The Red Vole was an infamous school newspaper that caused indignation among the conservative population of the early 70s – to the point that its student editors were put on trial in one of the most outrageous lawsuits of modern Luxembourgish history.

A commonly known fact about Luxembourg is that strikes are incredibly rare. Some politicians claim this is due to Luxembourg's culture of social dialogue, while others may point to the generally more reserved and distant culture in the Grand Duchy.

But in the early 1970s, thousands of people took to the streets to voice their discontent. Vicious newspaper articles were published and there were calls to boycott bookshops and for the state to step in.

All of this because of a trial. A trial against the student editors of what is undoubtedly Luxembourg's most infamous school newspaper ever published.

I. 'Stupid and impertinent, nasty and mean'

First, let's address the name: D'Ro'd Wullmaus. A rout Wullmaus is the Luxembourgish name for a bank vole. However, rout also means "red," so literally translated it means "red vole" – basically, it's a play on words in Luxembourgish, with red obviously being a nod to the paper's communist stance. For the sake of clarity, we will from now on refer to the newspaper as the 'Red Vole'.

The Red Vole was a school newspaper edited and published between 1 February 1970 and 1973 by the Clan des jeunes ("Youth Clan"), a staunchly leftist student association from the Lycée de garçons in Esch-sur-Alzette.

It was mainly sold outside of schools and its articles regularly questioned authority, particularly that of the church and teachers.

To give you some idea of the newspaper's general tone, one of the sections was called Drecksschleider, domm a frech, dreckeg a gemeng ("The filth thrower: stupid and impertinent, nasty and mean") and was all about ridiculing teachers.

Another section called Neues aus Kolmarshausen ("The latest from Colmarburg" - "Duckburg" is called Entenhausen in German), featured parody versions of the Grand Duke and the Grand Duchess as Donald and Daisy Duck.

While the Red Vole quickly made a name for itself as a publication that did not hesitate to mock anyone who dared to think they wield any sort of power, it was issue number five that would have unimaginable consequences.

II. The clergy v. a bunch of teenagers

The fifth issue of the Red Vole covered, among other things, the very classy topic of masturbation. It included a caricature showing a couple "going at it" under the sheets while an old man with a long beard and a triangle above his head observed the scene with a lot of interest – the title of the caricature was Gott ist im heiligen Bund der Ehe der Dritte ("In the sacred covenant of marriage, God is the third party").

Just a stupid sketch published by teenagers? Maybe today, but at the time, this caused significant outrage among conservatives and particularly the clergy, which still had considerable social influence in the 70s.

Two of the Red Vole's editors, Jean Heisbourg and Al Goergen, were sued for, in the words of the newspaper Luxemburger Land, "a considerable series of indecency offences, as well as the continued denigration of the Catholic religion," with the author adding "[the Red Vole] is also alleged to have committed indecency by glorifying (...) masturbation."

In fact, the trial was divided into two proceedings. In the second case, the responsible editors and a third student were accused of attacking the "personal honour" of a religion teacher and "denigrating him as a public official." The Red Vole had ridiculed the teacher for allegedly claiming in class that "masturbation deprives the growing body of 'important nutrients'."

This trial, which was announced for 6 and 7 May 1971, coincided with the expulsion of four Schülerfront ("student front") activists from the Lycée Classique de Diekirch by the headmaster Ben Molitor on 19 April.

This led to strikes at several secondary school across the country. Hundreds of students staged a protest in Diekirch and the Athénée's students' assembly organised a solidarity strike. Strike committees were formed at the LGL, the LIFL, and the LGE secondary schools.

A strike in Esch-sur-Alzette managed to gather between 1,500-1,600 students, while a national demonstration in Luxembourg City even reached the mark of 2,500 protesting students.

In the end, the students' strike did not achieve any of its goals. The four expelled students were not rehabilitated, and three teachers from the Diekirch secondary school, who had shown solidarity with the strikers, were forcibly moved to another building.

Heisbourg and Goergen were sentenced to a one-month suspended prison term plus a fine of 7,000 francs. Bizarrely, Robert Medernach was fined 7,000 francs for selling the Red Vole at the LGL – even though he was just one of forty sellers. All three defendants were also ordered to cover various costs caused by the trial, amounting to 4,885 francs, and to pay 5,000 francs to the religion teacher for "moral damages." Finally, the court ordered the confiscation of all seized copies of issues number 5 and 9 of the Red Vole.

III. Reactions and aftermath

The reactions in the press to the Red Vole trial and the related student strikes were at times quite vicious and very revealing of the culture at the time.

In the Luxemburger Wort, Abbé Heiderscheid compared what he called "the Marxists of all shades" with "Hitler, whom nobody in Europe and America wanted to take seriously either." As a reminder, this is a story about a silly caricature published by students in a school newspaper.

But if you can believe, the Wort was not even the most radical in its commentary. The Journal published an article by Jos Anen called An den Galgen mit uns! ("To the gallows with us!"). In it, Anen defends Headmaster Ben Molitor's decision, arguing that "it takes a great deal of moral courage to take such a step, since one knew in advance that the red mob would pounce on it like swine on the feed trough." Anen thinks the youth needs to be "called to order" and asks: "Is it not ridiculous that a professor is being hauled before a judge because he slapped a lout? And that the latter then turns up with a certificate stating that he has suffered a slight concussion? Don't make me laugh. Where there is no brain, there can be no concussion."

In its issue of 23 April 1971, the Lëtzebuerger Land acknowledges the disproportionate response to what was by all means an entirely trivial issue. The newspaper points out that the investigation lasted a full nine months and included interrogations of students and professors as well as house searches. The Land also mentions a "confidential" investigation during which the police is alleged to have approached colleagues of teachers suspected of having ties to the Communist Students' league, asking them to comment on their colleagues' political views. The author of the Land article quite rightly raises the question: "Isn't this called spying?"

Meanwhile, at school level, the headmaster of the Lycée de garçons ordered his teaching staff to boycott bookshops that sold his own school's newspaper.

The Red Vole did benefit from the trial in terms of popularity and its circulation increased to several thousand. The newspaper's editors claimed that it even reached 7,000 to 8,000 people at some point. Over time, the articles became less provocative and funny and became more focused on ideology and policies, which led to a sharp drop in circulation before it was eventually discontinued in 1973.

The story of the Red Vole is interesting because it turns the stereotype about a calm and collected Luxembourg on its head. It shows us a time in history when the Grand Duchy was still very conservative and very Catholic – and did not hesitate to enforce this culture if it believed it was threatened.