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The Curzon line was a boundary line proposed in 1919 by the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon of Kedleston, as a border between Poland, to the west, and Lithuania, Russia and Ukraine, to the east. It lay approximately along the border which was established between Prussia and Russia in 1797, after the third partition of Poland, which was the last border recognised by the United Kingdom. The line separating the German and Soviet zones of occupation following the defeat of Poland in 1939 followed the Curzon Line in places, while diverging from it around Bialystok in the north and in the southern region of Galicia. The Line was used in 1945 as the basis for the permanent border between Poland and the Soviet Union, although with substantial differences.
It is often said that the Curzon Line represented an ethnic border between Poles to the west and Belarusians and Ukrainians to the east. This was not the intention when Lord Curzon proposed the line: its origins were diplomatic and historical, not ethnic. Nevertheless it did run along a line which, with some notable anomalies, approximated a division between regions to the west which were mixed, but majority Polish, and regions to the east which were mixed but majority non-Polish. (This is further discussed below).
History of the Curzon Line
At the end of World War I the Allies agreed that an independent Polish state should be formed from territories previously part of the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany. The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 said that the eastern border of Poland would be "subsequently determined." The lands lying between Poland and its eastern neighbours were inhabited by a mixed population of Poles, Lithuanians, Jews, Ukrainians and Belarusians, with no single group being a majority. Lord Curzon of Kedleston, on behalf of the Allies, suggested a line running from Grodno through Brest-Litovsk to Lwow, although leaving unclear which side of the proposed border Lwow would be on. A later version of the Line, known as Curzon Line "B", definitely awarded Lwow to Poland (see map).
Because the Russian Empire had collapsed into a state of civil war following the Russian Revolution, there was no recognised Russian government with whom the eastern border of Poland could be negotiated. However, one of the first acts of the new Russian government was to publicly denounce the treaties of partitions of Poland. That left Poland in legal possession of the country that Poland had held before the Partitions of Poland in 1772. The Bolshevik regime in Russia, on the other hand, wanted to invade Poland in order to carry the socialist revolution into the heart of Europe, and particularly into Germany. In this circumstances war was inevitable, and broke out in late 1919.
In December 1919, the Allied powers made the following declaration: "The Principal Allied and Associated Powers, recognising that it is important as soon as possible to put a stop to the existing conditions of political uncertainty in which the Polish nation is placed, and without prejudging the provisions, which must in the future define the eastern frontiers of Poland, hereby declare that they recognize the right of the Polish Government to proceed, according to the conditions previously provided by the Treaty with Poland of June 28, 1919, to organise a regular administration of the territories of the former Russian Empire situated to the West of the line described below. The rights that Poland may be able to establish over the territories situated to the East of the said line are expressly reserved."
During Polish-Soviet war (1919-1921), in May 1920, the Bolsheviks gained the advantage and advanced into Poland, and in July the Poles appealed to the Allies to intervene. On 11 July Lord Curzon proposed to the Soviet government a ceasefire along the line which had been suggested the previous year. The Soviets, believing they had the upper hand, rejected the proposal, and fighting continued. In August, however, the Soviets were defeated just outside Warsaw and forced to retreat. At the Treaty of Riga in March 1921 the Soviets had to concede a frontier well to the east of the Curzon Line, giving Poland both Lwow and Wilno (today Vilnius). The area around Wilno, called Central Lithuania was the subject of a referendum in 1922, followed by incorporation to Poland according to the wish of 65% of the voters. The Polish-Soviet border was recognised by the League of Nations in 1923 and confirmed by various Polish-Soviet agreements.
The terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 provided for the partition of Poland along the line of the San, Vistula and Narew rivers. In September, after the military defeat of Poland, the Soviet Union annexed all territories east of the Curzon Line plus Bialystok and Eastern Galicia. The territories east of this line were incorporated into the Byelorussian SSR and Ukrainian SSR after so-called referendums, and hundreds of thousands of Poles and a lesser number of Jews were deported eastwards into the Soviet Union. In July 1941 these territories were seized by Germany in the course of the invasion of the Soviet Union. During the German occupation most of the Jewish population was killed.
In 1944 the Soviet armed forces recaptured eastern Poland from the Germans. The Soviets unilaterally declared the former Soviet-German border (approximately the Curzon Line) to be the new frontier between the Soviet Union and Poland. This time, however, Bialystok was retained by Poland. The Polish government-in-exile in London bitterly opposed this action, and at the Teheran and Yalta conferences between Stalin and the western Allies, the allied leaders Roosevelt and Churchill asked Stalin to reconsider, particularly over Lwow, but he refused. The Curzon Line thus became the permanent eastern border of Poland, and was recognised as such by the western Allies in July 1945.
Ethnography to the east of the Curzon Line
The territory which lay between the Curzon Line and the 1921 eastern border of Poland had a population of about 12 million people in an area of 188,000 square kilometres. According to statistics from the Polish census of 1931 (which was unlikely to underestimate the number of Poles), the population of these territories by mother-tongue was:
Poles 4,794,000 39.9% Ukrainians and Ruthenians 4,139,000 34.4% Jews 1,045,000 08.4% Belarusians 993,000 08.5% Russians 120,000 01.0% Lithuanians 76,000 00.6% Others and not given 845,000 06.4%
By religion the population was classified as follows:
Roman Catholics 4,016,000 33.4% Greek Catholics or Uniates 3,050,000 25.4% Orthodox 3,529,000 29.3% Other Christians: 180,000 01.5% Hebrew 1,222,000 10.2%
It will be seen from these figures that although the Poles were the largest single ethnic and religious group in these territories, they were far from being a majority, and that the Ukrainians, Rusyns, Belarusians and Poleszuks together outnumbered them (the Ukrainians outnumbering Poles in combined southern sections). Due to the long reign of Polish rule over these areas, much of the Polish population was urban, while much of the Ukrainian and Belarusian population was rural.
The deportations of Poles to the Soviet Union in 1939-1941 (see Polish minority in Soviet Union) and the elimination of the Jewish population between 1941 and 1945 probably left Ukrainians and Belarusians as a majority of the population in the territories, though far from a large one. The cities of Lwow, Wilno, Grodno and some smaller towns still had Polish majorities during this period. After 1945, most of the Polish population of the area east of the new Soviet-Polish border fled or was expelled to Poland, and the area today is almost entirely Belarusian (in the north) or Ukrainian (in the south).
Ethnography to the west of the Curzon Line
Similar problems pertained to the West of the Curzon line. The Polish population was generally overwhelmingly predominant in the towns and especially the cities, but the opposite situation, based on older settlement patterns, was often in evidence in the rural districts. A sizeable Belarusian rural population was incorporated into modern Poland around Bialystok. The southern area a large population. Much of this population was resettled in Poland's newly acquired territories of Silesia, Pomerania, eastern Brandenburg and East Prussia after World War II.
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