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

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R. Gerald Hughes

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

The German question lay at the heart of the Cold War in Europe:1 the Oder-Neisse line and the fate of Germany’s former territories to the east of it lay at the heart of the German question.2 Of post-war Europe’s disputed boundaries, the Oder-Neisse line was the most prominent and divisive; its uncertain status, in the words of Winston Churchill, speaking in the House of Commons in January 1948, a ‘complication and a dark cloud over the map of Europe’.3 As the British ambassador at Warsaw, Sir George Clutton, remarked in February 1962, ‘there can be no détente in Central Europe until there is some form of recognition of the ... Oder-Neisse line’.4

The historiography of Anglo-German relations since 1949 presents the fate of the Oder-Neisse line as an irritant symptomatic of issues such as Britain’s disinterest in the reunification of Germany and Germany’s dislike of Britain’s détente policy.5 This article sets the issue in the context of Britain’s stance towards the Continent during the Cold War demonstrating how unfinished business from the Second World War affected policy formulation towards friend and foe alike in a fundamental manner.

What attitude to take towards the Oder-Neisse line, and the expulsions of the Germans who lived to the east of it, was a question first asked at the Potsdam conference in July and August 1945.6 British officials soon found themselves trapped between their need to integrate West Germany economically and politically, which obliged them to humour German sensibilities, and their wish to lower the political tension throughout Europe by means of a durable detente with the Soviet bloc, which pointed to accommodation with Poland and the Soviet Union. Thus, in 1962, Britain secretly guaranteed the inviolability of Poland’s western frontier. Had the guarantee become public knowledge, it would have jeopardised Britain’s relations with West Germany. The history of the Oder-Neisse line illustrates not only Britain’s stance in the Cold War but also the limits to its power and influence in central Europe, where. Brokering frontiers had always been beyond its capabilities.


Even before Konrad Adenauer became the first chancellor of West Germany in September 1949, he publicly declared of the Oder-Neisse line: ‘This frontier we will never recognise!’7 He reiterated the statement in his first speech in office. The Adenauer government’s refusal to recognise the Oder-Neisse line was a central plank of its Politik der Stärke (‘Policy of Strength’). West Germany had little to gain from negotiations likely to lead to recognition and the postponement Germany’s reunification in the interest of better relations between East and West.

Adenauer's greatest fear was the implementation of the Potsdam agreement of 2 August 1945 as the basis for a Carthaginian peace against Germany. The Cold War, by dividing Germany, also saved it from the punitive peace foreshadowed by the Potsdam agreement, which implied that the Western allies and the Soviet Union agreed about Germany. The implementation of the terms of the Potsdam agreement would have meant the irrevocable loss of all German territories beyond the Oder-Neisse line and the very probable permanent division of Germany into two sovereign states as the Soviet Union would never allow a free and united Germany (even within truncated frontiers). The Soviet Union, the chief opponent of any revival of Germany, never hid the fact that it saw the Potsdam agreement as the basis for a final peace settlement with Germany. The Soviet Peace Note of 10 March 1952, which proposed a neutral reunified Germany, stated that ‘The territory of Germany is fixed by the borders which were specified by the resolutions of the Great powers at the Potsdam conference.’8 Adenauer well understood the danger of a revival of the Potsdam ‘consensus’ amongst the wartime allies. The chancellor believed that ‘every Soviet reference to [the Potsdam] agreement constitutes a Soviet invitation to the West to conclude such a bargain on our backs … Bismarck spoke about his nightmare of coalitions against Germany. I have my own nightmare: Its name is Potsdam.' Adenauer thus acknowledged that 'the foreign policy of the Federal Republic has always been geared to an escape from this danger zone. For Germany must not be lost between the grindstones. If it does it will be lost.9

Thus, when West Germany acceded to NATO in 1955, Adenauer could declare on 11 May that ‘We are now part of the strongest alliance in history. It will bring us unification.’10 Josef Joffe has noted that while the ‘grand settlement’ prevented any ‘autonomous’ West German policy towards the east, it also prevented the West from having a ‘free hand’ vis-à-vis Moscow and Eastern Europe. This was derived from the fact that the West had endorsed Bonn’s ambitious goals with regard to Germany’s boundaries, the GDR and the question of German unity. Thus, the problem of Germany would remain the decisive ‘barrier’ to better East-West relations and the Federal Republic was instrumental in ensuring that this remained the case.11 As Pyotr Abrasimov (Soviet ambassador to East Germany, 1962-1971), noted in his 1981 memoir, ‘The cold war planners in Bonn … had always vigorously opposed any negotiations between the Western Powers and the Soviet Union on a German peace settlement’.12

Membership of NATO did not remove the tension between Britain and Germany. After all, as The Times noted in an editorial, ‘it does not follow that Europe accepts and supports all-Germany’s claims for frontier revision.’13 Britain did not share West Germany’s wish to avoid negotiating with the Soviet bloc; it wished to negotiate from strength. The treasury noted in June 1955 that ‘a satisfactory détente leading to a general scaling down of armaments offers the best prospect of relief for the heavy burden of defence expenditures.’14 Without the acceptance of the Oder-Neisse line the chances of a détente with the Soviet Union seemed remote. In December 1958, the charismatic Labour Party maverick Aneurin Bevan expressed Britain’s dislike of the Politik der Stärk with typical bluntness: ‘what we are seeking is … to be strong enough to be peaceful. We are not seeking strength for its own sake.’15

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