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



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The pressure for détente increased after West Germany joined NATO in May 1955.109 So did Anglo-German tension, because the Germans suspected that the British were willing to recognize as permanent the transfer of former German territory to Poland and the Soviet Union.110 In pursuit of détente, the British often countenanced measures that the Adenauer government would not have approved.111

After 1955, the British had three objectives in Eastern Europe. First, to deprive the Soviet Union of the propaganda value of West German revisionism and thus, second, to promote reconciliation between Germany and the East European states. Unless West Germany recognised the Oder-Neisse line, its increasing military strength would heighten the tension between East and West. Third, to reveal the Soviets’ claim to be the champion of the Slavs to be a disguise for imperialism.112

The British understood how easily legalism could be portrayed as intransigence or revanchism with dire political consequences. On 10 September 1957, the President of Yugoslavia, Josip Tito, told the premier of Poland, Władysław Gomułka, that he regarded Poland’s western frontier as permanent and West Germany’s claims as endangering the peace of Europe.113 The Economist commented ‘that a western guarantee of the Oder-Neisse frontier, would remove one important obstacle on the Polish road to a limited independence from Moscow’. Further, the ‘problem may become acute when a German government becomes seriously interested in Germany’s relations with Eastern Europe.’114 Not that the British expected such a development. In January 1958 the foreign office noted: ‘changes in German Eastern policy are … only likely to develop very slowly.’115

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Lloyd once remarked that ‘Summiting is an occupational weakness of any incumbent of No. 10’.116 This was certainly true of Macmillan, who saw the role of peacemaker as the best way for Britain to remain a global power and to assure his own fame and its popularity with the British electorate only encouraged Macmillan in the pursuit of détente.117 Macmillan believed that a summit conference would lead to a breakthrough in the impasse in East-West relations generally and, from November 1958, over Berlin in particular. Macmillan, however, cautioned against the belief that such summits could achieve instant results. In May 1955 he wrote that: ‘I [do] not believe that a meeting of heads of government shd (sic) be regarded as the end of negotiation, but as the beginning.’118 Many senior West German policy makers thought the opposite. The president, Theodor Heuss objected to ‘flashy’ conferences that turned diplomacy into propaganda, and the minister of defence, Joseph Strauß, described them as ‘Hocus Pocus’.119

British officials were in two minds about the reunification of Germany. The extent to which Western policy was subject to a West German veto was seen as an impediment to ‘pragmatic’ diplomacy. On 12 January 1959, Macmillan’s private secretary, Philip de Zuleta, remarked:

The arguments against reuniting Germany, even in alliance with the West are deeply felt but less often expressed. In the first place, there is the distrust which all-Germany’s neighbours continue to feel for any German Reich; will 80 million Germans be any better members of the Western Alliance in the 1960s than they were in the 1930s? And will a reunited Germany rest content till it has secured a revision of the Oder/Neisse line? … [Therefore] it should be our aim [to perpetuate] something like the present situation in Germany in which West Germany is allied to NATO and there is no reunification. This will only be a practical policy if it can be combined with a public policy favouring reunification and some measures to prevent the West Germans from over-turning the system either by force or by political negotiation with the Russians.120

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On 10 November 1958 Khrushchev, increasingly frustrated at the continued Western presence in West Berlin, issued an ultimatum over Berlin. Moscow, he stated, would cancel the four power agreement and cede the Soviet rights in Berlin to the GDR. The secretary general of NATO, Paul-Henri Spaak, recalled a situation ‘full of danger’ as the West might be forced to deal the GDR - a state that, at West German insistence, they had agreed not to recognise.121 For his part, Macmillan was convinced that a negotiated settlement would have to be found over Berlin and that - in any case - the West would eventually compromise if faced with the prospect of war over Berlin.122

Macmillan concluded that he had to visit Moscow to prevent a disaster and, hopefully, to achieve a general settlement of outstanding East-West issues (and of the issue of the status of Berlin and Germany in particular). In doing this, he would inevitably earn West German enmity because of his willingness to compromise on basic positions, such as the non-recognition of the GDR. It is against this background, that John Gearson has identified Macmillan’s visit to Moscow as heralding the 'start of an unchecked decline in Anglo-German relations'.123 Adenauer recorded in his memoirs that he suspected Macmillan of being more concerned with increasing his parliamentary majority than with the needs of West Germany.124 As part of the preparations for the trip, the British ambassador at Paris, Sir Gladwyn Jebb, wrote a paper on Germany in January 1959 in which he suggested making an offer to recognise the Oder-Neisse line. Lloyd called the paper a ‘first class job’,125 although Britain’s allies were less impressed. Macmillan, who told the West Germans that he had stood up for their interests whilst in Moscow, did not even his own cabinet that Selwyn Lloyd had told the Soviets in Kiev that the British would even recognise East Germany if that state respected western rights in Berlin. Macmillan claimed in private that the Berlin Crisis was ‘likely to compel the West to give increasing de facto recognition’ of East Germany.126 The British had seen the likelihood of war as a sufficient reason for talks; the subject matter was of secondary importance. West Germany saw the likelihood as an attempt to extract concessions. Brentano told Lloyd in March 1959 that West Germany would not make a declaration recognising the de facto existence of the Oder-Neisse line as it would look as if it had been made under Soviet duress.127 To the British, this argument was self-serving: to the West Germans, Macmillan had preferred dialogue with the Soviet Union to solidarity with West Germany.128 The British ambassador at Bonn, Sir Christopher Steel, reported on the 31st that the 'chancellor's suspicions of us are not only alive but more rampant than they have ever been'.129 A paper written by the foreign office research department suggested that Adenauer’s belief that Macmillan had arranged his visit to Moscow in secret was ‘perhaps the single most important contribution to German distrust’.130 At the end of 1959, Adenauer recalled, ‘[Macmillan] had absolutely no notion what a dangerous situation [West Germany was] in’.131
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