222nd Anniversary: Great Powers Play Behind the Second Partition of Poland

As the partition between Russia and Prussia (which transformed into Germany in 19th century) was ratified under Russian coercion by Polish parliament on 22 July 1793, it is worth remembering why it has happened and what were the consequences of it. Today Europe is still shocked by Russian annexation of Crimea and anxious about Russian designs for the Donbass region, but just two centuries ago annexations and cessations of territories were commonplace. In fact, second partition of Poland occured in the apogee of great powers territorial enrichment at the cost of lesser powers. Poland happened to be one of them, but – and that is worth remembering – she was the largest entity dismembered by her neighbors, absolutely incomparable any other entities.

Poland lost more than half of her territory and population alike as a result of the second partition. The country was reduced to a body that was not only defenseless (Poland was already defenseless for decades), but also unsustainable. In fact, Poland was only waiting for an execution, i.e. erasing her from the map. Dubious claims by Israeli prime minister of Iranian designs to erase Israel from the map come to my mind here, as Poland was indeed erased and the partitioning powers (Russia and Prussia were joined by Austria, which participated also in the first partition of 1772) agreed to not only erase Poland as a country, but also to erase the name of Poland from history – starting from 1797. Once mighty Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was to be no more.

Why did it all happen?

Firstly, it was our own Polish fault. When other great powers – and Poland was among them in 16th century – were modernizing themselvels, creating more efficient bureaucracies and centralizing political power in the hands of the monarchs, Poland was drifting into opposite direction. Instead of abovementioned reforms, Polish nobles cherished their freedoms and privileges, obstructed change and defied monarchical power wherever and whenever they could. The effect of such actions were devastating for country, which was militarily and economically weak (proverb Polnische Wirtschaft – pejorative term describing inferiority of Polish economy – dates back to the times of partitions). Nearly nobody was pursuing interests of the state, preferring instead to pursue ones own interests. The state was incapable of acting, the monarchs – which were elected by the nobility – did not have power and incentives to challenge deteriorating situation, and very rich nobles (magnates) were pursuing their own foreign policy ventures, without taking state interests into account. Neighboring powers were meddling in internal affairs, supporting and financing factions of their protegees and so on.

However, this disorder could have lasted longer and Poland did not invite anyone to dismember her. In fact, exhausted after wars of 17th century (vs. Sweden, Russia and the Ottomans), she was weak and internally divided for nearly a century before the first partition took place. It was the great powers and their power play, that made the partitions into being. As great powers began looking for „compensations” for their involvement in or abstentions from wars, or for territorial gains of other powers from their wars, Poland become one of the villains of this policy. Great powers treated lesser entities without any respect and were not asking questions, but demanding and executing. Annexations took speed after third partition of Poland in 1795 and Napoleon’s rise to prominence in revolutionary France. It was France that demanded territories adjacent to Rhine and obtained them at the expense of the Holy Roman Empire (increasingly obsolete construction headed by an emperor from Habsburg dynasty, i.e. Austria). French demands and military successes against Austrian troops escalated the pace of decline of the Holy Roman Empire. It was on its last legs as the 19th century began and was dissolved in 1806. But before the dissolution, hundreds of entities that were members of the Empire were annexed by France, Prussia and Austria.

So what were the results of second partition of Poland and successive wave of annexations?

Firstly, Europe was divided between great powers. Of course some lesser powers were not annexed and survived as independent entities, but the concentration of power between great powers had never been greater. It was in a stark contrast to the Middle Ages, when Europe consisted of thousands of independent and semi-independend polities. It significantly altered the political balance in Europe.

Secondly, great powers consumed potential for territorial gains and had to fight each other for new territories (or find more remote targets like the Ottoman Empire, which in 19th century suffered somehow similar fate to Poland). Periods of war between the great powers were separated by periods of peace. After ultimate defeat of Napoleon, great powers (Prussia, Russia and Austria) created the Holy Alliance. Its main goal was to preserve current, i.e. absolutist and monarchical model. Alliance was soon joined by France under restored Bourbon dynasty. Great powers used the Alliance to crush revolts and depose suspicious governments in the first half of 19th century. Divergent interests of great powers effectively disabled the Alliance after the Crimean War of 1853-56.

Thirdly, Poland was a useful buffer for Austria and – mainly – for Prussia, that separated them from emerging Russian empire. After third partition of Poland, Prussia had a long and largely indefensible border with Russia. Prussia’s fate was thus directly tied to Russia. With nearly constant threat from France, Prussia was from then on always overstretched between two great powers. It would finally lead to two crushing defeats in World Wars of 20th century.

Finally, Poland was on a highway to losing her independence, which was regained after 123 years. During this period of time Poles suffered from countless campaigns aimed at erasing Polish national identity and organized multiple uprisings against occupying powers. Poles sided with Napoleon who, for a brief period between 1807 and 1815, created Duchy of Warsaw under French protectorate. Unfortunately for the Poles, Napoleon ultimately lost his war against coalition of great powers and was deposed. Duchy of Warsaw was dissolved and any hopes for independence were lost until 1918, when Poland emerged from the debris of defeated central powers (Austria, Germany) and upheaval in Russia.

Piotr Wolejko

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