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

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Speaking in the House of Commons in August 1945, the foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, warned the Poles not to repeat their mistake in 1920: ‘last time, they made a mistake ... in going too far East … this time, I fear, they are making a mistake in ... going too far West.’34 Eden later recalled meeting his successor, Ernest Bevin, while the Potsdam conference was in progress, and advising him not to agree to the extension of Poland as far west as the western Neisse: ‘I repeated, as I had often done to them and the Russians, that in their interest I was sure they would be unwise to claim land so far to the west. They would only lay up trouble thereby for the future. Bevin listened and said that he would do his best, which he did, but he could not prevail.’35 Churchill, who told the house of commons that the decision taken at Potsdam was ‘not a good augury for the future map of Europe’, later wrote: ‘One day the Germans would want their territories back and the Poles would not be able to stop them’. Being in opposition, and not having to stand up to the United States and the Soviet Union, he could claim that he would never have agreed to the transfer.36

As early as March 1944, Eden had acknowledged a ‘growing apprehension that Russia has vast aims, and that these may include the domination of Eastern Europe and even the Mediterranean, and the "communizing" of much that remains.’37 Such concerns over expanding Soviet power meant, of course, that any British disposition to support Polish claims to the Oder-Neisse territories would be much reduced if Poland became a satellite of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union’s decision in July 1944 to recognise the Lublin Committee (under the communist Boleslaw Bierut) as the legitimate local authority in the liberated areas of Poland thus only increased British unease as Stalin’s ability to dictate the future of central and eastern Europe increased with every Soviet military advance.38

Given the fears of Soviet intentions, British officials, faced with popular criticism not only of the expulsions of Germans living in Poland and Czechoslovakia, but also of the reasons for them, protested at their brutality.39 Less than a year after Potsdam, Harry S. Truman described them as a ‘high handed outrage’,40 and, in September 1946, the secretary of state, James F. Byrnes, in a speech at Stuttgart, questioned the validity of the Oder-Neisse line:

With regard to Silesia and other eastern German areas, the assignment of this territory to Poland by Russia for administrative purposes had taken place before the Potsdam meeting. The heads of government agreed that, pending the final determination of Poland's western frontier, Silesia and other eastern German areas should be under the administration of the Polish state and for such purposes should not be considered as a part of the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany. However, as the Protocol of the Potsdam Conference makes clear, the heads of government did not agree to support at the peace settlement the cession of this particular area.

Although the United States would ‘support revision [of Germany’s eastern] frontiers in Poland's favor … the extent of the area to be ceded to Poland must be determined when the final settlement is agreed upon.’ Furthermore, ‘Except as here indicated, the United States will not support any encroachment on territory which is indisputably German or any division of Germany which is not genuinely desired by the people concerned.‘41

Byrnes’ dovetailing of the rhetoric of self-determination with the needs of Cold War politics (mirrored by many American statements in Germany itself) provided a template for West German state policy after 1949. It also provided the British with food for thought and their embassy in Washington requested clarification of the position of the United Stats vis-à-vis the Oder-Neisse line. The embassy stated that, while there seemed no ‘practical alternative’ to a permanent frontier on the Oder-Neisse, the British had made no final decision.42 The state department replied, formulaically, saying that the land to be granted to Poland was ‘still under consideration.’43

The nascent Cold War worked in West Germany’s favour by destroying the consensus on the future of Germany that existed at Potsdam. In February 1948, Britain informed the Soviet Union that the occupation of part of East Prussia (agreed to at Potsdam) was evidence for its being ‘an expanding imperialist power.’44 Thus, the Carthaginian peace implied at Potsdam, and feared throughout West Germany, never arrived. Both the Soviet Union and the Western allies, fearful of unification, cultivated their own German client states. John L. Gaddis notes that once the Superpowers had established their respective German states both Washington and Moscow were content to allow Bonn and East Berlin to shape their respective policies on Germany. Furthermore, the need to maintain alliance ‘solidarity’ meant that the USA and the USSR made little real effort to solve the root causes of the problem.45

The Potsdam agreement stated that a definitive peace treaty would delineate the frontier between Germany and Poland. The escalating rivalries of the early post-war period were reflected in divergent attitudes towards the agreement, and hence the status of the Oder-Neisse line. In March 1946 Bevin told the cabinet:

Though it was laid down at Potsdam that the final delimitation of Poland’s western frontier should await the peace settlement, it has been generally assumed that no change in the Potsdam line will be made in Germany’s favour. But the Potsdam decision places Russia in a very strong position. The Poles will never be able to dispense with Russian protection in order to hold their newly acquired lands. At the same time the Soviet Government will always have a means of enticing the Germans into their camp by offering to return some of the lost territory.46

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