History of Poland Part 10 The Partitions 1764-1795 by Paul Lipinski

1764-1795 - Reign of
Stanisław-August Poniatowski

The beginning of the 1700s brought on the Republic’s biggest crisis. The Republic fell under the influence of Tsarist Russia. During the Northern War [1] Poland was the submissive battle ground for wars fought by foreign armies and its royal throne became an object of foreign power plays. The country was surrounded by three new powerful states, each ruled by strong, capable monarchs: Peter the Great (Peter Alexeyevich Romanov) in Tsarist Russia had a army of 330,000, Frederick the Great (of Hohenzollern dynasty) in the Kingdom of Prussia had an army of 150,000, and Maria Theresa (of the Hapsburg dynasty) in the Austrian Empire also had an army of 150,000. It was inevitable that these monarchs, faced with a weak state in their midst, would turn to partitions at Poland's expense. Oblivious to the imminent demise of the Republic the schlacta rested, convinced that its army of 24,000 posed no threat to anyone and therefore the country was immune to an invasion. Noblemen stood by their “golden freedom” [2] unaware that the system was in disrepair and could no longer secure them any freedoms.

Upon the death of King Augustus III in 1763, the Czartoryski faction ruling Poland agreed with Russia on the candidacy of Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski for King of Poland (1764-1795). The first years of his rule were devoted to military and financial reforms. In 1765, the King founded the Knights School, which produced such graduates as Tadeusz Kosciuszko, J. Jasinski and J.U. Niemcewicz, each of whom later made their mark on the nation's history. The municipal economy was put into order and new and modern workshops were set up.

Russian policy towards Poland then faced a dilemma. Russia had to either maintain their domination over entire Poland or accept the repeated propositions by Prussia to partition Poland. Russia was the most powerful neighbor of the Republic and the choice was in the hands of Catherine II. She gave up the exclusive rule over Poland and Lithuania for fear of a rebirth of the Republic. That fear was well founded. Before 1772, the Republic had a territory of 733.000 sq. km. with a population of some 14 million, the population density being 19.1 people per sq. km. Russia's population amounted to some 29 million. However, given its enormous territory, this resulted in a density of 5.5 people per sq. km. The population of Austria, together with that of Bohemia and Hungary, was some 18 million, while that of Prussia 2.5 million. So the Republic had a considerable potential and, given effectively implemented reforms, could play an independent role in Central-Eastern Europe. An agreement between the three powers was achieved at the expense of the helpless Republic in 1772. The Republic lost 211,000 sq. km. of territory and 4.5 million people of its population.

1772 - First Partition of Poland

The First Partition took place 1772 Feb 17 when Frederick the Great consolidated Prussia by seizing the Polish territories lying between East Prussia and Western Pomerania, with the sole exception of Gdansk, which remained associated with Poland. Maria Theresa took the then south-western slice of Poland, including Kraków and Lwow, later to become known as "Galicia". Catherine the Great, the tsarina of Russia and successor to Russia's Peter the Great, took a slice of the northeast. Despite heroic attempts on the part of patriotic delegates, faced with this triple blow, the Polish Sejm was forced to accede to the partition.

A positive result of the First Partition was to awaken the Republic from its state of lethargy. Polish cultural and political Enlightenment resulted in period of reforms, which culminated with the adoption of the new Constitution on May 3, 1791.

The May 3rd Constitution - 1791

By 1770 the Enlightenment movement that was sweeping Europe began to take root in Poland. King Stanisław August Poniatowski (a former favorite of Catherine the Great of Russia), began to implement reforms. The reforms, however, were not appreciated by the Russian Empress Catherine II. Under Russian military pressure, the Sejm of 1768 passed the so-called Cardinal Rights, which amounted to free election, liberum veto, the right to mutiny against the King and the gentry's monopoly on political activity. Those rights were guaranteed by the Empress which meant that no future reforms were possible without Russia's consent. At the same time, the Polish Enlightenment assumed a nationalistic tone. The first Partition in 1772 allowed the reformist party in the Kingdom to pass legislation that would aid the state. The reformers' achievements included establishment of a large, modern army. The crowning achievement was adoption of the Constitution on May 3, 1791.

The May 3rd Constitution was the second written constitution in Europe. It guaranteed total political equality to the town dwellers and placed the peasants under state-protection. It sought to create a modern legislative system in Poland by abolishing the liberum veto - the device that had armed the nobility with almost unlimited powers. By effecting a rapid transition from an unworkable feudal anarchy to a modern constitutional monarchy, the Constitution was designed to abolish the abuses of power that had plagued Poland for centuries. All aristocratic titles were abolished and the Sejm granted the hereditary title of Duke to several families only as recognition of their services to the country.

1792 - Confederation of Targowica:
Russo-Poland War

The Constitution provoked Catherine the Great who feared a threat to her authority over Poland. In response, she ordered her armies to smash the newly formed government and then supported creation of the Confederation of Targowica. This was a group of aristocrats who wanted to keep power in their own hands and were, therefore, opposed to the reforms. While the Poles had hoped to form an alliance against Russia with Frederick the Great's successor, the Prussians chose instead to confiscate more Polish territory. Against overwhelming odds, the new Polish army resisted the Russian advance but the King lost his nerve and reluctantly joined Targowica.

1793 - Second Partition of Poland:
Last Sejm at Grodno

The immediate result was the Second Partition of Poland (1793). The Austrians did not participate directly in the Partition. However, enough damage was inflicted on Poland to reduce it to a remnant of a state between Prussia and Russia. Once again, the Polish Sejm bowed to the pressure and rubber-stamped the arrangement. In the trying times that followed, the Third of May Constitution served as a beacon of hope to the Polish people.

1794 - Kosciusko's National Rising

Kosciuszko’s Uprising was Poland's final attempt to maintain independence. Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish hero of the American Revolution, had returned to Poland with hopes of spurring his countrymen to action. Kosciuszko appreciated the winds of nationalism that were sweeping Europe and understood that an independence movement must include the town dwellers and peasants, so long exploited by the nobility. Promising complete equality for the urban population, special protection for the villagers and the eventual abolition of serfdom, he attracted the enthusiastic support of many non-nobles. The Battle of Raclawice is renowned in Polish history for the charge of the Polish peasants. Wielding sharpened scythes, they routed the Russians turning the tide of battle. Through this valiant effort, after years of suffering, they were finally recognized as a legitimate part of the nation. Warsaw and Wilno [now called Vilnius] were liberated. The combined forces of Russia and Prussia were too strong for this rag-tag army. Fighting against overwhelming odds, Kosciuszko was wounded at the Battle of Maciejowice and taken prisoner. The fate of the uprising was sealed by the defeat suffered at Maciejowice. Praga (the right-bank district of Warsaw) was then taken and its population exterminated. Terrorized by the carnage, Warsaw surrendered.

1795 - Third Partition of Poland:
King's Abdication and Deportation

During the third partition (1795) Prussia seized an enormous amount of territory including Mazovia with Warsaw, as well as the lands all the way to the Niemen River. Austria took the section of south-central Poland contiguous to Galicia including Kraków. Additionally, Austria took the lands between the Pilica, Wisła [Vistula] and Bug Rivers. Russia took the remaining eastern section of the country which included the territory between the Bug and Niemen Rivers. The Polish state was destroyed at a time when internal reforms and the state of education and economy were providing solid foundations for its existence and development. The Polish state, as an entity, disappeared off the map of Europe. It would take 123 years, until November 11, 1918, the end of the Great War WWI, before Poland fully regained its independence. Though dreams of independence died, Poland's populace had been liberated from the bonds of serfdom. Poles outside the nobility were now considered part of the national fabric and the concept of Polish nationalism became an enduring 19th century concept; ensuring the nation's survival and eventual rebirth.

1795-1918 – Period of the Partitions

Beginning with the partitions until World War I (during 123 years of captivity) successive generations of Poles launched attempts to regain independence. However, it was hard to rely upon rebuilding Poland without help from some ally and a favorable international situation. Russia, Prussia and Austria pursued a common policy aimed at retaining the spoils of war and tried to avoid conflicts among themselves.

Since three partitioning powers had allied with each other, it was not possible to defeat them at the same time. All three were monarchies, were absolute states and their political systems were completely opposite to the Polish tradition of democracy, self-government and civil freedoms of the gentry. These traditions were cultivated not only by Polish landowners, clergy and the enlightened part of the bourgeoisie, but also by intelligentsia tracing their descent to the gentry. Poland’s struggle for freedom amounted to the struggle against violence and absolutism. That is why the Polish cause was related to the European freedom and democratic movements. This is seen in the participation of Poles in European uprisings and revolutions in the 19th century, as well as the participation of foreigners in Polish uprisings.

The slogan "For your freedom and ours" ["Z nasza i wasza wolnosc"] became the symbol of the Polish contribution to the democratization of the European political systems.

1815 - Congress Kingdom of Poland Formed (suspended 1832-61, abolished 1874)

Napoleon's France was Poland's ally at the beginning of the 19th century. Napoleon Bonaparte's meteoric rise in European politics caught the attention of Poles who saw it as a chance for regaining independence. General Dąbrowski led the Polish Legion in battles allied with Napoleon in his earliest campaigns. During Napoleon's Spanish campaign, the charge of the Polish cavalry played a pivotal role in the victorious battle of Somosierra. It was during this time that the lyrics of the future Polish national anthem, the “Mazurek Dąbrowskiego” (Dąbrowski Mazurka), were written. Originally a marching song, the anthem includes the line "Bonaparte has given us an example how to fight and win."

In 1797 Polish legions were set up in Italy to support Napoleon in his war on Austria. Napoleon failed to appreciate the extent of the sacrifices made by the Poles on his behalf. In 1806-1807 Napoleon defeated Austria, Prussia and Russia. Under the Treaty of Tilsit the Duchy of Warsaw was established on part of the lands of Prussian-annexed Poland. The Duchy was granted a Constitution by Napoleon, a Polish government was formed, the Napoleonic Code was introduced and peasants were given personal freedoms.

In 1809, when the Austrians, in their ongoing war with Napoleon, attacked the Grand Duchy, the tenacious Polish defense at the Battle of Raszyn convinced them to allow the tiny Polish army south-east passage, in exchange for the surrender of Warsaw. This brilliant maneuver allowed the Polish army to overrun Austrian-occupied Poland while the Austrian army was tied up garrisoning Warsaw. After Napoleon won his campaign against the Austrians, the north-western part of the Austrian partition was incorporated into the Grand Duchy.

Poland's future was again reversed when Napoleon's expedition against Russia failed in 1812 and France lost the battle of nations at Leipzig (1813). It was during this battle that Prince Józef Poniatowski, the Commander-in-Chief of the Duchy's Army, died a heroic death.

In 1815, diplomats from all over Europe gathered at the famous Congress of Vienna to decide what to do with the ruins of Napoleon's Empire. "The Polish Question" dominated discussions at the Congress. The Tsar wanted all of the historic Kingdom of Poland to be brought under his rule. This was unacceptable to Prussia, Austria, and especially Britain. The final compromise established the divisions of partition which were to last (with some minor changes) until the regaining of Polish independence (1918). The area around Poznan was returned to Prussia. The remainder of the former Grand Duchy of Warsaw, was now called "the Congress Kingdom" or "the Kingdom of Poland" and was given to Alexander I, the Russian Tsar. Austria retained the lands which it had seized in the First Partition, while Kraków was made into a "free city".

Under Tsar Alexander I, who became King of Poland, Kingdom Poland enjoyed some limited autonomy. The Kingdom’s identity included its own Constitution, government, Sejm and army. However, it soon proved impossible to reconcile the constitutional, democratic regime of the Kingdom with the despotic regime in Russia. Incessant violations of the Constitution and setbacks suffered by opposition led Polish youth to join conspiratorial organizations preparing for an uprising. This coincided with the persecution of everything that represented ‘being Polish’ in the eastern territories of the former Republic. This included the destruction of the flourishing University of Wilno [now called Vilnius] and the rebellion of the Decembrists in Russia (1825). The July Revolution in France, the uprising in Belgium and the Russian plans to intervene militarily by using the Kingdom's army to put down the freedom movements were signals for the revolt.

At some point there was hope that Tsar Alexander I would allow the Congress Kingdom some form of association with the Polish lands beyond the Bug (the river which marked Poland's eastern frontier). This hope died, however, when Tsar Nicholas I, the "gendarme of Europe," acceded the throne. Russian rule became increasingly heavy-handed in the Congress Kingdom.

1830-31 - November Rising:
Russo-Poland War: Great Emigration

The uprising in Wielkopolska [Great Poland] broke out in Warsaw on November 29, 1830. It was initiated by rebel Polish cadets. It quickly engulfed the Congress Kingdom and its finely trained army came over, almost in its entirety, to the rebels. An independent government was called into being, with the Sejm dethroning the Tsar. The Polish-Russian war followed. The well-trained and armed Polish army held out until September 1831. However, it was not able to win that war in view of the enormous human and economic resources of Russia. Initially the uprising looked as if it would succeed. Unfortunately, delaying the abolition of serfdom and the serious mishandling of the military operations bungled the opportunity.

The fall of the uprising brought on the annulment of the Constitution, the dismantling of the Kingdom's army, the closing of Warsaw University and the construction of the citadel in Warsaw. Everything Polish was doggedly hunted down in Lithuania, Byelorussia [now Belarus] and Ukraine. Deportations and confiscations of property came in the wake of the crushed revolt. The victorious Russians then began a campaign of bloody retribution, launching a period of vicious Russification that devastated Polish life in the Russian part of Poland. The University of Wilno was closed. Poles were also persecuted by the Prussian authorities in the Poznan province and by the Austrians in Galicia.

Some 10,000 uprising leaders and participants were sent into exile. They went primarily to France. Poets Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Slowacki settled in Paris, where they continued their writing. Composer Frederyk Chopin and historian Joachim Lelewel also went to Paris. Discussions on the causes of the uprising's defeat were held by the Polish Democratic Society, which also conducted preparations for further armed struggle. Diplomatic efforts to keep the Polish issue alive were carried on by Prince Adam Czartoryski. The essential part of those discussions on the defeat focused on the situation of the Polish peasantry, which was the main social problem until 1863. Peasants did not own farmland and had to pay rents to the gentry for its use. Enfranchisement and the granting of land to peasants were regarded as indispensable conditions for modernizing the economic structure and attracting the peasant masses to the Polish independence movement.

The first to enfranchise peasants were the Prussian authorities. This action was the foundation for and resulted in the propitious economic development in that part of Poland annexed by Prussia. The Austrians enfranchised peasants during the “Springtime of Nations”, which also swept through Prussian-annexed Poland.

1848 - Posnanian Rising:
Emancipation of Serfs in Austria

In 1848 what is often called “The Springtime of Nations” began. It started with the Parisian revolution of February, 1848. This resulted in the abdication of Louis-Philippe and the proclamation of the Republic of France. That had a considerable effect on the rest of Europe. It incited varying degrees of revolutionary fervor everywhere with the exception of Great Britain and Russia. The revolutionary explosion in the spring of 1848 was the result of several converging factors. Beginning back in 1845-1846, Europe had entered a period of economic difficulties and social tensions due to a series of bad harvests. Manufactured goods consumption declined and investment came to a standstill. Misery stalked the countryside and cities fared no better when prices and unemployment rose. These economic difficulties exacerbated existing social problems to give rise to widespread political dissent. Political discontent intensified and calls for nationalism grew more strident, although the intensity varied by country.

Different parts of the now partitioned Poland reacted differently to the general climate of agitation. Poles of Prussia, like all other subjects of Frederick William IV, took part in demonstrations for freedom. Initially, the liberals [3] were satisfied. The King of Prussia promised a constitution and announced to the Polish delegates in April 1848 that Posnania would be granted special status. Polish delegates elected to the Constituent Assembly tried to assure that promises made would be kept, but their efforts were in vain. When the revolutionary movement failed in Berlin, the army's tight control of the country after December 1848, put an end to liberal hopes. The 1830 January 31 constitution finally made public by Prince Regent William made Prussia into a single state. This was another bitter disappointment for the Poles as they were stripped of their political identity and absorbed by the Prussian state.

Poles in Austria for the most part stayed out of the conflicts affecting the Empire. Still, a National Polish Council was organized in Leopol by Smolka, a lawyer. Smolka single-mindedly demanded the abolition of serfdom on the feudal estates, a measure immediately adopted by the Austrian government in order to cut short any unrest. To thwart Polish actions, Austrian authorities encouraged the creation of a National Ruthenian Council. On the whole, Polish territories under Austrian rule remained calm. Only a few Polish officers of the 1830-1831 revolution, i.e., Bem, Dobrowski, and Wysocki, who had taken refuge in Galicia, demonstrated their sympathy for the rebellious peoples. Galicia as a whole remained loyal and in recompense Emperor Franz Joseph named a Polish aristocrat, Prince Goluchowski, as governor of the province in 1849.

Poland, under the close surveillance of the Russian occupying forces, appeared very calm in 1848. The Russian governor of Poland, Marshal Paskievitch, was even sent by Czar Nicholas I to restore order in Hungary in 1849 during the rebellion against Franz Joseph. Nevertheless, the Poles felt deep sympathy for all those who were fighting for their freedom.


    End Notes:
  • [1] The Great Northern War took place between 1700 and 1721. It was fought between a coalition of Russia, Denmark-Norway, and Saxony (also the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, from 1701, and Prussia and Hanover from 1715) against Sweden, which was helped by the Ottoman Empire.
  • [2] Golden Liberty (Latin: Aurea Libertas; Polish: Złota Wolność, sometimes used in the plural: this phenomenon can also be referred to as "Golden Freedoms," "Nobles' Democracy" or "Nobles' Commonwealth" - Polish: Rzeczpospolita Szlachecka) refers to a unique aristocratic political system in the Kingdom of Poland and later, after the Union of Lublin (1569), in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Under that system, all nobles (szlachta) were equal and enjoyed extensive rights and privileges. The szlachta controlled the legislature (Sejm - the Polish parliament) and the Commonwealth's elected King.
  • [3] The term liberals as used here would be more closely defined with libertarians today.
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