History of Poland Part 9 The Beginning of the End by Annette Gathright
The results of the Swedish war against the Prussians pale when compared with the contemporary Thirty Years’ War in the Western part of Central Europe. It was a conflict which Poland fortunately avoided, but not without significant effects upon Poland due to the widespread involvement of the rest of Europe. While Polish-Russian relations appeared to have stabilized, Russia was in fact only waiting to repay the invasion of 1609 and to interfere in Poland’s internal situation, if and when that country should have similar trouble. That occurred in 1648, a critical year in all European history, and was a direct result of the unsolved problem of the Ukrainian Cossacks.
Thirty Years' War
The Thirty Years’ War fought between 1618 and 1648, was the main event in Europe’s history during the first half of the seventeenth century, and was primarily a “time of troubles” in the Holy Roman Empire, which was more identified with Germany. The war directly affected the western part of Central Europe, with intervention from the Scandinavian North and the West. At times it seemed Poland might become involved; her Western policy was unavoidably influenced by German events. The civil war started in the predominantly Slavic part of the Empire traditionally associated with East Central Europe - in Bohemia. That country had a privileged position in the empire and had maintained its autonomy during the first century of Habsburg rule, but suffered greatly from the consequences of the war, whose first phase was specifically Bohemian. From its outset, it was primarily a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics, but pitted the Habsburgs against other powerful noble houses. Catholic France supported the Protestants, which exacerbated the French-Habsburg rivalry.
While the Peace of Augsburg (1555) ending the violence between the Lutherans and Catholics in Germany was effective for a considerable time, in the early 17th century, political and economic tensions grew among the powerful nations involved in the German states. The religious conflict was of concern to Spain because it controlled the close-by Spanish Netherlands, both Catholic, and to France because it was weaker than the other Habsburg realms. Sweden and Denmark wanted to control the territories along the Baltic Sea. Religious tension was increased when Matthias, Holy Roman Emperor and the King of Bohemia, died without descendants in 1619. His lands went to his cousin Ferdinand of Styria. Ferdinand II, who became King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, was a Catholic who wanted to restore Catholicism to the Empire. He was therefore unpopular in Bohemia which was primarily Hussite, and was the catalyst that launched the Thirty Years' War.
The growth of political tension in Bohemia started with Emperor Matthias’ reign, and culminated with the “defenestration” of May 23, 1618, i.e., the throwing out of two leading Catholic court officials from a window of the Prague royal castle. This signaled a revolution in defense of Bohemia’s state rights against enforced centralization by the monarchy and of religious freedom for the Protestants. The German Protestant’s leader, Elector Palatine Frederick V, was chosen as King of Bohemia by the estates after Emperor Mathias’ death. With support of the Catholic League, Frederick was defeated at the Battle of White Mountain near Prague on November 8, 1620, was stripped of his territories, and exiled. Frederick, tried to gain Protestant support from the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden, but abandoned his efforts under pressure from his father-in-law, James I of England. Peace briefly returned to the Holy Roman Empire.
Frederick’s loss resulted in Bohemia becoming Catholic under Habsburg control. The old constitution and the privileges of the noble Estates were abolished leaving only the right to vote taxes. The power of the Emperor became virtually absolute. The Protestant nobles, who would not convert, were outlawed or exiled, their estates confiscated, and the country became Germanized. The ethnic composition of the nobility changed from Czechs of noble heritage to those mainly of German origin or culture who were landowners and high officials.
In 1625 Christian IV of Denmark, fearing for Denmark's sovereignty as a Protestant nation, resumed the war with 20,000 Danish and allied troops. Countering the threat, Ferdinand II employed Albrecht von Wallenstein, a Bohemian, who pledged his 30,000-soldier army in return for rights to plunder captured territories. Christian IV’s invading troops were forced to retire before the larger army. He lost his English and French allies when internal political problems caused them to withdraw. He lost the Swedish allies when Sweden went to war with Poland, Brandenburg and Saxony because they wanted to keep the tenuous peace in eastern Germany. Wallenstein's army marched north and occupied Mecklenburg, Pomerania, and Jutland. A fleet that he wanted to build in the Baltic Sea to attack Copenhagen was dismissed as having little financial benefit. In addition, neither the Hanseatic ports nor the Poles would allow it to be built on their territories. This led to the Treaty of Lübeck (1629). Christian IV abandoned the Protestant war effort to keep Denmark. At this point, the war could have been concluded, but the Catholic League persuaded Ferdinand II to take back the Lutheran holdings, which he could claim as Catholic possessions by the Peace of Augsburg.
Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden then aided the Protestant effort against the Holy Roman Empire by subsidizing the French and Dutch. From 1630-1634, they regained much of the occupied Protestant lands, defeating the Catholic League at the Battle of Breitenfeld (1631), and again at the Battle of Lützen where Gustavus was killed (November 1632). On September 7, 1634, with a Protestant defeat at the First Battle of Nördlingen, the Swedish attempt to dominate Germany ended and they turned their focus elsewhere.
The Imperial victory persuaded most of the German protestant princes to seek a separate peace with the Emperor. This was achieved by the Treaty of Prague the next year. This did not lessen the threat to France from the Habsburg territories on their eastern border nor help in the Netherlands. As a result, France allied with the Dutch and Swedes and was attacked by Spain, a conflict which lasted until after the death of Louis XIII in 1643. In 1645, the Swedes defeated the Imperial army at the Battle of Jankau near Prague, with the French defeating the Bavarian army in the Second Battle of Nördlingen. On March 14, 1647, Bavaria, Cologne, France and Sweden signed the Truce of Ulm. In 1648, the Swedes and the French defeated both the Imperial army at the Battle of Zusmarshausen (May 7, 1648) and the Spanish army at Lens (August 20, 1648). With only the Imperial territories of Austria remaining safely in Habsburg hands, the Empire sued for peace.
The negotiations resulted in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 and ended the Thirty Years’ War. This treaty set forth principles that historians often use to mark the beginning of the modern era – those of sovereignty of nation-states and their political self-determination, equality between nation-states, internationally binding treaties between states, and non-intervention of a state in another’s internal affairs.
The Thirty Years' War rearranged the previous power structure and boundaries of Europe. The treaty officially recognized the Dutch Republic and Swiss Confederation. Sweden gained ports along the Baltic and was recognized as major European power. Spain declined militarily and politically. In 1640, Portugal declared independence, as later did the Netherlands. With the German/Prussian alliance fractured into many independent states, the power of the Holy Roman Empire, previously controlled by the Habsburgs, vanished. France gained dominance as a European power. The Thirty Years' War marked the last major religious war in mainland Europe, ending large-scale religious bloodshed.
The Thirty Years' War was devastating to all the European countries. There was widespread famine, which in part resulted from military confiscation and destruction of crops, livestock, and housing. Disease, including the bubonic plague, was spread by troop movement and fleeing civilians and was exacerbated by the famine and destruction. Estimates of the war’s devastating effect upon Central Europe vary, but all agree that it was massively destructive to both the resources and population of the affected regions, with civilian losses ranging from twenty to sixty percent across central Europe. At the end of the war, many villages had been abandoned and land was untilled. It took several generations before the population and land were restored to pre-war conditions.
The participation of Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania in the Thirty Years’ War was limited to only the small effort when they assisted Ferdinand II by breaking the siege of Vienna. The Commonwealth was pre-occupied with the Swedes and Turks, which kept them out of the war in part because the Diet voted taxes only sufficient for defense of the Commonwealth, and barely enough funds to keep the Swedes from controlling the Baltics.
The Gathering Storm
Compared to Western Europe, Poland and the lands to the east and south were sparsely populated. Between 1578 and 1662, the population in Poland was reduced due to famine from a population of 3.2 to one of 2.25 million. Between the late 1590s and early 1600s, was a particularly severe phase of the "little ice age” which occurred about 1450 to 1850. Many peasants abandoned their fields due to the combination of crop failures and the imposition of onerous taxes extracted by the landowners and monarchy. Both peasants and townspeople fled from the grasslands of southwestern Ukraine to the lands along the Dnieper and Boh Rivers. Here, in the more sparsely populated Ukrainian steppe, serfdom was more difficult to impose. They established settlements where corvee (obligations and unpaid day labor exacted by feudal lords) was less and their bond to the land was weaker. Here as free men – Cossacks, they could receive for up to 30 years the right to have a tax-exempt, corvee-free settlement (sloboda). The Cossack population expanded with the addition of peasant immigration from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth where there was also an increasing exploitation of the peasants.
The Treaty of Lublin placed the settled areas of Ukraine under Polish control and diminished the status of the Ukrainian peasantry. They were deprived of their former inherited rights to use specific land, as well as subjected to increased obligations to the noble landowners, who deprived them of any rights to relocate to better circumstances, and obligated them to the decisions of the noble courts. Estate obligations increased greatly, while the size of their plots shrank. In 1566, fifty-eight percent of Galician peasant farms consisted of a half-field or more. By the end of the century, only 41 percent of the plots were a half field. Anyone having a plot performed corvee with ox or horse; those with larger plots used a pair of draft animals (since the animals were already required for farming, they also went to work for the landlord). Corvee varied from three to six days per week by one or more household members. Some peasants were obliged to begin labor at the age of eight, but never later than fifteen. Poorer serfs with smaller or no field allotments provided one to six days of pedestrian corvee weekly. Weekly corvee, other seasonal or special forms of labor and additional dues in kind or cash varied with the territory and estate, as did allotment size. In the 1620s, corvee on magnate estates in Volhynia were four to six days per week per voloka (16.8 ha) of land, but some lords demanded labor every day of the week, including holidays. Corvee obligations could be specified as paid in kind with specific products, goods, or labor, or as a specific amount of money.
The Cossacks fled to the steppe to find freedom from serfdom, but they were still expected to show allegiance to the Commonwealth, who often used them to fight the invading Tartar tribes. Continuing efforts of the szlachta - magnates and nobility - to turn the Zaporozhian Cossacks into serfs further eroded the Cossacks' once strong loyalty towards the Commonwealth. Cossacks desired to be equals. They had established social and governing structures, but their desire to transform the Commonwealth (Polish-Lithuanian) into Three Nations (with the Cossack and Ruthenian/Rusyn people) was thwarted by lack of political support.
Initially, the Cossack movement had a social character. However, the Orthodox religion’s union with Catholicism by the Union of Brest was dismissed by the Orthodox faithful, who demanded that the Orthodox metropolitan be restored. In their quest, the Orthodox looked to the Cossacks for support. About 1616, the Cossacks of Zaporozhia were accepted as members in the defense of Orthodoxy. Kiev again became the central of religious activity, although the Commonwealth refused to recognize the new hierarchy. Finally in 1632, after many attempts to become accepted, the Orthodox party, supported by the Cossacks, was granted concessions by the new king Władysław, which retained their loyalty during the retaliation and campaign in 1633 against the Commonwealth by Michael Romanov. During the final years of the Thirty Years’ War, the Commonwealth was relatively peaceful.
However, several Cossack uprisings resulted by the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century due to the frustration of the Orthodoxy supported by the Cossacks and peasants and of the Cossacks inability to gain status within the Commonwealth. These occurred against the Ukrainian nobility and the Polish government and resulted from the waning Cossack loyalty and the arrogance of the szlachta towards them. These brutally suppressed uprisings were led by the following hetmen1 Kryshtof Kosynsky (1591–3), Severyn Nalyvaiko (1594–6), Hryhorii Loboda (1596), Marko Zhmailo (1625), Taras Fedorovych (1630), Ivan Sulyma (1635), Pavlo Pavliuk and Dmytro Hunia (1637), and Yakiv Ostrianyn and Karpo Skydan (1638). (1hetman: title of second highest military commander after king; used in 15th - 18th centuries by Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Russia, and Czechs)
The Deluge - With Fire and Sword
The earlier uprisings were precursors to the peasant-Cossack rebellion known as the Chmielnicki rebellion. The battle at Korsun (1630) is considered to be the start of disintegration of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. While the peasant-Cossack rebellion initially involved the Ukraine, it gradually extended to neighboring countries and again the balance of power in Europe was affected; the effects of the uprising led to a series of wars that again changed the political balance of power in Europe. The Commonwealth was left in ruins, with loss of 1/3 of its population, much of its land, and its great power status.
Troubles in the Ukraine increased during times when Cossack usefulness to the Commonwealth ebbed, such as when they were not used in large numbers in foreign war campaigns, when they were not included in the official register, when threatened with reduction to serfdom, and when the Orthodox religion was suppressed. To address these grievances, under the leadership of a Bohdan Chmielnicki, an educated member of the Ukrainian gentry, the Cossacks allied with the peasant masses and lower-level Orthodox clergy. They rose up in rebellion chanting the slogan “Defend the true and holy Orthodox faith.” His initial action, fueled by personal resentment, was directed towards wealthy Polish and Ruthenian magnates, who had high positions with large estates. The Jews, who served as managers of the noble estates, became the tax and rent collectors, and enforced the landowners’ policies, received the brunt of Cossack reprisals.
Chmielnicki’s primary ambition was to become the ruler of Ukraine. It was the motivation for instigating the uprisings. The Cossack rebellion engulfed the whole of the Ukraine, Ruthenia and Zaphorozhe. The rebels destroyed Catholic churches, convents, and the previously Polonized cities and castles. They killed Poles, Lithuanians and Jews and destroyed their manors and folwarks (large grain farms). They reached the Polish borders and even the walls surrounding Warsaw. Within a few months, almost all Polish nobles, officials, and non-Orthodox clergy had been massacred or driven from Ukraine. Jewish losses were especially heavy in 1648-1649 because they were the most numerous and accessible representatives of the szlachta. Chmielnicki told the people that the Poles had sold them as slaves "into the hands of the accursed Jews." Estimates of Jewish dead range from 50,000 to several hundred thousand; 300 Jewish communities were totally destroyed. Over one million Commonwealth citizens were killed. In reprisal, many thousands of Cossacks and the peasants who supported them were murdered. Neither side spared women, the young, or the old.
Attempts by the Commonwealth forces to quell the initial rebellion failed when Cossack troops of the Commonwealth joined the rebels. The death of Władysław IV, son of Sigismund, added to the chaos and resulted in Jan Kazimierz, his son and a Jesuit who proved to an excellent war leader and negotiator, being elected as Polish king. The king, who appeared to be more popular among the Cossacks, tried to negotiate with the rebels but failed in part because of Chmielnicki’s claim to Ukraine. For awhile, there almost was a Ukrainian state that was jointly governed by the Cossacks and Chmielnicki. With the nobility expelled and their power destroyed, Chmielnicki installed a government of privileged Cossacks who ruled over the peasants. This broke the alliance of equality of the Cossacks and peasants. With the alliance dissolution and desertion of the Crimean Tartars, the revolution lost force and impulse. As a result, Jan Kazimierz won a great victory over the rebels in 1651 at the battle of Beresteczko.
Czar Alexius, the son of Michael Romanov, closely observed the Ukrainian conflicts. His offer to mediate the conflict was refused by the Commonwealth. Weakened by war, Chmielnicki persuaded the Cossacks to accept the offer of a Russian alliance at the Treaty of Pereyaslav (1654), which was in effect their submission to the czar. After Chmielnicki’s death, the new hetman, Ivan Wyhowski, negotiated with the Commonwealth the Treaty of Hadiach (1658) as a means to reintegrate the Cossacks and their lands. This would have effected the three-nation Commonweath, which the Cossacks had long sought. While the Cossacks eventually felt it was too little too late, the Moscovy monarchy saw it as an act of war and invaded western Ukraine. The few successes of the Polish forces under Stefan Czarniecki, which included the battle of Konotop, were not enough to retain Cossack confidence in the Commonwealth.
The Deluge - Old Enemies
When Moscovy invaded, their actions were not limited to the Cossack lands, but also included reopening their access to the Baltics. They reconquered Smolensk, went on to sack Wilno, and by 1655 took over the eastern part of the Commonwealth, although were halted in 1662 by a new Polish-Ukrainian alliance. The struggle over Ukraine ended with the Treaty of Andrusovo (1667), with the Turkish intervening due to Crimean claims. In the end, Muscovy was territorially victorious with only Right bank Ukraine being retained by Poland.
Later the Eternal Peace (1686) was signed confirming the earlier treaty and providing a basis for cooperation against Turkish-Tartar aggression. The Cossacks fell under Russian subjugation with much fewer priviliges than earlier offered by the Commonwearlth.
The Cossacks became more integrated in Russia, losing their autonomy and effectively destroying any hope of ever being a separate country. The Cossack nation of Zaphorian Host was divided in two semi-autonomous republics of the Duchy of Moscow. They gradually lost their independence and by the end of the 18th century were adsorbed into other governorships. Many Zaporovians fled to Turkey where they adapted their customs or went to the Kuban (Crimea) where they continued irregular warfare with the Western Caucasus tribes.
While Moscovy was gathering territory and occupying the Commonwealth’s attention, the old Polish enemy, the Swedes, invaded Poland in 1655. Charles X, cousin to Jan Kazimierz, had dynastic claims to the Polish throne. Lithuanian Prince Radziwill, Grand Hetman, had negotiated with Charles X Gustav to break the Union with Poland and take suzerainty of Lithuania in turn for control of the Duchy of Lithuania. Early in the Swedish assault, Polish nobles and magnates recognized Charles as a Lord, and put themselves under his protection, with the exception of several regions including the Jasna Gora Monastery. While Warsaw fell without a fight, defense of Kraków failed, as did the efforts of the Royal Polish troops of Hetman Czarniecki.
While little resistance was encountered by the Swedish troops from most areas, they raped and robbed the nobles of their possessions, and were brutal with all they encountered. Cities were plundered and burned, and the countryside destroyed. Polish hetmen Potocki and Lanckoroński, hearing of the attack on the monastery by the Swedes, who apparently did not keep their own promises or respect Polish religion, declared an uprising against them. This became the turning point of the war as it spread to Greater and Lesser Poland, and Podlasie. In 1656, Jan II Kazimierz was crowned in the Lwów Cathedral reestablishing the Polish monarchy. Under Stefan Czarniecki, by 1657 the Swedish forces were driven back from most of the territory. By 1660, only part of northeast Poland was in Swedish hands. France mediated the Peace of Oliva whereby Sweden and Poland returned to their pre-war frontiers, while Jan Kazimierz gave up his claim to the Swedish throne.
The war with Moscovy and Sweden inflicted irremediable damage and contributed heavily to the ultimate demise of the Polish state. When Jan II Kazimierz abdicated in 1668, the population of the Commonwealth had been nearly halved by war, famine, and disease. The economic base of the cities had been destroyed. The war ended the religious tolerance policy, which Poland had followed, and turned it into a religious ferver against non-Catholics with expulsion of the Polish brethren a sign of that. During these conflicts, Brandenberg had been both an ally and foe of Sweden. As a result of the war, East Prussia ceased to be a Polish duchy, and Brandenberg’s right to soverignty over it was recognized.
After the Treaty of Andrusovo (1667), some Cossacks stayed in the southeast region of the Commonwealth. Their leader wanted to unite the Right bank Ukraine with the Ottoman Empire, and started a rebellion against Jan Sobieski. Sultan Mohamed IV knew that the Commonwealth was weak due to internal conflicts and attacked Kamieniec Podolski, a large border city. The small Polish army was defeated by large Ottoman military forces. As a result, Kamieniec Podolski and the adjacent area was surrendered and the Ottoman Sultan was to receive tribute. When the Sejm heard about the defeat and subsequent treaty terms, they refused to pay the tribute. Instead, they organized a large army under Jan Sobieski, who was able to defeat the Ottomans at Chocim in 1673, but was unable to regain Kamieniec Podolski. This effort eventually was the key to electing Sobieski king in 1674.
The aggression shown through 1681 towards the weakened Commonwealth had also involved Russia, and was indicative of the Ottoman Empire’s desire to expand their power in the region. The Habsburg Empire was also a target in the quest for Ottoman expansion into the heart of Europe. With the Turkish-tartar army again besieging Vienna, Jan III Sobieski led a Christian alliance that defeated the Ottomans in the siege of September 12, 1683. An alliance, the Holy League, was initiated by Pope Innocent XI in 1684 and included the Holy Roman Empire, the Venetian Republic, Poland, and, later, the Russian Empire. After a number of successful battles, the Ottomans signed Treaty of Karlowitz of 1699 (returning Kamieniec Podolski and part of western Ukraine to Poland). This ended 300 years of war with the Ottomans, which ended the threat to central Europe.
Decay of the Commonwealth
The Commonwealth’s aid to the European alliance in pushing back the Ottoman Empire did not go unrewarded, but that success could not change the internal weakness of the Polish-Lithuanian political system. Attempts at reform were stymied by the szlachta, who were determined to preserve their "golden freedoms" and the 'Liberum Veto' that allowed any member of parliament to disrupt the Sejm's proceedings and nullify their work with a single veto. The single veto policy effectively thwarted any attempt at reform. The Russian tsars took advantage of this unique political vulnerability by paying Parliamentary traitors, who in turn consistently and subversively blocked reform and other potential solutions to the political problems. Because of the chaos of the veto provision under Augustus III (1733-1763), only one of thirteen Sejm sessions ran to an orderly adjournment. The powers of the monarchy and the central administration were virtually non-existent. Kings were denied the ability to provide the elementary requirements of defense and finance while aristocratic families were able to make treaties directly with foreign sovereigns.
The Commonwealth’s lack of a central leadership and impotence in foreign relationships resulted in it becoming an immense but feeble buffer state for all the surrounding ambitious kingdoms. It was the end of its glorious days as a great power. Its position as a strategic crossroads of Europe did not allow it to settle peacefully into secondary status at the edge of Europe like Spain and Sweden did at the end of their days as great powers. For the next several decades, the Polish crown became subject to the manipulations of Russia, Sweden, the Kingdoms of Prussia, France and Austria. During the reign of Peter the Great, the Commonwealth was dominated by Russia. By the middle of the century, it became a virtual protectorate of Russia, with only the theoretical right to self-rule.
Following the abdication of Jan II Kazimierz, the succeeding monarchies were weak, unable to cope with the nobility or with external forces. After 1733, succession to the throne was directly influenced by various foreign powers who used the king as their pawn. Augustus II (1697-1706, 1709-1733), Elector of Saxony, involved Poland in Peter's Great Northern War with Sweden (1704-1710). The result was that Sweden began a new series of rounds of invasion and devastation, which Poland could ill afford. Augustus was a Lutheran, who wanted to bring order to the Commonwealth and return the monarchy to a hereditary dynasty. He was willing to convert to Catholicism to do so. He attempted to strengthen the central authority of the monarchy, but mistakes in his policies allowed Russia to increase its influence over the Commonwealth.
Despite his origins from an old noble family, king Stanisław Leszczynski (1706–1709, 1733-1736), did not have sufficient character or political influence to hold an unstable throne. He was selected as king by Charles XII of Sweden, but found it difficult to take the throne. He supported Charles against Russia, but lost his power when Charles lost the Battle of Poltava (1709). His second election was supported by France, but Russian intervention prevented him from acceding to the throne. He abdicated after fending off their army for several years.
After the Wars of Succession, Augustus IIIWettin (1733-1763), son of Augustus II, also Elector of Saxony, was elected king of Poland with support from Russia and Austria. August was interested in the Commonwealth only as a means of obtaining funds and power to strengthen his position in Saxony. Most of his time was spent there. His power and responsibilities were handled by an administrator who had been in his father’s service - one who was not only ambitious, but incompetent. During this time, the struggle in the Sejm between Czartoryski and Potocki fostered internal anarchy, which further weakened the Commonwealth, and set the stage for the intervention by Prussia, Austria, and Russia into its affairs.
- Dvornik, Francis, The Slavs in European History and Civilization, Rutgers University Press, New Jersey, 1962
- Lodge, Henry Cabot, Editor, History of Nations, V15, Russia, Poland, Baltic States
- Parker, Geoffrey, The Thirty Years’ War, Barnes and Noble, New York, 1993
- Sienkiewicz, Henryk, With Fire and Sword, Henry Altemus Publications, Philadelphia, PA
- Zamoyski, Adam, The Polish Way, Franklin Watts, New York, 1988
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