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The Yalta Conference

The final decision to move Poland's boundary westward was made by the US, Britain and the Soviets at the Yalta Conference, shortly before the end of the war. The precise location of the border was left open; the western Allies also accepted in general the principle of the Oder River as the future western border of Poland and of population transfer as the way to prevent future border disputes. The open question was whether the border should follow the eastern or western Neisse rivers, and whether Stettin, the traditional seaport of Berlin, should remain German or be included in Poland.

Originally, Germany was to retain Stettin while the Poles were to annex East Prussia with Königsberg. [1]. Eventually, however, Stalin decided that he wanted Königsberg as a year-round warm water port for the Soviet Navy and argued that the Poles should receive Stettin instead. The wartime Polish government in exile had little to say in these decisions. [2]

Poland's old and new borders, 1945

Key points of the meeting that are relevant to the territorial changes of Germany are as follows:

  • There was an agreement that the priority would be the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. After the war, Germany would be split into four occupied zones, with a quadripartite occupation of Berlin as well, prior unification of Germany.
  • Stalin agreed to let France have the fourth occupation zone in Germany and Austria, carved out from the British and American zones. France would also be granted a seat in the Allied Control Council.
  • Germany would undergo demilitarization and denazification.
  • The status of Poland was discussed, but was complicated by the fact that Poland was at this time under the control of the Red Army. It was agreed to reorganize the Provisionary Polish Government that had been set up by the Red Army through the inclusion of other groups such as the Polish Provisional Government of National Unity and to have democratic elections. This effectively excluded the Polish government-in-exile that had evacuated in 1939.
  • The Polish eastern border would follow the Curzon Line, and Poland would receive substantial territorial compensation in the west from Germany, although the exact border was to be determined at a later time.
  • A "Committee on Dismemberment of Germany" was to be set up. The purpose was to decide whether Germany was to be divided into six nations, and if so, what borders and inter-relationships the new German states were to have.

The Potsdam Conference

At the Potsdam Conference the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union placed the 1937 German territories east of the Oder-Neisse line (These were eventually referred to by the Polish communist government as the "Western Territories" or "Regained Territories") as formally under Polish administrative control. It was anticipated that a final peace treaty would follow shortly and either confirm this border or determine whatever alterations might be agreed upon.

The final agreements in effect 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 was eventually directly annexed by the Soviet Union and is still part of Russia.

It was also decided that all Germans remaining in Poland should be expelled, to prevent any claims of minority rights. Among the provisions of the Potsdam Conference was a section that provided for the Orderly transfer of German populations. The specific wording of this section was as follows:

The Three Governments, having considered the question in all its aspects, recognize that the transfer to Germany of German populations, or elements thereof, remaining in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, will have to be undertaken. They agree that any transfers that take place should be effected in an orderly and humane manner.

At the end of the conference, the Three Heads of Government agreed on the following actions:

The Oder-Neisse line (click to enlarge)

  • Germany:
    See also Expulsion of Germans after World War II, The industrial plans for Germany, Former eastern territories of Germany, and Oder-Neisse line
    • Issuance of a statement of aims of the occupation of Germany by the Allies: demilitarization, denazification, democratization and decartelization.
    • Division of Germany and Austria respectively into four occupation zones (earlier agreed in principle at Yalta), and the similar division of each's capital, Berlin and Vienna, into four zones.
    • Reversion of all German annexations in Europe after 1937, among those included were Sudetenland, Alsace-Lorraine, Austria, the westmost parts of Poland, and others.
    • Germany's eastern border was to be shifted westwards to the Oder-Neisse line, effectively reducing Germany in size by approximately 25% compared to her 1937 borders. The territories east of the new border comprised East Prussia, Silesia, West Prussia, and two thirds of Pomerania. These areas were mainly agricultural, with the exception of Upper Silesia which was the second largest centre of German heavy industry.
    • Expulsion of the German populations remaining beyond the new eastern borders of Germany.
  • Poland:
    See also Western betrayal and Territorial changes of Poland after World War II
    • Creation of a Provisional Government of National Unity recognised by all three powers. Recognition of the Soviet controlled government by the Western Powers effectively meant end of recognition for the existing Polish government in Exile.
    • Poles who were serving in British Army formations should be free to return to Poland. With no security upon their return to the communist country guaranteed.
    • The provisional western border should be the Oder-Neisse line, parts of East Prussia and former free City of Danzig should be under Polish administration, but that the final delimitation of the western frontier of Poland should await the peace settlement, which had to await the Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany in 1990.

Post World War II politics

Since 1945, referring to the lands over which there had been a transfer of jurisdiction as "East Germany" has had political connotations, which means that any article which discusses this issue is likely to be contentious. The contention has been somewhat dissipated over the last twenty years by three related phenomena:

  • The passage of time means that there are fewer and fewer people left who have firsthand experience of living in these regions under German jurisdiction.
  • Until the Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany, the official German government position on the status of areas vacated by settled German communities east of the Oder–Neisse rivers was that the areas were "temporarily under Polish [or Soviet] administration." In 1990 the German political establishment recognised the "facts on the ground" and accepted clauses in the Treaty on the Final Settlement, whereby Germany renounced all claims to territory east of the Oder–Neisse line. The problem with the status of these territories was that in 1945 the concluding document of the Potsdam Conference was not a legally binding treaty, but a memorandum Between the USSR, the USA and the UK. It regulated the issue of the eastern German border, which was to be the Oder–Neisse line, but the final article of the memorandum said that the final decisions concerning Germany were subject to a separate peace treaty. This treaty was signed in 1990 under the name of "Treaty on the Final Settlement" by both the German states and ratified in 1991 by the united Germany. This ended the legal limbo state which meant that for 45 years, people on both sides of the border could not be sure whether the settlement reached in 1945 might be changed at some future date.
  • The eastern expansion of the European Union (EU) which occurred on May 1, 2004 means that any German who wishes to live and work in Poland, and thus east of the Oder–Neisse rivers, may do so without requiring a permit. Some restrictions on the purchase of land and buildings will be in place for a period of a few years. However, German expellees and refugees are now free to visit their former homes without difficulty. Poland implemented the Schengen Agreement provisions in 2008 and all border controls on its border with Germany are now eliminated, making movement across the border even easier.

In the course of the German reunification process, Chancellor Helmut Kohl accepted the territorial changes made after World War II. This caused some outrage among the Federation of Expellees. Some Poles were concerned about a possible revival of their 1939 trauma through a second German invasion, this time with the Germans buying back their land, which was cheaply available at the time. This happened on a smaller scale than many expected, and since the Baltic Sea coast in Poland has become popular with German tourists, Germans are now frequent and welcome guests. The so-called "homesickness tourism" which was often perceived as quite aggressive well into the 1990s now tends to be viewed as a good-natured nostalgia tour rather than a source of anger and desire for the return of the lost territories.[1]


  1. Doris Stennert, ‘Reisen zum Wiedersehen und Neuerleben’. Aspekte des ‘Heimwehtourismus’ dargestellt am Beispiel der Grafschaft Glatzer, in: Kurt Dröge, ed., Alltagskulturen zwischen Erinnerung und Geschichte. Beiträge zur Volkskunde der Deutschen in und aus dem östlichen Europa, Munich 1995, pp. 83-94

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