An Hour of Glory: The Strike at the Luxembourg Post Office, 1 September 1942.

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Michel Kieffer's identity card.
Michel Kieffer's identity card.
George Kieffer was born in 1950, the son of Michel Kieffer, a technician of the Telephone Department of the Luxembourg Post Office, who was active with his wife in the Resistance during the Second World War. Following the death of his father, George, who now lives in England, transferred the former's collection of papers, documents and medals to the Second World War Experience Centre. From some of these papers he has drawn the story of the short-lived General Strike at the Luxembourg Post Office on 1 September 1942.

Prelude

Amid the turmoil and confusion of the night of 9 - 10 May 1940, when the German forces sprang across the borders of Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg, there was little time to spare a thought for the Grand-Duchy, which for the second time that century saw itself invaded by German armies.

Luxembourg, a country the size of Dorset, did not have a standing army and observed a policy of strict unarmed neutrality. The token resistance made by a handful of policemen and customs officers manning the border crossings and the anti-tank obstacles on the main roads from the German border was swiftly swatted down by the might of the German Wehrmacht.

It is true that on 9 May 1940 the German Government had tried to encourage the Luxembourg Royal Family and Government to stay behind, by announcing:

The Government of the Reich for its part assures the Grand-Ducal Luxembourg Government that Germany has no intention to jeopardise the territorial integrity and the political independence of the Grand-Duchy through its actions, either now or in the future.

Grand-Duchess Charlotte and her family were determined not to stay in a country under Nazi control. My father had been part of the telecommunications team which installed the hot-line, direct from the Luxembourg-German border to the Grand-Ducal Palace, less than 15 miles away, which gave the Royal Family prior warning. At 8 a.m. on 10 May the Grand Duchess and her Government crossed the French border at Rodange, the South Western most corner of the country, as German tanks approached and as the rest of the country was already occupied. She starred a journey that was to take her through France to Britain and eventually Canada. The Germans for their part who rushed to the Grand-Ducal Palace found it empty and considered this the first hostile act of this small country.

Luxembourg was always considered part of the Greater German Reich. Luxembourgers speak a Germanic dialect not very different from that of the Hunsrück to the East of the Moselle and learn German from the first year of primary school. It was therefore not surprising that the Germans should regard Luxembourgers as their natural kinsmen and the German occupation troops were surprised to be met with stony-faced hostility. As the military departed to be replaced by a civil administration, the German officers warned that behind them would come a band of criminals. That band was led by the Gauleiter Gustav Simon, a failed teacher. The Grand-Duchy was annexed to the Gau Moselland, comprising the ancient Roman city of Trier, and Koblenz.

Led by the Volksdeutsche Bewegung (Movement of German peoples), the whole panoply of Nazi party and allied organisations was quickly implanted, aimed to incorporate Luxembourg into the German Reich. At all levels of the administration the responsible positions went to German nationals and very rapidly the Nazi Party machinery assumed a far-reaching control through all aspects of social and family life.

A plebiscite was announced for the 10 October 1941, in which, among the usual questions about marital status, the Gauleiter had inserted additional questions about nationality and mother-tongue. It was clearly indicated that the answer 'Letzeburgesch' to either of the last two questions was prohibited, as Luxembourg was neither a language nor a nationality. Imagine the surprise and anger of the Gauleiter when he discovered the day before the result was due to be announced that no less than 97% had responded 'Letzeburgesch' to both questions.

It was against this background that the next step towards integration was to be taken. On Sunday, 30 August 1942, in the Exhibition Hall of Luxembourg, Gauleiter Simon proclaimed the decree calling up young Luxembourgers born between 1920 and 1924 for service in the Wehrmacht or the Waffen-SS, amid the acclamation of pro-Nazi supporters and a sizeable rent-a-crowd from across the German border.

They had not learnt from their earlier plebiscite, nor indeed from this small country's motto Mir woelle bleiwe waat mir sinn (We want to remain what we are). The call-up for compulsory military service was to turn the stoicism of this largely agricultural country to anger and direct action.

Rumours had circulated since 23 August when the decree conferring German nationality on Luxembourgers and those from Alsace-Lorraine had been gazetted in Berlin; publication was prohibited in Luxembourg and German newspapers were impounded at the border. Not surprisingly, however, a copy of the Berlin Official Gazette had been intercepted in Luxembourg and the news and fear spread like wild-fire. The announcing of Simon's big proclamation for 30 August 1942, merely added fuel to the flames. The Resistance announced that they were not going to take this lying down, "we are not Prussians, if they want to call up our young, then we are going to defend ourselves".

German assertion of their intent was to lead to a dramatic general strike, the only one in any of the occupied countries. I am indebted to Roger Gaspart's monograph on the strike at the Luxembourg Main Post Office in my reconstruction of this brief explosion of resistance in one location, which lasted all but one hour.

The Pressure Builds

From Monday morning, 31 August, tension built, and talk among the staff at the main Post Office was all about the proclamation. Work was virtually at a stand- still and rumours that strikes had broken out in the steel-works in the industrial South of the country and in Wiltz, a little town in the Ardennes, were eagerly picked up and passed on. At the approach of any German employee, the groups dispersed back to their work-places and pretended to work.

That afternoon saw confirmation of strike-action in Wiltz, specifically at the primary school. The mood among the sorting-office postmen became steadily more militant, with demands for a resolution to strike: "Let us show these hated Prussians what we think of this whole affair". The youngest members of staff, those most likely to be called up, were understandably the loudest in their demands; the older employees, who had young children at home and who had most to lose materially, showed greater restraint and moderation. But at this stage it was still only 'talk'.

The nightshift arrived at the sorting office late in the afternoon and an atmosphere of powerless sullen anger reigned in which work was only sporadic and haphazard. While few mail-bags were being opened, a semblance of work continued and outgoing mail-bags, almost empty, were prepared for despatch. Only letters and parcels manifestly addressed to Luxembourgers who had been deported to Germany for forced labour, were being handled conscientiously.

Tuesday, 1 September 1942

Towards morning the staff in the sorting office agreed to resign en bloc from the VdB (Volksdeutsche Bewegung), an organisation in which the Germans tried to recruit Luxembourgers by threat, cajoling and subterfuge.

The night-shift met the incoming day-shift and informed them of their decision. Two of their number agreed to try and talk the older postmen into taking this fateful step. Several showed reluctance, fearing the inevitable consequences ranging from transportation to concentration camps to deportation or imprisonment and the loss of job and thereby means of existence.

Some workers arrived well in advance of their shift, eager for gossip and for information on events, sensing the electric atmosphere and yet seemingly unable to take the fatal final step and move to direct action.

Confirmation of strikes at the steel-works of Esch and Schifflingen was received. The VdB membership cards and application forms were collected, some tore their's in half, others scrawled "I renounce German nationality". Most gave up their cards voluntarily, several hesitated, fearing the consequences of openly opposing the occupying power. At least the Nazis had left them in their jobs, which meant they could support their families.

Michel Kieffer's Resistance card.
Michel Kieffer's Resistance card.

The extent of the withdrawal of labour across the country became clear, including the number of workers and employees who had not turned up for work in Luxembourg City, ironically because of German efficiency. Roger Gaspart, who was scheduled to take over the telegram distribution at 1 p.m. was amazed at the volume of telegrams which were awaiting urgent distribution. They all originated from the DAF - Deutsche Arbeitsfront (the German controlled trade-union) and were addressed to those absent from their places of work. They contained a summons back to work and threatened heavy penalties, including the death penalty. The telegrams were left untouched and undistributed. They lay as a silent accusation at the lack of positive action among the sorting office staff.

Around 11 a.m. the postmen drifted back from their curtailed morning delivery rounds either singly or in groups. The offices gradually emptied as the staff left for home and lunch; as yet talk about strike action lacked the spark to ignite it and remained just 'talk'.

So far there had only been at best a go-slow delaying deliveries of letters and parcels. While there was a sense of satisfaction that the German war effort was being hindered in this way, there must also have been disappointment that more had not been done.

Article by George C. Kieffer.
First published in the Centre's Journal Everyone's War Issue No. 3.