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

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On 28 August 1960, a speech by Ludwig Erhard, to a rally of Upper Silesians inspired the headline in The Times: ‘Bismarckian frontiers seen as Bonn’s aim - Professor Erhard’s advice to the Poles’.157 Worse, at the same rally, the CDU member of the Bundestag, Hermann Ehren, who was also deputy leader of the Upper Silesian Landsmannschaft, denounced East Germany’s leaders as traitors, for ceding Silesia to the Poles, and called on all Germans to ‘fight for freedom’. The British embassy at Bonn noted that such language ‘will of course provide yet more ammunition for Soviet bloc attacks on German revanchism’.158

Notwithstanding his own reservations about West German foreign policy, Macmillan posed as West Germany’s champion at the United Nations. Macmillan’s speech of 29 September (and that of the foreign secretary, the earl of Home, to the house of lords on 11 November) both made several favourable references to West Germany’s foreign policy in an effort to re-build relations between London and Bonn.159 Gomułka had denounced West Germany at the United Nations on 4 September. He accused it of ‘reaching out [its] revisionist paw for Silesia ... more and more significantly that the West German Government has raised the revanchist policy to the ranks of official state policy.’160 Macmillan, in Gromyko’s words, ‘started using particularly strong language against the Soviet Union and her friends’161. He stated: ‘There has been a great deal of communist denunciation ... of the Federal Republic of Germany ... I am amazed at how reactionary and backward-looking much of the communist argument is. Both the Polish and the Czech representative talks of revanche which they alleged was reviving in west Germany. I am bound to say that their own speeches were not flowing over with the spirit of reconciliation.’162

The British ambassador at Moscow, Sir Evelyn Schuckburgh, noted that Macmillan, the only Western leader to speak up for West Germany, had pleased Adenauer but offended the Czechs and the Poles.163 Following the speech, the Poles delivered a second aide-mémoire. On 30 September 1960, the Polish ambassador, Dr. Edward Rodzinski, told the lord privy seal, Edward Heath, of Poland’s disquiet at West Germany’s official support for the revisionist groups and NATO’s support for West Germany, as Adenauer, Erhard and Lübke must speak at ‘revanchist’ meetings with NATO’s agreement.164 How, he asked, did the British square such behaviour with their wish for détente? Although Heath rejected the charges, the northern department noted that they provided ‘a fair opportunity for us to prod the Germans’ to ‘think about the difficulties which their present Eastern policy (or perhaps rather, their means of expressing it) causes us and their other Allies.’165

The East Europeans now coordinated their pressure on the British and, on 8 October 1960, the deputy prime minister of Czechoslovakia, Rudolf Barak, criticised Macmillan for having ‘played a lamentable role’ in having ‘whitewashed the West German militarists’. He asked Macmillan three questions. First, was the Munich agreement still valid as Adenauer implied? Second, did Britain recognise Czechoslovakia’s frontiers even if Adenauer did not? Third, did Britain recognize the Oder-Neisse frontier even if Adenauer did not?166 These claims about Adenauer were only partly accurate. Adenauer did not regard the Munich agreement as still valid, but refused to concede that it had been invalid from the beginning. Second, he did not claim that the Sudetenland (part of Germany only between 1938 and 1945) should ‘return’ to Germany but regarded the boundaries of Germany as ‘provisional’ pending a definitive peace. He claimed that Germany’s legitimate boundaries were those in being on 31 December 1937, and he refused to recognise the Beneš decrees167 that led to the expulsion of over 3,000,000 Sudeten Germans after the Second World War. But, third, it was true that Adenauer’s government did not recognise the de facto frontiers of central and eastern Europe. All the British embassy at Prague could do was to hint to the Czechoslovaks that Britain, too, was none too keen on the rhetoric of Recht auf Heimat.168

The ambassador at Prague, Cecil Parrott, complained that ‘so long as Dr. Adenauer continues to associate himself with the expellee demands and we not disassociate ourselves from these views, our position will continue to be regarded with suspicion.169 Britain’s embarrassment was heightened by the fact that Eden, when foreign secretary, had publicly abrogated the Munich agreement as long ago as August 1942.170 Parrott privately told the Labour member of parliament, James Callaghan, that Barak’s comments were attributable to Macmillan’s failure to condemn the expellee groups in West Germany: he had gone ‘out of his way to praise Dr. Adenauer’s administration.’171 But Parrott took too little account of West Germany’s importance as an ally and influence with the Eisenhower administration.


The Adenauer government’s hard line depended on the support of the United States, especially the secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, whose death on 24 May 1959 Adenauer mourned deeply.172 The British recognised that the key to prevailing upon West Germany to modify its frontier policy lay in Washington. One foreign office memorandum, dated April 1960 advised Lloyd: ‘With a little courage Dr. Adenauer could without damage to his electoral prospects afford to ignore the politically active “Association of Expellees”. But it might nevertheless require all the resources of American diplomacy to persuade him to do this’.173 Macmillan, who preferred not to offend the West Germans, whose co-operation was indispensable following the reversal of British policy on European integration, expected the United States to restrain them. He told Home on the 15: ‘The Americans must get accustomed to being unpopular. We got accustomed to it when we were strong.’th The British should take a back seat as long as the United States seemed likely to support détente.

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