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

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In January 1960 Adenauer countered Macmillan with some diplomacy of his own.132 He repeatedly stated that, as the Soviet Union had rejected the formula the West had proposed at Geneva on 28 July 1959 (i.e. free all-German elections with no final delineation of German frontiers until after reunification), the status quo was, in his opinion, the optimum position that could be achieved.133 The British were alarmed that, yet again, Adenauer was trying to paralyze them by endorsing the mayor of Berlin, Mayor Brandt's, demand for a new agreement on Berlin.134 Macmillan, reassured when Eisenhower told him that an agreement over Berlin could be achieved by the recognition of the Oder-Neisse line,135 hoped to arrange a comprehensive agreement at the summit meeting scheduled for Paris in May 1960.136 West Germany would moderate its stance on the Oder-Neisse line in exchange for the normalisation of the Western presence in Berlin. Unfortunately for Macmillan, the shooting down of Gary Powers in his U-2 on 1 May 1960, provided General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, with a pretext for leaving the meeting and ending the post-Geneva four-power negotiations.137

The collapse of the summit meeting proved a disaster for Macmillan’s concept of détente: ‘The Summit – on which I had set such high hopes and for which I worked for over two years – has blown up, like a volcano! It is ignominious; it is tragic.’138 Macmillan had staked so much on Paris that its failure permanently tarnished his reputation139 and he later recalled it as ‘the most tragic moment of my life’. De Zuleta recalled that Paris demonstrated to the prime minister the error of ways with regard to his attempts to use détente to bolster Britain’s world power status.140 Macmillan resented Adenauer’s ‘false’ accusations ‘of [British] defeatism vis-à-vis Soviet Russia’141 and attributed the ‘friendly welcome’ he received in Bonn in August 1960 to his ‘delight at the failure of all my attempts at “détente” with the Soviets. It is rather a bitter pill [to swallow].’142 Thwarted over détente, the prime minister turned his attention to the European Economic Community (EEC).

Nigel Ashton has noted that the prime minister’s ‘turn’ towards the EEC was ‘born’ out his frustration with Paris, the United States and the pursuit of détente.143 The policy imperative of the Macmillan government now evolved from seeking to broker East-West détente into an aspiration for EEC membership as the prime minister, in Sabine Lee’s words, sought to remain on the ‘international stage [as] one of the main actors’.144 The application for EEC membership was revealed to the cabinet in April 1961145 and, on 9 August 1961, the prime minister duly wrote to Adenauer's vice-chancellor, Ludwig Erhard, applying for British membership to the EEC.146 Macmillan hoped that Britain’s membership in the EEC would enable him to reach the goals he had pursued through détente: assuring his place in history and buttressing Britain’s international role. This development had important implications for British policy towards the Oder-Neisse line and Macmillan had already noted the necessity of not ‘upset[ting] the Germans unduly.’147 Since détente seemed stymied, it seemed that the West German Politik der Stärke would continue to dictate Western policy towards the Oder-Neisse line.


The British assumed that the longer West Germany remained intransigent, the greater the rejoicing among the Soviets.148 Abrasimov later stated that Adenauer’s speech to the Silesian expellees on 17 June 1961 ‘made it clear that the aims of his government completely coincided with nationalist and revanchist organisations.’149 While this was an exaggeration, Adenauer did give the Soviet bloc plenty of ammunition for use against West Germany. On 10 July 1960, he addressed a meeting of East Prussian expellees in which he told them: ‘We can hope that if we firmly and truly adhere to [the] principles [of] peace and freedom and firmly and truly stand at the side of our allies as they do at ours, then peace and freedom will ultimately be restored to the world and thereby your beautiful Motherland East Prussia will be restored to you.’150

Even though Steel explained that no political party could afford to ignore the claims of the expellees, regardless of their implications for foreign policy,151 the head of the foreign office’s northern department, Heath Mason, described the speech as ‘open incitement.’152 Attempting to take advantage of British discomfort over West German statements and policy on the eastern territories, the Polish government communicated an aide-mémoire, which Clutton described as part of Gomułka’s election strategy to seize the nationalist ‘high-ground’ because East European Communists regularly played the ‘German card’.153 The Poles charged that the NATO alliance supported the ‘restoration’ of the ‘eastern territories’ to Germany, even if the question remained ‘open, pending a final peace settlement’.154 The British had always been aware of the contradictions in their policies since 1945 and the ambiguity of the status of the former German territories east of the Oder-Neisse line had, as Churchill, Bevin and Eden had foreseen, placed British officials in a difficult situation. The expellee lobby in West Germany was anathema to British foreign policy professionals who disliked seeing discussion of the Oder-Neisse line affected by pressure on Adenauer and the Auswärtiges Amt.155 Even though Steel preached to the converted when he pointed out the harm done to West Germany internationally by ‘pandering’ to the expellee organizations,156 for West Germany, the Oder-Neisse territories were a domestic, as well as a foreign policy, issue.

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