18th Century Powers: Poland & the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

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  • 0:02 A Rather Odd Country
  • 1:18 Foreign Influences Galore
  • 3:19 Three Partitions
  • 5:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study Poland in the 18th century. We will take a close look at the inner workings of the country, the external influences that affected it, and the partitions that finally wiped Poland off the map.

A Rather Odd Country

Poland was a rather odd country both in composition and in government. First off, what we call Poland was actually the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1569, the Union of Lublin had officially united the Kingdom of Poland with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The result was a republic of sorts.

Poland's king was elected by the nobility and sharply limited in his powers. He could not make war or peace; he could not collect taxes; and he could not change any laws. Those duties were left to the Polish legislature, which was called the Sejm. Made up of completely nobles, the Sejm met every two years and functioned on the basis of a consensus rule. In other words, if one member didn't approve a potential law, he could independently kill it by veto. Nothing became law unless every member of the Sejm agreed.

This system was often abused, for members could be bribed to use their veto power generously. Further, when the nobles elected the king, they were inclined to choose someone, often a foreigner, who was unlikely to challenge them too much. With such a system of government, as well as a lack of both a national army and a strong national policy, Poland opened its door wide to foreign influences on all sides.

Foreign Influences Galore

Foreign powers were only too happy to walk right through that open door, and that put Poland right in the middle of all sorts of conflicts. For instance, when Russia and Sweden went to war in the 17th century, Poland ended up a battle ground militarily and politically. At one point, Russian, Swedish, Prussian, Cossack, and Transylvanian armies all invaded Poland in one fell swoop. The already weak Poland found itself on a swift downhill slide.

In 1697, Polish nobles, bribed by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, elected Duke Augustus of Saxony as their king. Augustus II, as he was known, allied himself closely with Russia and quickly led Poland into the middle of another war between Russia and Sweden. When the Swedish won a decisive victory in 1704, they put Stanislaw Leszczynski on the Polish throne. The Russians returned the kingship to Augustus in 1709.

By 1717, a conflict between Augustus and the Sejm led Poland to the brink of civil war. Russia quickly stepped in to 'mediate' and basically told the nobles to shut up. Poland was placed under Russian protection as a 'client state.' Foreign influence further increased in 1732, when Russia, Prussia, and Austria formed the Alliance of the Three Black Eagles to make sure that Poland remained weak and controllable.

When Augustus died in 1733, the nobles elected Stanislaw Leszczynski to replace him, but once again, Russia stepped in and put Augustus' son, Augustus III, on the Polish throne. The new king didn't really care much about Poland, and he left the country's rule in the hands of a pro-Russian family. In 1764, another Russian-influenced king, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, took the throne. A patriotic group called the Confederation of the Bar rebelled, plunging Poland into civil war from 1768 to 1772, when the rebels were crushed by the Russian army.

Three Partitions

After settling the civil war in Poland, the Russians turned aggressively toward Austria. Prussian king Frederick II decided that the best way to calm everyone down was to give each country a little treat, namely, part of Poland. By this time, Poland was too weak to resist, and Frederick himself had his eye on some Polish territory for a quite a long time anyway - he saw his chance and he took it.

On August 5, 1772, Russia, Prussia, and Austria signed a treaty to partition Poland for the first time. The members of the Sejm ratified the treaty with Russian troops standing by to squash them if they refused. In an instant, about a quarter of Poland's territory and about half of its population passed into Russian, Prussian, and Austrian hands.

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