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In this lesson, we explore the 3-part Partition of Poland, where Austria, Russia and Prussia divided Polish territory among themselves in the late 18th century until Poland ceased to exist.

The Partition of Poland

Throughout history, thousands of city-states, countries, principalities and empires have been born, prospered and then faded into obscurity before an eventual collapse. Sometimes it’s economic decline or external migration that prods a state into decline, while other times it’s military friction or outright war with a neighbor, which can spell a country’s doom. Far more rare are the states which legislate themselves out of existence.The 3-part partition of Poland in the late 18th century is one such example of a country’s collapse. Part of the blame could be placed at the feet of the Polish legislature, but there’s more to the story.

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Background

Indeed, the breakup of Poland in the late 18th century likely had more to do with the regional politics of Central and Eastern Europe. Internal politics in Poland in the 18th century were messy and far more democratic than any other Eastern European country. For example, the Polish legislative body, the Sejm, required votes on motions to be unanimous, essentially giving each member of the body veto power over any legislation.This caused a gridlock in Polish politics. Along with intermittent civil strife in the country, it also created gaps in power, which Poland’s powerful neighbors eagerly exploited. For example, in 1764, Catherine II of Russia (often referred to as Catherine the Great) secured the election of her former lover, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, as King of Poland. Catherine hoped Poniatowski would remain loyal to her and to Russia, essentially creating a puppet buffer state in Poland between Russia and the growing state of Brandenburg-Prussia.

Surprising everyone, however, Poniatowski did not immediately kowtow to Catherine’s interests and set about strengthening Poland’s government, even securing a brief suspension of the individual member veto for three years in the 1760s. The prospect of a stronger Poland served no one’s interests in the region, least of all Russia. In the late 1760s, Catherine fomented religious rebellion in Poland’s Eastern territory.Additionally, Russia had scored major victories against the Ottoman Turks in the Northern Balkans. With Ottoman power in the area waning, Austria feared sharing a border with an increasingly strong Russia. Furthermore, maintaining that balance of power was important to Prussia’s expansionary interests in Central Europe.

First Partition of Poland

It was largely due to these factors that Frederick the Great of Prussia reintroduced a proposal to carve parts of Poland up between the three powers.

This placated Russian expansion with adjacent territory not directly threatening either Austria or Prussia. In addition, Austria and Prussia would gain important buffer territory as well, and Prussia would finally achieve its long-held goal of uniting its traditional province of Prussia with its larger territory in Brandenburg and Pomerania.This arrangement was agreed upon by the three monarchs – Catherine II of Russia, Frederick I of Prussia and Maria Theresa and Joseph II of Austria – in 1772. According to the agreement, large parts of Poland would be divvied up between the three powers, with each country taking a portion adjacent to their already held territory. This was nearly a third of its space, containing nearly half of the population. The partitioning of Polish territory to the three powers was ratified by the Polish Sejm the next year in 1773.

Second Partition of Poland

The immense loss of territory shocked many Poles, who began to clamor for government reform. This was understandable because they wanted to prevent further bureaucratic gridlock and the institutional decay, which had made Poland vulnerable to the partitioning. Many Enlightenment-style reforms were instituted, including educational and military reforms, and the tax system was restructured to lessen the burden on the working poor, who were also emancipated in many areas where they had been previously tied to the land.The Poles continued their reforms, to the point that a new liberal constitution was written and established in 1791. The constitution embraced many Enlightenment ideals and shared common values with the recently created United States Constitution, including providing for the separation of powers, eliminating the pesky legislative veto power of the Sejm’s members and abolishing existing structures based on medieval rights and tenures.While the Polish constitution of 1791 was a landmark document for its time and region, it unfortunately never had the chance to be implemented. Conservative Polish nobles, who stood to lose most of their power and prestige if the constitution was implemented, appealed to the foreign powers who profited from a weak and easily manipulated Polish state.

The Polish nobles, with help and backing from Catherine’s Russia, created the Confederation of Targowica, aiming to overthrow the constitution and replace the old order.Both Russia and Prussia rushed to the aid of the Confederation, invading Poland from the east and west and easily overrunning the countryside. The former Catherine favorite, King Stanislaw, defected to the Confederation and the constitution was doomed.

In 1793, Russia and Prussia partitioned off even larger swaths of Polish territory than they had taken in 1772. This second partition was consented to by the Polish Sejm, though they confirmed it while surrounded by Russian troops.

Third Partition of Poland

The Second Partition of Poland left the state a shadow of its former self, with huge parts of the Polish heartland and most of its principal cities now in foreign hands. In response, the Poles revolted in 1794, under the direction of Tadeusz Kosciuszko. Despite some initial victories, the rebellion was mercilessly quashed by an overwhelming Russian force; and in response, Prussia, Russia and Austria resolved to divide what was left of Poland amongst each other, wiping Poland from the map.The agreement was made immediately after the quelling of the rebellion in 1795, though it was not made official until 1797.

The Partition of Poland outraged most of late 18th century Europe, though no stable Western European nation ever intended to intervene on Polish behalf.

Lesson Summary

Ironically, while a 3-stage Partition of Poland eliminated an existing state, it played a key role in the development of two modern states. Russian power arguably reached its apex of the early modern period under Catherine the Great, and the Polish territory it took made it an even more important player in European politics. Likewise, the connection of Prussia with its larger territories in Central Europe bolstered Prussian power and clout in Central Europe.

In the following century, Prussian territory (including some of which was incorporated during the Partition) formed the heart of what became modern Germany.

Learning Outcomes

After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Identify the major power players in the dispute concerning Poland in the 18th Century
  • Recall the three-stage partition of Poland
  • Understand how the partition helped create much of what is northeastern Europe as we know it
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