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The Treaty of London: What is it and why do we care?
Culture & Life

The Treaty of London: What is it and why do we care?

5 min. 09.05.2017 From our online archive
The Treaty of London is one of the defining moments in Luxembourg's rather recent history of independence and international status. Here's what it's all about and why Luxembourg cares about it.

By Steve Hoscheit

The visit of Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, to Luxembourg has been long announced and awaited. She will be visiting the Grand Duchy to attend celebrations surrounding the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of London.

The Treaty of London is one of the defining moments in Luxembourg's rather recent history of independence and international status. Wort took the time to find out what it is and why Luxembourg cares about it.

Luxembourg under Dutch rule

In 1815, after the collapse of the Napoleonic Empire, Europe's diplomats met in the Austrian capital for the Vienna congress and decided -- among many other things -- to create a great Kingdom of the Netherlands.

The new state including Holland, Liège and the former Austrian Netherlands should logically have included Luxembourg. But the decision was made to make Luxembourg a separate political entity, giving it the status of a Grand Duchy, however assigned to the king of the Netherlands, William I of Orange-Nassau.

Thus began Luxembourg's so-called personal union with the Netherlands, further complicated through the fact that the Grand Duchy became a member of the German Confederation -- an association of 39 German states pledging mutual defence. The fortified town of Luxembourg therefore became a federal fortress guarded by a Prussian garrison.

Officially, Luxembourg was a state distinct from the Netherlands in 1815, but King William I did not make that distinction and ruled the country like it was the 18th province of his kingdom. Although Luxembourg's people did not oppose this situation as such, discontent with economic and fiscal policies of the Dutch regime caused the inhabitants of the Grand Duchy to join a Belgian insurgency in 1830.

When Belgium declared itself independent from the Netherlands on October 4, 1830, several Luxembourg representatives sat in the constituent assembly and later in the institutions of the young Belgian state. Luxembourg factually came under double rule, the city of Luxembourg being controlled by the Dutch and the country being under Belgian authority.

The (first) Treaty of London

To resolve the conflict, the great powers decided to separate the Belgians and the Dutch by creating the Kingdom of Belgium, while dividing Luxembourg between the Dutch and the Belgians. The Belgian Parliament accepted the compromise,  but William I refused to do so, creating eight more years of separation.

In 1839, the (first) Treaty of London sought a compromise by dividing Luxembourg into the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, to remain under Dutch rule and the Belgian part of Luxembourg, known today as 'Province du Luxembourg'.

Both sides accepted the deal, giving Luxembourg its modern borders which have not changed since and -- maybe more importantly for Luxembourg's national identity -- created linguistic unity within the country with only the Germanic part remaining.

When William II became King of the Netherlands in 1840, he decided to grant more autonomy to the Grand Duchy saying: ''I want Luxembourg to be governed by the Luxembourg people''.

This decision and other events like the setting up of a constitutional charter as early as 1841, made the King-Grand Duke widely popular in Luxembourg -- proven by a statue in his honour still dominating the square in Luxembourg's city centre named after him (Place Guillaume II) -- and further contributed to the development of a Luxembourgish identity.

The (second) Treaty of London

But a new crisis dubbed ''Luxembourg crisis'' broke out in 1866, when the Austro-Prussian War triggered the dissolution of the German Confederation.

France tried to counter the ensuing Prussian expansion by incorporating Luxembourg into its territory. Napoleon III offered five million gold francs to William III to acquire the Grand Duchy. But Prussia's garrison was still guarding the fortress of Luxembourg and wouldn't have it.

To de-escalate rising tensions, the great powers met in London once again to find a compromise. This compromise -- found 150 years ago and known as the (second) Treaty of London -- was crucial for the visual appearance of Luxembourg city as we know it today and Luxembourg's international status in the conflicts and great wars to come in the 20th century.

The May 11, 1867 Treaty of London obliged Prussia to withdraw its garrison, the fortress of Luxembourg city was dismantled -- which cost 1.5 million gold francs -- and the Grand Duchy was declared perpetually neutral under the guarantee of the signatory powers. In return, France renounced its territorial claims.

These developments -- as well as the end of the personal union with the Netherlands when Luxembourg got its own dynasty with the Nassau-Weilburg in 1890 -- gave the Grand Duchy its full independence and opened the country to the world.

However, it also left the tiny nation vulnerable once again, shown by two consecutive Prussian or German invasions in both World Wars. On the other hand, the imposed neutral status allowed Luxembourg to claim its place in the West and the international community when World War II came to an end, helping the country to develop into the wealthy and relatively powerful (for its size) country that it is today.

Commemoration on May 11, 2017

This year's commemoration marks the 150th anniversary of the second Treaty of London. Representatives of its guarantor powers (or the states born out of them) Germany, Austria, Belgium, France, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands and Russia will be attending.

In the framework of the commemoration, Luxembourg's royal family, the Grand Duchess of Cambridge, high ranking Luxembourgish politicians and high ranking representatives from the guarantor powers will have a busy schedule.

At the 'Musée Dräi Eechelen' they will discover the exhibition "1867. Luxembourg – ville ouverte", showing the entirety of the final treaty and the transcripts of the ratification of all signing powers for the first time. The exhibition shows how the dismantling of the fortress ordered by the treaty transformed Luxembourg into an open, growing city. The exhibition will be open to the public starting from May 12 until December 31, 2017.

The group will also visit the 'Lëtzebuerg City Museum' where the new permanent exhibition ''The Luxembourg Story'' tells the eventful history of the city of Luxembourg, from its origins in the 10th century to the present day.

Finally, they will visit the 'MUDAM' to see the current exhibition of British artists Tony Cragg and Darren Almond.