National Redefinitions Amid Shifting Boundaries: The German–Polish Border in Context
Unsurprisingly, the establishment of the new German–Polish border at Potsdam in 1945 had a lasting and inflammatory impact on relations between the two peoples. More profound, however, was the way in which it shaped the internal political and social development of both Poland and the emergent German Democratic Republic (GDR). The border played a central role in the redefinition of (East) German and Polish national identities—or, more specifically, territorial understandings of both nations—in the immediate postwar period, reconciling them with new geopolitical realities. In the process, it contributed significantly to the communist seizure of power in each state.
The immediate postwar period was characterized above all by the immense material and psychic damage caused by the Second World War. Having suffered the loss of their nation-states, along with most other personal and social frameworks, both peoples found themselves in a state of ‘physical, political, and moral chaos’ by the start of the postwar period. In the face of this chaos, most ordinary Germans and Poles were concerned above all with re-establishing a normal life as quickly and painlessly as possible—an aim that also entailed the reinvention of national identities on both sides.
This process of reinvention was inexorable, and the communists could not have held it back had they wanted to. In the event, however, both communist parties sought to harness it for their own political ends, shaping their national discourses in order to boost their popular legitimacy and aid the consolidation of their power. To bolster these efforts, the communists also strove to suppress the alternative narratives developing in the early postwar years.
In both states, in short, this period was marked by the communists’ attempts to construct usable national identities that would also be accepted as authentic by the populace.
One of the more obvious ways in which the new (East) German and Polish identities were forced to differ from the old was in their geography. As a result of the final border arrangements, neither state was able to benefit from territorial continuity with its non-communist predecessor. The area that became the GDR occupied less than a quarter of the territory of the prewar German Reich, and needed to adjust to revised borders with Poland in the east (along the Oder–Neisse line) and the newly founded Federal Republic of Germany in the west. Poland, meanwhile, found itself shifted westwards, gaining German territory in the west while losing slightly more to the Soviet Union in the east.
In both cases, the new borders did not conform to those in the popular nationalist imagination, yet were non-negotiable. The communists therefore had little choice but to incorporate these changes into the new official national narratives they were constructing, to justify them and, just as importantly, to bridge the gulf between the old and new territorial understandings of their respective nations.
Establishing an official narrative
The official interpretation propagated by both communist parties characterized the new border as a crucial first step towards peace and reconciliation between the two states, after the outrages committed during the war. East German propaganda repeatedly referred to the Oder–Neisse line as a ‘peace border’, established in order ‘to make a new German attack [on Poland] impossible and to give the Polish people a secure western border’.
Communist propaganda within Poland, meanwhile, incorporated an additional argument attempting to justify the border shift in historical terms. In this intepretation, the Polish annexation of former eastern German territories was in fact a reclamation of lands traditionally belonging to the Poles, which had previously been seized by the Germans during the Polish partitions in the late eighteenth century, or in some cases earlier. The postwar border settlement was therefore an opportunity to redress the balance.
This notion was reflected in the names given to these territories in Polish propaganda: the ‘Recovered Territories’ (Ziemie Odzyskane), which was reflected in the name of the ministry responsible for the region; and the ‘Piast lands’ (Ziemie Piastowskie), a reference to the Polish state that existed from the tenth to the fourteenth centuries, and whose name was invoked to suggest that this was a mere restoration of the status quo ante.
This official interpretation met with meagre success, however, and despite the communists’ insistence to the contrary, the border change and expulsions engendered a great deal of anger, resentment and in many cases revanchism among Germans.
‘Sitting on suitcases’
The border shift was accompanied by the expulsion by Polish and Soviet authorities of around six million ethnic Germans from the ‘Recovered Territories’. These expulsions had more than logistical significance. As has been discussed before, they formed the centrepiece of a programme of national homogenization, pursued by the Polish communists in an effort to boost their nationalist credentials in the eyes of the wider populace, and craft a new Polish identity that acknowledged the communists as the architects of the reconquest of an indigenously Polish region.
For those personally involved, however, the resettlements were marked by immediate, personal losses: of their houses or farms; of most of their property; of their homelands; and in many cases of their extended families. Their understanding of the deportations was also dominated by their traumatic experiences of the often brutal and violent way in which they were carried out.
Many expellees took decades to adapt to their new homes and nation-states—assuming that they adapted at all. This was exacerbated by the uncertainty surrounding the permanence of the Oder–Neisse border in the immediate postwar years. A large proportion of resettlers, both German and Polish, initially operated under the assumption that the border shifts would be reversed, and that they would soon be permitted to return home. This belief, in turn, left the resettlers disinclined to develop the border region economically, or in some cases even to unpack their luggage.
The potential harm this uncertainty could cause, to the resettlers’ emotional wellbeing as well as to their efforts at national integration, was recognized by the German communists at an early stage, with party functionaries speaking out against the ‘illusions of sitting on suitcases [Auf-den-Koffer-Sitzen] and waiting to return to the old neighbourhood’ to which it could give rise.
Relocation and (re)integration
A dissonance therefore developed between the understanding of the expellees and the wider population of what the border change meant, and of the precise nature of the injury that had been inflicted. In both states the expellees’ experiences and outlook were different enough for them to constitute a distinct memory community, separate from their respective national groups, whose interpretation of the border shift was at odds with the official version.
It was in the interest of both communist parties to eliminate, or at least to suppress, this threat to the integrity of the new national collectivities that they were trying to construct. In each state, the border, the resettlers and their memories and experiences of deportation all needed to be woven into the new national narrative, and all needed to be reconciled with the varied and counterproductive popular responses to these developments. The expellees were therefore expected to integrate into their new residences as ‘ahistorical beings, officially forbidden to keep memories of their homeland alive or preserve their cultural and intellectual heritages’.
The methods used by the communists were generally crude and coercive, their aim being to achieve at least nominal integration as quickly as possible. To this end, the border was sealed once the population transfers had been completed, and the communists imposed a taboo on any public discussion of these matters, to say nothing of any demands for border revision. This extended even to the omission of any mention of the population transfers from GDR history textbooks.
As far as the official national narratives were concerned, therefore, the integration of the resettlers proceeded swiftly and easily. Before the end of the 1940s, both communist parties had declared it a success, and stopped compiling separate statistics on the expellees. They were simply absorbed into the populations of the (East) German and Polish nation-states, while the Oder–Neisse border was hailed as one of the inviolable borders defining these new states, as well as the most effective guarantor of peace between them.