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HRH the Grand Duke Jean: a symbol of history

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Published on Friday, 03 May 2019

The death of His Royal Highness the Grand Duke Jean, who passed away on 23 April 2019 at the age of 98, marks the end of a chapter in the history of Luxembourg and Europe.

Dr Elena Danescu, research scientist of the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C²DH), looks back at the extraordinary life of the deceased monarch.

As the fifth sovereign of the national dynasty since 1890, Grand Duke Jean was a head of state who perfectly embodied the ideals of service to his country and commitment to European integration. During the Second World War, while his mother, the illustrious Grand Duchess Charlotte, led the Resistance from London, Crown Prince Jean volunteered to join the Irish Guards, risking his life to participate in the Normandy Landings in June 1944 before he along with his father, Prince Félix, joined the forces that liberated Luxembourg on 10 September 1944. Guaranteed a place in history because of his royal birthright, he also earned his place in history for services rendered to the nation.

Hereditary Grand Duke Jean succeeded Grand Duchess Charlotte on 12 November 1964, beginning his 36-year reign. Much like his mother, he distanced himself from the political arena, which was dominated by the three major trends of Christian socialism, socialism and liberalism. Guided by the principles of the constitutional monarchy and in close synergy with the successive governments led by Pierre Werner, Gaston Thorn, Jacques Santer and Jean-Claude Juncker, he worked tirelessly to shape the future of his country as one characterised by prosperity and peace, to preserve its unique multiculturalism and consolidate its reputation as an honest broker in Europe, surrounded by its larger neighbours.

During the reign of Grand Duke Jean, Luxembourg underwent major economic and social changes. The largely agriculture-based economy became industrialised, driven by a powerful steel industry which remained the dominant sector from the immediate post-Second World War years to the mid-1970s.

In the 1970s , Luxembourg embarked on its second major transition, from an industrial economy to a service economy based on the financial sector. From the mid-80s the country’s economic growth accelerated, driven by its financial centre. During 1985–2007 average annual GDP growth was 5.3%, twice as much as that of neighbouring countries and of the member states of the EC/EU. The expansion of the financial industry resulted in the emergence of a new phenomenon in Luxembourg: in order to meet its workforce requirements, the country turned to cross-border workers. In 1998 they made up one-third of the country’s workforce. Of the total workforce, 55% were non-Luxembourgers.

Grand Duke Jean was the best possible ambassador for a country at the crossroads of Europe. Luxembourg was a founding member of the European Communities in 1952, becoming one of the Communities’ permanent seats in 1965. It went on to assume a leading role in European integration, in particular during the process of reflection on Economic and Monetary Union, which led to the 1970 Werner Report, and in laying the foundations for a social Europe in 1985.

As the embodiment of a multilingual, multicultural nation, the Grand Duke also personified Europe: his origins were Luxembourgish and German through his mother, French through his father and Portuguese through his grandmother – and his wife, Grand Duchess Joséphine-Charlotte (mother of their five children), was a Princess of Belgium. He was profoundly influenced by the harrowing experience of the war, and as both heir to the throne and Grand Duke he was committed to the European cause, convinced that a union of nations was the only way of ensuring lasting peace on the old continent. He received the Charlemagne Prize in 1986 on behalf of the people of Luxembourg.

Mastering the art of small states diplomacy, the Luxembourg sovereign was particularly known for his non-conventional diplomacy, rooted in enduring values that transcended geographical and political borders, as reflected in his support for the Scout and Olympic movements. He was an avid sports fan, joining the International Olympic Committee in 1946 and becoming an honorary member in 1998. As Honorary President of the Luxembourg Olympic and Sports Committee, he was also patron of many of the country’s sports federations.

When he abdicated on 7 October 2000 in favour of his eldest son, Hereditary Grand Duke Henri, Grand Duke Jean entrusted the new sovereign with a country that was open to the world, prosperous and stable, leaving a legacy of quiet, modest dedication to the nation and service to others – much like his ancestor John of Bohemia, whose motto was “Ich dien” (I serve).

© Photographic collections of the Maison grand-ducale de Luxembourg