Poland, Partitions of

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POLAND, PARTITIONS OF. The partitions of Poland, which ought to be known as the partitions of Poland-Lithuania, saw the removal from the map of one of Europe's largest states at the end of the eighteenth century (17721773, 1793, 1795). Executed by the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian monarchies, the causes and dynamics of the partitions have been the subject of debate in both Polish and European historiography. The Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania had existed in dynastic union since 1385 under the Union of Krewo and in constitutional union since the Union of Lublin in 1569. However, the eighteenth century had seen the Commonwealth beset by problems, including the Great Northern War with Sweden (17001721), the War of the Polish Succession (17331738), and increasing international intervention in Polish and Lithuanian affairs. After the death of Augustus III (16961763; ruled 17341763; elected to the Polish-Lithuanian throne at Russian behest), Stanisław Augustus Poniatowski (17321798; ruled 17641795), the former lover of Empress Catherine the Great (17291796; ruled 17621796) of Russia, was elected king in September 1764.

There are two predominant schools of thought as to the causes of the partitions. The so-called Cracow school saw Poland-Lithuania's fate as inevitable, the result of the factors within the monarchy that had encouraged foreign interference. Debate usually centers around the role of the liberum veto (the need for unanimity when passing legislation in parliament), the preservation of magnatial and noble interests, and the inherent problems of an elective monarchy. In addition there were clearly internal conflicts between the Kingdom of Poland and the Duchy of Lithuania, fueled by the self-interests of their powerful magnates. The Warsaw school views the events as the destruction of a progressive state that was enacting far-reaching social, political, and cultural reforms, which reached its apotheosis with the constitution of 3 May 1791, the first freely adopted constitution in Europe. In the light of the French Revolution, the absolutist monarchs of Prussia, Russia, and Austria were swift to stamp out what they regarded as Jacobin ideas in Poland-Lithuania.

Plans to partition Poland-Lithuania had been formulated as early as 1656. Prussia had long wanted to join the territories of Brandenburg and ducal Prussia by obtaining the Polish territory of royal Prussia that lay in between. Russia had long coveted the eastern reaches of the Commonwealth but had contented itself with dominating the Commonwealth's political affairs by a combination of force and bribery. Russia brought its influence to bear upon the Commonwealth's confederate Sejm (parliament) of 17671768 to obtain equality for religious dissenters, to retain the liberum veto, and to secure a seat in the senate for the Orthodox bishop of Mohylew. In addition Russia declared itself the protector and guarantor of Poland-Lithuania's constitution and territory. In 1768 this provoked the establishment of the Confederacy of Bar (one of whose leaders was Casimir Pulaski [17471779]), which aimed to reverse the religious settlement, overthrow the king, and restore the Saxon Wettin dynasty to the Polish throne. Russia intervened to crush the confederacy, but its four-year struggle inspired civil war and unrest. Fortunately for Poland, the Ottoman Porte declared war against Russia in 1768, which diverted its attention for six years.


In the five years preceding the first partition, Empress Maria Theresa (17171780) of Austria had annexed Polish towns in the Spisz region along the Carpathian border. In June 1771 the first partition was agreed in principle between Prussia and Russia, with Austria agreeing in Saint Petersburg in 1772. Empress Catherine the Great of Russia took extensive lands along the rivers Dvina and Dnieper, Austria took lands along the rivers Vistula and San, and Frederick II (17121786; ruled 17401786) of Prussia took the economically and perhaps strategically most important lands of West Prussia without the cities of Danzig (Gdańsk) or Thorn (Torun). In April 1773, Tadeusz Rejtan (17421780) blocked access to the parliament's debating chamber in protest as the Commonwealth was forced to ratify the partition (the subject of a famous painting by Jan Matejko in 1886). Three treaties of cession, signed in September 1773, deprived Poland of five million out of its fourteen million inhabitants and one-third of its richest territory.

Meanwhile Prussia had made overtures to the Poles and even encouraged them to rebel, promising troops in exchange for Danzig (Gdańsk) and Thorn (Torun). In 1781 Russia had renounced its alliance with Prussia, preferring to elicit the support of Joseph II (ruled 17651790) of Austria (Maria Theresa had died in 1780) in the fight against the Ottoman enemy. Russia annexed the Crimea in 1783, the Turks declared war in 1787, and again attention was diverted from the Polish question. By 1786 the Prussian throne had passed to Frederick William II, and in 1787 Poniatowski attempted a last rapprochement with Russia, proposing a Russo-Polish alliance against the Turks. This was refused, and Poniatowski, deprived of an international role, embarked upon a further round of reforms at home. Between 1788 and 1792 Poland-Lithuania convened the Four Year Parliament, which took over the running of the country and repudiated the 17731775 settlement. Significantly for its neighbors, it voted to increase the army fivefold. Sweeping reforms were also passed in the areas of administration, taxation, and diplomatic ventures, culminating in the constitution of 3 May 1791, which instituted a hereditary monarchy among other reforms. These achievements contributed to a tendency in Polish historiography toward a glorification of these reforms in the wake of the tragedy of the partitions.

This national revival was short-lived, as Russian troops, victorious after their defeat of Turkey, poured into Poland in 1792. Prussia refused to honor its defensive alliance on the pretext that it had brokered an agreement with a monarchy, not a republic. In the Russo-Polish War of 17921793 (the War of the Second Partition), Poniatowski, for reasons debated by all parties, ordered his troops to cease their fire against the Russians and declared his support for the Russian-backed Confederacy of Targowica. The army dispersed, and Warsaw was occupied. Popular debate continues as to whether Poniatowski, facing an enemy with a threefold numerical advantage, was acting to save lives or out of cowardice.


With the treaty of the second partition, signed on 4 January 1793, Russia took the remaining part of Lithuania, and Prussia annexed Danzig (Gdańsk), Thorn (Torun), and Wielkopolska (Great Poland). Austria received nothing, and the small part of Poland that remained (with a population of four million) was under Russian protection. As previously, the Sejm was forced to ratify the partition and sign agreements with the partitioning powers. It met between June and October 1793 at Grodno (Hrodna), Lithuania, and enjoyed the distinction of being the last Sejm to meet in the Commonwealth. Under Russian threat, the constitution of 1791 was rescinded, the liberum veto was restored, the partition was approved, and cession treaties were signed. However, the reformers were not yet defeated. There was protest in the military, among local sejmiki (dietines), and in government throughout the winter of 17931794. Tadeusz Kosciuszko (17461817), who had trained in France and had won fame and glory as a hero of the American War of Independence, declared the fight for Polish independence on Cracow town square in March 1794. At the battle of Raclawice on 4 April 1794 Kosciuszko's forces, with a heavy peasant contingent, defeated the Russian forces under General Alexandr Petrovich Tormasov (17521819). Warsaw rose on Easter Thursday and expelled the Russians, and the Lithuanian capital Vilnius followed. An insurrectionary court was established, and collaborators were tried and executed along with those who had led the Confederacy of Targowica. In Warsaw the insurrectionary government took control, and in Vilnius the Act of Insurrection of the Lithuanian Nation was declared.

Kosciuszko continued to fight, and on 7 May 1794 he declared the Proclamation of Polaniec, promising to free the peasants in an effort to swell the ranks of the army and also because he was genuinely dedicated to the cause of personal freedom. However, this provoked discontent among the nobility, still committed to protecting its own interests. In anticipation of an attack by the Russian general Aleksandr Vasilyevich Suvorov (17291800), Kosciuszko attacked the Russian general Ivan Fersen's (17471799) corps at Maciejowice and was defeated. Praga (a suburb of Warsaw) was stormed by the Russians, and up to ten thousand are thought to have been massacred. Cracow and Vilnius were captured, Warsaw fell, and finally Kosciuszko was defeated. The king was captured and deported, and the insurrectionary government was suppressed.


On 3 January 1795 Austria, Russia, and Prussia signed the final partition treaty in Saint Petersburg amid extremely cool relations between Prussia and Austria. Austria occupied a huge area around Cracow, and on 24 October 1795 it received Cracow from Prussia and renamed the area New Galicia. Prussia took over Warsaw, where its army replaced that of the Russians, and called the area New South Prussia. A month later Poniatowski abdicated, and he died in Saint Petersburg in 1798. A tripartite convention between the partitioning powers was signed two years later, and neither Poland nor Lithuania reappeared on the European map until the end of World War I in 1918.

See also Poland-Lithuania, Commonwealth of, 15691795 ; Polish Succession, War of the (17331738) ; Poniatowski, Stanisław II Augustus ; Russo-Polish Wars .


Butterwick, Richard, ed. The Polish-Lithuanian Monarchy in European Context, c. 15001795. Basingstoke, U.K., 2001.

Davies, Norman. God's Playground: A History of Poland. 2 vols. Oxford, 1981.

Lukowski, Jerzy. The Partitions of Poland: 1772, 1793, 1795. London, 1999.

Wanda Wyporska