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

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The British made the statements on the understanding that they would remain confidential. This was recognition of Britain’s limited influence and indicative of the desire to avoid giving offence to West Germany. Both the British and the Kennedy administration understood that the Poles were seeking US recognition of the Oder-Neisse line; the only effective lever on West Germany.207 Nonetheless the Poles tried to entice the British to go further. The foreign minister, Adam Rapacki, told the British in September 1965 that had the British made the statement public, it would have undermined ‘revanchist’ sentiment in West Germany, this was refuted by the Labour foreign secretary, Michael Stewart, who argued that belated public disclosure would harm Gerhard Schröder’s Ostpolitik.208

Successive British governments had no intention of upsetting the West Germans to please the Poles. Their secrecy compelled them to continue to fend off domestic critics who advocated open condemnation of West Germany, even after its Ostpolitik evolved under Schröder and Brandt into something more palatable. In 2 May 1966, for instance, the Labour member of parliament Edwin Brooks asked Harold Wilson’s government in the house of commons whether the time had not come to recognise the Oder-Neisse line. The minister of state at the foreign office, Walter Padley, simply stated that ‘the final determination of a frontier between Germany and Poland cannot be finalised until there is a peace treaty.’209

The statement made to Poland 1962 squared the circle of Britain’s stance on the Oder-Neisse line. The British accepted that West Germany alone could recognise the line; that Britain should not antagonise West Germany by publicly endorsing Poland’s western frontier. The danger from doing so, and from re-awakening West German fears of a deal being done over their heads, was illustrated in 1965 when the French, in an effort to improve relations with Poland, mentioned the line in the communiqué issued during Cyrankiewicz’s visit to Paris. Despite the outcry in the West German press, de Gaulle refused to delete the offending reference.210 Whereas his attempt to assert France’s independence by linking France with the Soviet bloc resembled Macmillan’s willingness to offend West Germany by his pursuit of détente, Britain treated Poland as a Soviet ally and West Germany as its own most important European ally. Although the British had no doubt that the Oder-Neisse line would have to be recognized, West Germany should decide when the time was right. In the meantime, Britain hoped that West Germany would support its application for membership of the EEC.


In 1907, Lord Curzon (British foreign secretary, 1919-1924) stated that

The most urgent work of Foreign Ministers and Ambassadors, the foundation or the outcome of every entente cordiale, is now the conclusion of Frontier Conventions in which so sources of discord are removed by the adjustment of rival interests or ambitions at points where the territorial borders adjoin. Frontiers are indeed the razor's edge on which hang suspended the modern issues of war or peace, of life or death to nations.211

Following this logic, Britain was bound to take an active role in the issue of the frontier between Germany and Poland. This imperative was underscored by the fact that Britain was a signatory of Potsdam and an occupying power in Germany. As early as 1945, British policy makers had identified the Oder-Neisse line as a new diplomatic ‘fault line’ in which the seeds of a new conflagration might well germinate. To use Lord Curzon’s metaphor, the Oder-Neisse line was at the ‘razor’s edge’ of post-war international politics. Henry Kissinger has written that, by the mid-1960s, British policy makers, for all the experience derived from Britain’s history as a great power, were increasingly reluctant to act as if their decisions mattered.212 Perhaps so, but the saga of the Oder-Neisse line demonstrated that achieving a settlement of frontier questions in Europe was beyond the capabilities of British power. This was nothing new. Even at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, at the zenith of British power, only co-operation with other states could yield any meaningful agreements in delineating European frontiers. After 1945, contemporaneous with the attempt to ‘find a role’ after Empire, British policy on the Oder-Neisse line tells us a great deal about how Cold War Europe looked from the perspective of London. Changes in emphasis, shifts and fluctuations in British policy on the line reflect the wider interests and policy imperatives as identified by successive governments.

British policy on the Oder-Neisse line between 1945 and 1962 can be identified as having passed through four discernible phases. The first phase saw the British reluctantly endorse the creation of the Oder-Neisse line, whilst stressing their own limited liability in its creation. Britain had hoped to continue its wartime co-operation with the USSR and displaying a willingness to accommodate Stalin on the matter of Polish frontiers seemed one way of doing this.

The second phase saw Britain adopt an ambiguous stance towards the line, stressing its ‘provisional’ nature. After 1949, this developed further and Britain became associated with a policy on the Oder-Neisse line that had a distinct tint of German nationalism about it. The fact that Poland had, by this stage, become a satellite of the USSR only encouraged the diminishing sympathy for Warsaw’s case in London. This phase culminated in an effective endorsement of Bonn’s stance on the Oder-Neisse line in the years immediately before the FRG achieved sovereignty in 1955.

The third phase, which in overlapping with the second phase demonstrated the ambiguity in British policy, saw increasing discomfort in London over the constraints placed on policy by its acquiescence to Bonn’s demands over the Oder-Neisse question. This period, heralded by Churchill’s ‘eastern Locarno’ speech of 11 May 1953, saw Britain in its most determined pursuit of détente with the Soviet bloc, and witnessed an often blatant disregard for the interests of their German ally on the part of British policy makers. The determined resistance of Bonn (backed by the United States and France) to British attempts to utilise the Oder-Neisse line as a bargaining chip in East-West negotiations ultimately caused the policy to fail. Such attempts were finally abandoned after the collapse of the Paris summit in May 1960.

The fourth, and final, phase (by which time EEC membership had replaced the pursuit of détente as the central foreign policy goal of the Macmillan government) saw a realisation that the Oder-Neisse line was of extremely limited utility to London’s ends. Indeed, British policy now recognised that the goal of EEC membership required Bonn’s goodwill and that, in any case, only a (West) German reconciliation to the permanence of Oder-Neisse line could bring about any real East-west détente. The assurance to Poland in April 1962 thus placed British relations with a key Eastern bloc state on a sounder footing, without prejudicing the policy imperatives of the Macmillan government.

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