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

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At the Moscow conference in April 1947, secretary of state George C. Marshall specifically proposed some revision of the Oder-Neisse line, in favour of Germany, so as to alleviate the economic difficulties arising from the line as set in 1945. Marshall warned that such difficulties might lead to irredentism. In this assertion he was supported by Bevin – but, unsurprisingly, violently opposed by Molotov who stated that Yalta and Potsdam had already settled the issue of the Polish-German frontier question.47 Dubrow recalls that Bevin then warned the Soviet foreign minister that deadlock over the German question meant deadlock in East-West relations.48 And so it proved.


Germany’s challenge to the Oder-Neisse line rested on two legal claims. First, the Potsdam agreement stated that only a ‘final peace settlement’ with an all-German government could delineate Germany’s permanent boundaries. Even after the treaties with the Soviet Union, Poland, the GDR and Czechoslovakia made by Willy Brandt between 1970 and 1973, Claus Arndt claimed that treaties made by West Germany had little bearing on the whole of Germany as ‘a final settlement for Central Europe’ remained the long-term goal.49 Second, West Germany’s constitution obstructed the finalising of Germany’s frontiers in advance of reunification. The Grundgestez (Basic Law) of 1949 described West Germany as the sole successor to the Reich (‘identical with the German Reich within the frontiers of 31 December 1937’) and the sole representative of the German people (Alleinvertretungsanspruch).50 In order to ensure that the Basic Law would be difficult to circumvent, Article 146 stated that it should lapse only on the day on which the German people freely enacted a new constitution. Given the fact that the boundaries of Germany could only be fixed by a treaty with an all-German government, West Germany could not therefore recognise the Oder-Neisse line even if it wished to do so. Thus, the foreign minister, Heinrich von Brentano, explained in 1956:

I have stated very plainly … [that] there is no German Federal Government, either today or tomorrow, which can recognise the Oder-Neisse Line as the frontier. Firstly, it will not do so because it is not entitled to do so. It is not entitled to dispose of German territory. Secondly, it will not do so because it is not entitled to do so towards the people, the German people, who have lived there for centuries.51

Poland’s case rested upon the de facto situation, strengthened by the passage of time. Piotrowicz states that ‘there occurred a gradual strengthening of Poland’s tenure … which … had the effect [of preventing] any settlement [other than] the confirmation of the territorial status quo.’52 The British shared the belief in the need to confirm the existing territorial arrangements. Macmillan, prime minister from 1957 to 1963, recorded in 1969: ‘[t]he Russians, by way of compromise, proposed that a final adjudication should be left for the peace conference; but this was an illusory concession, since by the time any conference might meet, possession would have become nine tenths of the law.’53 Thus he regarded West Germany’s stance on the Oder-Neisse line as untenable. Unencumbered by Adenauer’s domestic constituency, Macmillan could both acknowledge the wrong done at Potsdam and claim that to undo it was impossible.

East Germany took advantage of the opportunity to improve its relations with Poland by implying that, unlike West Germany, it was willing to recognise the Oder-Neisse line. It recognised the frontier as permanent by the treaty of Görlitz of 6 July 1950, and it accused Britain and the United States of trying ‘to drive Germany, the trouble spot of Europe, to war against Poland and the Soviet Union.’54 Sympathizers with Poland, who describe the treaty as the ‘peace settlement’ postponed by the Cold War, are guilty of wishful thinking.55 West Germany claimed that the Oder-Neisse line could not be legitimated, bilaterally, by Poland and Germany; it remained ‘provisional’ until confirmed by agreement among the four occupying powers that were jointly responsible for it. Adenauer persuaded the United States to denounce the treaty of Görlitz as a violation of the Potsdam agreement.56 The British also held that the treaty of Görlitz was invalid as ‘in accordance with Potsdam’ the frontier ‘was only provisional [as] has been made clear in every discussion of the question.’ Furthermore ‘the so-called East German Democratic Government is in no way qualified to cede the territory concerned to Poland.’57

Adenauer submitted a statement for clearance by the occupation authorities in January 1951 stating that ‘[a] genuine all-German solution can in opinion of the Federal Government only be achieved if it applies to all those areas which belonged to Germany on 31 December 1937. Accordingly the renunciation expressed by the authorities of the Soviet Zone … of the German territories east of the Oder and Neisse renders a genuine all-German agreement impossible.’ The British control commission for Germany commented that ‘[t]his passage amounts to a statement that no unity of Germany is possible till the provinces now administered by Poland return to Germany. The Chancellor thus spurns German unity on the basis of the four existing zones even as an interim measure’.st The clash between what has been termed ‘German principle’ and ‘British pragmatism’ was increasingly evident. 58

British officials understood that they would have to tread carefully. Eden, who became foreign secretary again in October 1951, stated that if Adenauer asked him about the future of Germany’s eastern territories, he would say he was awaiting the definitive peace treaty. Churchill simply noted that the West Germans were aware that Britain had wished to draw the Oder-Neisse line along the eastern rather than the western Neiße.59

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