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

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Nevertheless, British officials had few doubts about the Adenauer government’s peaceful intentions. On 20 October 1953, for instance, Adenauer told the Bundestag that ‘The problem of the Oder-Neisse line is not to be solved by force but by peaceful means only’.16 Nevertheless, his refusal to recognise the line made Soviet bloc charges of West German revisionism difficult to refute. Adenauer’s room for manoeuvre was restricted by the large numbers of expellees from beyond the line;17 eight million living in West Germany by 1950 and four million in East Germany.18 Thus, he had both to renounce the use of force in redrawing the Oder-Neisse line, for reasons of international politics, and, for domestic political reasons, to refuse to recognize it.

Sabine Lee stresses the difference, for Adenauer, between an Ostpolitik he designed and controlled and a détente brokered by the United States and Britain.19 He explained in January 1963 that ‘Britain did not have the same perception of threat as continental Europeans.’20 The offence given to the West German government by Britain’s search for detente partly explains the failure of the Harold Macmillan government’s bid to join the European Economic Community (EEC) in January 1963. The slow reversal in attitude by the British government towards membership of the EEC was linked with its modification of policy on détente and the German question, and on the Oder-Neisse line.


The Oder-Neisse line arose out of the diplomacy of the Second World War.21 As early as spring 1942, V.M. Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, began to press the western allies (whilst on a visit to London) over the notion that Britain should, as an ally, allow the USSR to keep its gains in eastern Poland derived from the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939.22 (In essence, this meant the re-establishment of the old Curzon line). At the Teheran conference in 1943, Churchill duly agreed to Josef Stalin’s demand that the Curzon line form the basis of the post-war Polish-Soviet frontier.23 Churchill now urged the Polish government-in-exile to accept this loss of territory in return for compensation from German territory in the shape of East Prussia, Danzig, and Upper Silesia as far as the Oder river.24 Poles living on the Soviet side of the frontier would be allowed to return to Poland while Germans living within Poland’s new frontiers would be removed.25 After it was agreed – in September 1944 - to divide post-war Germany into three zones of,26 Churchill implied that Britain supported Poland’s expansion westwards. He told the House of Commons in December: ‘The Poles are free. So far as the Russians and Great Britain are concerned, to extend their territory at the expense of Germany, to the West … they gain in the West and North [German] territories more highly developed than they lose in the East.’27 The Times noted that this seemed a ‘satisfactory and lasting solution’.28

The Yalta agreement of 11 February 1945 stated that the USA, the USSR and Britain ‘recognized that Poland must receive substantial accessions of territory in the north and west … [and] will hereafter determine the status of Germany or of any area at present being part of German territory.’29 No territories were specified at Yalta: the specification, and transfer, of what became known as the Oder-Neisse territories were enunciated in Article IX (b) of the Potsdam agreement. This ‘provisionally’ awarded the formerly German territories to the east of the Oder-Neisse line to Poland and the USSR:

The three Heads of Government agree that, pending the final determination of Poland’s western frontier, the former German territories east of a line running from the Baltic Sea immediately west of Swinemunde, and thence along the Oder River to the confluence of the western Neisse River and along the western Neisse to the Czechoslovak frontier [excluding that area of East Prussia placed under Soviet control] … shall be under the administration of the Polish state and for such purposes shall not be considered as part of the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany.30

Article XIII, which provided for the transfer of the German population from the Oder-Neisse territories, as well as from Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland,31 seemed to complete the post-war rearrangement of territories. The territory east of the Oder Neisse line transferred to Polish ‘administration’ included western and southern East Prussia, most of Pomerania, and nearly all of Silesia; while the northern part of East Prussia was placed under the ‘administration’ of the Soviet Union. The Germans expelled from these territories were replaced with ethnic Poles, and also with Ukrainians, Belorussian and Lithuanians, displaced by the Soviet annexation of formerly Polish lands. Poland also expelled ethnic Germans from Poland itself and the Polish Corridor.

Ryzard Piotrowicz argues that the post-war tension between West Germany and Poland arose from the fact that the ‘Potsdam Protocol was subject to two very different interpretations.’ Advocates of the German case stressed the ‘fundamental, non-negotiable condition’ that the ‘final delimitation’ of Poland’s western frontier awaited a peace treaty: as Poland, at Potsdam, had only been granted ‘administration’ not ‘sovereignty’, it might face ‘competing claims.’ ‘The only competing claim, of course, would come from Germany.’32

The head of the east European division at the US state department, Elbridge Durbrow, who recalled in 1973 the search for an equitable frontier between Poland and Germany, wondered whether ‘this grab of basically historic German territory would be the seed to World War III? Perhaps, because the Germans will want to retake these territories in the future? Most of that area had been either Germans (sic), or Prussians (sic) for centuries. The Polish government-in–exile had agreed to the transfers only at the insistence of the state department officials, Jimmy Dunn and Chip Bohlen (the state’s department’s assistant secretary for European affairs and chief interpreter respectively), in the hope that Stalin could be made to keep the promise he made at Yalta of free Polish elections.33

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