Fluid Boundaries? The Rhine and Oder-Neisse Borderlands since 1945
For much of the 20th century, the Rhine River and Oder-Neisse line represented two of the most important disputed boundaries in Europe. The borderlands associated with them contain populations whose homes and citizenship have been changed arbitrarily, ports that were swapped between Germany and its neighbors, and towns that were destroyed, developed, and/or divided by rivalries between states. Yet these national borders are neither natural nor rational; they do not unambiguously reflect historic boundaries of language or culture the way “phantom borders” elsewhere do, and they are partly inherited from the now-vanished Weimar and East German states. Nevertheless, they are now open, internal borders of the Schengen area, frequently invoked as symbols of unity within Europe. The Rhine, Oder, and Neisse are now associated more closely with the bridges that run across them than with the barriers they formerly constituted.
How was such a fundamental transformation of these borderlands possible? My research examines how borderland residents have responded to fluctuations in the permeability, location, uses, and meanings of the borders connected to these rivers. The populations in these areas were not merely passive pawns of geopolitics, but also active participants in the construction, maintenance, and definition of such frontiers. State claims to territory and population may have provided a framework for post-war borders, but local practices of appropriation and interactions among residents (both cooperative and confrontational) ultimately made them reality.
This project brings together the perspectives of French, Polish, East and West German citizens within the spatial prism of the Rhine and Oder-Neisse borderlands in order to show that the path leading from the Second World War to Schengen was not, on either side of the “Iron Curtain,” one of linear progress towards an ever more perfect European Union. The Rhine, Oder, and Neisse have functioned as links within blocs, as boundaries within which to contain Germany, and as the outer limits of the nation-states in question. This project thus probes the negative as well as positive valences of these spaces and the multiple geographies in which they are situated.