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The Evolution of Poland's Borders After WWII

Author: Grzegorz Litynski

Summary: 75 years ago, in 1945, WWII ended. As a result of the global conflict, Poland underwent significant territorial changes. Eastern territories of Poland became part of the Soviet Empire. Several historically and economically significant cities were lost, including Lwow, Wilno, Stanislawow, and Grodno. At the same time, Poland was granted German territory east of the Oder and Neisse Rivers, including Pomerania, Silesia, and the southern part of East Prussia. Consequently, prominent German cities became Polish, including Breslau (now Wroclaw) and Stettin (Szczecin). The Allies decided on the Polish borders without consulting the Polish government in exile.

Polish East Frontier Before WWII: 160 miles East of the Curzon Line

After WWI, the Supreme War Council favored a division along ethnic lines, and Lord Curzon advocated for the dividing line, commonly called the Curzon line. It was believed that this dividing line would peacefully separate ethnic groups as the territories west of the Curzon line were inhabited mostly by the Poles. East of the Curzon line, the population consisted mainly of the Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Jews. There was a large minority of Poles east of the line, perhaps 40% of the population.

Poland's eastern frontier became a very dynamic issue and depended mainly on the result of the military actions during the Polish-Bolshevik War. In March 1921, both countries signed the Treaty of Riga, which ignored the Curzon line. The frontier between Poland and the Soviet Union was about 160 miles east of the line. For 18 years, it became the official border between Poland and the Soviet Union. It was recognized by other countries and by the League of Nations in 1923.

Hitler-Stalin Pact: Poland partitioned

German and Soviet officers shaking hands Sep 1939

On August 23, 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact known as the Hitler-Stalin Pact (German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact or Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact). The agreement provided a guarantee of peace to the two countries. It also defined the border between both powers once the German-Soviet coalition had defeated Poland. On September 1, 1939, Germany attacked Poland from the West, South, and North. While the Polish Army was desperately fighting against the German invaders, on September 17, Stalin’s troops attacked Poland from the East. Within the following weeks, German and Soviet armies crushed Polish resistance and took Poland's entire territory. The secret protocol provided for a division of Poland in the event of war.

The Soviet-German War. Stalin’s military success

The situation changed when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, and the Eastern Front in Russia became the crucial battlefield of WWII. The Germans quickly pushed the Soviet troops to the East and reached the outskirts of Leningrad in October 1941. However, the Soviet Union joined the Allies and received enormous military support from the Western countries in the form of technical expertise, food, and military equipment. The Red Army received 7,000 tanks, 400,000 trucks, and 12,000 airplanes. In January 1943, the German 6th Army was destroyed in Stalingrad. In the coming months, German troops, or European Axis powers, were defeated numerous times by the Red Army, such as at the Battle of Kursk in July and August 1943, the Battle of Smolensk from August – October 1943, and the Lower Dnieper Offensive in mid-October 1943. The Soviet troops continuously moved westward and gained control.

The Tehran Conference (Nov-Dec 1943) and the issue of the Polish borders

Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill in Tehran (1943)

In November 1943, Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill met in Tehran's Soviet embassy to discuss military cooperation and post-war settlement. It was an excellent move for Stalin to get the upper hand during the negotiations. The Western Powers were still unable to open the promised western front. At the same time, Stalin demonstrated impressive military gains. The Allied powers desperately needed Stalin’s cooperation, especially given the fears of the German-Soviet armistice. Churchill and Roosevelt were ready to make numerous concessions. On November 29, 1943, Churchill proposed to Stalin that “Poland should be pushed westward.” Stalin understood that the Allies were ready to discuss the borders without the Polish government's involvement in exile. He reacted almost immediately. On December 1, 1943, Stalin invoked what Lord Curzon advocated following WWI. The border along the Curzon line, noted Stalin, would be ethnically fair. The “Big Three” set an irreversible course regarding Poland’s borders.

Stalin’s Power Play

On January 4, 1944, a few weeks after the Tehran conference, the Red Army entered Poland's territory. On January 11, 1944, TASS – the official Soviet state news agency - stated that Poland's eastern lands were incorporated into the Soviet Union. According to TASS, Poland would gain German territory east of the Oder and Neisse Rivers as compensation. Stalin openly began his power game with the silent approval of the Allies. When the "Big Three" met for another conference in Yalta in February 1945, the Soviet troops took over Poland's entire territory with millions of soldiers and NKWD forces. By the Yalta conference, Stalin had gained a dominant position again. In the final conference statement, the "Big Three" agreed that “the eastern frontier of Poland should follow the Curzon Line.” Further, "Poland must receive substantial accessions in the territory in the North and West"; however, "final delimitation of the western frontier of Poland should thereafter await the peace conference.”

Poland Shifts to the West

As a result of WWII, Poland’s eastern territories became part of the Soviet Union. Several historically and economically significant cities were lost - Lwow, Wilno, Stanislawow, and Grodno. Poland was granted German territory east of the Oder and Neisse Rivers with Pomerania, Silesia, and the southern part of East Prussia, including Breslau (now Wroclaw) and Stettin (Szczecin). What followed was one of the biggest migrations in modern European history. About 3.5 million Germans were expelled from Poland by October 1947. Simultaneously, about 1.5 million Polish people living east of the Curzon line were expelled, mainly to former German territories. About 0.5 million Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Lithuanians were driven out from Poland to the Soviet Union.

The resettlements

Source: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe

The resettlements were carried out often in appalling conditions. The displaced people frequently had to wait several weeks at railway stations for the train to depart, oftentimes without the possibility of cooking warm meals or sheltering from the rain or cold. They were vulnerable to attacks by heavily armed bandits. Widespread corruption accompanied the resettlements – the displaced people were often forced to pay bribes for entering the trains. The passengers and domestic animals were regularly transported in open coal wagons, even during autumn and winter months. Frequently, the trains stopped for weeks on end in the middle of nowhere. A Polish historian, Professor Grzegorz Motyka, described resettlement transport from Buczacz on November 19, 1945. It carried almost 1,000 people and consisted of 55 wagons—only 14 of which were closed. The carrier reached Rzeszow, 185 miles from Buczacz, 21 days later, on December 10. It is easy to calculate that the train traveled less than ten miles daily.

For many, the resettlement ended fatally. No one will ever know how many people died

due to the shift of Poland’s borders after WWII.

"Have a good trip". Source: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe

Further reading in English:

Further reading in Polish:

Photographs: and Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe


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