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



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In October 1961, the Soviet foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko told Khrushchev and Gomułka that Herter’s successor, Dean Rusk, Home, and Macmillan had recently adopted a conciliatory tone in conversations with him. He reported: ‘We concluded that they were trying to achieve an understanding on the question of Germany and West Berlin. ... Regarding Germany’s borders: Rusk declared with Kennedy’s approval that the government of the USA is prepared to recognize the borders of Germany de facto and de jure (the border on the Oder-Neisse).’194 Home did tell Gromyko that the West recognized East Germany’s de facto legitimacy, and would never change frontiers by force, but when Gromyko asked for de jure recognition, Home replied that the Soviets should not try to squeeze the Western allies out of Berlin.195 As the extent of the Soviets’ demands ruled out an agreement, Britain focused on its own, more limited, method of alleviating tension.

After West Germany’s firm stance on the Oder-Neisse line was re-stated in the Bundestag by Dr. Karl Carstens (a CDU deputy and permanent representative of Federal minister of foreign affairs) on 29 November 1961, the head of the western department of the foreign office, Edward Tomkins, commented that it was unreasonable to expect anything else: the fact that West Germany had renounced the forcible revision of frontiers was proof that it was not ‘demanding’ changes to the status quo.196 Clutton added that as Poland was uninterested in British recognition of the Oder-Neisse line and preferred Britain to urge West Germany to modify its stance,197 the foreign office should try to persuade West Germany to recognise the line as part of an agreement with the Soviet Union about Berlin and the whole of Germany.198 Instead, Britain made an offer to Poland.

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At this juncture, in February 1962, General Władysław Anders, Poland’s president-in-exile in London, wrote to Macmillan and Kennedy stating that so long as the Oder-Neisse line remained a subject for negotiation, there was no hope of the reunification of Germany or of Poland’s deviation from Soviet security policy. All Poles, regardless of their political affiliation, insisted on the Oder-Neisse line. Anders claimed that the non-recognition of it

… tend[ed] to encourage a revival of the ambitious “Ost-Politik” engendered by Bismarck and faithfully executed by Hitler … such a revival is as yet only advocated by...[the] refugees... Formal recognition... would strengthen the more sober outlook prevailing among the West German population and incline the Government to endorse a situation impossible of change unless by force... [The Polish case] is based on realities, although its moral grounds might appear even more convincing. Its settlement would remove one of the most bitter issues between the two principal nations of Central Europe and render possible a détente.199

Anders’s colleague, Count Stefan Zamoyski, had already told de Zuleta that no Polish government, whatever its political hue, would accept the revision of the Oder-Neisse line.200 This was certainly true. Polish prime minister, Jozef Cyrankiewicz, told G.D. Southam, the Canadian ambassador to Warsaw, on 10 March 1962 that ‘It is obvious that without the recognition of our frontier on the Odra and Nysa any diplomatic relations with the German Federal Republic are impossible.’201 The statement made nonsense of West Germany’s claim that an all-German government could come to an agreement with a ‘free’ Poland. Nevertheless, neither the United States nor Britain committed itself when answering Anders’s letter.202 The British government, despite its sympathy for the Poles was opposed to official recognition of the Oder-Neisse line for fear of the Germans’ reaction. It pointed to the change in attitude among Germans:

This development, though gradual, is encouraging. In default of a final peace settlement, a natural trend of this kind, on which we are sure we can rely without enforced pressure from outside, will best serve to give the lie to Soviet propaganda about West German revanchist tendencies. It will also do more than any extraneous act of ours to strengthen the hand of the Federal Government in the cause of peace.203

According to Home’s private secretary, J. Oliver Wright, although Home agreed with Anders, the state of the negotiations about Berlin prevented him from doing what Anders, and the government in Warsaw, asked.204 Nevertheless, Wright’s draft of a reply to Anders would have caused consternation in Bonn. It stated that the British government ‘regrets that so long after the war this question still remains unsettled. [Furthermore] we recognise as a matter of fact that over the past decade and a half the areas in question have become thoroughly settled under Polish administration… [and] we do not look upon this issue as a possible subject of barter: we are not so unrealistic as to suppose that it could be so treated.’

Wright suggested that the reply should not be put in writing, or the communist government in Warsaw would, when learning of what the British had promised, would be completely incensed at having been excluded from such vital deliberations on the frontiers of Poland in favour of the government-in-exile. Thus, rather than be seen to privilege the status of one of the claimants to be the legitimate voice of the Polish people, it was proposed that the foreign office should communicate a verbal message to Anders and the Polish government simultaneously.205 Consequently, in April 1962, Clutton assured Poland’s deputy foreign minister, Jozef Winiewicz, that ‘In any negotiations that we might have on the subject of Germany or Berlin he could be quite certain that Her Majesty’s Government did not regard Poland’s Western frontier as a subject of barter.’ When a ‘delighted’ Winiewicz replied that Poland would now try to persuade Adenauer to follow suit, Clutton warned him to take care lest the extremist fringe in the eastern territories should increase their support.206 A similar statement was made to the Polish government-in-exile.

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