Why did Germany lose so much land after WW II?

When you take a look at old maps of Germany that were produced before 1945 and you compare them to modern maps of Germany then you will notice one big difference.

Germany was massively reduced after World War 2! But why did Germany lose so much land after WW II? And why did Germany mainly lose land on its eastern borders?

At the Jalta conference, the allies had agreed on reducing the territory of a defeated Germany to reduce the danger of future German aggression. Germany mainly lost land in the East since Poland had to be compensated for the polish land that the Soviet Union had annexed in 1939 and did not want to return.

Let`s find out more…

Why did Germany lose so much land after WW II?

There were mostly two reasons why the Allies agreed on reducing the territory of Germany after its final defeat.

One reason was to limit the danger of future German aggression. The second reason was that Poland had to be compensated for the land it had lost to the soviet union in 1939.

More on how Poland lost land in 1939 to both Germany and the Soviet Union in my article here.

Let`s take a look at both reasons individually!

Limiting the danger of future German aggression

The idea of limiting the danger of future German aggression didn`t just suddenly appear after Hitler’s Germany had been defeated.

As early as December of 1941 the idea of reducing Germanys` territory had been discussed by the British Prime minister Winston Churchill and his Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden.

In December of 1941 Churchills` idea to limit further german aggression was to split up Germany by separating the Rhineland, giving Eastern Prussia to Poland, and creating an independent Bavarian state.

Now in late 1941, the Third Reich still controlled all of Western Europe, Scandinavia, and a good part of the western Soviet Union. So planing the future division of Germany did not have direct impacts.

But with the continuation of the war and more and more allied successes, a plan for Europe and Germany after the Third Reich became more and more necessary.

The first step was taken in October of 1943

Moscow Conference (1943)

In October 1943 the US Secretary of State Cordell Hull, the British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, and the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov met in Moscow where they not only agreed on coordinating their war efforts but also talked about how to deal with a defeated Germany.

While the decision to better coordinate their campaigns was quite fruitful the debate about how to treat Germany after the war did not produce binding results.

One agreed that Austria would have to be restored to its borders of 1937, to a state before Austria was integrated into Germany in March of 1937. And that Eastern Prussia should go to Poland.

But all these plans were not really concrete. The next conference, the Tehran Conference from 28 November to 1 December 1943 was set to create more concrete plans for the future of Germany.

Tehran Conference

Between 28 November and 1 Dezember of 1943 Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin met Tehran to discuss the opening of a new front in the west, the formation of the United Nations, the division of a defeated Germany, and the Soviet entry into the war in the pacific.

We will focus on the division of a defeated Germany!

Generally, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin agreed that the territory of Poland had to be moved west. More on the reasons why that was necessary for the paragraph „Compensating Poland for the land they lost to the soviet union“

The big three also agreed that the Soviet Union should get the northern part of East Prussia around the city of Königsberg. That by the way is why there is a Russian exclave called Kaliningrad within the European Union.

When it came to the division of Germany there were different proposals.

Churchill wanted to divide Germany into the states of Prussia, a Federation along the Danube river made up of Bavaria, Austria, and potentially Hungary, and a state that would be made up by the rest of Germany.

Roosevelt on the other hand prefered a solution that would have divided Germany into 5 states.

These states would have been Prussia, Hannover and North-Western Germany, Saxony, Hessen, Bavaria, and Baden-Würtemberg. Both the Ruhr area and the Saar area would have been put under the control of the United Nations.

While Stalin favored Roosevelt’s proposal there was no final decision.

The decision would be made at the conference of Jalta.

Jalta Conference

Between 4 February and 11 February 1945, the big three met at the Jalta Conference. It was here that the division of Germany into 4 occupation zones was decided.

By the way, Stalin only agreed to a French occupation zone under the condition that the French Zone would not reduce the soviet occupation zone.

So the French occupation zone was formed out of the British and American occupation zones.

It was also decided that Berlin would also be divided into 4 occupation zones.

But there was another important point:

Stalin made it very clear that he had no intentions of returning the Polish territory the Soviet Union had occupied at the beginning of World War II.

More on that in one of the following paragraphs.

Potsdam conference

Originally the Potsdam conference would have been held in Berlin. But due to the degree of destruction of Berlin, it was decided to move the conference to the close (and much less destroyed) Potsdam.

Here the conference was held between July 17 and August 2, 1945.

The main decisions concerning the territory of Germany were the recision of all german annexions, the establishing of the Oder-Neiße-Line as the German-Polish border, the division of Germany and Berlin into 4 occupation zones, and the Expulsion of the German population from the territories that now no longer were German.

More on the different territories Germany lost in one of the following paragraphs.

By the way, not only Germany and its capital Berlin were split into 4 occupation zones after World War II. Austria and its capital Vienna shared the same fate.

Another important result of the Potsdam conference was the decision on reparations. The allies agreed that the entire german industrial potential that could be used to rebuild the military strength for another war had to be destroyed.

One decided that that should be archived by dismantling the German industries of military importance and transferring them to the victorious powers.

Because the Soviet Union had suffered the most devastation during the war it was decided that 56% of the reparations from all 4 occupation zones would be transferred to the Soviet Union.

The goal of these reparations was to limit Germany to the amount and types of industries that were necessary for a peaceful society. Everything that could be used for military goods was taken away.

That by the way resulted in the dismantling of all civilian shipyards and aircraft factories.

Now I also mentioned that Poland had to be compensated for land that they had lost to the Soviet Union.

Compensating Poland for the land they lost to the Soviet Union

At the beginning of World War 2, Poland was invaded by the German army. That is pretty much common knowledge.

But it is sometimes forgotten that not only Germany invaded Poland in 1939. While Hitlers` armies attacked Poland from the West Stalins`armies attacked Poland from the East.

More on how Hitler and Stalin split up Poland in my article here.

After the end of the campaign on the 6 Oktober 1939, Poland was split up between Germany and the Soviet Union just like both nations had agreed upon in the German-Soviet Frontier Treaty.

Germany annexed the East part of Poland and the Soviet Union the West part of Poland.

And after the end of the war, the Soviet Union had no intentions of returning the formerly polish lands they had annexed in 1939.

Stalin made the point that the Soviet Union had been invaded twice within 30 years through the Polish territory. And that the Soviet Union needed the eastern part of Poland as a meat shield against any further German invasions.

Since Stalin made it very clear that he would not give up eastern Poland another solution had to be found.

The solution was to give former german lands to Poland and move the Polish territory to the west so that the Oder-Neisse-Line would form the western Polish border.

Now let`s take a look at the different territories Germany lost after World War 2.

Territories Germany lost after WW II

After WW II Germany lost approximately 25% of its territory including large parts of its agricultural land and Upper Silesia, the second-largest center of German heavy industry.

The territories Germany lost were

  • East Prussia
  • West Prussia
  • The eastern part of Pomerania
  • Upper Silesia
  • Almost all of Lower Silesia
  • A part of Brandenburg
  • Sudetenland
  • Austria (had been annexed in March of 1938)

In order to create a clearer picture, I will divide the list of territories Germany lost into territories in the East and territories in the West.

Eastern territories Germany lost after WWII

As already mentioned, Poland got all the german land east of the Oder-Neisse-Line including the provinces of East Prussia, West Prussia, Silesia, and the eastern half of Pomerania. Apart from Upper Silesia, all these territories were mostly agriculturally used.

Additionally, the Polish territories that Hitler had annexed in 1939 were also returned to Poland. More on the events that preceded the German invasion of Poland in my article here.

Germany also had to give up Austria and the Sudetenland. Both had been annexed in the years before World War 2.

Western territories Germany lost after WW II

The western territories Germany lost after WW2 mainly consisted of Alsace-Lorraine.

Alsace-Lorraine had always been fought over by France and Germany. The reasons for that can even be traced back to the Middle Ages, more on that here.

After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71, Alsace-Lorraine was annexed by the freshly formed German Empire. And after World War 1 Alsace-Lorraine returned to France before it was occupied after June 19 1940 by the German army.

After World War 2 Alsace-Lorraine finally returned to France.

Between Juli 1945 and 1957, France would also keep a protectorate over the Territory of the Saar Basin. It wasn`t until January 1 1957 that the Territory of the Saar Basin joined Western Germany after a referendum had voted for that in 1955.

But the story of the foundation of a western German state and its eastern German counterpart is a story for another time.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


H. Winkler: Geschichte des Westens, Die Zeit der Weltkriege 1914-1945 (München 2011).

H. Wehler: Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte, Vierter Band Vom Beginn des Ersten Weltkrieges bis zur Gründung der beiden deutschen Staaten 1914-1949 (München 2003).