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Luxembourg and NATO

Did you know that Luxembourgers were almost unanimous in their desire to join NATO in 1949? That, while its population is relatively small, Luxembourg supported NATO in many different ways throughout the Cold War? Among its contributions was something totally unique, which it gave on NATO’s 40th anniversary in 1989. Find out what it was...

With the prior assent of nine tenths of the Members of the Luxembourg Parliament, I set the signature of my small country beside those of so many friendly nations at the bottom of this instrument of peace, the Atlantic Pact.

Joseph Bech, Foreign Minister of Luxembourg
Speaking at the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty Washington, D.C., 4 April 1949

Located in the centre of Western Europe, Luxembourg has long understood the value of international cooperation. The country learned the hard lesson that neutrality and isolationism are rarely respected, after being invaded and occupied twice in the span of 30 years. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Luxembourg became one of the continent’s most vocal champions of European and Atlantic integration, mediating disputes between its larger neighbours and helping lay the foundation for Europe’s economic recovery and enduring peace. Despite being NATO’s smallest member by surface area, Luxembourg has made many vital contributions to the Alliance over the years, including by maintaining a capable military force. Below, view a film produced by NATO in the 1950s, introducing Luxembourg to its fellow member countries.

Strong support for NATO

When Luxembourg and 11 other states created NATO in 1949, the country counted just under 300,000 citizens. Though much smaller than most of its new Allies, Luxembourg’s population had something that many of its larger counterparts lacked: a near-unanimous consensus to join NATO and play its part in uniting Western Europe in a defensive alliance. All three of Luxembourg’s major political parties supported NATO accession, with only the Communists offering token opposition. Memories of American troops liberating their country from Nazi Germany were still fresh in most people’s minds, and so the vast majority of Luxembourgers were firmly in favour of NATO. As prominent Luxembourg lawyer and businessman, Jean-Claude Worter put it: “Every Luxembourger comprehended and endorsed the new solidarity of our country with its allies, and accepted the economic and military consequences which ensued, both to its profit and at its expense.”

Below is a collection of photos showing Luxembourgers going about their everyday lives in the 1950s. The post-war economy of Luxembourg revolved around agriculture, wine making, the mining of iron ore, and most significantly the production of steel. Before the country became a banking and financial services hub in the 1980s, more than 50 per cent of its labour force worked in the steel industry. When NATO decided to have a purpose-built headquarters – Porte Dauphine – in Paris, Luxembourg provided 3,500 tons of steel for the construction.

Luxembourg’s gratitude towards the United States and the European Western Allies persisted throughout the Cold War, providing the rock-solid foundation for its strong support of the Alliance and eagerness to do its bit. In the late 1970s, for example, the Luxembourg government decided to build two gigantic military storage depots, holding 63,000 tons of combat vehicles, machine parts, food, clothing, fuel, and other equipment that the Allies would need in the event of a war. At a public consultation with the local population before construction began, one man wanted to know whether the tanks would make noise at night. He was interrupted by somebody who shouted: '”You found the noise of American tanks sweet enough in 1944”.

The overwhelmingly positive attitude towards NATO since 1949 — and the enduring political consensus in Luxembourg’s various coalition governments — meant that ongoing membership in the Alliance has never come up as a topic of serious political debate. The solidity of public opinion allowed Luxembourg’s political leaders to be tireless proponents not only of the Alliance, but also of further European and Atlantic integration. The father of NATO in Luxembourg, Joseph Bech, was foremost among these champions.

Joseph Bech: the father of NATO in Luxembourg

Joseph Bech spent 50 years (1914-1964) in the Luxembourg Parliament. Over the course of his career, he held ministerial roles in almost every major department and served as prime minister for 15 non-consecutive years and foreign minister for 33 years in a row. Having lived through the occupation of Luxembourg by the German Empire during the First World War and by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, when he was also part of Luxembourg’s government-in-exile in London, Bech was determined to do everything in his power to prevent another war in Europe. Establishing NATO was an important first step, but Bech believed that the true guarantee of peace in Europe would only come from the political and economic integration of the continent.

In addition to signing the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, Joseph Bech was one of the primary architects of numerous other agreements which helped lay the foundation for modern-day Europe. In 1944, he signed the Benelux Agreement with Belgium and the Netherlands, providing a model of regional economic cooperation that would later be expanded across the continent. In 1948, he helped engineer the Brussels Pact, a collective defence agreement with the Benelux countries plus France and the United Kingdom, which grew into the Western European Union. Bech was also a delegate to the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco (1945) and a founder of the Council of Europe (1949) He also helped to create the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, which aimed to put French and German coal and steel production under a single joint authority to prevent either country from using these resources to build up their military again. In all of these post-war agreements and institutions, Bech represented Luxembourg as a small but committed partner, willing to support its Allies with its vote, its soldiers, and any other means at its disposal.

Bech used the size of Luxembourg to his advantage. Where larger countries like France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom entered negotiations with historic rivalries and competing national interests, Luxembourg was different. Luxembourg was a threat to no one and had never attacked or put pressure on anyone. Luxembourg just wanted everyone to get along and achieve prosperity together. And just as Luxembourg sat at the geographic heart of Western Europe, Joseph Bech helped ease the tensions between his international colleagues, ultimately helping them forge the institutions that have shaped Europe ever since.

No man surpasses you in service to his country and to the free nations of the Western world. Your long and distinguished career stands as a model to all who aspire to public service.

US President John F. Kennedy
Letter wishing Joseph Bech a happy 75th birthday
February 1963

A close relationship with the United States

As the world’s only remaining Grand Duchy, Luxembourg confers a unique title on its heads of state. The Grand Dukes and Duchesses have been prominent advocates for NATO both within their country and abroad — particularly in the United States, with which Luxembourg shares an especially close relationship.

Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg reigned from 1919 to 1964 and was at one time the world’s longest-serving head of state. When she visited the United States with her son and heir, Prince Jean, in April 1963, President John F. Kennedy hosted them at the White House. In her speech, the Grand Duchess stressed the importance of collective defence: “Driven from our country by ruthless invaders, we came to this hospitable shore to seek the help of the United States in our struggle against sudden oppression and domination… Recent events have shown more clearly than ever that our safety is intimately linked with the security of the United States and that the global challenge may be faced adequately only by a common response.”


In November 1984, Prince Jean returned to Washington D.C., this time as Grand Duke Jean of Luxembourg. President Ronald Reagan toasted the Grand Duke at dinner, highlighting Luxembourg’s contributions to the Alliance: “Over the years, relations between Luxembourg and the United States have been those of close and abiding friends. We view with the deepest respect your contributions to NATO, including the registration of AWACS aircraft and your splendid efforts during the Enforcer exercises.”

In the lead-up to the Grand Duke’s visit, The New York Times described Luxembourg as “arguably Europe's most unabashedly pro-American country” which “cherishes this reputation for being Washington's best friend”. Luxembourg has been not only a linchpin of European integration, but also one of the most ardent and unambiguous supporters of America’s presence in Europe. This close relationship arises not only from the country’s liberation by the US army in both world wars, but also from the large Luxembourg community in the United States. During the 19th century, approximately 50,000 Luxembourgers immigrated to America. This figure is remarkable considering that Luxembourg’s total population in 1900 was only 234,000. At one point, approximately 20 percent of all Luxembourgers were living in the United States. Most of them settled in the American Midwest, with more than 16,000 living in Chicago alone. The Luxembourg American Cultural Society, located in the town of Belgium, Wisconsin, maintains archival files on over 6,000 Luxembourg families throughout the United States. The community continues to thrive and to celebrate its heritage.

US Army official photos for General George S. Patton. US Army official photos for General George S. Patton.

In Hamm, just outside the City of Luxembourg, lies the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial. Over 5,000 American soldiers are buried at the cemetery, most of whom fell during the Battle of the Bulge (the last major battle of the Western Front in the Second World War, which raged across northern Luxembourg in the winter of 1944-1945).

The most famous grave at this cemetery belongs to General George S. Patton, one of the brilliant and hot-tempered heroes of the Second World War. Patton is remembered for his fiery speeches to his troops, his ivory-handled pistols and his tactically brilliant campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, and France after the Normandy landings. When Patton died in a car accident in West Germany shortly after the war, his wife chose for him to be buried alongside his men in Luxembourg. Patton was interred on Christmas Eve, 1944, “his grave no different from 6,000 others that mark the final resting places of soldiers from his own beloved Third Army”.

Contributing to the collective defence effort

Luxembourg has welcomed Allied activity on its territory, including hosting several meetings of NATO’s top political decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, in Luxembourg City. One of the most significant NATO meetings in Luxembourg took place in June 1967. Writing with characteristic Luxembourg modesty, Prime Minister Pierre Werner welcomed delegates to the meeting, the first to be held in Luxembourg: “The hospitality we shall be offering to our friends and Allies may lack the polish of the great Western capitals but it will be all the more friendly and eager.”

Other cities in the country have also seen significant NATO activity. Since 1967, the town of Capellen has hosted the NATO Maintenance and Supply Agency (NAMSA), known today as the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA). The Agency provides logistical support to NATO armed forces and NATO commands across Europe and North America, assisting Allies with the procurement and storage of equipment, with engineering and with technical support.

Luxembourg’s contribution to NATO is explained in an exhibition that covers, for instance, photos of troops training and the insignia of NAMSA. The model is one of NATO’s Airborne Warning & Control System (AWACS) aircraft since the fleet is registered in Luxembourg. The country’s main airport also served as a staging ground for Allied troops participating in NATO exercises, notably during the Reforger exercises. During the Cold War, Reforger exercises would be held once a year to test NATO’s ability to deploy forces to West Germany quickly in the event of a conflict with the Warsaw Pact.

Breaking away from neutrality

Luxembourg had been without a standing army since the 1867 Treaty of London had declared it to be “a perpetually neutral and disarmed state”. After being occupied a second time in the Second World War, however, the Grand Duchy’s government-in-exile created a military force to fight alongside the Allies and help liberate the country. The Luxembourg Battery was a unit was integrated into a Belgian brigade that was stationed in the United Kingdom and then deployed to Europe following the Normandy landings. The Luxembourg Battery operated four howitzer cannons, named after the four daughters of Grand Duchess Charlotte (Princesses Elisabeth, Marie-Adelaide, Marie-Gabrielle and Alix).

In November 1944, newly liberated Luxembourg introduced a policy of compulsory military service. The army grew to 2,150 men organised in two battalions. These army groups were stationed in the French occupation zone of West Germany and a group of volunteers fought alongside other Allied countries in the Korean War. By 1954, the Luxembourg armed forces had formed a battlegroup of just under 5,200 men. It also had a home defence force of over 2,500 troops. In total, the armed forces personnel represented 2.45 per cent of the population. The poster shows army uniforms of Luxembourg in the 1950s.

By the time compulsory military service ended in 1967, over 34,700 Luxembourgers had served in the armed forces. Luxembourg’s new all-volunteer army subsequently established a NATO-specific infantry battalion that participated in dozens of NATO exercises under the banner of the Allied Command Europe (ACE) Mobile Force.

The NATO hymn

Since the Alliance was created in 1949, Luxembourg’s military has contributed to countless NATO exercises, activities and missions. But in 1989, for NATO’s 40th anniversary, the Luxembourg Military Band contributed something totally unique: an official anthem for the Alliance. The NATO Hymn was composed by Captain André Reichling. It is played at major events, including at summits of NATO’s heads of state and government.

Timeline of significant events

  • 19 April 1839 – The First Treaty of London between the Great Powers of Europe recognises Luxembourg as a sovereign state.
  • 11 May 1867 – The Second Treaty of London declares the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg to be “a perpetually neutral and disarmed state”.
  • 2 August 1914 – Luxembourg is invaded and occupied by the German Empire during the First World War.
  • 10 May 1940 – Luxembourg is invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany during the Second World War.
  • 1944 – Along with Belgium and the Netherlands, Luxembourg signs the Benelux Agreement, a forerunner of greater European integration and cooperation.
  • 10 September 1944 – Luxembourg is liberated by the US army. From December 1944 to January 1945, the Battle of the Bulge rages across northern Luxembourg before the German forces are pushed back.
  • November 1944 – Luxembourg establishes compulsory military service.
  • 1945 – Members of the Luxembourg armed forces are stationed in West Germany in the French occupation zone.
  • 1948 – Luxembourg is part of the Western Union, the European defence alliance established between the Benelux countries, France and the United Kingdom. Its defence arm is later transferred to NATO.
  • 4 April 1949 – Luxembourg becomes one of the 12 founding members of NATO.
  • 1950s-1990s – Luxembourg participates in dozens of NATO exercises during the Cold War.
  • 1952 – Luxembourg City becomes the home of the High Authority of the European Coal and Steel Community (the precursor to the European Union).
  • 1967 – Luxembourg ends compulsory military service and develops an all-volunteer, professional standing army.
  • 1967 – The NATO Maintenance and Supply Agency (NAMSA) is established in Capellen.
  • 1973 – The global oil crisis severely affects the Luxembourg steel industry, bringing the country to transition away from iron ore and steel manufacturing, towards a service-based economy centred on banking and finance.
  • 1984 – Luxembourgish is recognised as the national language of Luxembourg (with French and German still used as official languages)