Historical eastern Germany

The former eastern territories of Germany (German: Ehemalige deutsche Ostgebiete) are those provinces or regions east of the current eastern border of Germany which were lost by Germany during and after the two world wars. These territories include the most of the Province of Posen and West Prussia (lost via the Treaty of Versailles following World War I) and East Prussia, Farther Pomerania, East Brandenburg, and Lower Silesia (lost in World War II); and other, smaller regions. In present-day Germany, the term is usually meant to refer only to the territories lost in World War II.[1]


In the Potsdam Agreement the description of the territories transferred is "The former German territories east of the Oder-Neisse line", and permutations on this description are the most commonly used to describe any former territories of Germany east of the Oder-Neisse line.

While the name East Germany, a political term, used to be the colloquial naming of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the term Eastern Germany underwent a shift in the 20th century due to the border shifts after the Second World War. Since in German there is only one usual term Ostdeutschland, meaning East Germany or Eastern Germany, the German rather ambiguous term never gained prevailing use for the GDR as did the English term. While Eastern Germany had been used for the former eastern territories of Germany before the Second World War.[2] The term since has been used to denote the post-war and the respective five states of the reunited Germany. However, this is rather an outside perspective, because people and institutions in the states, traditionally considered as Middle Germany, like the three southern new states Saxony-Anhalt, the Free State of Saxony and the Free State of Thuringia, still use the term Middle Germany when referring to their area and its institutions.[3]

The former eastern territories in 20th-century politics

From 1919 till 1990 sovereignty over some or all of these territories was subject to much diplomatic activity. Between the two world wars, many in Germany claimed that the territories ceded by Germany in 1919 under the Treaty of Versailles (most of which were taken in Partitions of Poland) should be returned to Germany. This claim was an important precursor to the Second World War. In 1939 after its invasion of Poland, Germany reoccupied and annexed these territories (as well as additional land in Poland that previously had never been part of the German Reich). Germany subsequently lost territories east of the Oder-Neisse Line at the end of World War II in 1945, when international recognition of its right to jurisdiction over any of these territories was conditionally withdrawn.[4] The "condition" mentioned was the Final German Peace Treaty, which was to set the actual border line, which may or may not have been the Oder-Western Neisse Line. At Potsdam, the assumption by many was that a Final German Peace Treaty was imminent. This turned out to be incorrect, since the Final German Peace Treaty was negotiated in September 1990, 45 years later. The Eastern German areas east of the Oder-Neisse Line, and within the 1937 German Border, with the exception of Soviet Administered Northern East Prussia, became known as the Recovered Territories in Poland following World War II.

After World War II, the so-called "German question" was an important factor of post-war German history and politics. The debate affected Cold War politics and diplomacy and played an important role in the negotiations leading up to the reunification of Germany in 1990. In 1990 Germany officially recognized its present eastern border at the time of its reunification, ending any residual claims to sovereignty that Germany may have had over any territory east of the Oder-Neisse line.

Eastern territories of Germany 1871–1945

Foundation of the German Empire

At the time of the foundation of the German Empire in 1871, Prussia was the largest and dominant part of the empire. Thus, the territories of East Brandenburg, Silesia, Pomerania and the provinces of Prussia and Poznań (Posen) were all parts of the initial territory that comprised the German Empire in 1871. Later, these territories would come to be called in Germany "Ostgebiete des deutschen Reiches" (Eastern territories of the German Empire).

In some areas, such as the Province of Posen or the east-southern part of Upper Silesia, the area that would later become Polish Corridor the majority population was Polish, while in others it was predominantly German. Under the Treaty of Versailles, territories with an apparent Polish majority were ceded to Poland.

Treaty of Versailles

The provisions of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I obliged Germany to transfer some territory to other countries. In Central Europe, these included:

German annexation of Hultschin Area and the Memel Territory

In October 1938 Hlučín Area (Hlučínsko in Czech, Hultschiner Ländchen in German) of Moravian-Silesian Region which had been ceded to Czechoslovakia under the Treaty of Versailles was annexed by the Third Reich as a part of areas lost by Czechoslovakia in accordance with the Munich agreement. However, as distinct from other lost Czechoslovakian domains, it was not attached to Sudetengau (administrative region covering Sudetenland) but to Prussia (Upper Silesia).

By late 1938, Lithuania had lost control over the situation in the Memel Territory. In the early hours of 23 March 1939, after a political ultimatum caused a Lithuanian delegation to travel to Berlin, the Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Juozas Urbšys and his German counterpart Joachim von Ribbentrop signed the Treaty of the Cession of the Memel Territory to Germany in exchange for a Lithuanian Free Zone in the port of Memel, using the facilities erected in previous years.

World War II

With the defeat of Poland in 1939 in the beginning of World War II, Germany annexed eastern territories lost under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, and annexed other eastern territories. These territorial changes were not recognised by the Allied governments, that after the 1942 Declaration by the United Nations were also known as the United Nations.

After invading Poland in 1939, the Third Reich annexed the lands the German Empire had ceded to the Second Polish Republic in 1919–1922 by the Treaty of Versailles, including the "Polish Corridor", West Prussia, the Province of Posen, and parts of eastern Upper Silesia. The council of the Free City of Danzig voted to become a part of Germany again, although Poles and Jews were deprived of their voting rights and all non-Nazi political parties were banned. Parts of Poland that had not been part of the German Empire were also incorporated into the Third Reich.

Two decrees by Adolf Hitler (October 8 and October 12, 1939) provided for the division of the annexed areas of Poland into the following administrative units:

These territories had an area of 94,000 km² and a population of 10,000,000 people. The remainder of the Polish territory was annexed by the Soviet Union (see Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) or made into the German-controlled General Government occupation zone.

After the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, the district of Białystok, which included the Białystok, Bielsk Podlaski, Grajewo, Łomża, Sokółka, Volkovysk, and Grodno Counties, was "attached to" (not incorporated into) East Prussia, whilst East Galicia (Distrikt Galizien), which included the cities of Lwów, Stanislawów and Tarnopol, was made part of the General Government.

Potsdam Conference

Main article: Potsdam Conference

After World War II, as agreed at the Potsdam Conference (which met from 17 July until 2 August 1945), all of the areas east of the Oder-Neisse line, whether recognised by the international community as part of Germany until 1939 or occupied by Germany during World War II, were placed under the jurisdiction of other countries. The relevant paragraphs in the Potsdam Agreement are:

V. City of Koenigsberg and the adjacent area.

The Conference examined a proposal by the Soviet Government to the effect that pending the final determination of territorial questions at the peace settlement, the section of the western frontier of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics which is adjacent to the Baltic Sea should pass from a point on the eastern shore of the Bay of Danzig to the east, north of Braunsberg-Goldap, to the meeting point of the frontiers of Lithuania, the Polish Republic and East Prussia.
The Conference has agreed in principle to the proposal of the Soviet Government concerning the ultimate transfer to the Soviet Union of the City of Koenigsberg and the area adjacent to it as described above subject to expert examination of the actual frontier.
The President of the United States and the British Prime Minister have declared that they will support the proposal of the Conference at the forthcoming peace settlement.

VIII. Poland.

The British and United States Governments have taken measures to protect the interest of the Polish Provisional Government of National Unity as the recognized government of the Polish State in the property belonging to the Polish State located in their territories and under their control, whatever the form of this property may be.
In conformity with the agreement on Poland reached at the Crimea Conference the three Heads of Government have sought the opinion of the Polish Provisional Government of National Unity in regard to the accession of territory in the north and west which Poland should receive. The President of the National Council of Poland and members of the Polish Provisional Government of National Unity have been received at the Conference and have fully presented their views. The three Heads of Government reaffirm their opinion that the final delimitation of the western frontier of Poland should await the peace settlement.

The three Heads of Government agree that, pending the final determination of Poland's western frontier, the former German territories east of a line running from the Baltic Sea immediately west of Swinamunde, and thence along the Oder River to the confluence of the western Neisse River and along the Western Neisse to the Czechoslovak frontier, including that portion of East Prussia not placed under the administration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in accordance with the understanding reached at this conference and including the area of the former free city of Danzig, shall be under the administration of the Polish State and for such purposes should not be considered as part of the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany. (Emphasis added)

The Allies also agreed that:

XII. Orderly transfer of German populations.

The Three Governments [of the Soviet Union, the United States and Great Britain], 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.

because in the words of Winston Churchill

Expulsion is the method which, in so far as we have been able to see, will be the most satisfactory and lasting. There will be no mixture of populations to cause endless trouble. A clean sweep will be made.[6]

Post World War II

Between 1945 and 1990 the government of West Germany preferred to use the phrase "former German territories temporarily under Polish and Soviet administration" (Note: those "former German territories" are those of Eastern Germany within the 1937 Germany Border). This was the wording used in the Potsdam Agreement, but was used only by the Federal Republic of Germany because the Polish and Soviet governments refused to use it, objecting to the obvious implication that these territories should someday revert to Germany.

The Polish government preferred to use the phrase Recovered Territories, asserting a sort of continuity because parts of these territories had centuries ago been ruled by ethnic Poles.

Expulsion of Germans and resettlement

Main articles: Expulsion of Germans after World War II and Flight and expulsion of Germans from Poland during and after World War II

The majority of the German-speaking population east of the Oder–Neisse line (roughly 10 million in the ostgebiete alone) that had not already been evacuated by the German authorities or fled from the advancing Red Army in the winter of 1944–1945 was expelled. Although in the post-war period earlier German sources often cited the number of evacuated and expelled Germans at 16 million and the death toll at between 1.7[7] and 2.5 million,[8] today, the numbers are considered by some historians to be exaggerated and more likely in the range between 400,000 to 600,000.[9] Some present-day estimates place the numbers of German refugees at 14 million of which about half a million died during the evacuations and expulsions.[9][10]

At the same time, Poles from Central Poland, expelled Poles from former Eastern Poland, Polish returnees from internment and forced labour, Ukrainians forcefully resettled in Operation Vistula and Jewish Holocaust survivors settled in the territories gained by Poland, whereas the North of former East Prussia (Kaliningrad Oblast) was turned into a military zone and subsequently became settled with Russians.


During the 1970s while Willy Brandt was chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), the FRG followed a foreign relations policy of Ostpolitik abandoning elements of the Hallstein Doctrine. The FRG "abandoned, at least for the time being, its claims with respect to German self-determination and reunification, recognising de facto the existence of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the Oder-Neisse Line."[11] Subsequently, between 1970 and 1973, the FRG concluded friendship treaties with, successively, the Soviet Union (The Treaty of Moscow), Poland (The Treaty of Warsaw), the GDR (The Basic Treaty) and Czechoslovakia (The Treaty of Prague), thereby accommodating the European order that existed in the 1970s.[11]

Modern status

Over the last 20 years, the "German question" has been muted 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 and 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.[12] Germany's recognition of the border was formalised in the German-Polish Border Treaty on November 14, 1990.
  • The expansion of the European Union to Central Europe (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 and 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 entered the Schengen Agreement on December 21, 2007, removing all border controls on its border with Germany, making movement across the border even easier.

In the course of the German reunification process, Chancellor Helmut Kohl accepted the territorial changes made after the Second World War. 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 an expression of anger and desire for the return of the lost territories.

Some organisations exist in Germany who claim those territories for Germany or property there for German citizens. The Prussian Trust (or the Prussian Claims Society), that probably has less than a hundred members,[13] re-opened the old dispute when in December 2006, it submitted 23 individual claims against the Polish government with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg asking for compensation or return of property appropriated from its members at the end of World War II. An expert report jointly commissioned by the German and Polish governments from specialists in international law have confirmed that the proposed complaints by the Prussian Trust had little hope of success. But the German government can not prevent such requests being made and the Polish government has felt that the submissions warranted a comment by Anna Fotyga, the Polish Minister of the Foreign Affairs who "express [her] deepest concern upon receiving the information about a claim against Poland submitted by the Prussian Trust to the European Court of Human Rights".[14] On 9 October 2008 the European Court of Human Rights declared the case of Preussische Treuhand v. Poland inadmissible, because the European Convention on Human Rights does not impose any obligations on the Contracting States to return property which was transferred to them before they ratified the Convention.[15]

After the NPD won 6 seats in the parliament of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in September 2006, the leader of the party, Udo Voigt, declared that his party demands Germany in "historical borders" and questioned current border treaties.[16]

The former eastern territories in German history

The former eastern territories were the scene of numerous events noted in German history, but generally viewed in modern-day Poland as being of 'foreign' rather than local interest.[17] These include battles such as Frederick the Great’s victories at Mollwitz in 1741, Hohenfriedeberg in 1745, Leuthen (1757) and Zorndorf (1758), and his defeats at Gross-Jägersdorf in 1757 and Kunersdorf in 1759. Historian Norman Davies describes Kunersdorf as "Prussia's greatest disaster" and the inspiration for Christian Tiedge's Elegy to "Humanity butchered by Delusion on the Altar of Blood".[17] In the Napoleonic Wars the Pomeranian town of Kolberg was besieged in 1807 (inspiring a Second World War Nazi propaganda film) while the French Grande Armée was victorious at Eylau in East Prussia in the same year. In World War I, Hindenburg won critical victories at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, ejecting Russian forces from East Prussia.[17]

In sports, the Breslau Eleven became known as one of the greatest teams in the history of German football after their 8-0 victory over Denmark at the Hermann-Göring-Sportfeld in Breslau on 16 May 1937.

Numerous figures in German culture and history were either born or resident in the former eastern territories. An inexhaustive list is as follows:[17]

Politicians, statesmen and national leaders

Military figures

Scientists and mathematicians

Philosophers and theologians

Historians and archaeologists

Poets, writers, musicians, dramatists, and other cultural figures



Actors and actresses


See also

  • Territorial changes of Poland and Germany:
  • Former eastern territories of Germany annexed by the Soviet Union:

Notes and references

Further reading

  • Emotions prevail in relations between Germans, Czechs, Poles – poll, Czech Happenings, 21 December 2005
  • United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1994–1997)
  • Ryszard W. Piotrowicz. The Status of Germany in International Law: Deutschland uber Deutschland? The International and Comparative Law Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Jul., 1989), pp. 609–635 "The purpose of this article is to consider the legal status of Germany from 1945 to [1989]"
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