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The Oder-Neisse line ( , ) was drawn in the aftermath of World War II as the eastern border of Germanymarker and the western border of Polandmarker. The line is formed primarily by the Oder and Lusatian Neissemarker rivers, and meets the Baltic Seamarker west of the seaport cities of Szczecinmarker (German: Stettin) and Świnoujściemarker (Swinemünde). All pre-war German territory east of the line (23.8% of the former Weimar Republicmarker lands, most of them from Prussiamarker) was either awarded to Poland or the Soviet Unionmarker after the war, and the vast majority of its native German population was expelled by force. The line marked the border between the German Democratic Republicmarker and Poland from 1950 to 1990. In 1990 newly reunited Germany and the Republic of Poland signed a treaty recognizing it as their border.

Pre-war German-Polish border

Before World War II, Poland's western border with Germany had been fixed under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. It partially ran along the historic borders of Greater Poland, but with certain adjustments that were intended to reasonably reflect the ethnic compositions of small areas beyond the traditional provincial borders. However, Pomerelia and Upper Silesia had been divided, leaving areas populated by a rural Slavic population (often Germanized) on the German side and some German, primarily urban populations on the Polish side. Moreover, the border left Germany divided into two portions by the Polish Corridor and the independent Free City of Danzigmarker, which had a predominantly German urban population, but was split from Germany to help secure Poland's access to the Baltic Seamarker.

Allied considerations during the war

Tehran Conference

It was the Soviet leader Josef Stalin who had first insisted that Poland's western frontier be extended to the Oder River at the Tehran Conference in late 1943. The Americans, however, were not interested in discussing any border changes at that time. British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden wrote in his diary that "A difficulty is that the Americans are terrified of the subject which [Roosevelt advisor] Harry [Hopkins] called 'political dynamite' for their elections. But, as I told him, if we cannot get a solution, Polish-Russian relations six months from now, with Russian armies in Poland, will be infinitely worse and elections nearer."

Yalta Conference

In February 1945, American and British officials met in Malta and agreed on the basics on Poland's future borders. In the east, the British agreed to the Curzon line but recognised that the US might push for Lwowmarker to be included in post-war Poland. In the west, Poland should receive part of East Prussia, Danzigmarker, the eastern tip of Pomerania and Upper Silesia. This would necessitate the transfer of 2.5 million Germans as opposed to 8 million from a border on the western Neisse.At the subsequent Yalta Conferencemarker, the subject of Poland was again discussed. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said that it would "make it easier for me at home" if Stalin were generous to Poland with respect to Poland's eastern frontiers. Winston Churchill said a Soviet concession on that point would be admired as "a gesture of magnanimity" and declared that, with respect to Poland's post-war government, the British would "never be content with a solution which did not leave Poland a free and independent state." With respect to Poland's western frontiers, Stalin noted that the Polish Prime Minister in exile, Stanisław Mikołajczyk, had been pleased when Stalin had told him Poland would be granted Stettin (Szczecinmarker) and the German territories east of the Western Neisse Rivermarker. Yalta was the first time that the Soviets openly declared support for a German-Polish frontier on western (Lausitzer) as opposed to eastern (Glatzer or Klodzka) Neisse. Churchill objected to the Western Neisse frontier saying that "it would be a pity to stuff the Polish goose so full of German food that it got indigestion." He added that many Britishmarker would be shocked if such large numbers of Germans (more than 11 million) were driven out of these areas, to which Stalin responded that "many Germans" had "already fled before the Red Army." Poland's western frontier was ultimately left to be decided at the Potsdam Conference.

Polish and Soviet demands

Borders moved westwards

Originally, Germany was to retain Stettinmarker, while the Poles were to annex East Prussia with Königsberg (now Kaliningradmarker). The Polish government had in fact demanded this since the start of World War II in 1939, due to East Prussia's strategic position that allegedly undermined the defense of Poland. Other territorial changes proposed by the Polish government were the transfer of the Silesian region of Oppelnmarker (Opole) and the Pomeranian regions of Danzigmarker (Gdańsk), Bütowmarker (Bytów) and Lauenburgmarker (Lębork), and straightening of the border somewhat in Western Pomerania.

However, Stalin decided that he wanted Königsberg as a year-round warm water port for the Soviet Navy, and he argued that the Poles should receive Stettin (Szczecin) instead. The pre-war Polish government-in-exile had little to say in these decisions, but insisted on retaining the historic Polish city of Lwówmarker (now L'viv) in Galicia, eastern Poland. Stalin refused to concede, and instead proposed all of Lower Silesia with Breslaumarker (now Wrocław) be given to Poland. Many Poles from Lwów later would be moved to populate Wrocławmarker (Formerly Breslau).

The eventual border was not the most far-reaching territorial change that was proposed. There were suggestions of including areas further west so that Poland could include the small minority population of ethnic Slavic Sorbs who lived near Cottbusmarker and Bautzenmarker. Ironically, those Sorbs who lived in the areas annexed by Poland would in fact be expelled as "Germans".

The precise location of the western border was left open. The western Allies accepted in general that the Oder River would be the future western border of Poland. Still in doubt was whether the border should follow the eastern or western Neisse Rivermarker, and whether Stettinmarker (now Szczecin), the traditional seaport of Berlin and a city with an exclusively German population, should remain German or be placed in Poland (with an expulsion of the German population). The western Allies sought to place the border on the eastern Neisse at Breslau, but Stalin refused to budge. Suggestions of a border on the Bóbrmarker (Bober) river were also rejected by the Soviets.

Nikita Khrushchev in his memoirs said:
"I had only one desire - that Poland's borders were moved as far west as possible."

Potsdam Conference

At Potsdam, Stalin argued for the Oder-Neisse line on the grounds that the Polish Government demanded this frontier and that there were no longer any Germans left east of this line, a claim that prompted Admiral William D. Leahy, American President Truman's Chief of Staff, to whisper "The Bolshies have killed them all", into President Truman's ear. Later the Russians admitted that at least "a million Germans" (still far lower than the true number) still remained in the area at that time. Several Polish leaders appeared at the conference to advance arguments for an Oder–Western Neisse frontier. The port of Stettinmarker was demanded for Eastern European exports. If Stettinmarker was Polish, then "in view of the fact that the supply of water is found between the Oder and the Lausitzer Neisse, if the Oder's tributaries were controlled by someone else the river could be blocked." Soviet forces had initially expelled Polish administrators who tried to seize control of Stettin in May and June, and the city was governed by a German communist-appointed mayor, under the surveillance of the Soviet occupiers, until 5 July 1945.

President Harry S. Truman and British Prime Minister Clement Attlee said that they could not tolerate Polish administration of part of one of the occupation zones (effectively making Poland a fifth occupying power after the U.S., Britain, France, and the Soviet Union) and the expulsion of millions of German people from it into other areas. Stalin responded that the Poles "were taking revenge for the injuries which the Germans had caused them in the course of centuries."

Marking the new Polish-German Border in 1945

James Byrnes – who had become the American Secretary of State earlier that month – later advised the Soviets that the U.S. was prepared to concede the area east of the Oder River and the Eastern Neisse (Nysa Kłodzka) River to Polish administration, and for it not to consider it part of the Soviet occupation zone, in return for a moderation of Soviet demands for reparations from the Western occupation zones. A Nysa Kłodzka boundary would have left Germany with roughly half of Silesia. The Soviets insisted that the Poles would not accept this. The Polish representatives (and Stalin) were in fact willing to concede a line following the Oder-Bober-Queiss (Odra-Bóbrmarker-Kwisa) rivers through Żagańmarker (Sagan) and Lubańmarker (Lauban), but even this small concession ultimately proved unnecessary, since on the next day, Byrnes told the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov that the Americans would reluctantly concede to the Western Neisse. Byrnes's concession undermined the British position, and although the British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin raised objections, the British eventually agreed to the American concession. In response to American and British statements that the Poles were claiming far too much German territory, Stanisław Mikołajczyk argued that "the western lands were needed as a reservoir to absorb the Polish population east of the Curzon line, Poles who returned from the West, and Polish people who lived in the overcrowded central districts of Poland."
The U.S. and the U.K. were also negative towards the idea of giving Poland an occupation zone in Germany. However on July 29, President Truman handed Molotov a proposal for a temporary solution whereby the U.S. accepted Polish administration of land to the Oder and eastern Neisse until a final peace conference determined the boundary. In return for this large concession, the U.S. demanded that "each of the occupation powers take its share of reparations from its own [Occupation] Zone and provide for admission of Italy into the United Nations." The Soviets stated that they were not pleased "because it denied Polish administration of the area between the two Neisse rivers."

However, on the 29th Stalin asked Bierut to accept, considering the large American concesions. The Polish delegation decided to accept a boundary of the administration zone at "somewhere between the western Neisse and the Queiss (Kwisa)." Later that day the Poles changed their mind; "Bierut, accompanied by Rola-Zymierski, returned to Stalin and argued against any compromise with the Americans. Stalin told his Polish proteges that he would defend their position at the conference."
The Oder-Neisse Line (click to enlarge)
Finally, the Potsdam Conference of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union, in anticipation of the final peace treaty, placed the German territories east of the Oder-Neisse line formally under Polish administrative control. It was also decided that all Germans remaining in the new and old Polish territory should be expelled.

Polish propaganda came to refer to those territories as the Regained or Recovered Territories, a term alluding to their having been in the possession of the early medieval Piast dynasty of Polish kings or included in the parts lost to Germany during the Partitions of Poland. The creation of a picture of the new territories as an "integral part of historical Poland" in the post-war had the aim of forging Polish settlers and repatriates arriving there into a coherent community loyal to the new Communist Regime. The term was in use immediately following the end of World War II when it was part of the Communist indoctrination of the Polish settlers in those territories. The final agreements in effect compensated Poland with 112,000 km² of former German territories for 187,000 square kilometers of land located east of the Curzon line – Polish areas occupied by the Soviet Union. Poles and Polish Jews from Soviet Union were subject of process called "repatriation" (return to Poland that moved westward), but many of them who were imprisoned or deported to work camps in Siberia or Kazakhstan were frequently excluded.

One reason for this version of the new border was the fact that it was the shortest possible border between Poland and Germany. It is only 472 kilometers in length, stretching from the northernmost point of the Czech Republicmarker to one of the southernmost points of the Baltic Seamarker in the Oder River estuary. The rights of the inhabitants of the formerly German territories were disregarded by the victorious powers, who left to the Communist regime installed by Soviets in Poland execution of the expulsion and to the occupying powers accommodation of the deportees in occupation zones of Germany. Many German citizens who were Slavic autochthons in those lands, namely: Slovincians, Kashubians, and Upper Silesians and also those Slavs who were descendents of immigrants from Poland to Prussia and Holy Roman Empire (Masurians), - altogether 1.5 million people though theoretically should be excepted from expulsion and declared as authochnoms, sometimes were forcibly (just after the war) or willingly (starting from 1950s) included in the expulsion, because they either were considered German by the new Polish administrators or decided to leave Poland due to the lack of democracy and economical problems of this state.

World War II aftermath

Winston Churchill was not present at the end of the Conference, since the results of the British elections had made it clear that he had been defeated. Churchill later claimed that he would never have agreed to the Oder–Western Neisse line, and in his famous Iron Curtain speech declared that "The Russian-dominated Polish Government has been encouraged to make enormous and wrongful inroads upon Germany, and mass expulsions of millions of Germans on a scale grievous and undreamed-of are now taking place."

Not only were the German territorial changes of the Nazis reversed, but the border was moved westward, deep into territory which had been in 1937 part of Germany with a mainly German population. The new line placed almost all of Silesia, more than half of Pomerania, the eastern portion of Brandenburgmarker, a small area of Saxonymarker, the former Free City of Danzigmarker and the southern two-thirds of East Prussia (Masuria and Warmia) within Poland (see Former eastern territories of Germany). The north eastern third of East Prussia was directly annexed by the Soviet Unionmarker, with the Memelland becoming part of the Lithuanian SSR and the bulk of the territory forming the new Kaliningrad Oblastmarker of the Russian SFSR.

These territorial changes were followed by large-scale population transfers, involving 14 million people altogether from the whole of Eastern Europe, including many people already shifted during the war. Ethnic cleansing carried out by the Polish government and military and the Soviets resulted in the expulsion of nearly all remaining Germans from the territory annexed by Poland and the return to Poland of Polish displaced persons then inside Allied-occupied Germany. In addition to this, the Polish population originating from the eastern half of the former Second Polish Republicmarker, now annexed by the Soviet Union, was mostly expelled and transferred to the newly acquired territories.

The removal of German citizens from the annexed territories was executed in the post-war atmosphere of violence and brutality, including gang-rape, child-abuse, theft, torture, terror, and murders. Of the 14 million ethnic Germans deported, only 12 million arrived in the four Occupation Zones of Germany - about two million went missing in the wake of the ethnic cleansing.

Few Poles have opposed the territorial gains from Germany and the expulsion of the German inhabitants. These developments have been presented as a just consequence for the Nazi German state starting the war and conducting genocide, as well as for the territorial losses of eastern Poland to the Soviet Union, mainly Ukrainemarker, which Poland had gained in the Polish-Russian war earlier in the 20th century. With respect to the expelled ethnic German minority in Poland, resentment has been based on the majority's loyalty to the German Reich during the invasion and occupation, and the active role played by some in the persecution and mass murder of Poles and Jews. These circumstances have impeded sensitivity among Poles with respect to the expulsion committed during the aftermath of World War II.

The new order was in Stalin's interests, because it enabled the Soviet Unionmarker Communists to present themselves as the primary maintainer of Poland's new western border. It also provided the Soviet Union with territorial gains from part of East Prussia and eastern part of Second Republic of Poland.

Recognition of the border by Germany

The East German Socialist Unity Party (SED), founded 1946, originally rejected the Oder-Neisse line. Under Soviet occupation and heavy pressure by Moscow, the official phrase Friedensgrenze (border of peace) was promulgated in March–April 1947 at the Moscow Foreign Ministers Conference. The German Democratic Republicmarker and Poland's Communist government, signed the Treaty of Zgorzelec in 1950, recognizing the Oder-Neisse line, officially designated by the Communists as the "Border of Peace and Friendship".

Decades later, in 1989, another treaty was signed between Poland and East Germany, the sea border was defined, and a dispute from 1985 was settled.

In 1952, recognition of the Oder-Neisse line as a permanent boundary was one of Stalin's conditions for the Soviet Union to agree to a reunification of Germany (see Stalin Note). The offer was rejected by the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.

In West Germanymarker, where the majority of the 12 million displaced refugees found refuge, recognition of the Oder-Neisse Line as permanent was long regarded as unacceptable. In fact, under the Hallstein Doctrine, West Germany recognized neither the government of Communist Poland, nor the German Democratic Republicmarker (East Germany).

In 1963 the German opposition leader Willy Brandt said that "abnegation is betrayal". But it was Brandt who eventually changed West Germany's attitude with his policy of Ostpolitik. In 1970 West Germany signed treaties with the Soviet Union (Treaty of Moscow) and Poland (Treaty of Warsaw) recognizing the Oder-Neisse line between Germany and Poland as current reality, not to be changed by force. This had the effect of making family visits by the displaced eastern Germans to their lost homelands now more or less possible. Such visits were still very difficult, however, and permanent resettlement in the homeland, now Poland, remained impossible.

In November 1990, after German reunification, the Federal Republic of Germany and the Republic of Poland signed a treaty confirming the border between them, as requested by the Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany. Earlier, Germany had amended its constitution and abolished Article 23 of West Germany's Basic Law (on which reunification was based), which could have been used to claim the former German eastern territories.

The 1990 German-Polish Border Treaty finalizing the Oder-Neisse line as the Polish-German border came into force on January 16, 1992, together with a second one, a Treaty of Good Neighbourship, signed in June 1991, in which the two countries, among other things, recognized basic political and cultural rights for both the German and the Polish minorities living on either side of the border. After 1990, approximately 150,000 Germans still reside in the areas transferred to Poland, mainly in the Opolemarker (Oppeln) Voivodeship, with a smaller presence in regions such as Lower Silesia and Warmia-Masuriamarker. There are one and a half million Poles or ethnic Poles living in Germany, including both recent immigrants and the descendants of Poles that settled in Germany many generations ago.

See also

World War II-related events

Further reading


  1. US State Department, Foreign Relations of the US: The Conference at Cairo and Tehran 1943, "Tripartite Dinner Meeting, 28 November 1943" pp. 509-14
  2. Anthony Eden, The Reckoning (London, 1965) p. 427.
  3. US Dept. of State, Foreign Relations of the US, The Conferences at Malta and Yalta, 1945, Third Plenary Meeting 6 February 1945, Matthews Minutes, p. 77
  4. Ibid., Bohlen Minutes, p. 669.
  5. Llewellyn Woodward, British Foreign Policy in the Second World War, (London, 1962) p. 299
  6. Winston Churchill and the Soviet Union during the Second World War - The Churchill Centre
  8. Lebensraum, Time Magazine 13 August 1945
  9. Sergeĭ Khrushchev, George Shriver, Stephen Shenfield, Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev, Penn State Press, 2007, p.637, ISBN 0271029358
  10. Harry Truman, Year of Decisions, (New York, 1955) p. 296
  11. US Dept of State, Foreign Relations of the US, The Conference of Berlin (Potsdam) 1945, vol. II pp. 1522-1524.
  12. Heitmann, Clemens Die Stettin-Frage: Die KPD, die Sowjetunion und die deutsch-polnische Grenze 1945. Zeitschrift für Ostmitteleuropa-Forschung, 2002, vol. 51, no1, pp. 25-63.
  13. US Dept of State, Foreign Relations of the US, The Conference of Berlin (Potsdam) 1945, vol. II pp. 1522-1524, pp. 381ff
  14. Ibid., p. 384
  15. Ibid., p. 1150
  16. (Ibid., p. 480)
  17. Ibid., p. 519
  18. Richard C. Lukas Bitter Legacy: Polish-American Relations in the Wake of World War II. p 16
  19. Richard C. Lukas Bitter Legacy: Polish-American Relations in the Wake of World War II. p.17
  20. An explanation note in "The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy Over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland", ed. by Polonsky and Michlic, p.466
  21. Martin Åberg, Mikael Sandberg, Social Capital and Democratisation: Roots of Trust in Post-Communist Poland and Ukraine, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2003, ISBN 0754619362, Google Print, p.79
  22. Churchill's Iron Curtain, On expulsion of ethnic Germans -
  23. de Zayas, Alfred-Maurice: A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the Eastern European Germans 1944-1950, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994
  24. Why is the Oder-Neiße Line a Peace Border? (1950)
  25. Treaty between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Republic of Poland on the confirmation of the frontier between them, 14 November 1990(PDF)

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