Why did Germany lose land?

German-Polish relations

Dieter Bingen

To person

Prof. Dr. Dieter Bingen is director of the German Poland Institute. His research interests include: Polish contemporary history and politics, the political system of Poland, political systems and system transformation in East-Central and Southeastern Europe, German-Polish relations and integration politics in Europe.

In the first two decades after the Second World War there were no official contacts between the Federal Republic and Poland. The legacy of the recent Nazi rule in Europe and the current potential for political conflict have long appeared to be insurmountable obstacles to rapprochement.

A historic gesture of humility: Willy Brandt falls on his knees in front of the Jewish memorial in Warsaw. (& copy AP)

New beginning under bad stars (1919-1939)

After gaining independence, Poland was awarded almost the entire former Grand Duchy of Poznan and large parts of West Prussia to the left of the Vistula in the Versailles Treaty of 1919. In disputed areas around Allenstein, Marienwerder and in Upper Silesia, referendums were held, the results of which left the southern areas of East Prussia and West Prussian areas with Germany and Upper Silesia was divided between Germany and Poland. As a "Free City", Danzig was placed under the protectorate of the League of Nations. The demarcation of the boundaries put a strain on the German-Polish relationship from the start. The Weimar Republic refused the normalization of relations desired by Piłsudski and called for a major border revision and military equality. The political understanding sealed between Germany and the Soviet Union in Rapallo in 1922 caused great concern in Poland ("Rapallo complex"). The USSR and National Socialist Germany used their respective non-aggression treaties with Poland (July 25, 1932 and January 26, 1934, respectively) as a breathing space on the way to the revision of the Versailles peace order.


After the "Anschluss" of Austria and the fragmentation of Czechoslovakia, the German dictator Adolf Hitler pushed for a settlement of the Danzig and Corridor issues in favor of Germany as the starting point for a policy that would degrade Poland to a vassal state of the Reich. The rejection of the demands of National Socialist Germany and the British declaration of guarantee for the "national integrity" of Poland on March 31, 1939, prompted Hitler to give the order to prepare for a war of aggression in April and to terminate the non-aggression pact on April 28. A German-Soviet non-aggression treaty ("Hitler-Stalin Pact") signed on 23 August provided for the division of Poland between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union in a secret additional protocol. With the attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, Hitler started World War II.

Poland in World War II (1939-1945) - German occupation policy

After the rapid advance of the German troops and the invasion of eastern Poland by the Red Army on September 17th, the last Polish units surrendered on October 5th. German-Soviet negotiations resulted in a border and friendship treaty on September 28, which laid down the invaders' demarcation line along the Bug River. The west of Poland had been entirely in German hands since September 1939. Hitler began here without consideration with the implementation of the National Socialist "living space policy" in the western areas of Poland united with the Reich ("Integrated Eastern Areas"), while the eastern part, ie the center of Poland, as the "Generalgouvernement" is a "neighboring country" of the German Reich became.

The "Nazi living space and national politics" claimed ten to twenty thousand lives among the Polish ruling class as early as autumn 1939, including numerous Catholic clergy. The first expulsion and resettlement campaigns followed. By the time the German attack on the Soviet Union (June 22, 1941), 365,000 Poles were deported from the incorporated eastern territories. About 1 million Poles left the Generalgouvernement, partly to avoid further economic impoverishment, partly to be forced to go to Germany as "foreign workers". After the conquest of the previously Soviet-occupied eastern Polish territories in the summer of 1941, an expulsion (concerning Poles) and settlement program (concerning ethnic Germans) began there too (Zamość and others), but this was abandoned at the end of 1943 due to strong resistance from the Polish rural population had to.

In the incorporated Eastern Regions and in the General Government, National Socialist Germany sought the complete annihilation of the Jewish population of Europe. Hitler tried to do this through the system of concentration and extermination camps, which were set up mainly in occupied Poland. About 4.5 million Jews from the German sphere of influence were murdered there. The brutal German occupation policy triggered a willingness to resist in the underground struggle, which was spreading across the population. Its armed arm, the "Home Army" (Armia Krajowa) had grown to 350,000 men by the end of 1943. In April 1943, the German occupation forces brutally suppressed the desperate uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, which was supposed to stop the transport of the last 60,000 Jews from Warsaw to the extermination camps. The Home Army triggered an uprising in Warsaw on August 1, 1944 in order to receive the Soviet troops on their way west as a legitimate Polish power. The uprising was suppressed by the German occupying forces by October 2, and Warsaw was reduced to ashes. The Communist-dominated "Lublin Committee", renamed "Provisional Government" on January 1, 1945, took over rule and administration in southern East Prussia, Gdansk, Pomerania, eastern Brandenburg and Silesia after the liberation of Poland. The Potsdam Conference (July 17th-August 2nd, 1945) placed the German eastern areas on the other side of the Oder and Lusatian Neisse as well as southern East Prussia and Danzig (103,000 square kilometers) under Polish administration. Poland finally had to give up 180,000 square kilometers east of the Curzon Line in favor of the Soviet Union. The result of the territorial and political reorganization was the flight, expulsion and resettlement of 7 million Germans from the eastern provinces east of the Oder and Lusatian Neisse and around 1.5 million Poles from the eastern Polish areas that had become Soviet.

In the clutches of the past and the doctrines

In the first two decades after the Second World War, no official contacts were established between the West German state and Poland. It was not until 1972 that Bonn and Warsaw established diplomatic relations with one another. The legacy of the recent Nazi rule in Europe and its consequences and the current potential for political conflict have long appeared to be insurmountable obstacles to rapprochement. There were a variety of reasons for this condition on both sides. The most difficult problem was the border question. The first German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, did not accept the definition of the German-Polish border on the Oder and Neisse, because it was used by an overwhelming majority of German society, not just the expellees, in the 1950s was not accepted.

Polish society, not just the ruling communists, was of the opinion that this question had been finally settled during the Potsdam Conference. For Poland, insisting on the Potsdam resolutions of August 1945 was not just a matter of reasons of state or compensation for the war losses caused by the German occupation regime. Rather, this question had existential significance for the Polish state after the Soviet Union occupied the Polish territories beyond the Bug in 1939. Only half of the pre-war Polish territory found themselves in the new borders. The Poles who had been forcibly relocated from the east were resettled in the so-called "regained areas", the German population of which had also been largely displaced beforehand. The Polish expellees also felt that they had been wronged, they too had lost their homeland and, like the German expellees, they had to rebuild their lives.