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What Led to Poland's Demise in 1795

Translated and adapted by Peter K. Gessner from a 1995 essay by Jan Tazbir in Politica


On November 25, 1795, Stanisław August Poniatowski, the last King of Poland, signed the abdication statute at Grodno. His abdication marked the end of the existence of the original Polish Commonwealth, or Rzeczpospolita. The country was deprived, thereby, of its sovereignty. It would not regain it for another 123 years, that is, not until 1918.

Russia, Prussia and Austria, the three autocratic powers surrounding Poland, removed it from the map of Europe incrementally in stages, which became known as the Partitions. The First Partition occurred in 1772 when Poland, then the second largest country in Europe, lost 42% of its territory. The Second Partition took place in 1778; it reduced the country to a rump encompassing just 23 % of its former territory. The Third Partition, that of 1795, of which the King's abdication was a ratifying legalistic component, split the reduced state between the three partitioning powers which incorporated the fragments into their respective national territories.

The Bar Confederacy

Generations of Poles have tried, ever since, to understand how this great debacle came about, to find its historical roots, perhaps to rationalize it. Increasingly severe encroachments on Polandís sovereignty, if not its borders, antedated the First Partition. The Russians had earlier gained the right to station their troops on Polish soil and concurrently had managed to limit severely, by international treaty, the size of the Royal Polish Army. The First Partition was actually preceded by a four-year period of armed strife in which a sizable section of the szlachta, or gentry, united in the so called Bar Confederacy, took up arms against the Russian troops stationed on Polish soil. It was a fierce if unavailing struggle during which the Royal Polish Army maintained strict neutrality. This was the struggle in which Pulaski first won his spurs and from which he emerged with an international reputation as a fabled commander. It was also what led the surrounding powers to rationalize that there existed in Poland a state of anarchy and that their take-over of part of its territory by them was somehow justified.

The resulting 1772 First Partition could well have been the final one, had Poland's three powerful neighbors been able to agree how to divide the spoils. Had that occurred, the verdict of history would have been that the Polish nation's loss of sovereignty was its own fault. As it was, thanks to the twenty plus year gap between the First and the Third Partitions, the Poles were able to make the point on the field of battle that they were defending the societal organization, liberties, and structures that the Great Sejm, or parliament, which had sat in continuous session from 1788 to 1792, had brought into being in the form of the Constitution of the May 3rd, 1791.

The Role of the Sejm

That is not to say that the delegates to that Sejm were fully cognizant of how perilous was Poland's predicament. Had they perceived it, the Sejm would have not wasted so much time debating. Although it passed legislation creating a substantial army, it failed to budget it adequate funds. Consequently, when the time came for the Army to march into the field to combat the Russians, it was at only one third of its envisaged strength. Yet, exactly two decades later, the tiny Duchy of Warsaw, created by Napoleon after he had defeated the Russians and liberated the Poles from their yoke, was able to put into the field an army of over a hundred thousand. One might also note that, in the period between the Third Partition and the creation of the Duchy of Warsaw, the sums flowing from the Polish lands to the treasuries of the partitioning powers could have kept an army of two hundred thousand in the field.

Whence then this lack of concern? In part it was due to the conservatism of the gentry, which blindly believed in old political dogmas. In part it was due to the naive optimism of the members of the Enlightenment, betoken to rationalism and empiricism, who obstinately pushed for far reaching reforms..

The conservative dogma derived from the belief, already current in the 17th century, that Europe would not permit Poland's demise. After all, was it not both Europe's defensive bastion and its granary? To this was added the belief that Poland was a country whose existence was essential for the maintenance of political stability in the Central Eastern Europe. Europe would surely not permit that, through the annexation of Poland, one of its neighbors acquire so vast a territory and power. Even greater faith was placed in Divine Providence which, surely, perceived the Poles as the staunchest and most faithful defenders of Catholicism. Even after the First Partition, the hope arose that Poland would regain, with God's help, of course, the territories just lost, provided that the gentry refrain from its sins. Unfortunately, unwillingness to undertake sacrifices for the sake of one's country was not included among these..

The Role of the Gentry.

The reigns of August II and III, the Electors of Saxony, who preceded Stanislaw August Poniatowski on the Polish throne, were remembered by the gentry as "golden" because expenditures for the defense and administration of the country had been reduced during those reigns to a minimum. Whereas Prussia was called a state created by the army, Poland was a huge country which for an amazingly long time, made do without an army. The gentry, over the course of two generations, had become quite used to the lack of state institutions. In the end, however, a dreadful price was exacted for that atrophy. Its effect on the defensive strength of Polish formation during both the Polish-Russian conflict of 1792 and the Kosciuszko Uprising of 1794 was clearly negative. Each of the Partitions, it should be recalled, occurred fairly soon after one or another - let's be frank - relatively incompetent campaign in defense of sovereignty..

Over the centuries, the Polish Commonwealth had gradually adopted the principle that kings could reign only with the consent of the gentry. In time this led to the sovereign being elected, albeit for life. This, prima facie, commendable and very democratic tradition had some serious drawbacks and gave rise to major problems. Since a king could not be elected while his predecessor was alive, and finding candidates and electing them took time, the country was exposed to lengthy interregnums during which the throne was vacant. Worse, it allowed neighboring states to advance their candidates and try to secure their election in various ways, including through bribes. Worse yet, in the run up to the election, the gentry extracted promises from the candidates, limiting their power once elected, principally rendering them betoken to the parliament, or Sejm. The latter, however, could only act by consensus since the principle of the liberum veto meant that the casting of a single dissenting vote in the Sejm would prevent the passage of legislation. In this manner, the gentry also was able to paralyze the legislative branch of government..

The advocates of constitutional reform realized that Poland, surrounded as it was by absolutist monarchies, could survive only if transformed into a powerful state. To achieve that it would have to have an inherited monarchy and an effectively functioning legislature (necessitating the abolition of the liberum veto)..

The Role of the King.

Their passion for reform, however, was coupled with a naive faith in people's common sense and their good will. In this view, it would suffice to explain the necessity for the various reforms, for these to be adopted and put forthwith into practice. By participating energetically in bringing about such reforms and, incidentally strengthening royal power, the King contributed substantially to the series of political convulsions which shook the country. As a result the administration of the country improved by leaps and bounds until ... the country ceased to exist. One can't get away with the structural remodeling of a ship while it is plowing through heavy seas..

Even the most impassioned defender of Stanisław August Poniatowski must admit that by signing the abdication he made things very much easier for the partitioning powers. Had he gone into exile, he would have forced Russia, Prussia and Austria to deprive him of his throne by force which, in the face of the revolution still in progress in France, would have smacked of Jacobinism. One should add that by voluntarily surrendering his crown he also broke a law, passed by the Sejm in 1669, which expressly forbade Polish kings doing so.

The actions of the King were not, however, a principal cause of the Partitions. Rather it was the constitutional structure of the country which made it impossible for the state to be a powerful one. Efforts to get this fixed were undertaken too late, disaffecting in the process the masses of the landless gentry by denying them political rights. This was a major error because the landless gentry, in spite of its backwardness, held in its heart a love for the motherland and a willingness to make sacrifices. It was this gentry, that in the 19th century, became the backbone of the national risings..

Less plausible is the claim made by some historians when discussing the causes of the Partitions that, given the nature of its historical traditions, Poland could not have survived in a world of brutal aggression. In this view the existence of "history's angel," located geographically between the three bandits, had to end in the "Golgotha of the Partitions." According to this thesis, the Poles were too noble and faithful to their historical principles, and the spirit of aggression was ever foreign to them. Putting it plainly, the claim made by such historians is that the "angels" did not suspect their neighbors of the ability to carry out so dreadful a crime..

The Role of Geography.

It is difficult. on the other hand, to negate the influence of geography on the acts of Partition. Lacking natural barriers on both its eastern and western frontiers, Poland was, and remains, a country easy to invade. Yet, what country has not been looked at covetously by its neighbors? Which of the larger countries didn't have to struggle with coalitions of neighboring states? To wit, during the same 18th century, both Russia and Prussia were within a hair's breadth of catastrophe. In 1710, a huge Turkish army had surrounded that of Peter the Great and it was only through the bribery of the Grand Vizier that it escaped annihilation or surrender. In 1760-61, Frederick II of Prussia found himself in what was a seemingly hopeless situation, defeated by the armies of Austria and Russia. He was saved by the sudden death of Tsarina Elizabeth and the resulting ascension to the throne of his ardent admirer, Tsar Peter III, with whom he was able to sign a peace accord on very favorable terms..

No such unexpected event came to Poland's assistance. What's more, some experts claim that the Partitions had to happen, since they were the inevitable consequence of Polandís continued decline along a trajectory entered upon centuries earlier. Events as remote as the lifting of the siege of Vienna in 1683 and even the failure to liquidate in 1525 the state created by the Teutonic Knights (which later became Prussia) are cited by some as having led to the Third Partition. Less radical historians push back the antecedents of the Partitions to the beginning of the 18th Century and more specifically to the start of the Great Northern War. Others claim that as late as 1792 the debacle could have been avoided. Let us add, that, unfortunately for Poland, Catherine the Great failed to pass away at a moment when that would have been convenient..

More to the point is the fact that Poland did not appear to the partitioning powers as a country whose continued existence could be suffered, particularly in the face of the revolutions that were continuing at the western end of Europe..

The Role of the Constitution.

Following the enactment of the Constitution of May 3rd, 1791, Poland begun to be talked about as the eastern nest of Jacobinism. This was patently false, a propaganda ploy without basis in fact, yet to a degree it was correct. It was false because in Poland one could have counted real Jacobins on the fingers of one hand. But it was also correct, in that the May 3rd Constitution guaranteed rights to the citizenry to a degree not tolerable to any of the surrounding absolutist states. Additionally, the rulers of those states were petrified by the notion of parliamentary governments to which the sovereigns had to bow. In short, the May 3rd Constitution was in no way similar to the system of government of Catherine the Great or Frederick II. Instead, it reminded them of the French Constitution to which Louis XVI managed to swear an oath in 1790, a couple of years before he lost his head to the guillotine.

The fear of Jacobinism, so common in the whole of Europe, also influenced the position taken by the Catholic Church regarding the Partitions. The Roman Curia viewed the Partitions as matters to be regretted, but in the larger perspective, unavoidable and of lesser importance. Papal diplomacy had been sorely disappointed by the Catholic monarchs: revolution had come to France and in Austria the influence of the Church and the privilege of the clergy had been much diminished. Accordingly, Rome begun to seek a rapprochement with Lutheran Prussia and Orthodox Russia as the countries best able to resist the French revolution. It sought to come to some understanding with them and in the process it was willing to sacrifice Catholic Poland.

The Effect on the Nation.

St. Petersburg, Berlin and Vienna sought to assuage their consciences by rationalizing that Poland's demise was brought on by the general anarchy in the country and thus was the Poles' own fault. Educational commissions in Germany and Austria, as well as distant Bulgaria, have had to work hard in recent years to expunge this thesis from school texts. In contrast in today's radically changed historical context, what were once considered the faults of the gentry are now viewed frequently as virtues. Already in the 16th century, political opposition was viewed as a civic virtue in Poland; later, under the yoke of the Partitions it became all together a patriotic duty. How else could it have been in the one country in Europe whose sovereign had been elected. No foreign ruler who sought to exercise power in the Polish lands, as did those of the Partitioning powers, through force of arms or by claiming Divine Right, could hope to find acceptance.

It would be difficult to do a greater wrong to a mature ethnic community, possessing rich historical traditions, than to deprive it of its own country for well over four generations. During this long period of Partition, the nation became terminally distrustful of the organs of government, since these represented the interests of the occupiers and those betoken to them.

The partitions, on the other hand. taught Poles how to create an underground state which functioned so well during the Second World War. The experience of the Partitions does not appear to have destroyed, though it probably should have, the faith Poles have in the good will of the West and in its readiness to come to Polandís aid.

The partitions changed almost entirely the nationís vision of history. Chairs of history became filled by authors of historical fiction (with Sienkiewicz in the lead), romantic poets and painters. Literature was harnessed to the wheelbarrow of national duty and this has rendered it difficult, if not altogether impossible, to make it intelligible to a wide, international audience. Poland became the only country whose great literary works were created abroad.

Did the Partitions cause the 19th century to bypass Poland? The debate continues Without a doubt, Poles abroad participated in it more extensively than those in the homeland. The Polish emigres contributed sizably to the technological development of other countries, be it in Europe or America. As the years of foreign domination piled up, the Polish nation begun losing more and more of the attributes of normality. From the waning years of the 18th century on, Polish intellectual elites suffered a kind of neurosis: the distress cased by the Partitions were accompanied by a constant concern regarding how the rest of Western World regarded Poles. Did it continue to consider Poles as belonging to it? But for the events of 1795, such concerns would have long been cast aside with other historical myths and would have not given rise to either xenophobia or messianism.
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