RTL Today contributor Thomas Tutton continues his series on politics in the Grand Duchy with a look at the life of Emmanuel Servais, Luxembourg’s fifth prime minister and a giant of the 19th century political scene.

The 19th century was a dangerously unstable time for Luxembourg, which was initially ruled by the French, then created a Grand Duchy in 1815, suffered partition after the Belgian Revolution and even experienced a revolution of sorts in 1848 and a coup d’état in 1856.

To cap things off, during the Luxembourg Crisis of 1867, France and Prussia almost went to war over control of the Grand Duchy, resulting in the Second Treaty of London which guaranteed the territory’s independence and neutrality.

By 1868, therefore, Luxembourg was in desperate need of some stability. Emmanuel Servais would be the man to provide it.

The young Servais

Lambert Joseph Emmanuel Servais was born in French-occupied Mersch in 1811. He excelled as a student at the Athénee of Luxembourg, finishing top of his class for his last two years.

Growing up in a Grand Duchy now dominated by the Kingdom of the Netherlands, his focus turned northwards, and he set off to study law in Ghent in 1829.

His studies were heavily disrupted by the outbreak of the Belgian Revolution in 1830, forcing him to move to Paris for a couple of years, but he returned to Belgium to complete his doctorate in Liège in 1833.

Servais quickly grew to support the Belgian cause, and his attachment to the country was reinforced when he was called to the bar in Arlon in 1833, where he would remain until 1839.

Law was not his only interest, however. In 1836 he co-founded the ‘Echo du Luxembourg’, a journal based out of Arlon which opposed any proposed partition of the Grand Duchy.

Unfortunately for him, his campaign to keep Luxembourg whole was not successful, and with Arlon now in a different country to his homeland, he made the decision to return to the truncated Grand Duchy in 1840.

He was quickly admitted to the bar in Luxembourg, and his life further settled down with his marriage to Justine Boch in 1841, the same year that his political career began to take off.

Political career

Recognising his talents despite his previous pro-Belgian views, the Dutch King William II appointed Servais to the traditional Assembly of Estates in 1841, where he represented Mersch.

Over his seven years in the Assembly of Estates, he gained popularity for his liberal views and willingness to challenge the government.

Nonetheless, like many contemporary European liberals, he was not a fervent supporter of the revolutions of 1848; Servais’ house in Mersch was even defaced by protesters at the height of the upheaval in Luxembourg in March of that year.

Despite this personal attack, Servais was impressed by many of the promised reforms, such as the abolition of censorship, the protection of judges from arbitrary removal and the proposals for a new Constituent Assembly.

Indeed, Servais was immediately elected to that body and played an integral role in the decision to base Luxembourg’s new constitution on Belgium’s.


The Frankfurt Parliament, set up in 1848 to discuss the issue of German unification. Emmanuel Servais was in attendance. / © Public domain

His importance was further illustrated by his nomination to serve in the new Frankfurt Parliament, set up in 1848 to discuss the issue of German unification. Servais and his colleagues were determined to maintain Luxembourg’s sovereignty within any future German state, making them unpopular with some of the more progressive liberals.

In fact, by the 1850s, Servais had become known as a somewhat of a reactionary, finding the Constitution of 1848 too liberal for his taste.

He became Director-General of Finances under Luxembourg’s third Prime Minister, Charles-Mathias Simons, in 1853, and remained in his post during the so-called coup d’état of 1856, signalling his tacit support for the move.

After his resignation in 1857, he spent a decade in an advisory role as part of the new Council of State, and his continued prominence in Luxembourgish politics was once again demonstrated when he was appointed as plenipotentiary to the negotiations that resulted in the Second Treaty of London in 1867.

With the fall of the Baron de Tornaco’s government in late 1867, Servais would finally rise to the top of Luxembourg’s political scene.

Fifth Prime Minister of Luxembourg

Taking power in December 1867, Emmanuel Servais was charged with implementing the provisions of the Treaty of London.

First among them was the dismantling of the fortress of Luxembourg, an enormous project that would cost almost two million francs and last until 1883.


An 1870 painting of Luxembourg, with labourers shown dismantling parts of the old fortress in the foreground. / © Public domain

Servais also oversaw the introduction of the new Constitution of 1868, which re-established the principle of ministerial responsibility, guaranteed fundamental freedoms of the press and of association, and once again granted the reconstituted Chamber of Deputies the power to vote on the yearly budget.

The late 1860s and early 1870s marked the beginning of Luxembourg’s industrialisation, and Servais played an important role in encouraging the construction of railways in the Grand Duchy. He also oversaw the rapid development of Luxembourg’s iron and steel industries, while an 1873 law allowed for the creation of Luxembourg’s national bank.

In the religious sphere, Servais was in power during tense negotiations over the creation of a diocese in the country, with Nicolas Adames named the first bishop of Luxembourg.

Most importantly, during the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, Servais managed to keep Luxembourg independent despite significant pressure from Bismarck by calling on the signatories of the 1867 Treaty to respect the agreement.

Exhausted by his labours, Servais resigned in late 1874 after seven years in power, but this was not the end of his political career; he remained in the State Council until 1887 and acted as Mayor of Luxembourg from 1875 until his death in 1890.

Emmanuel Servais in many ways oversaw the beginning of Luxembourg’s transformation into the country it remains today. As such, he deserves to be remembered as a true giant of Luxembourg’s history.