R. Gerald Hughes Unfinished Business from Potsdam: Britain, West Germany, and the Oder-Neisse Line, 1945-1962



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In 19 October 1960, the embassy at Warsaw reported that Clutton’s US counterpart, Jacob Beam, had revealed to them a secret exchange between Dulles’s successor as secretary of state, Christian Herter, and Gomułka. Herter, apparently, had stated that the United States was uninterested in the fate of the Oder-Neisse territories that the Potsdam agreement had left Poland to administer.174 John F. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate for president, told the Polish American Congress in Chicago on 1 October 1960 that Poland’s fear of Germany had to be removed. The impression of a shift in US attitudes was strengthened when Kennedy’s Republican opponent, Richard M. Nixon, told a Polish-American audience on 17 October 1960 that ‘all Poles in Poland as well as abroad are united in their determination to defend the new western frontier.'175 The northern department therefore suggested that Heath should echo Herter in a meeting with Rodzsinki,176 while taking care not to risk a rupture with West Germany: ‘Our present position gains us nothing on the positive side from the Germans. They take it for granted. But if on the other hand we were to change our position significantly before the Germans have come, of their own volition, publicly to accept the inevitability of the existing Oder-Neisse line, we should lose a great deal vis-à-vis the Germans.’177

Schuckburgh suggested that Britain should wait until an improvement in West Germany’s relations with Poland led to the ‘final acceptance of the present frontiers’. But, Poland would be unlikely to accept the notion that Britain’s position would remain static pending developments in Bonn. Although French President Charles de Gaulle had stated on 25 March 1959 that a re-unified Germany must accept the Oder-Neisse line, Schuckburgh cautioned that Adenauer was far less likely to be so tolerant of any similar statement by the British.178 De Gaulle’s support for West Germany over Berlin had been staunch and Adenauer had thus accepted de Gaulle’s personal assurance that he supported the idea of a peace conference to decide the fate of the Oder-Neisse line.179

In any case, Macmillan was increasingly focused on the British application for EEC membership. The prime minister told Home in April 1962 that this issue ‘dominates everything for the next few months … On that the fortunes and probably the life of the Government depend. It would perhaps be pompous to say that the fortunes of the country are at stake too, but many of us feel this to be the case.’180 To this end, in May, Macmillan asked the John F. Kennedy administration to explain to Adenauer that he had not proposed any concessions to the Soviets.181

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Critics of the Eisenhower administration’s conservative foreign policy had hailed Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961 as a new dawn for US diplomacy, to the consternation of the conservative Adenauer government which had won a resounding victory in the general election in 1957 on the slogan ‘No experiments!’182 Kennedy’s previous interest in Eastern Europe had led West Germany to perceive him as pro-Polish and anti-German: the West German ambassador at Washington, Dr. Wilhelm Grewe, later testified to the fear that Kennedy, in search of détente, would compromise on the Oder-Neisse line.183 US willingness to use the line as a bargaining chip was nothing new. Byrnes had told Molotov at Potsdam that the United States would accept the Soviet definition of the provisional western frontier of Poland in return for Soviet acceptance of the US reparations plan.184

In February 1961, Kennedy approved a planning paper that called for ‘alternative approaches’ including the linking of access to Berlin to the future of the Oder-Neisse line. A paper written by George C. McGhee, later US ambassador at Bonn, criticised the outmoded ‘Maginot line complex’ in Western policy. He argued for the recognition of Germany’s present frontiers to create the ‘possibility of a future settlement.’185 When this approach was endorsed at a National Security Council meeting on 19 July 1961, it both removed Adenauer’s veto and echoed Britain’s preference for ‘the stabilisation of Germany’s Eastern frontier and the Oder/Neiße line’ and the abandonment of reunification as an objective.186 In July 1961, Home, though he later denied it, proposed the de facto recognition of both East Germany and the Oder-Neisse line in exchange for Soviet recognition of the Western presence in Berlin including rights of access, on the assumption that a settlement was feasible without surrendering ‘any really crucial position.’187 The government was under pressure from the Labour Party, bitter critics of Adenauer’s eastern policy, who threatened to embarrass it by forcing it to associate itself publicly with his intransigence at a time when, in West Germany, the SPD was becoming reconciled to recognition of the Oder-Neisse line.188

The British government, opposition, and foreign office viewed the construction of the Berlin wall in August 1961 as necessary shock treatment. On 18 August J.C.C. Bennett (first secretary in the Bonn embassy) noted that: ‘The Germans are at long last waking up to realities … They begin to ask themselves “has Adenauer’s policy on the German question been so clever after all?”’189 Once the wall set aside of the question of German reunification, common ground could be found with the Soviets on issues such as the Oder-Neisse line.190 Macmillan told Kennedy on 9 November: ‘I feel [the West Germans] ought to be prepared to accept … the Oder-Neisse Line, which is [now] generally [accepted]’.191 As the cabinet expected the Soviets to link recognition of East Germany, the Oder-Neisse line, the political relationship between West Berlin and West Germany, and nuclear weapons for West Germany, Home hoped that the West Germans would both agree to contacts with East Germany and take part in discussions about the Oder-Neisse line: they would accept the need for some form of recognition of Germany’s de facto boundaries.192 At Bermuda in December, Home told Kennedy that the West might have to make four concessions: de facto recognition of East Germany, recognition of the Oder-Neisse line, concessions on Western occupation rights in Berlin, and cutting some links between West Berlin and West Germany.193 For Home, such concessions were deemed rather minor in that they either accepted the situation on the ground or the abandoned unrealistic positions. For the British, this seemed an equitable price to pay for an acceptance of Western rights in Berlin and the opportunity to move forward toward a more general settlement of East –West differences.

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