Partitions of Poland

John Florens | Sep 24, 2023

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Partitions of Poland (in Lithuanian Padalijimas) refers to the divisions of the Polish-Lithuanian Confederation at the end of the 18th century that occurred on three different occasions (1772, 1793, and 1795) by the neighboring powers represented by the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Habsburg Monarchy. In all these cases there were assurances regarding the recognition of the Polish language, respect for Poland's culture and the rights of its inhabitants; it was not long, however, before these promises were broken. Indeed, partitions erased the existence of the Polish and Lithuanian states from the map of Europe from 1796 until the end of World War I in 1918, when they became independent nations again.

Having exhausted the effect of gilded freedom in the second half of the 18th century, due to numerous previous wars and internal conflicts (which occurred in conjunction with the establishment of the konfederacies), the Republic of the Two Nations appeared severely weakened, so much so that in 1768 it came under the supremacy of Russia. Tsarina Catherine II called for the legal-political equalization of the so-called dissidents, as the numerous Orthodox communities headed by the ethnic Polish-Lithuanian East Slavic inhabitants of Poland-Lithuania at that time were called, but also Protestant. However, this provoked resistance from the Catholic Polish nobility (szlachta) and led to the formation of the Bar Confederation (1768-1772).

The Kingdom of Prussia took advantage of this troubled situation and negotiated a strategy for Poland with Russia. Eventually, King Frederick II and Tsarina Catherine II, through skillful and ingenious purely diplomatic techniques, succeeded in annexing large areas of Poland. Prussia's long-sought goal of establishing a land bridge to East Prussia was thus achieved in 1772.

The state that remained after this first division implemented various reforms internally, including the abolition of the principle of unanimity in Parliament (liberum veto mechanism), whereby Poland wanted to regain its ability to act. The reforms finally led to the adoption of a liberal constitution on May 3, 1791. Such zeal for reform, modeled by the ideas of the French Revolution, however, contradicted the interests of neighboring absolutist powers and conservative factions of the Polish nobility (especially the Targowica Confederation in 1792). In 1793 a further division was promoted in which Prussia and the Russian Empire participated.

The renewed division met fierce resistance, so that representatives of the petty nobility united parts of the bourgeoisie and peasant class in a popular uprising led by Tadeusz Kościuszko. After the insurrection was quelled by the occupying powers, Prussia and Russia decided in 1795, then again with Austrian participation, to completely divide the Polish-Lithuanian aristocratic republic.

After his victory over Prussia in the Peace of Tilsit in 1807, Napoleon Bonaparte established the Duchy of Warsaw as a French satellite state from the Prussian partition areas dating back to the Second and Third Divisions. In the Peace of Schoenbrunn in 1809 he expanded the duchy to western Galicia, the slice of territory that had gone to the Austrians in 1795. After Napoleon's defeat in the German campaign of 1813, the Congress of Vienna reduced it to Posnania and the Republic of Krakow in 1815. From the ashes of the duchy emerged the Congress Kingdom, a constitutional monarchy in personal union ruled by the autocratic Emperor of Russia who also boasted the title "King of Poland."

In addition to the three traditional partitions of Poland, it is sometimes customary to point to some additional ones with reference to those of the post-Napoleonic era or the one that occurred following the signing of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact signed by Nazi Germany and the USSR.

From the first half of the 17th century, the Republic of the Two Nations participated in various conflicts with neighboring powers, if we consider in particular, the recurring clashes with the Ottoman Empire, those with Sweden and Russia strained internal stability.

Second Northern War

Armed conflicts, which severely shook the Union state, began in 1648 with the Chmel'nyc'kyj revolt of the Ukrainian Cossacks, who rebelled against Polish rule in Western Rus. In the Treaty of Perejaslav the Cossacks accepted the protection of the Czarate of Russia, an event that triggered the Russo-Polish War (1654-1667). The victories and advance of the Russians and Ukrainian Cossacks under Chmel'nyc'kyj prompted Sweden to invade Poland from 1655 generating the Second Northern War: the Scandinavians' aggressions went down in history in Polish texts as the Flood. By the late 1650s, when other powers entered the war and Warsaw and Krakow had also suffered attacks, Sweden could no longer compete and had to accept, with the Peace of Oliva in 1660, the restoration of the status quo ante. However, clashes with Russia continued and finally culminated in an armistice in 1667, which resulted unfavorably for Poland (Treaty of Andrusovo) and cost the loss of millions of inhabitants, who preferred to move east.

Poland was not only weakened territorially. In terms of foreign policy, the Confederation became increasingly incapacitated, suffering economically from the catastrophic consequences of the war: half of the population had died in the course of the conflicts or had been expelled, 30 percent of the villages and towns appeared razed or severely damaged. The decline in agricultural products, a precipitous sector in local commerce, proved dramatic, with grain production alone reaching only 40 percent of prewar values. Until the early 18th century Poland lagged behind in social and economic development, failing to catch up with neighboring powers until the next century.

Great Northern War

The eighteenth century began with another excruciating war, the Great Northern War (1700-1721), which is often considered the triggering event for the partitions of Poland several decades later. Renewed disputes over supremacy in the Baltic Sea area lasted for more than 20 years: the majority of neighbors joined the Preobraženskoe understanding to form the "Nordic League" and eventually defeated Sweden. The Peace of Nystad in 1721 marked the decline of Sweden as a major power in north-central Europe.

Poland-Lithuania's role in the conflict revealed all too clearly the weakness of the republic: even before the start of the struggle, the aristocratic republic no longer appeared to be a fearsome state entity. Conversely, Russia seemed to be acquiring an increasing role, a circumstance that was not ignored by the new king of Poland and prince-elector of Saxony Augustus II, who sought to escape the disputes over the dominium maris Baltici. At the same time, he set out to strengthen his own position as that of the House of Wettin. The path he intended to take was probably aimed at achieving a royal union between Saxony and Poland with a hereditary monarchy, as had been the case with the Confederation.

After Russia had defeated Scandinavian troops in the Poltava campaign in 1709, the anti-Swedish League was finally under the leadership of the Tsarist Empire. For Poland, this meant a significant loss of importance, as it could no longer direct the further course of the war. Russia no longer saw the Confederation as a potential ally, but only as the periphery of its empire. It was from then on that it planned to exert its influence over the aristocratic republic to such an extent as to exclude it of the influence of the competing powers. Poland thus gradually entered a political crisis.

The state's domestic situation did not seem any better than its foreign policy: in addition to his attempts aimed at weaving more of a bond between Saxony and Warsaw, Augustus II tried to reform the republic according to his designs and increase the king's power. However, the latter did not enjoy sufficient support to carry out such absolutist reform work against the powerful Polish nobility. For that very reason, as soon as he tried to implement his reforms, he attracted the dislikes of the szlachta and, in 1715, the Tarnogród confederation took shape against him. Precisely at the most dramatic stage of the tension between the king and his Polish subjects, when the aforementioned union of aristocrats opposed Augustus II's last dynastic attempt, Tsar Peter the Great entered the scene as mediator and imposed the Treaty of Warsaw (1716), in order to permanently foil Augustus's personal aims, to disarm Poland and to envelop it in the web of his intrigues.

At the end of the Great Northern War in 1721, although Poland appeared among the official victors, the process of the republic's subordination to the hegemonic interests of neighboring foreign states, which was developing rapidly, appeared caused and increased by a "coincidence of domestic crisis and change of foreign policy constellation." De jure, Poland obviously did not yet appear to be a protectorate of Russia, but in fact the loss of sovereignty was glaring. By virtue of such motivations, in the following decades, Russia conditioned Polish policy.

Foreign dependence and domestic resistance

How acute the dependence on other European powers was was evident in the decision regarding the successor to the throne after the death of Augustus II in 1733. While in the past the szlachta alone proceeded with royal elections, on that occasion France and Sweden intervened, seeking to install Stanislaus Leszczyński, father-in-law of Louis XV on the throne. However, the three neighboring states represented by Prussia, Russia, and Austria tried to prevent this, and even before the death of Augustus II, they pledged to each other to propose their own common candidate, provided he was not a Wettin again, as agreed in the so-called Treaty of the Three Black Eagles. In any case, the Polish nobility ignored the decision of the neighboring states and voted for Leszczyński, but Russia and Austria were not satisfied with this decision and were in favor of a second election. Contrary to agreement and without consulting Prussia, they appointed the son of the late king, Augustus III. Soon after, a three-year war of succession erupted, ending with the defeat of the Dzików confederation, hostile to the Wettins, forced Leszczyński to abdicate.

The war between konfederacja would paralyze the republic for most of the 18th century. The clash between the various factions would make it impossible to reform a system based on unanimity by virtue of the liberum veto mechanism, first used in 1653, through which even a single member of parliament could block the legislative process of passing a proposal. Through the influence of neighboring powers, the internal misunderstandings of the republic became lacerating, so much so that, for example, throughout the reign of Augustus III, between 1736 and 1763, no legislative measure of any substance could be enacted in all the meetings of the Sejm held in those years. Even in the earlier period, the parliament's record showed the crippling effect of the unanimity principle: of the 18 legislative sessions held from 1717 to 1733, eleven went "sabotaged," two ended without reaching any conclusion, and only five were functional.

After the death of Augustus III, the two Polish aristocratic families of the Czartoryski and Potocki came to power. However, as was the case during the interregnum in 1733, succession to the throne soon transcended national demarcations and, once again, it was not the Polish aristocratic parties at all that determined the successor, but the major European powers, especially the contiguous ones. Although the outcome of the election was entirely in Russia's interest, Prussia also played a decisive role.

Indeed, Frederick II had plans for specifics for Poland; as he wished in his wills of 1752 and 1768, he intended to establish a land link between Pomerania and East Prussia, expanding his kingdom by acquiring "Royal Polish Prussia." Frederick's desire also shone through in a 1771 writing, "Polish Prussia would be worth the effort, even if Danzig were not included. This is because we would have the Vistula and duty-free connection with the kingdom, which would be an important thing at any rate, the possessor of Danzig and thus of the mouths of the Vistula is the real arbiter (the king) of Poland."

Poland under Russian hegemony

Since Russia would not accept such an increase in power from Prussia without opposing it, the Prussian monarch tried to endear himself to the Russian Empress Catherine II with an alliance. The first opportunity to forge a Russian-Prussian agreement became apparent in conjunction with the appointment of the new Polish king in April 1764, when Prussia accepted the election of the Russian candidate to the Warsaw throne. Austria was excluded from this decision, thus making Russia virtually alone in ensuring that the succession to the throne proceeded as planned.

Russia's decision on the person of the heir to the throne had been made for some time: as early as August 1762, the tsarina assured former British embassy secretary Stanislaus II Augustus Poniatowski of his appointment and reached an understanding with the noble Czartoryski family to secure their support. The choice fell on a person from the middle-rich szlachta with little political clout, a circumstance that would, in the tsarina's eyes, have made it more likely that the Warsaw court would be subordinated to the dictates of the Petersburg court. The fact that Poniatowski was a lover of Catherine II probably played a decisive role in such a decision. Nonetheless, Poniatowski still appeared to be a brilliant character, as he was thirty-two years old at the time and had great connections, an undisputed talent for languages, and an extensive knowledge of diplomacy and state theory. The election took place between September 6 and 7, 1764, and the unanimity of votes is explained by the extensive use of considerable bribes and by virtue of the presence of 20,000 men of the Russian imperial army, aimed at instilling fear; the death of thirteen aristocrats, an "unusually low" number compared to past votes, accompanied the enthronement that finally took place on November 25. Contrary to tradition, the polling place was not Krakow, the ancient capital until the late sixteenth century, but Warsaw.

Contrary to predictions, Poniatowski, did not prove as loyal and docile as the tsarina had hoped, initiating far-reaching reforms after a short time. To ensure the monarchs' ability to act, the Sejm decided on December 20, 1764, to transform itself into a general confederation, which was to exist only for the duration of the interregnum. This meant that future diets would be exempt from the liberum veto and decisions made by an absolute majority (pluralis votorum) could be considered sufficient to pass resolutions. In this way the Polish state emerged strengthened, but Catherine II did not want to give up the advantages of the permanent blockade of political life in Poland, the so-called "Polish anarchy," and she engineered in order to devise strategies aimed at paralyzing the apparatus of the Republic of Two Nations. To this end, he took action through some pro-Russian nobles to gain support among Orthodox and Protestant dissidents, who had suffered discrimination since the Counter-Reformation. In 1767, the Orthodox aristocrats united to form the Słuck confederation and the Protestants the Thorn confederation. The Radom confederation came into being as a Catholic response to the two aforementioned unions, further fragmenting the national scene. When the momentum of infighting wore off, a new Polish-Russian agreement was signed, approved under imposition by the Sejm in February 1768. This so-called "eternal treaty" included the manifestation of the principle of unanimity, a Russian guarantee for the territorial integrity and political "sovereignty" of Poland, as well as religious tolerance and legally political equality for internal dissidents. However, this understanding did not last in being for long.

The trigger: anti-Russian uprising and Russo-Turkish war.

Poniatowski's attempts at reform presented Tsarina Catherine with the dilemma of preventing them in the long run by involving the quickest tool that could be used, namely the army. Since this would have aroused the ire of the other two great powers contiguous to Poland, who, according to the doctrine of the balance of forces, would not accept overt Russian hegemony over Poland, as historian Norman Davies writes, it was decided to make territorial concessions "by way of bribe." The year 1768 gave a strong impetus to the first partition of Poland, the Prussian-Russian alliance having assumed more concrete lines. Decisive factors for this were Poland's internal difficulties, as well as the foreign policy conflicts with which Russia was confronted: Within the old territory of the Kingdom of Poland the Polish nobility's disdain for the Russian protectorate increased, as did that toward the crown in general. A few days after the approval of the "eternal treaty," the Bar konfederacja was founded on February 29, 1768 in an anti-Russian capacity, supported by Austria and France. Under the warhorse of defending "faith and freedom," Catholic and Polish republican men united to force the withdrawal of the eternal treaty and to fight the more or less indirect supremacy of Catherine and the pro-Russian King Poniatowski. Russian troops at that point again invaded Poland, with the effect of intensifying the will to reform while reprisals grew.

A few months later, in the fall, the Ottoman Empire directed a declaration of war at the Tsarist Empire, triggering a war that lasted several years and triggered insurrections on Polish and Lithuanian soil, among other things. Istanbul had long disapproved of Russian interference in Poland and exploited the unrest for the purpose of showing solidarity with the rebels, forcing its opponents into a struggle on two fronts: the battlefield and the (in theory) foreign soil of the Confederation.

Because of the threat of internationalization of the conflict, the war is counted among the factors that triggered the first partition, which took place in 1772: the Ottomans had formed an axis with the Polish insurgents, as well as receiving the mild support of France and Austria. Russia, for its part, received support from the Kingdom of Great Britain, which provided some advisers to the imperial navy. When Austria seriously considered entering the war in all respects on the side of the Ottomans, the conflict with the participation of the five major European powers ended up taking on a previously unimaginable geopolitical scope.

Prussia, which had previously concluded a defensive understanding with Russia in 1764, under which Petersburg would provide military support in the event of an attack by, for example, Austria, sought to defuse the explosive situation. The planned modus operandi was to bring Russia and Austria to the same table to divide up the coveted Polish territories.

Prussian-Russian Agreements

The Prussian strategy, aimed at hinting at the sincerity of the Hohenzollerns' assistance to Russia, especially in the incorporation of Poland, seemed to work. Under the pretext of curbing the spread of the plague, King Frederick had a cordon drawn across western Poland. When her brother Heinrich stayed in Petersburg in 1770-1771, the tsarina conversed with him about Spiš, which had been annexed by Austria in the summer of 1769. Jokingly, Catherine and her war minister asked Zachar Grigor'evič Černyšëv why Prussia had not followed the Austrian example: "Would it be so wrong to take the Principality of Warmian? After all, it seems fair that everyone gets something!" Prussia perceived the possibility of supporting Russia in the war against the Turks in order to gain Russian approval for annexation in return and, therefore, Frederick II leaked his offer to the tsarina's court. However, Catherine II hesitated to formulate a clear response in view of the Polish-Russian treaty of March 1768, which guaranteed Poland's territorial integrity. Eventually, under increasing pressure from Confederate troops, the empress agreed and thus paved the way for the first partition of Poland.

Initial perplexities and implementation

Although at first Russia and Austria did not entertain the possibility of annexation of Polish territory, the idea of partition gradually made its way into the minds of the rulers at the time. The decisive leitmotif appeared to be the desire to maintain a political-power balance by preserving the "aristocratic anarchy" that was manifested internally mainly through the liberum veto in the Polish-Lithuanian nobles' republic.

After Russia went on the offensive in the conflict against the Ottomans in 1772 and Russian expansion into southeastern Europe became foreseeable, both the Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs felt threatened by the possible expansion. Their resentment of such a unilateral extension and the resulting increase in Russian power originated plans for all-out territorial compensation. Frederick II then seized the opportunity to realize his intentions to enlarge his domains and intensified his diplomatic efforts. The first reference he executed, already mentioned in 1769, concerned the so-called "Lynar Project," considered an ideal way out to avoid a shift in the balance of power: according to the terms of this plan, Russia would have to give up the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia in favor of Austria. Since Russia would not likely have agreed to this without necessary compensation, the tsarist empire would have been left with a territorial equivalent in the east of the Kingdom of Poland as a compromise. At the same time, Prussia was to receive the areas of the Baltic Sea she so coveted. For Austria to have acceded, the regions of Galicia in Polish hands would have had to belong to the Habsburg monarchy.

While Frederick's policy continued to aim at the enlargement of West Prussia, Austria had a chance to get a little compensation for the loss of Silesia in 1740 as a result of some conflicts. Maria Theresa, echoing her own words, had "moral concerns" and was reluctant to allow her claims for reparations to come into effect at the expense of an "innocent third party" and, moreover, a Catholic state. Yet it was precisely the Habsburg monarchy that had inaugurated a precedent for such a division in the fall of 1770 with the "reincorporation" of 13 towns or market towns and 275 villages into Spiš County, as these places were pledged to Poland in 1412 by the Kingdom of Hungary and then later not redeemed. According to Teutonic historian Georg Holmsten, this very military action had served as the inspiration for the first partition imagined in 1772. While the Habsburg-Lorraine monarch was still in consultation with her son Joseph II, who sided with partition, and state chancellor Wenzel Anton Kaunitz, Prussia and Russia had already entered into a separate partition agreement on February 17, 1772, thus putting Vienna under pressure. In the end, Maria Theresa's concern about a postponement or even a loss of power and influence combined with the risk of a possible alliance of opponents located in the north pushed her to agree. Although the Habsburg monarchy had been hesitant on this occasion, Chancellor of State von Kaunitz had already attempted in the late 1760s to conclude an exchange arrangement with Prussia, under which Austria would take back Silesia and in return side by side with Prussia in its aims of consolidating Polish Prussia. One should not believe that Austria had been only a silent beneficiary, for both Prussia and Austria were actively involved in the division: the prospect of grabbing a slice of Poland seemed too important to be missed.

On August 5, 1772, the partition pact was signed between Prussia, Russia and Austria. The "Treaty of Petersburg" was branded as a "peacemaking measure" for Poland and meant a loss of more than a third of its confederate population, as well as more than a quarter of its former national territory, including economically important access to the Baltic Sea and the mouth of the Vistula. Prussia thus got what it had fought for for so long: with the exception of the cities of Danzig and Thorn, the entire area of Royal Prussia and the so-called Netzedistrikt (a region straddling today's Voivodeships of Cuyavia-Pomerania and West Pomerania) became part of the Hohenzollern monarchy. Therefore, it was the smallest percentage in terms of size and population. Strategically, however, it acquired the most precipitous areas and therefore benefited significantly from the first partition. In 1775, the ruler made notes about the need to wear down the enemy without completely annihilating it:

Russia renounced the Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia while gaining the Voivodeship of Livonia and the territories of present-day Belarus up to the Daugava. Austria secured the territory of Galicia with the city of Lviv as its main urban agglomeration with areas of Lesser Poland.

Stabilization of the European power structure

For the Kingdom of Poland, the largest country in Europe after Russia, the fragmentation of its territory entailed a radical change in its history, as it became the pawn of its neighbors. The alliance of the three black eagles regarded the kingdom as a bargaining chip, and Frederick II described the partitioning of Poland in 1779 as an outstanding success in managing a new crisis, although he did not fail to point out that Catherine "more pian

The balance of interests between the great powers lasted almost 20 years until the French Revolution: only the outbreak of coalition wars led to the emergence of new military conflicts between the great powers in Europe. France's intervention against Britain during the American War of Independence and the almost bloodless Potato War (1778-1779) between Prussia and Austria did not influence the geopolitical balance of the European continent.

Despite the gains from the first partition, officials in Prussia did not appear entirely satisfied with the outcome. Despite their efforts, they failed to incorporate Danzig and Toruń, as was evident from the terms of the Polish-Prussian alliance. The Hohenzollern monarchy once again sought to try to achieve further acquisitions, while Maria Theresa, who initially hesitated to proceed as did her neighbors, suddenly expressed further interest. She was of the opinion that the areas acquired through partition were inadequate in view of the loss of Silesia and the relatively greater strategic importance of the territories acquired by Prussia.

Internal disputes

The domestic political situation in Poland continued to be shaped by the rivalry between the king and his supporters on the one hand and the opposition of the magnates on the other. Russia tried to preserve exacerbate this rivalry while securing its primary role in the protectorate; the intent was to continue to leave Poland in an agonizing state through a policy designed to maintain the distance between the various aristocratic factions and keep the ruler of the day, particularly the Czartoryski family, in power. The diets of 1773 and 1776 were supposed to institutionalize this and adopt reforms to strengthen the position of central authority. For its part, the szlachta refused to increase the king's powers and rejected the reforms in view of Poniatowski's cooperation with Russia. The magnates' main goal appeared to be to reverse the parliament's resolutions of 1773 and 1776.

However, this would have been possible only with the formation of a diet, as its resolutions could be passed by a simple majority without being affected by the liberum veto. As widely expected, such a proposal met with strong opposition from Russia and the impossibility of changing the constitution. For these reasons, tycoons hostile to the tsars failed to come up with an overhaul of the legislative apparatus in 1773 and 1776, nor was it possible for Poniatowski to pursue further reforms, with the result as outside interference sought to do everything possible to preserve the status quo. Although encouraged by Catherine II, the Polish king continued to pursue measures to modernize and consolidate his state, aspiring to this end to the establishment of a confederate parliament. Poniatowski had the opportunity to do so in 1788, when Russian troops were involved in a two-front war against Sweden and Turkey, which was why Russia's military means could not be directed against Poland.

The strong spirit of reform that was to shape this long-awaited sejm revealed the beginning of a new capacity for action for the aristocratic republic, which could not be in the interest of the Russian tsarina. Also not to be forgotten is the role assumed at the time by the Catholic clergy, which reached its zenith and highest point of crisis within a few years at the gates of 1790, also influenced by Enlightenment ideals. The changes in the administration and political system of the aristocratic republic pursued by Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski were supposed to undo the political paralysis brought about by the elective monarchy, as well as certain social aspects, economic arrangements, and lead to a modern state administration. However, Russia and Prussia perceived this development with suspicion. Poniatowski, initially supported by the tsarina, suddenly proved to be too reformist, especially for Russian tastes, so much so that Catherine II tried to put an end to the modernization that was being sought. For her part, she reversed her choices and openly sided with the anti-reformist magnates.

Constitution of May 3, 1791

In view of its negative attitude toward reform, Prussia acted contradictorily: after pro-Prussian sympathies in Poland ceased soon after the first partition, relations between the two states improved. The rapprochement also led to a Prussian-Polish alliance on March 29, 1790. After some friendly declarations and distensive signals, the Poles felt safe and independent from Prussia and even met in person with Frederick William II, who was considered their protector. The alliance was thus supposed to, as Poland hoped, ensure reforms, especially in foreign policy. Prussia's role in the first partition, which seemed forgotten, was not as disinterested as it might have seemed to the Confederation, as it too wished for the continuation of "aristocratic anarchy." Among the most important innovations approved despite pressure from foreign powers included the abolition of the nobles' privilege of tax exemption and the establishment of a Polish crown army of 100,000 men and some changes in the law relating to citizenship.

The constant fear of intervention from his neighbors spurred the king to implement his further reform plans as quickly as possible. At a session of parliament on May 3, 1791, Poniatowski then presented members of parliament with a draft for a new Polish constitution, which the Reichstag approved after only seven hours of deliberation. Produced at the end of the so-called four-year Sejm, the first modern constitution in Europe thus came to life.

The constitution, known as the "statute of government," consisted of only eleven articles, which, however, led to far-reaching changes. Influenced by the works of Rousseau and Montesquieu, the principles of popular sovereignty and separation of powers were enshrined. The constitution included the introduction of the majority principle as opposed to the liberum veto, ministerial accountability and a strengthening of the state executive, particularly the king. In addition, state protection clauses were approved for peasants, who were to be subject to fewer constraints arising from serfdom and abuses exercised toward them. Various civil rights were also guaranteed, and Catholicism went declared the predominant religion, but freedom of religion of other denominations was guaranteed.

To ensure the ability of the aristocratic republic to act even after the death of a king and to prevent an interregnum, the parliamentarians decided to abolish the elective monarchy and introduce a hereditary monarchy, with the Wettins as the new ruling family. This made Poland a partly parliamentary and partly constitutional constitution. However, a willingness to compromise prevented even more visceral reforms: the planned abolition of serfdom and the introduction of basic personal rights even for peasants foundered because of resistance from conservatives.

Influenced by the works of the great jurists and state theorists, conditioned by the Enlightenment and its ideals, and fascinated by the events of the French Revolution and Jacobin ideals, Poland set out to become politically one of the most futuristic realities at the end of the 18th century. In any case, although the members of parliament were enthusiastic and hopeful about implementing the new constitutional principles after the approval of the basic charter, what they had achieved did not last long.

Reactions from neighboring countries

The constitutional snub soon prompted neighboring states to act: "Catherine II of Russia was furious at the adoption of the constitution and claimed that the document was a hodgepodge of Jacobin ideas." Russia at that time supported those forces in Poland that opposed the May Constitution and were already expressing misgivings about the reforms envisaged in 1773 and 1776. With the support of the tsarina, the Targowica confederation acted against the king and his followers. When the Russo-Ottoman conflict finally ended in January 1792, the troops were again free to act, a circumstance that allowed Catherine II to intervene militarily. A year after the conclusion of the four-year Sejm, Russian troops were thus making their entry into Poland. The Polish army was defeated and the Kingdom of Prussia unilaterally broke the Polish-Prussian defensive alliance of 1790, a circumstance that forced Poniatowski had to submit to the authority of the tsarina. The Constitution of May 3 had to be abrogated, while Russia regained its role of regulatory power. By virtue of the events, Catherine II then declared herself open to further partition. Therefore, it is plausible to argue that the assumptions under which the second partition of Poland took place were ideologically justified by the need no longer to defend religious freedom, but to eradicate the pernicious revolutionary spirit.

Prussia also recognized the opportunity to take advantage of this situation to seize the coveted cities of Danzig and Toruń. However, Russia, which alone suppressed reform efforts in Poland, was disinclined to comply with Prussia's request. The latter therefore linked the Polish issue with the French one and threatened to withdraw from the European coalition wars against Paris if it was not adequately compensated. Faced with such a choice, Catherine II decided after much hesitation to maintain the alliance and agreed to redistribute Polish territories between Prussia as "repayment for the costs of the war "contre les rebelles français," and the tsarist empire. At the tsarina's request, however, Austria was excluded from this partition act. In the partition treaty of January 23, 1793, Prussia settled in Danzig and Thorn, as well as Greater Poland and parts of Masovia, which merged to form the new province of South Prussia. Russian territory expanded to include the whole of Belarus as well as large areas of Lithuania and Ukraine. To legalize this act, the members of the Grodno Sejm held only a few months later, under threat of arms and high corruption from the partitioning powers, urged acceptance of the division of their country.

While after the first partition it had appeared in the interest of neighboring states to stabilize Poland again and then leave it standing as a weak and incapable nation, conditions changed after 1793. The question of the continued existence of the Confederation was not raised, nor did Prussia or Russia attempt to address it again. The second partition of Poland had mobilized the resistant forces of the kingdom: not only the nobility, but also the clergy, bourgeois intellectual forces and the social-revolutionary peasant population joined the resistance; in a few months, the anti-Russian opposition drew various social strata of the population to its side. At the head of this insurgent movement was Tadeusz Kościuszko, who had already fought in the American War of Independence alongside George Washington, only to return to Krakow in 1794. In the same year the resistance culminated in a far-reaching insurrection.

Clashes between the rebels and the partisan powers lasted for months, but, in the end, the occupying forces prevailed, and on October 10, 1794, Russian troops captured the badly wounded Kościuszko. In the eyes of the contiguous nations, the insurgents had lost even more of their right to exist in their own state entity.

At that point, Russia strove to divide and dismantle what remained of the Republic of Two Nations, and to this end it first sought an understanding with Austria. If in the previous partitions Prussia had been the driving force, it now had to set aside its claims since both Petersburg and Vienna were of the opinion that Berlin had benefited most from the two previous divisions. On January 3, 1795, Tsarina Catherine II and Habsburg Emperor Francis II signed the partition treaty, to which Prussia acceded on October 24. As a result, the three states divided the rest of Poland along the Nemunas, Bug and Pilica rivers. Russia moved further west and occupied all areas east of Bug and Memel, Lithuania and all of Curland and Semigallia. The Habsburg sphere of influence expanded northward to include the important cities of Lublin, Radom, Sandomierz, and especially Krakow. Prussia, on the other hand, received the remaining areas west of Bug and Memel with Warsaw, which later became part of new provinces-New East Prussia and New Silesia (north of Kraków). Following the abdication of Stanislaus Augustus (November 25, 1795), the three powers declared the Kingdom of Poland extinct, two years after the third and final partition.

Spatial and demographic changes

As a result of partitions, one of the largest states in Europe disappeared from the European map. Information on the size and number of inhabitants fluctuates quite a bit, which is why it is difficult to accurately quantify the losses of the Polish state or how much it actually acquired from foreign powers. Based on information provided by historian Hans Roos, Prussia went 18.7 percent of what had previously belonged to the Confederation, Austria 18.5 and Russia the remainder (62.8 percent). Biskupski says that, in 1772, Russia acquired 93,000 km², Austria 81,900 and Prussia 36,300. The second fragmentation was so acute that it prevented the continued existence of the Republic: in fact, Poland lost 300,000 km² of territory, 80 percent of which went to Russia and the rest to Prussia, while nothing to Austria, having not participated. The third and final division assigned 47,000 km² to Austria, 48,000 to Prussia and 120,000 to Russia: the total of all the amputations suffered by Poland-Lithuania amounted between 1772 and 1795 to 733,000 km².

In terms of population, according to Lukowski and Zawadzki, in the first partition, Poland said goodbye to between four and five million citizens (about one-third of its 14 million pre-1772 population). Only about four million remained in Poland after the second partition, resulting in the loss of another third of its original population, about half of that recorded before 1772. With the final partition, Prussia amalgamated about 23 percent of the Confederate population, Austria 32 percent, and Russia 45 percent. With the Napoleonic wars underway and in the immediate aftermath, the boundaries between the three conquering powers changed several times, altering the numbers presented in the previous lines. In the end, Russia made the bulk of Polish soil its own at the expense of Prussia and Austria. After the Congress of Vienna, Russia controlled 82 percent of the territory of the pre-1772 Confederation (including the puppet state represented by the Congress Kingdom), Austria 11 percent, and Prussia 7 percent.

Ethnic composition of subdivisions

As for the ethnic composition, it is not possible to provide precise information, as there are no population statistics. What appears certain, however, is that the present-day Poles constituted only a small minority in the areas that passed to Russia. The majority of the local population were Greek-Ukrainians and Belarusians of the Orthodox faith, as well as Catholic Lithuanians. In various cities such as Vilnius (in Polish Wilno), Hrodna (Grodno), Minsk or Homel' the presence of Poles appeared higher both in numbers and cultural influence. The presence of numerous Jewish communities should also not be ignored: in the mid-16th century 80 percent of the world's Jews lived in Poland and Lithuania. The annexation of Polish territories multiplied the Semitic population in Prussia, Austria and Russia. Even when the former gave up about half of the territories it had acquired in partitions in favor of Russia by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, more than half of all Prussian Jews still lived in the formerly Polish areas of Pomerelia and Posnania.

The "liberation" of the Orthodox Eastern Slavs from Polish-Catholic sovereignty was later fielded by Russian national historiography for the purpose of justifying territorial annexations. In the areas that fell to Prussia, there was a numerically significant German population in Warmian, Pomerelia and the western periphery of the new province of South Prussia. The bourgeoisie in the cities of West Prussia, particularly those in the former Hanseatic centers of Danzig and Thorn, had been predominantly German-speaking since the period when the monastic state of the Teutonic Knights existed.

Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski, under Russian military escort, left for Grodno, where he abdicated on November 25, 1795; he then left for the capital of the czarate, where he would spend his last days. Such an act ensured that Russia would be perceived as the most important of the partitioning powers.

The Ottoman Empire was one of only two countries in the world that refused to accept partitions (the other was the Persian Empire), and it reserved a place in its diplomatic corps for an ambassador from Lehistan (Poland).

As a result of partitions, Poles were forced to seek a change of status quo in Europe. When Napoleon established the Polish Legion within the French army, the battle song Poland is not yet lost, written in 1797 and first performed in Reggio Emilia, spread through the ranks, and over the next century accompanied the various uprisings (notably the Hungarian Revolution of 1848). Polish poets, politicians, aristocrats, writers, and artists, many of whom were forced to leave their homeland (hence the term great emigration), became the revolutionaries of the 19th century, as the desire for freedom became one of the defining characteristics of Polish Romanticism; several uprisings took place in Prussia as well as in Austria and Russia.

Poland would be briefly resurrected, albeit in a restricted framework, in 1807, when Napoleon established the Duchy of Warsaw. After his defeat and the implementation of the Treaty of the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the Congress Kingdom, dominated by Russia, was created in its place. After 1815, Russia obtained a larger slice of Poland (with Warsaw) and, after putting down the November uprising of 1831, the autonomy of the Congress Kingdom was abolished and the Poles faced confiscation of property, deportations, forced military recruitment and the closure of local universities. After the insurrection of 1863, a hammering policy of Russification was imposed in Polish secondary schools and literacy rates dropped dramatically, just as various restrictive measures took place in Lithuania, the heaviest of which involved banning the press. In the Austrian sector, which assumed the name Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomiria, the Poles fared better and were allowed to have representation in Parliament and form their own universities, with the result that Krakow and Lviv (Lemberg) became thriving centers of Polish culture and education. Meanwhile, Prussia Germanized the entire education system of its Polish subjects, and showed little respect for Polish culture and institutions in the Russian Empire.

In 1915, a client state of the German Empire and Austria-Hungary was proposed and accepted by the Central Powers in World War I: the Kingdom of Poland. After the end of the conflict, the surrender of the Central Powers to the Western Allies, the chaos of the Russian Revolution, and the Treaty of Versailles facilitated and enabled the restoration of Poland's full independence after 123 years.

Today's historiography argues that the first partition took place when the Confederacy was showing the first signs of a slow recovery, while the last two as a response to strengthening internal reforms and the potential threat they posed to its power-hungry neighbors.

For some scholars, including Norman Davies, because the politics of balance were attempted, many contemporary observers accepted the explanations of the "enlightened apologists" of the partitioning state of belonging. Nineteenth-century historians of the partitioning countries, such as the Russian scholar Sergei Solov'ëv, and their twentieth-century descendants, argued that the partitions appeared justified because the Polish-Lithuanian Confederation had broken down to such an extent that it had already fragmented almost on its own due to the liberum veto, which made it virtually impossible to operate any decision-making on divisive issues, such as large-scale social reform. Solov'ëv specified the cultural, linguistic, and religious rupture between the upper and lower strata of society in the eastern regions of the Confederation, where the Belarusian and Ukrainian peasants bound by serfdom were of the Orthodox faith, and Russian authors very often emphasized the historical connections between Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia as former parts of the old medieval Russian state where the Rjurikid dynasty (linked to Kievan Rus) ruled. In this vein, Nikolai Karamzin wrote, "Let foreigners prattle on about the partition of Poland, we took what was ours." Russian historians have often pointed out that Russia had mainly annexed Ukrainian and Belorussian provinces with East Slavic inhabitants: moreover, although many Ruthenians were no more enthusiastic about Russia than Poland and, in defiance of the ethnically Polish and Lithuanian territories, were also later annexed. A new justification for the partitions arose with the Russian Enlightenment, as Russian writers such as Gavrila Deržavin, Denis Fonvizin, and Aleksandr Pushkin emphasized the degeneration of Catholic Poland and the need to "civilize" it from its neighbors.

However, other 19th-century contemporaries were much more skeptical; for example, British jurist Sir Robert Phillimore called partition a violation of international law, in the same manner as German Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim. Other historians opposed to partition were French historian Jules Michelet, British historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay, and Edmund Burke, who criticized the immorality of political maneuvering.

Several scholars have focused on the economic motivations of the partitioning powers. Jerzy Czajewski wrote that Russian peasants were fleeing Russia westward in significant enough numbers to become a major concern for the Petersburg government, sufficient to play a role in its decision to split the Confederation. Again and again in the 18th century, until the partitions resolved this problem so to speak, Russian armies had peeped into the territories of the Confederacy, officially to retrieve the fugitives, but actually kidnapping many locals. Hajo Holborn noted that Prussia aimed to take control of the lucrative Baltic grain trade through Danzig.

Some scholars use the term "sector" in reference to the territories of the Republic of Two Nations consisting of Polish (non-Polish-Lithuanian) cultural heritage and historical monuments dating back to the early days of Poland's sovereignty.

In and around the city of Toruń, the remains of the former Russian-Prussian demarcation can still be glimpsed; it is a small plain 3-4 m wide with two high walls on either side. The precise spot, located in Mysłowice, is called Trójkąt Trzech Cesarzy (Russian: Угол трёх императоров?), where from 1846 to 1915 the triple border between Prussia, Austria and Russia was located.

In a village called Prehoryłe in Hrubieszów District, about 100 meters from the demarcation with Ukraine, a cross is placed along the road, the long, lower arm of which formed an old Austrian border stone. In the lower area one can glimpse the term Teschen, by which today's Cieszyn is designated, where the border posts were made. The Bug River, which today traces the Polish-Ukrainian border, was the waterway positioned between Austria and Russia after the third partition of Poland.

The Canto degli Italiani, the national anthem of the peninsula, contains a reference to partition.

Reference is often made to a fourth partition of Poland in reference to one of the three divisions that occurred after 1795:

If one accepts that one or more of these events can be considered in the same way as the partitions of 1772, 1792 and 1795, one can understand how some historians sometimes refer to the fourth division. The latter term was also used in the 19th and 20th centuries to refer to diaspora communities that maintained a close interest in the project of regaining Polish independence. Expatriate Polish communities often contributed funds and military support to the Polish nation-state reconstruction project. Diaspora policy was deeply influenced by developments in and around the homeland, and vice versa, for many decades.


  1. Partitions of Poland
  2. Spartizioni della Polonia
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Davies (2006), pp. 735-737.
  4. ^ Valentin Giterman, Storia della Russia: Dalle origini alla vigilia dell'invasione napoleonica, La Nuova Italia, 1963, p. 642.
  5. ^ Ludwig von Mises, Lo Stato onnipotente: La nascita dello Stato totale e della guerra totale, Mimesis, 2020, p. 293, ISBN 979-12-80-04807-3.
  6. ^ Michaela Böhmig e Antonella D'Amelia, Le capitali nei paesi dell'Europa centrale e orientale: centri politici e laboratori culturali, vol. 4, M. D'Auria, 2007, p. 86, ISBN 978-88-70-92273-8.
  7. Ein Teil des von Österreich annektierten Westgaliziens wurde vom Wiener Kongress in die dem Protektorat von Russland, Preußen und Österreich unterstehende Republik Krakau umgewandelt und wurde erst 1846 wieder österreichisch.
  8. ^ Although the full name of the partitioned state was the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, while referring to the partitions, virtually all sources use the term Partitions of Poland, not Partitions of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, as Poland is the common short name for the state in question. The term Partitions of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth is effectively not used in literature on this subject.
  9. Jerzy Lukowski; W. H. Zawadzki. A Concise History of Poland: Jerzy Lukowski and Hubert Zawadzki (польск.). — Cambridge University Press, 2001. — С. 96—103. — ISBN 978-0-521-55917-1.
  10. Разделы Речи Посполитой: как 5 раз делили Польшу  (рус.). Яндекс Дзен | Блогерская платформа. Дата обращения: 17 октября 2021. Архивировано 17 октября 2021 года.
  11. Пакт Молотова — Риббентропа. Об источнике  (неопр.). Историк.Ру (29 августа 2014). Дата обращения: 12 мая 2017. Архивировано из оригинала 15 февраля 2017 года.

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