency of each victim. Although the exact number of strikers is unknown, the movement did mark Luxembourg’s resistance to the German occupation, gaining attention worldwide.
Of the Luxembourger men drafted for service in the German Wehrmacht, about forty percent refused and went into hiding, half of them within the country’s borders. Some escaped to Britain and joined the Allied forces to fight against Germany and the Axis powers.
After the 1942 general strike, German occupation continued to repress the Luxembourger people. Thousands were arrested and tortured and hundreds died in concentration camps. Whole families were deported to East Germany and replaced by German families.
(The names of the victims of the strike who were executed at Hinzert are among those inscribed on a catafalque at the site of the concentration camp)
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