The Partitions of Poland 1772, 1793, 1795
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The Partitions of Poland 1772, 1793, 1795

Jerzy Lukowski

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The Partitions of Poland 1772, 1793, 1795

Jerzy Lukowski

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The Partitions of Poland were a key event in the power politics of the late ancien regime, and had major long term consequences for the balance of power in northern and eastern Europe. Over a period of twenty five years Catherine II (Russia), Frederick II (Prussia) and Maria Theresa and Joseph II (Austria) between them wiped Poland xxx; Europe's second largest countryxxx; off the political map, and Poland disappeared as a state for 120 years. Jerzy Lukowski's new account, the first comprehensive study of the topic in English since 1915, sets the Polish dimension of this story in its wider European context, illuminating the motives and attitudes of the participants and exploring its consequences. This is a major contribution to the diplomatic history of eighteenth century Europe.

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Poland and Europe in the eighteenth century

Between 1772 and 1795, in the most drastic redrawing of European frontiers before the twentieth century, a state larger than France was removed from the political map. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic era witnessed the elimination of the Holy Roman Empire and the restructuring of the Italian polities, but something that contemporaries could call ‘Germany’ or ‘Italy’ survived. ‘Poland’ was excised altogether, even if its ghost never let European statesmen rest until its reincarnation in a very different body after the First World War. The First Partition sent shudders of novel alarm through the weaker states of Europe, even though many observers felt that the Poles had only themselves to blame; if not, indeed, that such enlightened rulers as Frederick the Great or Catherine the Great were doing them a service.

The nobility and the evolution of the Commonwealth

The ‘Poland’ that began to be dismembered in 1772 was, according to its official style, ‘the Commonwealth of the Two Nations, the Polish and Lithuanian’, the Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów, Polskiego i Litewskiego. A personal, dynastic union between the Corona Regni Poloniae, the ‘Crown’ of the Polish Realm, and the Magnus Ducatus Lithuaniae, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, had existed since 1386. In 1569 this was converted into a constitutional union, in which the two huge ‘Provinces’ of the Crown and Lithuania enjoyed a common parliament and similar political institutions. The result, like Great Britain, defied easy categorisation: it was a kind of republic, run by its nobility, headed by an elected monarch. Native contemporaries talked of Polska and Polacy, ‘Poland’ and ‘Poles’, labels which bore meanings very different from twentieth-century usage. Partitions, wars and genocide have not only dramatically reduced and reshaped Poland’s political cartography, they have stripped out a maddeningly complex cultural and ethnic diversity to leave a largely linguistically and religiously homogeneous residue. The Pole, Polak, of the 1750s or 1760s would not necessarily be regarded as such in the 1990s (not even by his descendants): for he might also be Lithuanian, Byelorussian, Ukrainian or German. He would most probably be a Roman Catholic; increasingly less, a Greek Catholic; perhaps a Lutheran or Calvinist; he might just be a Muslim – but he would not be a Jew, unless converted to Roman Catholicism. He would, however, be a nobleman – a szlachcic. The Rzeczpospolita formed the tangible embodiment of his rights, privileges, freedoms and liberties.
Who were the szlachtd? ‘Nobility’ or ‘gentry’ can serve as only rough-and-ready generic approximations which obscure massive social, political and economic differentiation. The szlachta formed a hierarchy, topped by a score or so of families of princely wealth, based on the possession of huge estates composed of hundreds of villages and dozens of towns, scattered across every region of the state. At the bottom were hordes of landless beggars. In between the two extremes existed every possible variety of propertied and non-propertied individual with an acceptable claim to ‘nobility’, szlachectwo.
In 1772, the szlachta may have made up between 6 and 7 per cent, some 800,000 of Poland’s 12,000,000-plus inhabitants, or, in meaningful political terms, about 120,000 adult male nobles. Barely one in twenty would have owned an entire village. What by Polish standards was an affluent noble might have to own several villages before he stood comparison with a well-to-do English tenant farmer, let alone an independent country gentleman.1 Despite some ambivalent rhetoric, wholly landless nobles were treated as inferiors. The one-third or so of the szlachta who owned land were unusual in the comparative lack of legal differentiation. In law, though not, of course, in fact, any such noble, no matter how minute his freehold, was the equal of the greatest magnate. True, the Polish parliament, the Sejm, contained a Senate, an ‘upper chamber’ which was above all the domain of the great lords, but unlike Britain’s House of Lords, the Polish Senate was not hereditary: membership was determined by possession of a restricted range of non-hereditary offices and dignities. In theory at least (and practice did not wholly preclude it), any landowning noble could aspire to membership. In theory, too, the legislative function resided far more emphatically in the ‘Chamber of Envoys’ (izba poselska) than in Britain’s House of Commons.
A distinct legal estate of higher nobles – a Herrenstand in the Austrian mould – had not developed in large measure because the monarchs of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had looked to the gentry for allies against aristocratic grandees. Poland’s towns were neither powerful enough nor wealthy enough to furnish an alternative point of support. The szlachtas price was privilege and a share in the political life of the state commensurate with that of the magnates, leaving no room for a separate estate of grandees. The process was far less advanced in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, where lords – often kinsmen of the ruling House of Jagiellon – endowed with vast territorial holdings looked on the impoverished ‘boyars’ almost as their own chattels. In 1569, the gentry of the Ukrainian palatinates seceded from the Grand Duchy to join the Crown and the rest threatened to follow suit. The result was the Union of Lublin, setting up a genuinely constitutional merger of Poland and Lithuania.
Distasteful though magnates found the lack of hereditary distinction for their own kind, they came to appreciate the advantages of equality. In practice, they were its disproportionate beneficiaries. The list of noble ‘freedoms’ was imposing: no imprisonment without due process; no taxation without consent; no enactment of legislation without the consent of the Sejm; virtual exemption from customs duties; virtual monopoly of land ownership; full jurisdiction over peasants living on noble estates; a monopoly on the use of Poland’s principal commercial artery, the river Vistula, for the shipment of bulk goods and commodities; a near-total monopoly on appointment to all senior ecclesiastical positions, from canonries upwards; the right to participate in the election of the monarch. And these were but the most important elements in a glittering portfolio secured even before the extinction of the Jagiellonian line in 1572 permitted the construction of a still more elaborate superstructure of rights and liberties.
The monarchy had been, in effect, elective since the death of the last Piast king in 1370; the fact that the kings were chosen first from the House of Anjou and then from the Lithuanian House of Gedymin-Jagiello may have helped obscure the elective nature of the Polish throne to the outside world, but not to the szlachta. At his death in 1572, king Zygmunt August left no legitimate male heirs. In the ensuing interregnum the nobility seized their chance to ensure not only that they would continue to elect their kings but also that those kings would never be able to recover lost ground. The rule, first established in 1530, that the monarch could neither name nor secure the election of a successor vivente rege, during his own lifetime, was confirmed. A veritable Dutch auction for gentry support by squabbling magnate factions culminated in the resolution that all nobles were entitled to vote viritim, in person, for their future kings; no ruler would be allowed to take his place before confirming all the existing privileges of the nobility.
Monarchs increasingly came to be seen as a fount of rewards and concessions for supposed noble virtues and correspondingly less as effective legislators (they had been unable to proclaim law without parliamentary approval since 1505) or even executors of the law. Even their traditional role of judge was severely circumscribed between 1579 and 1581 when two separate, elective, courts of final appeal, the Tribunals (Trybunały), were set up in the Crown and in Lithuania, effectively transferring to the szlachta full control of their own civil and criminal judicature.2 The powers that in the medieval past had belonged to the monarchy had largely been transferred to the nobility.
Central to the life of the szlachta were the sejmiki. These were the bodies of local self-government, meeting at different times of the year to elect officials and judges, manage local taxation and business. Among their most important tasks was the election of ‘envoys’ (posłowie) to the Sejm, which normally met (after 1572) only every two years for a statutory six-week session. The writ of the sejmik covered the geographic-administrative territory with which it was associated, usually the ‘district’ (powiat, districtus) or ‘county’ (ziemia, terra), occasionally the palatinate (województwo, palatinatus). Attendance might range from a handful to five or six thousand. Almost invariably the well-to-do were returned to elective office. For all the differences of local or regional detail, the sejmiki formed a remarkably homogeneous institutional network across the Commonwealth, reiterating and articulating the communality of szlachta privilege.
One privilege overshadowed all others: the liberum veto, the right freely to forbid. To forbid what? The enactment of any law or measure deemed harmful to the Commonwealth. Every individual nobleman enjoyed this right, which emerged in all its destructive force in the second half of the seventeenth century. The veto developed with insidious slowness from king Alexander’s law of 1505, Nihil Novi …: ‘No new law is to be issued by Us or Our successors save by the common consent of Our counsellors and the envoys of the constituencies…’.3 The veto, first used in 1652 to protest against the prolongation of the Sejm, was, by the 1680s, employed to wreck legislation and policy. Its application stopped the entire Sejm in its tracks and with it any and all enactments that might have already been agreed. It was applied in the same way in the sejmiki. Only the law courts, which decided by majority vote, were immune.
It is self-evident that the veto contributed towards the increasing political debility of the Commonwealth – but it did not cause it. Nihil Novi was able to evolve into a constitutional monstrosity because the Polish state and its kings were already on the defensive vis-à-vis the szlachta. The monarchy lacked the resources, patronage, strength and force to whip into line regions and localities, magnates and gentry demagogues. The personal credit and authority which any individual monarch might build up died with him, to be buried and reburied at every successive interregnum. The cumulative concession of privilege, the lack of an alternative political force to the szlachta, the ability of the magnates to manipulate the rhetoric of equality, liberty and social solidarity left the monarchy reeling against the ropes of constitutional and political conflict. Politics came to be seen not as a dynamic process but as a set of manoeuvres and restrictions designed to prevent any infraction of the dazzling array of privilege, of what the szlachta called their ‘Golden Freedom’, their Złota Wolność, aurea libertas.
Those who enjoyed ‘Golden Freedom’ were not merely noble, they were the noble nation, the naród szlachecki Ultimately, nations and, for that matter, those genetically dubious entities, ethnic groups, make their own decisions on who belongs to them. There was only one nation in the Commonwealth of the Two – and, if ever there was a self-imagined nation, it was the szlachta. ‘Poles’ were conscious of being different from ‘Lithuanians’ or ‘Ruthenes’ or ‘Prussians’ but privilege welded them all into a single whole. Sixteenth-century humanism went a long way towards ironing out ethnic and regional tensions and contradictions by creating a supra-group myth: all true ‘Poles’ were noble; all nobles were Poles. Intermarriage, extensive colonisation and geographic mobility helped blur old divisions. Renaissance writers made the true ancestors of the Poles the Sarmatians, hardy tribesmen who, several centuries before Christ, had supposedly embarked on their own Völkerwanderung from around the lower Don and Volga, finally to settle in the Vistula basin.
As privilege and institutions spread geographically, so did polon-isation. So long as they were nobles, they became Poles, even if they also happened to be Lithuanians/Ruthenes/Prussians – or others: Weyssenhoffs and Tyzenhauses (once Germans), Middletons (once Scots) and Butlers (once Irish), Rubinkowskis and Niewierowskis (once Jews). Sarmatism made Poles of them all – or even Sarmatians, for so they readily styled themselves.4 The German-speaking nobles in Polish Prussia were becoming either linguistically assimilated or marginalised. By the mid-eighteenth century, in the Grand Duchy and in the Ukraine all szlachta of any significance used Polish as their mother-tongue. The Lithuanian and Ruthene vernaculars were for impoverished backwoodsmen and peasants. The same went for the Orthodox faith, once dominant in the Byelorussian and Ukrainian territories. Even Greek Catholicism was for peasants. Nobles practised the Latin rite.
In one respect the nobility of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were more ‘Polish’ than the nobles of the Crown. Since 1697, the official language of the Lithuanian law courts had been Polish, whereas in the Crown it remained Latin.5 Latin formed the staple fare of szlachta education throug...

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