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The Three Partitions, 1764-95

From 1763 to 1792 western and central Europe were at peace. It is true that France, Spain, and Holland combated Europe after England at sea or in America during the War of the seven American Independence. But during these years the greater part of Europe enjoyed an unaccustomed period of repose. These thirty years constitute a very complicated period of European history. Austria was the natural foe of Russia, and her true policy was to support and strengthen the Polish kingdom. France had always regarded herself as the defender of Poland, and, according to Choiseul, distance alone prevented the outbreak of hostilities between Russia and France.

The continued anarchy in Poland, and the inability of the Poles, by means of drastic reforms, to lead their country along the path of national progress, gave Catherine and Frederick some apparent justification for intervention. An elective kingship, a senate, and a diet composed of delegates from the provincial assemblies of nobles, in which any member might, by the liberum veto, or by simply withdrawing altogether, or by obstructing progress for six weeks, impede all business, formed a constitution which was not only an anachronism, but rendered Poland a centre of turmoil in the centre of Europe. Poland had no ambassadors at foreign courts, the land had no fortresses, no navy, no roads, no arsenals, no treasury, no fixed revenue. The army was small, undisciplined, often unpaid, so that the troops were forced to unite and to encamp before the place of assembly of the Diet, and to add an unlawful weight to their lawful demands.

The idea of a partition was no new one. Maximilian had suggested it in 1573, Charles X of Sweden nearly a century later returned to it, and his successor proposed that the Emperor, Brandenburg, and Sweden should divide the Polish territories between them. In the eighteenth century, the question of a partition was often discussed. Peter the Great seriously considered it, and Augustus thought of making the crown hereditary in his own House. Prussia had long desired the possession of Polish Prussia, and Frederick the Great had himself demonstrated to his father the necessity of uniting Brandenburg and the Prussian Duchy. Weakened by her internal divisions and jealousies, Poland could offer but a feeble resistance to the Russian national movement in favor of the annexation of White, Black, and Little Russia, or to the fixed determination of Frederick the Great to secure Polish Prussia.

The Polish state temporarily ceased to exist when the territories of the once-powerful Kingdom of Poland were divided among Prussia, Austria, and Russia in three partitions of 1772, 1793, and 1795. During the reign of Empress Catherine the Great (1762-96), Russia intensified its manipulation in Polish affairs. Prussia and Austria, the other powers surrounding the republic, also took advantage of internal religious and political bickering to divide up the country in three partition stages. The third partition in 1795 wiped Poland-Lithuania from the map of Europe. Nationalist aspirations were not extinguished, and determined factions within Poland's former frontiers and in exile waged a persistent struggle for the restoration of independence in the century and a quarter that followed.

The incessant feuds of the Polish noblesse made Poland an intolerable neighbour for the three countries on which she bordered, and as long as that noblesse continued to perpetuate the medieval relations between their own order and the peasants, Poland was doomed. The Polish peasantry were still slaves. By each partition an additional number of this peasantry gained by a change of masters. To the peasant, who had nothing to lose, it was a matter of indifference whether he was subject to his territorial lord or to a foreign foe. The key of the so-called misfortunes of Poland, and the explanation of the failure of the Poles to save their country, is to be found in the implacable hatred felt towards the noblesse by the great body of the people.

1772 - First Partition

In 1764 Catherine dictated the election of her former favorite, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, as king of PolandLithuania . Confounding expectations that he would be an obedient servant of his mistress, Stanislaw August encouraged the modernization of his realm's ramshackle political system and achieved a temporary moratorium on use of the individual veto in the Sejm (1764-66). This turnabout threatened to renew the strength of the monarchy and brought displeasure in the foreign capitals that preferred an inert, pliable Poland. Catherine, among the most displeased by Poniatowski's independence, encouraged religious dissension in Poland-Lithuania's substantial Eastern Orthodox population, which earlier in the eighteenth century had lost the rights enjoyed during the Jagiellon Dynasty. Under heavy Russian pressure, the Sejm restored Orthodox equality in 1767. This action provoked a Catholic uprising by the Confederation of Bar, a league of Polish nobles that fought until 1772 to revoke Catherine's mandate.

The defeat of the Confederation of Bar again left Poland exposed to the ambitions of its neighbors. Although Catherine initially opposed partition, Frederick the Great of Prussia profited from Austria's threatening military position to the southwest by pressing a long-standing proposal to carve territory from the commonwealth. Catherine, persuaded that Russia did not have the resources to continue unilateral domination of Poland, agreed. In 1772 Russia, Prussia, and Austria forced terms of partition upon the helpless commonwealth under the pretext of restoring order in the anarchic Polish situation.

The first partition in 1772 did not directly threaten the viability of Poland-Lithuania. Poland retained extensive territory that included the Polish heartland. In fact, the shock of the annexations made clear the dangers of decay in government institutions, creating a body of opinion favorable to reform along the lines of the European Enlightenment. King Stanislaw August supported the progressive elements in the government and promoted the ideas of foreign political figures such as Edmund Burke and George Washington. At the same time, Polish intellectuals discussed Enlightenment philosophers such as Montesquieu and Rousseau. During this period, the concept of democratic institutions for all classes was accepted in Polish society. Education reform included establishment of the first ministry of education in Europe. Taxation and the army underwent thorough reform, and government again was centralized in the Permanent Council. Landholders emancipated large numbers of peasants, although there was no official government decree. Polish cities, in decline for many decades, were revived by the influence of the Industrial Revolution, especially in mining and textiles.

Stanislaw August's process of renovation reached its climax on May 3, 1791, when, after three years of intense debate, the "Four Years' Sejm" produced Europe's first written constitution. Conceived in the liberal spirit of the contemporaneous document in the United States, the constitution recast Poland-Lithuania as a hereditary monarchy and abolished many of the eccentricities and antiquated features of the old system. The new constitution abolished the individual veto in parliament; provided a separation of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government; and established "people's sovereignty" (for the noble and bourgeois classes). Although never fully implemented, the Constitution of May 3 gained an honored position in the Polish political heritage; tradition marks the anniversary of its passage as the country's most important civic holiday.

Neither England nor France interfered to save the unhappy country. The policy which led to this dismemberment of Poland developed naturally into a system of universal conquest, and thus the First Partition marks the beginning of the European revolution.

1793 - Second Partition

Poland was not annihilated by the First Partition. Though she had lost about onethird of her territory, she still retained an important position amongst European States, for she was still third on the list as regards area and fifth in population. The scheme of a Greater Poland, to extend from "sea to sea " - from the Black Sea to the Baltic - was, indeed, now incapable of realisation; but such scheme had been the dream of visionaries rather than a living national ideal. The author of the phrase, "The Polish eagle has her resting-place on the peaks of the Carpathians, and stretches forth her wings, one to the Baltic, the other to the Black Sea," was a poet and not a statesman. Shorn of a fraction of her territory, it was not impossible for Poland to consolidate herself within a more restricted area and to assure herself of a future by a radical reform of her internal affairs.

Passage of the constitution alarmed nobles who would lose considerable stature under the new order. In autocratic states such as Russia, the democratic ideals of the constitution also threatened the existing order, and the prospect of Polish recovery threatened to end domination of Polish affairs by its neighbors. In 1792 domestic and foreign reactionaries combined to end the democratization process. Polish conservative factions formed the Confederation of Targowica and appealed for Russian assistance in restoring the status quo. Catherine gladly used this opportunity; enlisting Prussian support, she invaded Poland under the pretext of defending Poland's ancient liberties. The irresolute Stanislaw August capitulated, defecting to the Targowica faction. Arguing that Poland had fallen prey to the radical Jacobinism then at high tide in France, Russia and Prussia abrogated the Constitution of May 3, carried out a second partition of Poland in 1793, and placed the remainder of the country under occupation by Russian troops.

The second partition was far more injurious than the first. Russia received a vast area of eastern Poland, extending southward from its gains in the first partition nearly to the Black Sea. To the west, Prussia received an area known as South Prussia, nearly twice the size of its first-partition gains along the Baltic, as well as the port of Gdansk (then renamed Danzig). Thus, Poland's neighbors reduced the commonwealth to a rump state and plainly signaled their designs to abolish it altogether at their convenience.

In a gesture of defiance, a general Polish revolt broke out in 1794 under the leadership of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a military officer who had rendered notable service in the American Revolution. Kosciuszko's ragtag insurgent armies won some initial successes, but they eventually fell before the superior forces of Russian General Alexander Suvorov.

1795 - Third Partition

In the wake of the insurrection of 1794, Russia, Prussia, and Austria carried out the third and final partition of Poland-Lithuania in 1795, erasing the Commonwealth of Two Nations from the map and pledging never to let it return. Much of Europe condemned the dismemberment as an international crime without historical parallel. Amid the distractions of the French Revolution and its attendant wars, however, no state actively opposed the annexations. In the long term, the dissolution of Poland-Lithuania upset the traditional European balance of power, dramatically magnifying the influence of Russia and paving the way for the Germany that would emerge in the nineteenth century with Prussia at its core. For the Poles, the third partition began a period of continuous foreign rule that would endure well over a century.

Although the majority of the szlachta was reconciled to the end of the commonwealth in 1795, the possibility of Polish independence was kept alive by events within and outside Poland throughout the nineteenth century. Poland's location in the very center of Europe became especially significant in a period when both Prussia/Germany and Russia were intensely involved in European rivalries and alliances and modern nation states took form over the entire continent. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Europe had begun to feel the impact of momentous political and intellectual movements that, among their other effects, would keep the "Polish Question" on the agenda of international issues needing resolution.

Napoleon Bonaparte had established a new empire in France in 1804 following that country's revolution. Napoleon's attempts to build and expand his empire kept Europe at war for the next decade and brought him into conflict with the same East European powers that had beleaguered Poland in the last decades of the previous century. An alliance of convenience was the natural result of this situation. Volunteer Polish legions attached themselves to Bonaparte's armies, hoping that in return the emperor would allow an independent Poland to reappear out of his conquests.

Although Napoleon promised more than he ever intended to deliver to the Polish cause, in 1807 he created a Duchy of Warsaw from Prussian territory that had been part of old Poland and was still inhabited by Poles. Basically a French puppet, the duchy did enjoy some degree of self-government, and many Poles believed that further Napoleonic victories would bring restoration of the entire commonwealth.

In 1809, under Jzef Poniatowski, nephew of Stanislaw II Augustus, the duchy reclaimed the land taken by Austria in the second partition. The Russian army occupied the duchy as it chased Napoleon out of Russia in 1813, however, and Polish expectations ended with the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. In the subsequent peace settlement of the Congress of Vienna, the victorious Austrians and Prussians swept away the Duchy of Warsaw and reconfirmed most of the terms of the final partition of Poland.

Although brief,the Napoleonic period occupies an important place in Polish annals. Much of the legend and symbolism of modern Polish patriotism derives from this period, including the conviction that Polish independence is a necessary element of a just and legitimate European order. This conviction was simply expressed in a fighting slogan of the time, "for your freedom and ours." Moreover, the appearance of the Duchy of Warsaw so soon after the partitions proved that the seemingly final historical death sentence delivered in 1795 was not necessarily the end of the Polish nation. Instead, many observers came to believe that favorable circumstances would free Poland from foreign domination.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:04:25 ZULU