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

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Adenauer had little hope of regaining the eastern territories. He told the leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), Erich Ollenhauer, in September 1955: ‘[the] Oder-Neisse, Eastern provinces – they’re gone! They don’t exist anymore!’60 However, by refusing to recognise the Oder-Neisse line, he avoided conceding both Czechoslovak and Polish claims for war damages and demands to recognise East Germany.61 In any case, the influence of the expellee organisations precluded the recognition of the Oder-Neisse line, especially by the leading conservative parties, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister-party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).62

The major political parties in West Germany, (the CDU/ CSU and the SPD), as well as the smaller Free Democratic Party (FDP), were all, in Ahonen’s words, ‘engaged in an ongoing tussle over the mantle of the truest and earliest champion of the Oder-Neisse cause’.63 Adenauer told the Bundestag in July 1953 of the ‘unanimity among the parties … that the content of the Potsdam agreement must be sharply rejected.’64 Thus a typical FDP document from the same year demanded that any future action ‘must never lead to a German recognition of the Oder-Neisse line’. Similarly, the SPD’s first post-war leader, Kurt Schumacher, himself from West Prussia, declared in 1946 that his party would ‘fight with all peaceful means ... over every square kilometre east of the Oder-Neisse’.65 In 1952, the British Labour Party was surprised to learn that the SPD’s ‘Action Programme’ stipulated that West Germany’s participation in Western collective defence presupposed the reunification of Germany within its boundaries from 1937 and with its capital at Berlin.66 Several expellee leaders were prominent in the SPD, notably the Sudeten German member of the Bundestag, Dr. Wenzel Jacksch. That he spoke out for the rights of expellees until he died in 1966, in no way affected the tributes paid to him by socialist luminaries including Brandt.67 The identification of the West German Left with the goals of the expellees shocked British socialists who assumed that only the Right expounded ‘revisionism’.

The electoral calculations underpinning Adenauer’s rhetoric had a long life. In September 1959 he pointed out that ‘the questions of Poland, Oder-Neisse, and so on [remained] of great importance to the expellee circles [in West Germany]’. It followed that the CDU/ CSU could not risk offending them before the general election due in 1961.68 In September 1960, for instance, the British embassy at Bonn reported that the impending elections had provoked a rise in ‘Recht auf Heimat’ rhetoric among politicians of all opinions.69


British officials were aware of the expellees’ decisive influence over West German policy towards the Oder-Neisse line.70 Scholarly institutes threw their weight behind West Germany’s denial of its legality. Research groups specialising in the study of Ostforschung (‘Eastern research’) and Ostkunde (‘Eastern culture’) proliferated in West Germany in the 1950s. These included the Osteuropakunde (established in Stuttgart in 1948), the Osteuropa-Institut (established in Munich in 1952) and the Ostkolleg der Budeszentrale für Heimatdienst (established in Cologne in 1957).71 They aspired to legitimate the historical German role in the East and were generally staffed by persons with an unsavoury past in Ostforschung under the Third Reich (either as theorists or practitioners – or both - of Nazi policy in the occupied east). Also heavily represented in such institutions were members of the expellees’ political party, the Bund der Heimatvertriebenen und Entrechteten (BHE), and officials of the Bund der Vertriebenen (BdV) – the body that came to represent the interests of the expellees in an official capacity endorsed by Bonn.

The West German government provided generous financial support for all of these institutes and organisations and published a stream of books and pamphlets arguing their case that always referred to the territories to the east of the Oder-Neisse line as being unter polnischer Verwaltung and the northern part of the former East Prussia as unter sowietischer Verwaltung.72 The prominent politicians who wrote the forewords usually emphasized the importance of understanding the ‘east’. In March 1964, for instance, the minister for expellees in Lower Saxony, Albert Höft, recommended one book as ‘valuable source’ of information on the lives of people living in ‘central Germany [East Germany]’ and ‘under foreign administration’ east of the Oder-Neisse.73

In the early 1960s, the federal ministry for expellees, refugees and war victims published a comprehensive five-volume collection of documents on the expulsion of Germans from Eastern and Central Europe.74 The editor of this collection was one Theodor Schieder. Schieder had been a leading academic thinker on the German mission in the east and wartime Nazi settlement policy in the occupied territory. He agreed to edit the series in 1951 and, from 1953, he worked under the new leader of the BHE and Bundesvertriebenenminister (minister for the expellees) in the Adenauer government, Theodor Oberländer, whom he knew well, and with former wartime colleagues from Königsberg such as Hans Rothfels and Werner Conze.75 Their work, which provoked the Soviet bloc to denounce West Germany as ‘a renaissance of Hitlerite ideas in all their murderous splendour’,76 represented the opinions of the broad West German consensus that refused to recognise the loss of the ‘eastern territories’. Thus the British worried less about the threat of West German revanchism and more about the political capital the Communists could make out of a key Cold War ally.

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