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



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The expulsion of millions of people and the annexation of territory historically belonging to another country cannot be the basis for a permanent settlement since they violate all the tenets of natural, human and divine law. However, a just solution ... can be agreed only between free peoples. Today the Polish people are not free. A totalitarian Government, illegitimate at home and dependent abroad ... will never be in a position even to strive for a just solution.89

The British were not taken in by manner in which the West German government linked the fate of the Oder-Neisse line with the struggle against Communism. In 1953 the high commission in Germany reported that Adenauer’s government was trying to ‘wrap this [its revisionism] up in verbiage about international co-operation and the rights of the individual as applied to minorities.’90

Elizabeth Wiskemann commented in 1956 that ‘it is difficult for Germany’s neighbours not to smile sourly over this post-1945 legalism’.91 From the Poles’ perspective, the expulsion of the Germans had been necessary to forestall a German ‘fifth column’, a claim the Allies had accepted at Potsdam. The moment Cold War rivals occupied the Oder-Neisse territories, West Germany could disguise its intransigence as the struggle of freedom against Communism. Von Brentano was nearer the mark when he stated in the Bundestag in 1957 that Germany ‘cannot accept the Oder-Neisse line as the present or future German frontier.’92

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West Germany exploited the rivalry between the Soviet bloc and the West to gain support for the claim that, pending a final peace treaty, Germany’s frontiers remained where they had been on 31 December 1937. Adenauer understood that the outbreak of the Korean War in July 1950 strengthened his hand by undermining the West Germans’ confidence in the Western allies to defend them against Communism.93 He warned the Western high commissioners on 15 November 1951 that if their governments failed to support the reunification of Germany, Germans would repudiate the policy of integration with the West. The French high commissioner, Andre François-Poncet, replied that Adenauer was expected to help to defend Western Europe against the Soviet Union, not prepare for Germany’s expansion eastwards.94

Churchill, who had opposed the Oder-Neisse line, understood that, once drawn, it should not be allowed to cause tension. He told the house of commons on 11 May 1953 that he proposed to work for a summit conference ‘not … overhung by a ponderous or rigid agenda’.95 He added that he did not ‘believe the immense problem of reconciling the security of Russia with the freedom and safety of Western Europe is insoluble,’ and he invoked the memory of the treaty of Locarno, which had guaranteed the western frontiers of the Weimar Republic. ‘The Locarno Treaty of 1925 has been in my mind … It was based upon the simple provision that if Germany attacked France we should stand with the French [and vice-versa] … Russia has a right to feel assured that...the terrible events of the Hitler invasion will never be repeated, and that Poland will remain a friendly power and a buffer, though not, I trust, a puppet State.’96

Adenauer, who objected to any treaty that would set in stone Germany’s eastern frontiers, dismissed the reference to Locarno, with its implication that West Germany might attack the Soviet bloc, as absurd. An all-German government and a ‘free’ Poland would settle the question of Germany’s eastern frontier between them.97 President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who wished to roll back the Soviet bloc, had already drafted a statement ‘reject[ing] any interpretations or applications of any international agreements or understandings, made during the course of World War II, which have been perverted to bring about the subjugation of free peoples’.98 Rhetoric stressing the promotion of post-war anti-Communism and rejecting agreements made in wartime encouraged West Germany to seek US backing for its stance on the eastern territories. Adenauer wrote to Eisenhower on 29 May 1953 asking for a promise that the West would not recognise the Oder-Neisse line in any new treaty,99 which should recognize ‘the right of all people to their homeland’. He added: ‘No German government will ever be able to recognize the Oder-Neisse Line.’100

The foreign office, fearing estrangement from both West Germany and the United States, warned Churchill the neutralisation of Germany would undercut NATO’s strategy of defending the Inner German frontier. This consensus between the Eisenhower administration, the Federal Republic and the British foreign office managed to persuade the prime minister of the unrealistic nature of his plans.101 In any case, as Churchill subsequently made clear in private, the prime minister wished to avoid undermining the West German chancellor and risk losing one of communism’s staunchest opponents in Europe.102 On 3 October 1954, Britain, France, and the United States stated in the final act of the London ‘Nine-Power’ conference of western foreign ministers that Germany’s frontiers remained provisional pending a definitive peace with a future all-German government.103

Britain acquiesced in the decision lest the 'strong desire of the German people to move towards the reunification of Germany' should lead West Germans to question their alignment with the West.104 Eden warned the cabinet on the 25 March 1955 that unless the West promoted the reunification of Germany, West Germany might turn to the Soviet Union for support.105 The admission gave the West German government great leverage. Eden’s successor as prime minister, Macmillan, told Selwyn Lloyd (foreign secretary from 1955 to 1960), that without a commitment to German reunification, and the re-examination of the Oder-Neisse line, he foresaw 'obvious and immediate' dangers.106 Adenauer wrote in 1956 that ‘In treaties on Germany the three Western powers renounced the Potsdam Agreement and, moreover, pledged themselves to join with us in seeking to reunite Germany in peace and freedom.’107 The West Germans’ success was theoretical rather than substantive. Brentano understood the Soviets’ victory at Potsdam: ‘One of the main planks in Stalin’s foreign policy was to chain Poland to Russia by offering her a quarter of Germany’s territory.’108

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