Sunday, August 27, 2017

Death of a Great Power - The Partition of Poland

Cartoon on the First Partition of Poland
In 1795, the Polish people, who once controlled immense power in Eastern Europe, saw their country disappeared from the face of the world, devoured by its aggressive expansionist neighbors.

Poland – a Bright Star in Europe

Poland’s tragic partition marked the end of a great country that once dominated Eastern Europe. Before, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth covered around 400,000 square miles of land and composed of modern day Poland, Baltic States, Belarus, and part of Ukraine shying few square miles from the coast of the Black Sea.

Men from all faiths came to Poland to work and enjoy the privilege of freedom of religion and safety against force conversions that other Europeans imposed. In fields of science and culture, Poland had several of the oldest universities in Europe, such as the University of Krakow and Wilno University (University of Vilnius). These universities produced many scholars and scientist like Nicholas Copernicus whose theory of heliocentric solar system revolutionized astronomy.
Astronomer Copernicus by Jan Matejko
Its government also had unique features that made it stand out in European history. In 1569, the Union of Lublin created the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that resembled the Dual Monarchy of Austria and Hungary, created in the 19th century. A king of Poland ruled also as the Grand Duke of Lithuania but the 2 entities maintained their own respective administration, laws, and military with foreign affairs only being managed together.

The Sejm also exemplified Poland’s extraordinary parliament and representation in government. Starting in the 1490’s, the Sejm found its roots as a legislative body of the affluent and influential elite class called the Szlachta. Later, its powers grew to include approving of all laws before their enforcement, electing kings and removing them as they pleased.

With such achievements in various fields and a unique government then not seen anywhere else in Europe, Poland stood as a bright star in the continent until its sudden decline in the last half of the 17th century.

Decline of Poland

Poland’s decline came as a result of internal and external strife. Excessive wars by ambitious kings and a ruling conservative oligarchy brought stagnation and economic disaster to the Commonwealth. All contributed to vulnerability of the once mighty Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

During the 17th century, Poland embroiled itself in numerous wars. Polish kings marched against the Turks, Germans, Swedes, and Russians all clawing for land and imperial prestige. Surrounded by enemies, Poles squandered their wealth in wars which gave Poland few gains and huge losses in manpower, territory, economy, and international prestige. By the dawn of the 18th century, Poland was tired and stood as a shadow of its former glory.

Attempts to reform Poland did materialized, but the Sejm brought everything to a standstill. The Szlachta that formed 10% of the population dominated the Sejm. The Sejm busied itself promoting their vested interest dominating kings, peasants, and burghers, instead of rebuilding Poland. Worst, the Sejm made any reforms impossible with its practice called liberum veto where a single negative vote meant rejection of a law. Furthermore, a single member also had the right to declare the Sejm dissolve and the body had to wait for another 2 years to convene once again. Hence, it stammered any proposal for reform especially those aimed in removing the privileges of the Szlachta class or those targeted in empowering the peasantry and broadening representation. The Sejm also opposed all attempts by kings to strengthen the monarchy that might have help in speeding up reforms necessary for the country.

Division of Poland

As Poland declined, its powerful and aggressive neighbors took advantage in increasing their lands and influence. Through divide and conquer they advanced their agenda at the expense of the Poles.

By the dawn of the 18th century, Poland was surrounded by powerful aggressive neighbors, all having design for expansion and desire to up their prestige. Sweden wished to make the Baltic Sea to be their lake and many of the lands that surrounded the sea was Poland’s. Prussia eyed itself to become a great power and wanted to take over the lands in between East Prussia and Prussia. Russia, meanwhile wanted to grow closer to Western Europe and, and like Prussia, desired to be a well-known imperial force. Austria, on the other hand, eyed for new lands to add to their already vast holdings in hope of keeping its status as one of the leading countries in the continent. In all of these, power and ambition for lands endangered Poland’s existence.

Augustus II the Strong
The division of Poland’s government became a mean that led to partition. The Great Northern War planted seeds of division when King Augustus II faced an invasion and defeat from Sweden. Swedish King Charles XII then enthroned his own King of Poland Stanislaw I Leszczynski. By war’s end, Augustus won back his crown but Poland was devastated and along with Sweden lose their status as great powers of Europe. Augustus continued his reign until 1733 and saw a growing Russian influence in Poland.

Augustus III’s succession was nothing smooth. Civil war engulfed the already weakened country as major powers played a proxy war called the Polish Succession War. Augustus fought for the crown with the support of the Russians and Austrians while his opponent Stanislaw I Leszczynski returning for another chance of power received the assistance of the French and Spanish. The country suffered until it ended in 1736 with Augustus claiming victory and Stanislaw took the Duchy of Lorraine as a consolation.

Augustus III’s victory, however, did not ended Poland’s decline, but rather it revealed the state of the country as a weak and stagnant country brought by political deadlock. During his reign, the Sejm continued to hold tremendous power over the advancement of law and reform. They opposed the King at any sign of assertion of absolute power centered in the crown. They united against the crown but divided against reform as seen with the number of times they dissolved and vetoed any laws. They dissolved 5 times in their 15 session with the rest marred by the Liberum Veto. Time in a stood still in Poland amidst a fast changing politics of Europe.

The Seven Years’ War continued the country’s misery and resulted to greater Russian influence as Russian troops entered the country to fight their Prussian foes.

Right after the war, the Enlightenment gained momentum in spreading across the continent, and Poland felt its presence. Intellectuals started to call for the breakup of the Szlachta’s control of the Sejm and the abolition of the Liberum veto.

Stanislaw II Poniatowski
In 1764, a new King rose to power – Stanislaw II Poniatowski. In the beginning many saw him as the symbol of Russian influence in Poland. Poniatowski studied in Russia and even became a lover to the Russian Empress Catherine II. He appeared to be a puppet of the Russia, but the King soon proved himself to be an enlightened monarch bent of reform and the rebirth of Poland. Nonetheless, he continued to believe cordial relations with Russia meant the safety of the Kingdom from the incursions of Prussians and Austrians.

Among his reform included the strengthening of the monarchy and broadening the representation of the. His reforms, however, met with open rebellion by the Szlachta who in 1768 formed the Bar Confederation to stand up against what they saw as the deprivation of their rights and strong Russian influence that placed Poniatowski in power. The Bar Confederation’s rebellion led to civil war and eventual foreign intervention by the Russians. In 1772 the rebellion of the Bar Confederation ended leaving the country once again in ruins and the leaders of the Confederation rotting in the cold wastelands of Siberia.

Worst for Poland, geopolitics went against their interest. Austria and Russia heightened tensions as both countries competed for influence and territory in the dying Ottoman Empire. Prussia meant to balance power in the region and used diversion to appease the situation. King Frederick II of Prussia pacified the 2 countries by redirecting their attention from the Ottomans towards lands in Poland.

The divided and weakened Poland then suffered its first partition. On August 5, 1772, Austria took the region of Little Poland and its surrounding provinces to form Galicia. Prussia took Eastern Pomerania blocking Poland’s access to the sea as well as parts of Greater Poland. Russia grabbed northeastern lands of the country, those that lie at the banks of Dvina and Dnieper Rivers. Poland losses received Polish recognition with the Sejm legitimizing the land grabs on September 30, 1773 at the presence of Prussian troops in its halls. The Sejm’s popularity dropped and Poles saw the so-called Partition Sejm as traitors.
Rejtan at Sejm 1773 by Jan Matejko
The other powers of Europe reacted with indifference on the partition. England and France, the other great powers of Europe, condemned the annexations but made no strong actions against it. Opposition against the partition came also from intellectuals such as Edmund Burke who saw it as immoral.

Yet, 20 years into the first partition, surprisingly, the Polish people showed extraordinary resilience, displaying signs of recovery after the losses they incurred. Stanislaw presided over the strengthening the country by establishing a ministry of education tasked to modernize and secularize schools and a Permanent Council to serve as his cabinet and instilled effective administration over the country. Social reforms also showed promises with the number of serfs rapidly declining and replaced by highly productive farmers. The economy prospered even though it loss connection with its vital Baltic port of Gdansk. They sought new windows of trading opportunity to the Black Sea using its numerous river networks as their highway.

The only field that remained in stagnation was the Sejm. Still controlled by Szlachta class, they continued to oppose further reforms and even criticized the King’s Permanent Council which they viewed as their rival in holding power within the country.

But even with the mistrust, they managed to meet in 1788 and formed the so-called Great Sejm with the objective of creating a constitution for Poland and making it a constitutional monarchy.
Great, or Four-Year, Sejm 
The Great Sejm took great and arduous journey into formulating Poland’s constitution. For 4 years, the body debated all aspects of the Constitution. On May 3, 1791, the King and Poland celebrated the inauguration of Poland’s and Europe’s first written constitution as the Great Sejm approved the document under forceful situations.

The constitution made tremendous changes in the Polish government. Instead of electing kings, the Sejm would be electing a dynasty to maintain stability during succession. It also called for the election of the members of the Sejm by a limited suffrage. Finally, it abolished the Liberum Veto which had caused tremendous hardship for the country. The Constitution showed the political advancement of Poland during the age of Enlightenment.

As many liberals celebrated the Constitution of Poland, the absolute monarchs of Europe denounced it. Prussia and Russia, the 2 most autocratic countries in Europe, criticized the Constitution. More so, when in June 1791, the French Revolution flared up which demoted the King to a figure head.

Among Poles, criticism of the Constitution also brewed. In St. Petersburg, a group of nobles formed the Confederation of Targowica and called for the Russian invasion of Poland.

Tadeusz Kościuszko
Indeed, Russia invaded Poland in 1792. The Poles tried their best to resist the Russian invasion. Polish heroes like Jozef Poniatowski and the American Revolution general Tadeusz Kosciuszko led the defense of the country against one of the mightiest armies in Europe. Their stand, however, was futile as in January 23, 1793, King Stanislaw surrendered to the Russians and forced to turn against his own creation. He denounced the Constitution on the grounds it was taken over by radical Jacobin elements, which in France brought the reign of terror and the death of the King.

With much of Poland once again in heel, Russia and Prussia took once again the opportunity to take much land as spoils of war. Russia took over lands of Belorussia, Ukraine, and modern day Lithuania. Prussia expanded control over Gdansk, Torun, and Mazovia. Prussian and Russian troops stationed in the halls of the Sejm and intimidated the body into approving the Second Partition of Poland, which they did in August and September 1793.

Against the Second Partition, General Kosciuszko rose up against the great powers in a futile attempt to defend Poland’s sovereignty. He faced the overwhelming might of Russia, Prussia, and Austria from March 1794. He received much support from the people, but the great powers intended to break his will by launching reprisals against towns and cities who supported his rebellion. Thousands died and on November the Russians captured the wounded General Kosciuszko.

Discussions on the fate of Poland soon followed. Russia, Prussia, and Austria thought that to bring the Poles in control, they must take over the country absolutely. Came then the Third and last partition of Poland. The tragic death of a once great power came as the three powers devoured Poland and erased it from the map of Europe on October 24, 1795. 

After Partition

The Poles held to their identity and heritage and many dreamed that once again the world map would have Poland. Attempts to resurrect Poland were made. During the Napoleonic Wars, the Poles sided with Napoleon who rewarded their service by creating the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. But the defeat of French General in 1815 ended the Duchy and the Congress of Vienna maintained the partition. Bloody nationalist uprisings came from time to time, and the Polish question remained asked for the next century. Only with the end of the World War I in 1918 and the Treaty of Versailles that once again Poland came to life once again. Today, Poland is an integral part of Europe. A vibrant nation that has risen to life after centuries of hardship.

The story of the partition showed how stagnation and elitism brought death to a nation. It also showed the resilience of Poles to stand up against difficult situation and even defend their country against overwhelming odds. The Partition was a story of divide and weakness that led to a tragic end for a once powerful kingdom of Poland.

Wandycz, Piotr et. al. “Poland.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on August 27, 2017. URL: 

Curtis, Glenn. Poland: A Country Study. Washington DC: Federal Research Division, 1992.

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