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Oder-Neisse line

The Oder-Neisse line (German Oder-Neiße-Grenze, Polish Granica na Odrze i Nysie Łużyckiej) is the current border between Germany and Poland. The line consists mostly of the rivers Oder and Neisse, leaving Szczecin, located on both banks of the Oder, in Poland. This boundary is basically the same as the Polish-German border in the 10th-14th centuries (see also Dagome Iudex).

Situation before World War II

Before World War II, some of the territories to the east of the line had belonged to Germany but contained a significant Polish population. In 1939 Nazi Germany proposed to shift Poland's borders to the East. Germany was to get Free City of Danzig and some other border corrections. Poland was to join Germany in the war against Soviet Union. The reward was to be either Lithuania or Western Ukraine with the port in Odessa, to be determined by the Polish authorities. Having a British guarantee of protection, the Polish government refused.

The next chapter in the history of Poland's borders during WWII happened on August 23, 1939, when Poland was divided in the so-called Non-Aggression Treaty between Germany and Soviet Union (see Nazi-Soviet pact). The very general map suggested, that the border between those countries should go from the source of San river to the mouth, then along Vistula River, dividing Warsaw in 2 parts, then with Narew river to the border of East Prussia. Lithuania was to be assigned to Germany, while Latvia, Estonia and Finland to Soviet Union.

The question of Polish borders during World War II

Nazi Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, and the Soviet Union attacked on September 17. On September 28 both aggressive powers signed yet another border treaty. Lithuania was to be transferred to Soviet Union in exchchange for Lublin region ( between San, Vistula, Bug and Narew rivers). In addition, the correction was added to the border. Since the Narew River never actually crossed the border of East Prussia, the Pisa River was to join the Narew line and East Prussia. East Prussia was also enlarged by Suwalki region.

After the aggression was concluded, the German strip had an area of 188,000 km² with 21.5 million people, while Soviets got 201,000 km² and 13.5 million population.

In October 1939, Germany annexed 94,000 km² of Pomerania, Silesia and Greater Poland, populated by around 10 million people, including 600,000 Germans. The annexed territories included some areas that before 1914 were not part of Germany. 860,000 Poles were immediately deported from the annexed territory to the German-controlled remnant of Poland, while Nazi Germany insisted that the Soviet Union expel Germans from Baltic countries. 360,000 Baltic Germans settled down in annexed Polish Provinces. Poles living on the German annexed territories were deprived of their property, denied any right of education and assigned to slave status. Selected individuals were murdered without trial e.g. in the main killing site of Pomerania 60 000 local leaders were murdered.

The reminder of Poland, occupied by Nazis, was formed in so-called General Government, one of the most shameful chapters in the history of mankind.

In 1941 Nazi Germany unexpectedly attacked its Soviet ally. The German armies advanced into Soviet Union, but in January 1944 the Soviet Army marched back into Polish territory. Stalin was determined not to give back anything that had been gained due to his agreement with the Nazis.

The new communist puppet government of Poland was established in July 1944. Stalin supported them with the promise that Poland will be compensated for the loss of the Eastern Poland by the acquisition of some areas of defeated Germany. This is how the concept of partition, initiated by the Germans in 1939, finally was applied to Germany.

Allies decide Polish border

The decision to move Poland's western boundary westwards was made by the Allies at the Yalta Conference, without involvement of the Polish side,shortly before the end of World War II. The precise location of the border was left open; the western Allies also accepted in general the principle of the Oder-Neisse line as the future western border of Poland and of population transfer as the way to prevent future border disputes. The open question was whether it should be the eastern or western Neisse and if it should include Stettin or not.

Originally Germany were to keep Stettin and the Poles were to get East Prussia with Königsberg, but after Stalin decided he needed Königsberg as a year round warm-water port, the Poles were given Stettin as compensation. Poles also insisted on keeping Lwow in Galicia (Central Europe), but Stalin refused and offered Lower Silesia with Breslau instead.

The intention of the Allied powers was to punish Germany for its aggression in World War II, and to compensate Poland for lands taken by the Soviet Union at the beginning of the war. It has been suggested that the real reason was Franklin Delano Roosevelt's strong desire to appease Stalin any way he could, to gain his support for the war in the Pacific.

The final agreements compensated Poland for 187,000 km² located east of the Curzon line with 112,000 km² of former German territories. The northern part of East Prussia were directly annexed by Stalin. The property in that territory that at that time belonged to Germany, German organizations and Germans citizens was to be used as a partial compensation for property of Poles, their organizations and the Polish state, that had been lost in Eastern Poland, or for the damages caused by Germany during the war. Nevertheless, most of peopele that lost their property during the war, have never been compensated.

After the German surrender, Soviet armies were in control of Eastern Europe. Faced with this fait accompli, the United States, Great Britain, Soviet Union and France decided at the Potsdam Conference to put the German territories east of the Oder-Neisse line (by communist propaganda in Poland referred to as "Western Territories" or "Regained Territories") under Polish administrative control. It was then expected, that a final peace treaty would follow quickly and would either confirm the border or determine the exact border; it was also agreed that Germans remaining in Poland should be transferred to Germany. The affected areas included western and southern East Prussia, most of Pomerania and nearly all of Silesia; the northern part of East Prussia was added to the Soviet Union.

One of the reasons for the final version of the border line was the fact that it was possibly the shortest possible border between Poland and Germany. It is only 472 km in length, because it stretched from the northernmost point of the Czech Republic to one of the southernmost points of the Baltic Sea in the Oder river estuary. The previous border had been one of the longest borders in Europe, comprising more than 1400 km.

Implementation of the new border line

Putting the regained territories into an order met with usual post-war difficulties.

When the Red Army approached, Nazis organized the evacuation. Evacuation transports were often bombed, and evacuation ships were torpedoed by submarines (it resembled exactly the hardships endured during WWII by other European nations attacked by Nazi Germany). Attempts were made by Nazis to demolish what could not be evacuated.

When the Red Army captured a city, everything valuable was taken as war loot. After that, the territory was further devastated by local looters.

Typical scenario, how the new border was implemented looked as follows.

Eventually Red Army had captured the city, usually with the help of Polish army under the command of communist Polish government. Soviet soldiers had been given free hand to take their revenge for Nazi crimes in Russia. The scenes of violence, rapes and robbery last for few days, often somebody set the city on fire.

Then Soviet local commander was approached by the group of people, that claimed are nominees of the Polish government, lawful possessor of the country and the Soviet Union most faithful ally and Nazis most known enemy. After long negotiations, helped with drinking a lot of vodka, surprised Soviet commander finally gives the Polish city council keys to the city, or rather ruins and remainders of the beautiful city it was. This doesn't prevent Soviets from packing everything that they find valuable on trains and transporting it as war loot. In mean time NKVD deported most of the men to Siberia, without any distinction between the local Polish or Germans. The new Polish authority, with the help of local Poles, Polish slave workers and Polish prisoners of the concentration camp liberated in the neighborhood, tried to bring order to the city and to get basic services running.

A significant obstacle was the Wehrwolf, a Nazi conspiracy that were planned to continue fighting after the final defeat of Germany.

Forced population transfers summary

Before the 1939, all Regained Territories as they were called, had a population of 8.8 million people, an unknown number belonged to the Polish minority that was illegal in Nazi Germany. There was also a Jewish minority, that was murdered during the Holocaust. German historians say that during the war around 1 million people were killed, through conscription into the German army, bombing, evacuation and Soviet violence. A significant amount of population was deported to Siberia by NKVD, without much distinction between the local Polish or Germans.

When taken over by Polish administration, the population were around 4.5 million, including 1 million Polish slave workers or prisoners concentration camps that were caught in the country at the end of war. German citizens were confronted to a process of verification to see if they were fit for Polish citizenship. Local Poles give their opinions and helped verify the behavior of the Germans during the war, taking into account the level of support for Nazi Germany.

Eventually, 2.2 million German citizens who had not been verified were expelled to the occupation zones of Germany.

Recognition of the border by Germany

Communist East Germany signed a treaty with Poland in 1950 recognizing the Oder-Neisse line as a permanent border. In 1952, recognition of the Oder-Neisse line as a permanent boundary was one of the conditions for the Soviet Union to agree to a reunified Germany. The reunification was rejected by West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer for several reasons.

In West Germany the recognition of the line as permanent was initially regarded as unacceptable. In fact, West Germany as part of the Hallstein Doctrine did not recognize either Poland or East Germany. The West German attitude changed with the policy of Ostpolitik led by Willy Brandt; in 1970 West Germany signed treaties with Poland and the Soviet Union recognizing the Oder-Neisse line as a factual border of Poland, thus making family visits by the displaced eastern Germans to their former homelands possible. On November 14, 1990 as a prerequisite for the unification with East Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany amended its constitution, the Basic Law, to remove the article concerning unification of pre-war German areas, as a further sign of recognition of the line. The 1991 Polish-German border agreement finalized the Oder-Neisse line as the Polish-German border and was also supposed to grant the German minority in Poland several rights such as the right to use German surnames, their native language, schools, and churches.

Today and the future

After World War II many expellees (German: Heimatvertriebene) from the land east of the Oder-Neisse received refuge in West-Germany. Some of the expellees are active in politics and belong to the political right-wing, some others do not belong to any organizations, but continue to maintain what they call a lawful right to their homeland. The vast majority pledged to work peacefully towards that goal, while rebuilding post-war West Germany. In a document signed 50 years ago the Heimatvertriebene organisations have also recognized the plight of the different groups of people living in today's Poland who were by force resettled there. The Heimatvertriebene are a fringe group in today's Germany, becoming constantly less important due to the natural deaths of the concerned persons. In today's Germany there is little support for reopening the border issue.

Relations between Poland and Germany are good, and there are no fears within Poland that Germany would annex the land east of the Oder-Neisse line. There are however strong worries among many Poles that descendants of the expelled Germans would attempt to buy back their land. This has led to Polish restrictions on the sale of property to foreigners (a special permission is needed and is nearly impossible to get), in the European Union comparable to similar restrictions on the Baltic Åland Islands.