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The Oder-Neisse Line

In 1914 and 1941 large German armies advanced from the west and almost destroyed Russia. After World War II, Poland was moved 250 kilometers (150 miles) to the west. The territory lost to the USSR on the east (178,220 sq. km--70,000 sq. miles) greatly exceeded the territory acquired from Germany (101,200 sq. km--40,000 sq. miles) as compensation. The Soviets compensated the Poles for the east Polish territories that she annexed by establishing the Polish western borders on the Oder-Neisse Line, thereby giving Poland territory that was German prior to World War II. Poland was bordered to the east and west by two nations that had traditionally been her enemies; paradoxically, both the USSR and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) were her allies at the end of World War II.

At the meeting of the "Big Three" (US/UK/USSR) in February 1945 at Yalta, Poland and how to settle its frontiers, was a topic of discussion at most of the eight plenary sessions. Stalin and Molotov paved the way for a Polish state oriented toward Russia, and one whose western borders reached to the lines of the Oder and western Neisse Rivers. By the early spring of 1945 the Soviets had overrun most of Poland, pushed into Hungary and eastern Czechoslovakia, and temporarily halted at the Oder-Neisse line. By the end of March 1945, Soviet forces held a bridgehead over the Oder River, a mere 30 miles from Berlin.

The Potsdam Conference in in July and August 1945 was the last of the wartime "Big Three" conferences. The political discussion centered on German occupation policy, Soviet involvement in the Pacific Theater, and the establishment of a German-Polish boundary. At Potsdam, the U.S. accepted the "provisional" Polish administration of former German territory up to the Oder-Neisse line. Pending a final peace treaty, the territory was to be "administered" by the Polish Government.

The UK Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Ernest Bevin) said on 22 October 1946 that "As regards the Polish frontier, I will not try to conceal the fact that it was with the greatest reluctance that we agreed at Potsdam to the vast changes upon which our Russian Allies insisted. It was inevitable that such enforced, large-scale emigration of people should provoke the deepest reaction in Germany, and I fear we have not seen the last result of the Polish affair. Our own assent to the provisional arrangements at Potsdam was given in return for various assurances made by the provisional Polish Government, to the effect that they would hold free and unfettered elections as soon as possible, on the basis of universal suffrage and secret ballot ... We see no reason why we should finally ratify the cession of this vast territory to Poland, without being satisfied that those assurances have been fully carried out. We should also wish to be assured that the Poles were able to develop this territory so that the economic resources were properly used, and that it did not become a wilderness from which the Germans had been excluded, but which the Poles were unable to populate."

Another attempt to reach four-power agreement on policy regarding the future of Germany was made at a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers in Moscow in March 1947. Here the United States and the United Kingdom advocated a federal form of government for Germany, while the Soviet Union demanded a strongly centralized state. On area of disagreement was over the temporary German-Polish border. The United States held that the perpetuation of the Oder-Neisse line would deprive Germany of land that in prewar times had provided more than one-fifth of the nation's food supply. The Soviet Union, however, insisted that the line should be made permanent.

The Western Allies authorized the establishment of a German Federal Republic which was inaugurated in September 1949. And in October 1949, the Soviets established the "German Democratic Republic" in their zone. The German Democratic Republic, in the Zgorzelec Agreement entered into with Poland on July 6, 1950, recognized the Oder-Neisse Line as the inviolable frontier between Poland and Germany.

East Germany and the lands to the east of the Oder-Neisse Rivers provided refugees by the millions who played an important role in West German recovery. At first the refugees were a hindrance to recovery. Later they became a very important asset in the labor force, especially as many of them were highly skilled and ready to accept employment on the employer's terms.

During the Cold War a resolution of the Central European security problem was essential to a lasting peace in Europe. A key to this resolution was the development of an improved relationship between Germany and Poland. Poland, of all the Eastern European countries, retained the greatest fear and distrust of Germany. Between the two countries there existed the most specific, unresolved conflicts remaining from World War II. The absence of diplomatic relations between the two countries is a factor resulting from and contributing to the prolongation of these conflicts. Only in the fields of trade, culture and in the exchange of persons has there been any concrete improvement in relations between Germany and Poland in the 1960s. However, even in these fields progress had been hobbled for political reasons.

No politician in West Germany who aspired to long tenure in office could fail to propound reunification of Germany as a primary goal. In varying degrees all FRG political parties carried the banners of reunification and return of the lands east of the Oder-Neisse as major objectives. Most concerned with recovery of the eastern territory were the refugee parties. There were millions of West Germans who were refugees from the former German lands in Russia and in Poland. Every year, they would get together in big rallies and talk about going home. The often but ambiguously expressed claim to Heimatrecht (the right to return to one's homeland) made by some Germans, particularly when linked with a subsequent right to self-determination, was particularly offensive to Poland. One of the very tough domestic issues that the German government had to confront was how to keep these tendencies within bounds. Although it was evident to any dispassionate observer that Germany could not be unified within the borders of 1939, the irredentist leaders who had supported the CDU and CSU over the years wanted more.

For Konrad Adenauer, German reunification would take place within a broader resolution of East-West relations in Europe. His government refused to recognize the Oder-Neisse Line as the permanent border between Poland and Germany, arguing that no permanent changes in German borders could take place prior to the negotiation of a final all-German peace treaty. The "Hallstein Doctrine," a key element of his strategy since 1955, required the Federal German Republic to break diplomatic relations with all countries that recognized East Germany and not to enter into diplomatic relations with any Communist country accept the USSR. But France recognized the Oder-Neisse line as Germany's eastern boundary in 1959, and FRG reaction was relatively mild.

The West German Government proclaimed the dual goals of German re-unification and recovery of the former German lands to the east of the Oder-Neisse Rivers, and the United States continued publicly to support their achievement. According to an April 1964 poll, about 55 per cent of the West Germans polled appeared to believe that reunification will come eventually, perhaps in 20 or 30 years [in the event, it came in about 25 years]. However, by the 1960s popular support for the goal of recovery of the former German lands to the east of the Oder-Neisse Rivers appeared to be losing ground among the German people. With or without West German recognition, the Oder-Neisse frontier appeared to be growing in permanence, and the loss of the lands to the east inevitable.

Even so, the official position of the Bonn Government was that the Soviets should grant the Germans the right of self-determination and thus make reunification possible. After a freely elected all-German government was installed, it would negotiate and conclude a peace treaty. Only at such time can the final boundaries of Germany be determined since, according to Chancellor Erhard's November 10, 1965, policy statement, "Germany continues to exist within her boundaries of December 31, 1937, as long as a freely elected all-German government does not recognize different boundaries." In the joint communique published on their 22 December 1965 meeting, Chancellor Erhard and President Johnson reaffirmed "their strong determination to pursue all opportunities for attaining, as soon as possible, the common objective of the peaceful reunification of Germany." Noticeably absent was any mention of the lands east of the Oder-Neisse.

In his policy declaration before the Bundestag on 13 December 1966, Chancellor Kurt Kiesinger had the following to say about relations with Poland: "Large sectors of the German people very much want reconciliation with Poland whose sorrowful history we have not forgotten and whose desire ultimately to live in a territory with secure boundaries we now, in view of the present lot of our own divided people, understand better than in former times. But the boundaries of a reunified Germany can only be determined in a settlement freely agreed with an all-German government, a settlement that should establish the basis for a lasting and peaceful good-neighborly relationship agreed to by both nations." The new government thus continued to adhere to the position that settlement of the boundaries will have to await a peace treaty.

In repudiating Willy Brandt in the 1965 elections, the German electorate showed their preference for keeping the hard problems, like Berlin and reunification, at a distance. By 1970 West German Chancellor Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik reflected a new realism. The Soviet-West German Treaty of Renunciation of the Use of Force was signed in Moscow on 12 August 1970 by FRG Chancellor Willy Brandt and Premier Kosygin. The Kremlin secured from the FRG what has been a central objective of Soviet policy since the end of World War II: acknowledgement of the inviolability of the postwar territorial status-quo in Europe, particularly of the Oder-Neisse line and the border between the Federal Republic and the Communist-ruled German Democratic Republic. The Government of the Federal Republic of Germany, in the Treaty of Warsaw entered into with the Polish People's Republic on December 6, 1970, accepted the Oder-Neisse Line as constituting the western frontier of Poland and "the inviolability of their existing frontiers now and in the future".

In May 1972, the West German parliament voted to approve the non-aggression treaties with Russia and Poland which Chancellor Brandt had negotiated in 1970. The voting in the Bundestag seesawed on a razor's edge, nearly carrying Dr. Rainer Barzel, the CDU party leader, into power, for Brandt had placed his ruling SPD/FDP coalition on the line in support of Ostpolitik. Though Brandt received almost no support from the CDU, the treaties won by a slim margin. The treaties renounced the use of force by all sides and recognized German territorial losses from World War II. It gave to Poland all former German territory east of the Oder-Neisse Line, and it legitimized the borders of the German Democratic Republic.

Announcement by Germany of its intention to accept the Oder-Neisse Line greatly reduced Poland's fear that Germany might attempt to seize the territory east of the Oder-Neisse by force. It would eliminate Polish dependence on the USSR as sole guarantor of the Polish territories east of the Oder-Neisse. By prior agreement, this action could also result in the establishment of Polish-German diplomatic relations. Germany renounced the claim of Heimatrecht for German expellees from Poland, except insofar as this can be achieved by a free negotiation with Poland. This would also make the acceptance of the Oder-Neisse boundary more acceptable to the Germans. Since the Germans had renounced the use of force, it was a claim which can be realized only through bilateral agreement. By renouncing the territory beyond the Oder-Neisse and Heimatrecht, the German Government would lose considerable support among expellees. This would, however, be offset somewhat by permitting greater freedom of movement of Germans to and from the Oder-Neisse territories.

The United States, the German Democratic Republic, the Federal Republic of Germany, and Poland were signatory countries to the Helsinki Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, in which the signatories agreed to `regard as inviolable all one another's frontiers as well as the frontiers of all States in Europe and therefore they will refrain now and in the future from assaulting these frontiers'.

In November 1990, Germany and Poland settled this protracted historical dispute by signing a treaty confirming the Oder-Neisse line as a permanent border. Germany having invaded Poland, there needed to be a German-Polish agreement on the border. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had to do a very adroit dance, and German Foreign Minister Genscher also played an important role. They succeeded in negotiating an agreement with Poland that recognized Poland within its borders, recognized the Oder-Neisse line as the border between Germany and Poland. That was one of the keys that unlocked the way to unification.

The creation of the Prussian Claims Society (PSC), an agency modelled on the Jewish Claims Conference, contributed to fuel controversy. This agency has the aim of supporting the property claims of individual expellees by filing lawsuits before Polish and Czech courts, to obtain compensation for the assets they lost as a result of expulsions. According to PSC's estimates, 13 per cent of those who were expelled from Poland owned real estate there and 30,000 compensation claims are still unsettled. The Prussian Claims Society and Expellees' associations argue that if compensation claims filed with Poland and other countries were not to be successful, they should be satisfied by Germany.

In July 2003, the German Bundestag decided to call for the start of a European dialogue on this topic. A few months later the German and Polish presidents signed the Joint Declaration on Ethnic Expulsions in Gdansk. On 27 November 2003, a resolution adopted by the Sejm (the lower chamber of the Polish parliament) - mainly inspired by Mr Klich's motion for a recommendation - indicated Poland's agreement to the establishment of a centre for European Nations' Remembrance under the auspices of the Council of Europe, which would ensure its international character and impartiality.

On the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw uprising, the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder paid an official visit to Poland. On this occasion he said that 'property issues related to World War II are no longer a subject of controversy between our two governments. Neither the German government nor any other serious political force supports any restitution claims still being voiced. This is our position, and we won't hesitate to make this position clear before international courts, if need be'. In addition, Mr Schroeder rejected the idea of building a memorial centre in Berlin commemorating German expellees because it would unilaterally spotlight German suffering and play down its origin in Nazi aggression.

Tensions between Germany and Poland, however, are far from being defused: on 10 September 2004 the Sejm unanimously passed a resolution asking the government to estimate the total damages that Germany caused Poland in the second world war. In addition, the parliament rejected all claims for compensation or restoration of property from German expellees. The resolution was received with astonishment in Berlin.

Both the Polish as well as the German government promptly refused to begin talks on the question of reparations and declared that they considered this chapter to be closed. Furthermore, they engaged a joint commission of legal experts to prepare a report on "The Claims from Germany against Poland in Connection with the Second World War." This commission concluded that these claims in fact do not exist and that attempts to push them through before Polish, German, US-American or international courts will ultimately fail.

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Page last modified: 22-08-2016 18:34:13 ZULU