Ostpolitik and the Question of Poland’s Borders

Kathryn Weathersby
Adjunct Professor, Asian Studies Program, American University, Washington, DC, U.S.A 

The Cold War in Europe was intertwined with the Second World War in a rather circular fashion. The East/West conflict arose from the circumstances of the end of the world war and also prevented the full resolution of that conflict. Germany’s wartime occupation of most of Europe had rearranged the geopolitical map of the continent and had therefore left many territorial and political questions in its wake. At the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences of February and July/August 1945, the British, Soviet, and American allies reached temporary agreements on the most pressing of the territorial issues, but they left their final resolution to a general peace treaty. The emergence of the Cold War, however, prevented the erstwhile allies from concluding such a treaty. Twenty-five years later, Western German Chancellor Willy Brandt attempted to reach agreements directly with the Soviet Union and Poland on the difficult issue of their borders. The remarkable treaties of 1970 that resulted from this effort then made it possible for all European states to convene the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (C.S.C.E.). The C.S.C.E. Final Act of 1975 relieved Cold War tensions and set in motion processes that contributed to the conflict’s peaceful end.[1]

This essay examines the central postwar question of the borders of Poland. What was the issue and why was it so difficult and important? The story begins centuries earlier, when medieval Poland was a large and powerful state with borders that expanded and contracted numerous times. In the late eighteenth century its newly powerful neighbors – Russia, Austria, and Prussia – eliminated their Polish rival by partitioning its lands among themselves. Once Germany and Austria were defeated in the First World War, Poles pressed for their state to be recreated. The Treaty of Versailles did so, but only by reclaiming lands seized by Germany and Austria. To regain its former lands to the east, the new Polish state fought a war during 1919–21 with the newly created Soviet Union and Soviet Ukraine. The resulting Treaty of Riga of March 1921 was mostly favorable to Poland, which led Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin to excoriate the agreement as an “unheard of defeat.”[2]

In August 1939 the European outlaw states of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union tried to reverse the Treaties of Versailles and Riga through their infamous Non-Aggression Pact, which included an agreement to divide Poland between them. With this arrangement in hand, Germany invaded Poland on September 1, Great Britain then declared war on Germany, and the Second World War began. Germany quickly annexed the lands it had lost through Versailles, as well as parts of Poland that had not previously been part of Germany – territories encompassing 94,000 square kilometers (36,000 square miles) and 10,000,000 inhabitants. The Soviet Union then seized the portions of eastern Poland that the Nazi–Soviet Pact had allotted to it, an immense area that was then incorporated into the Soviet Republics of Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania.

Given this history, it is not difficult to understand why the Polish question occupied a central place in the discussions at Yalta and Potsdam. The Soviet Union had allied with Great Britain when Germany reneged on the Non-Aggression Pact and invaded the U.S.S.R. in June 1941. The Soviets had also borne the lion’s share of the fight against Germany, at an unimaginable cost of more than 20 million dead. As the Soviet government began to negotiate postwar settlements, it feared that Germany would remilitarize and again invade the U.S.S.R. through Poland. It therefore was determined to control Poland politically and retain possession of the vast lands of eastern Poland it had seized in 1939.[3]

Soviet goals regarding Poland put the British government in a difficult position. On the one hand, they had depended on the Soviet Army to defeat Germany, but on the other hand, they were firmly committed to the restoration of an independent Poland. This was a matter of justice and honor, in Churchill’s view. After all, it was the invasion of their ally Poland that had prompted the British to declare war on Germany, and London had sheltered the Polish government-in-exile throughout the war.[4] The United States supported Polish aspirations on principle and was also sensitive to the demands of its large Polish-American population. However, the Americans were more concerned with the nature and independence of the future Polish government than with its borders.[5]

In the end, the Polish question was resolved through boots on the ground. Since the Red Army occupied Poland on its way to Berlin, Moscow was able to install a subservient government, violating the agreement the allies reached at Yalta. The Soviets also retained the portions of eastern Poland they had seized in 1939. Moreover, since they also occupied eastern Germany, they drew a new border between Poland and Germany that moved the Polish state 250 kilometers (150 miles) to the west, to the Oder and western Neisse rivers. This move was designed to weaken Germany but was also presented as compensation to Poland for the lands it lost in the east.

At Potsdam the British and Americans reluctantly agreed that Poland would “provisionally” administer German lands east of the Oder–Neisse line, in exchange for promises to hold free elections. A year later, with those promises unfulfilled, British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin acknowledged that the deportation of Germans from the territory given to Poland inevitably provoked “the deepest reaction in Germany, and I fear that we have not seen the last result of the Polish affair.” Moreover, since the Soviets had not kept their promises, the British “see no reason why we should finally ratify the cession of this vast territory to Poland…”[6]

As the Cold War progressed, the Soviet Union retained firm control over both Poland and the East German state created in 1949. Moscow was therefore able to ensure that those two states signed a treaty, on July 6, 1950, that recognized the Oder–Neisse line as a permanent boundary. West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany or F.R.G.), however, continued to insist that this border was only temporary and was subject to revision in a final peace treaty. No political figure in West Germany would dare to argue otherwise.

In 1969 the West German political environment changed significantly when Social Democratic Foreign Minister Willy Brandt was elected Chancellor. Brandt’s signature strategy, Ostpolitik (East Policy), sought to reunify Germany and end the Cold War in Europe by building trust among the governments of East and West. This trust would then make possible increased trade, travel, and cultural contacts, and reduction in armaments, which would collectively weaken the Cold War division.

A major obstacle to Ostpolitik was the fear, widespread throughout Europe, that Germany’s loss of such a large territory to Poland and the refusal of previous West German governments to accept the Oder–Neisse line would eventually lead to revived German militarism. Consequently, for the trust-building of Ostpolitik to succeed, the Federal Republic would first have to accept the hated border with Poland that the Soviet Union had established at the end of the war.

In a fortunate confluence of circumstances, changes underway in the Soviet Union and Poland made a settlement of the border issue possible. The brutal Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 secured Moscow’s hold over its East European empire, which freed Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to pursue his goal of rapprochement with West Germany. Although Brezhnev worried that such a shift would destabilize the German Democratic Republic, a country “paid for by the sacrifice of Soviet people, with the blood of Soviet soldiers,”[7] he nonetheless believed that Moscow must improve relations with Bonn in order to convert “the growing military power of the Soviet Union into the coin of international diplomacy and prestige.”[8] The centerpiece of Brezhnev’s strategy was an all-European conference on security and cooperation, which would, among other things, recognize Soviet territorial gains from the Second World War. Toward this end, on March 17, 1969 the member states of the Warsaw Pact appealed to all European countries to convene a conference on security in Europe.

Brezhnev’s initiative then made it possible for Polish leader Władysław Gomułka to appeal to West Germany to recognize the Oder–Neisse line as part of normalized relations between the two states. British Ambassador to Poland Nicholas Henderson reported to the Foreign Office that Gomułka’s striking initiative, which he announced in a speech on May 17, 1969, was “a decision on the part of the Polish authorities, not so much to try to forget the past, impossible for those of the present ruling generation who experienced German atrocities against Poland at first hand, but to look to the future for the sake of the next generation.”[9] Ambassador Henderson concluded that Poland sought to secure her western border before Germany became any stronger and before Moscow might use the border as a bargaining chip with Bonn, making a deal over Poland’s head. Warsaw also wanted economic and technological help from the West and believed it should seize the opportunity presented by the rise of more accommodating political leaders in Bonn.[10]

Polish/West German negotiations began in February 1970. After five rounds, the talks were temporarily put on hold while parallel negotiations underway between the F.R.G. and the Soviet Union reached a conclusion. The Moscow Treaty signed on August 12, 1970 between the U.S.S.R. and the F.R.G. confirmed the two states’ desire to normalize relations, renounced the use of force, and recognized the post-Second World War borders, citing specifically the Oder–Neisse line.

Ambassador Henderson reported that Polish political leaders “made little attempt to conceal their regret at being beaten to the post and at having the frontier – their frontier – settled over their heads by Big Brother.”[11] They therefore resumed talks with West Germany in early November in order to reach their own treaty on the border. In the middle of this round of negotiations, the German side made a dramatic demonstration of its commitment to reconciliation when Foreign Minister Scheel suddenly traveled to Auschwitz, stating that it was important “to show people what happened here.” The Vice-Chairman of the Bundestag, Professor Carlo Schmid, who also went to the site of the notorious concentration camp, declared that “the road to Auschwitz is one that must be traversed by every German.”[12]

On December 7, 1970, Chancellor Brandt and Polish Prime Minister Józef Cyrankiewicz signed the Treaty of Warsaw, through which the two states renounced the use of force and accepted the border at the Oder–Neisse line. Before the signing ceremony, Brandt made his famous visit to the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, kneeling there for some time. In his speech that evening, Brandt said that for many of his countrymen:

whose families had lived in the East for generations, this is a day especially fraught with problems. Some feel as if they have only now lost what they did in fact lose 25 years ago. They have in a way been prisoners of an illusion. But I ask myself whether here, too, in Poland people have not partly been in the captivity of false ideas, thinking that it was impossible to trust us in the Federal Republic of Germany. We shall need time on both sides. But like Abraham Lincoln, I think that a tree which will take a long time to reach its full stature should be planted now.[13]

After he returned to Bonn from Warsaw, Brandt’s chief adviser, State Secretary Egon Bahr, briefed the British, French, and American ambassadors on the treaty with Poland. He was obliged to do so because the three allies still had special rights over their former occupation zones in Germany and had been concerned that West Germany’s treaty with Poland might compromise those rights.[14] Bahr reported that “the going had been rather hard,” but:

within 24 hours of Herr Brandt arriving, the German delegation had found themselves able to talk in a normal way to their Polish opposite numbers. This strongly suggested that the moment was indeed ripe for a reconciliation between the two countries.[15]

Bahr added that:

the whole occasion had been very emotional. It had cost the Poles a considerable effort to play the German National Anthem for the first time in a quarter of a century; and things had not been at all easy for the Germans either. It had been particularly difficult for the Chancellor, a firm opponent of Hitler, to have to accept the consequences of what he had done.

Assessing the larger impact of the imminent Polish/German Treaty, the British diplomat Brooks Richards wrote from Bonn on September 10 that:

the dynamism of Brandt’s policy and the establishment of a new relationship with Eastern Europe may help to provoke far-reaching changes in Central and Eastern Europe… It is only by helping the countries of Eastern Europe to draw back the Iron Curtain closed by Stalin and to open windows to the West that we can further the process of change to a less rigid political philosophy and to a lesser degree of dependence on the USSR… But the bogey of Germany had barred the way to a greater opening to the West. It will take time before new habits can replace old and there will be frustrations and setbacks: but the Treaty removes a central obstacle. It should also incidentally severely limit the extent to which the Polish regime can continue to use anti-German propaganda for its own purposes.[17]

Historians writing since the end of the Cold War have generally agreed with Richards’ view of the impact of the German/Polish treaty. The Final Act of the C.S.C.E., signed in Helsinki on August 1, 1975, was made possible by West Germany’s recognition of the Oder–Neisse border in its treaties with Poland and the U.S.S.R. in 1970. While the Helsinki Accords did not bring an immediate end to the Cold War, they are widely regarded as marking a fundamental shift in the framework of East/West relations. As the Finnish historian Jussi Hanhimaki writes, “it was there that Europe’s postwar era finally came to an end.”[18]


[1] For the significance of the C.S.C.E., see Nicolas Badalassi and Sarah B. Snyder, eds., The CSCE and the End of the Cold War: Diplomacy, Societies and Human Rights, 1972–1990 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2019). For the importance of the German issue to the C.S.C.E., see Gottfried Niedhardt, “CSCE, the German Question and the Eastern Bloc,” Journal of Cold War Studies 18, no. 3 (2016): 3–13. For the Polish attitudes toward the C.S.C.E., see Wanda Jarzabek, “Hope and Reality: Poland and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, 1964–1989,” Working Paper #56, Cold War International History Project (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, May 2008).

[2] Richard Pipes, The Unknown Lenin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996), 240.

[3] For a well-documented discussion of Soviet intentions regarding Poland, see Georgy Kynin and Jochen Laufer, eds., The USSR and the German Question, 1941-1945, 2 vols. (Moscow: Mezhdunarodnie otnosheniia, 1996).

[4] Anna M. Cienciala, “Great Britain and Poland before and after Yalta (1943-1945): A Reassessment,” The Polish Review XL, no. 3 (1995): 281–313.

[5] United States Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States: Diplomatic Papers, Conferences at Malta and Yalta, 1945 (U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, DC.), Bohlen Minutes, February 9, 1945.

[6] GlobalSecurity.org, “The Oder-Neisse Line.”

[7] Vladislav M. Zubok, A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 211.

[8] Zubok, A Failed Empire, 214.

[9] To Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Diplomatic Report No. 540/70, December 10, 1970, “FRG/Polish Treaty,” File eNP3/309/1, Political Relations between Poland and the Federal German Republic, FCO 28/1034.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] See, e.g., Priority Warsaw to Foreign and Commonwealth Office, November 1970, Polish-German Talks, Telegram No. 368, File No. P3/309/1, Part B, Political Relations and Negotiations between Poland and the German Federal Republic, FCO 28/1032.

[15] C.J. Audland, British Embassy Bonn to J.K. Drinkall, F.C.O., December 9, 1970, Polish/FRG Relations, File eNP3/309/1, Political Relations between Poland and the Federal German Republic, FCO 28/1034.

[16] Ibid.

[17] To Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Diplomatic Report No. 540/70, December 10, 1970, “FRG/Polish Treaty,” File eNP3/309/1, Political Relations between Poland and the Federal German Republic, FCO 28/1034.

[18] Jussi M. Hanhimaki, “Détente in Europe, 1962-1975,” in Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad, eds., The Cambridge History of the Cold War, 3 vols. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), vol. 2, 199.

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