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The Noble Republic, 1572-1795

Although most accounts of Polish history show the two centuries after the end of the Jagiellon Dynasty as a time of decline leading to foreign domination, Poland-Lithuania remained an influential player in European politics and a vital cultural entity through most of the period. The Polish realm stretched across central Europe from the Baltic Sea to the Dniester, with its western boundary less than 90 miles from Berlin and its eastern frontier about 150 miles from Moscow, covering an area of more than 370,000 square miles. The population almost doubled under the two Sigismunds. The Reformation spread rapidly in Poland, but its progress was arrested by the Jesuits, who persuaded the nobles that their interests lay in the preservation of the Catholic hierarchy.

With the death of Sigismund Augustus, in 1572, the Jagellon dynasty became extinct, and Poland passed under the regime of elected kings. The election of the King was by the two chambers of the Diet - the Senate, or Chamber of the Chief Nobles, and the Chamber of Nuncios, or Representatives of the Inferior Nobles. The Diet sat only six weeks, and its decisions were required to be unanimous, so that, if the liberum veto (the right of forbidding the passing of any measure) were freely exercised even by a single member, all legislation was at a standstill. More unnatural still was the recognized right of any number of nobles to confederate for the purpose of effecting their will by force of arms. This singular constitution produced the most inefficient government that was ever established in a great state.

The death of Sigismund II Augustus in 1572 was followed by a three-year Interregnum during which adjustments were made in the constitutional system. The lower nobility was now included in the selection process, and the power of the monarch was further circumscribed in favor of the expanded noble class. From that point, the king was effectively a partner with the noble class and constantly supervised by a group of senators. Once the Jagiellons passed from the scene, the fragile equilibrium of the commonwealth government began to go awry. The constitutional reforms made the monarchy electoral in fact as well as name. As more and more power went to the noble electors, it also eroded from the government's center.

In its periodic opportunities to fill the throne, the szlachta exhibited a preference for foreign candidates who would not found another strong dynasty. This policy produced monarchs who were either totally ineffective or in constant debilitating conflict with the nobility. Furthermore, aside from notable exceptions such as the able Transylvanian Stefan Batory (1576-86), the kings of alien origin were inclined to subordinate the interests of the commonwealth to those of their own country and ruling house. This tendency was most obvious in the prolonged military adventures waged by Sigismund III Vasa (1587-1632) against Russia and his native Sweden. On occasion, these campaigns brought Poland near to conquest of Muscovy and the Baltic coast, but they compounded the military burden imposed by the ongoing rivalry with the Turks, and the Swedes and Russians extracted heavy repayment a few decades later.

The first elective monarch was Henry of Valois, Duke of Anjou (1573-74), who had barely assumed the crown when he laid it down to become King of France as Henry III and was succeeded by Stephen Batory (1575- 86), Voivode of Transylvania.

Stephen's successor, Sigismund III Vasa (1587-1632), was the son of John III of Sweden by a daughter of Sigismund I. His claims to the crown of Sweden, which he wore for a time, brought on wars with that Kingdom. Gustavus Adolphus carried on victorious campaigns against the Poles in 1621-29 and conquered Livonia. The imprudent attempts of the sovereigns of the house of Vasa to amend the constitution only excited the suspicion of the nobles and led to a further curtailment of royal authority.

Although Poland-Lithuania escaped the ravages of the Thirty Years' War, which ended in 1648, the ensuing two decades subjected the country to one of its severest trials. This colorful but ruinous interval, the stuff of legend and the popular historical novels of Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916), became known as the potop, or deluge, for the magnitude of its hardships. The emergency began with an uprising of Ukrainian Cossacks that persisted in spite of Warsaw's efforts to subdue it by force. In 1648 the Cossacks, goaded by oppression, rose in rebellion under Bogdan Chmielnicki, put themselves under the protection of Russia (1654), and ever afterward proved themselves the most inveterate enemies of the Poles. After the rebels won the intervention of Muscovy on their behalf, Tsar Aleksei conquered most of the eastern half of the country by 1655.

In 1655 Charles X of Sweden invaded Poland while the Poles were engaged in war with Russia, and in 1656 he was joined by Frederick William, the Great Elector of Brandenburg. Taking advantage of Poland's preoccupation, Charles X of Sweden rapidly overran much of the remaining territory of the commonwealth in 1655. The Poles were vanquished in a great battle at Warsaw in July, 1656.Pushed to the brink of dissolution, Poland-Lithuania rallied to recover most of its losses to the Swedes. Swedish brutality raised widespread revolts against Charles, whom the Polish nobles had recognized as their ruler in the meantime. Under Stefan Czarniecki, the Poles and Lithuanians drove the Swedes from their territory by 1657. In 1657 Brandenburg went over to the side of Poland, which then renounced its suzerainty over the Duchy of Prussia (East Prussia). In the Peace of Oliva, in 1660, Poland formally ceded Livonia to Russia, and the Ukraine beyond the Dnieper was given up to Russia in the Treaty of Andrussovo in 1667. Further complicated by noble dissension and wars with the Ottoman Turks, the thirteen-year struggle over control of Ukraine ended in the Truce of Andrusovo in 1667. Although Russia had been defeated by a new Polish-Ukrainian alliance in 1662, Russia gained eastern Ukraine in the peace treaty.

In 1674 the crown was conferred on John Sobieski, who shed lustre on the Polish arms by overthrowing, in conjunction with the German princes, a vast Turkish army in front of Vienna in 1683 and saving the Hapsburg capital. The Poles, threatened by the whole power of the Caliphs, were compelled to concentrate all their feelings of nationality. They believed their mission to be the defence of Christianity against Islam, and the necessity of opposing their whole strength in this tremendous struggle, led them to examine the nature of this strength, and gave them the consciousness of that complex whole which they understand by the term fatherland. This is the central idea of their literature, which in turn is only its development and application. The idea thus conceived is difficult to define; it is vague, extensive, and has never yet been realized. Still to the Poles it conveyed the image not only of a free and glorious political existence, but of a boundless futurity of equal freedom and glory.

The reign of John Sobieski, however, was productive of little good to the internal administration. He died in 1696, and the French Prince de Conti was elected and proclaimed King. Lacking efficient support from France, Conti renounced the office; and Frederick Augustus I of Saxony, surnamed the Strong, a protegg of the house of Austria, entered Poland at the head of a Saxon army and was chosen King as Augustus II (1697-1733). The Treaty of Karlowitz. in 1699, brought the last struggle between Poland and Turkey to a close and restored to Poland a large part of Ukraine.

Despite the improbable survival of the commonwealth in the face of the potop, one of the most dramatic instances of the Poles' knack for prevailing in adversity, the episode inflicted irremediable damage and contributed heavily to the ultimate demise of the state. When Jan II Kaziemierz abdicated in 1668, the population of the commonwealth had been nearly halved by war and disease. War had destroyed the economic base of the cities and raised a religious fervor that ended Poland's policy of religious tolerance. Henceforth, the commonwealth would be on the strategic defensive facing hostile neighbors. Never again would Poland compete with Russia as a military equal.

Before another 100 years had elapsed, Poland-Lithuania had virtually ceased to function as a coherent and genuinely independent state. The commonwealth's last martial triumph occurred in 1683 when King Jan Sobieski drove the Turks from the gates of Vienna with a cavalry charge. Poland's important role in aiding the European alliance to roll back the Ottoman Empire was rewarded with territory in western Ukraine by the Treaty of Karlowicz (1699). Nonetheless, this isolated success did little to mask the internal weakness and paralysis of the Polish-Lithuanian political system. For the next quarter century, Poland was often a pawn in Russia's campaigns against other powers. Augustus II of Saxony (1697-1733), who succeeded Jan Sobieski, involved Poland in Peter the Great's war with Sweden, incurring another round of invasion and devastation by the Swedes between 1704 and 1710.

In the eighteenth century, the powers of the monarchy and the central administration became purely trivial. Kings were denied permission to provide for the elementary requirements of defense and finance, and aristocratic clans made treaties directly with foreign sovereigns. Attempts at reform were stymied by the determination of the szlachta to preserve their "golden freedoms" as well as the rule of unanimity in the Sejm, where any deputy could exercise his veto right to disrupt the parliament and nullify its work. Because of the chaos sown by the veto provision, under Augustus III (1733-63) only one of thirteen Sejm sessions ran to an orderly adjournment.

Unlike Spain and Sweden, great powers that settled peacefully into secondary status at the periphery of Europe at the end of their time of glory, Poland endured its decline at the strategic crossroads of the continent. Lacking central leadership and impotent in foreign relations, Poland-Lithuania became a chattel of the ambitious kingdoms that surrounded it, an immense but feeble buffer state. During the reign of Peter the Great (1682-1725), the commonwealth fell under the dominance of Russia, and by the middle of the eighteenth century Poland-Lithuania had been made a virtual protectorate of its eastern neighbor, retaining only the theoretical right to self-rule.

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Page last modified: 10-01-2012 19:23:36 ZULU