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.
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.
The remaining Polish people were shocked and horrified. Some of them decided that they had better make some changes if they wanted to keep the rest of their country. In 1791, when Russia was distracted by a war with Turkey, the Sejm passed a new constitution that replaced consensus rule with majority rule, created a standing army, made Catholicism the state religion, and improved the condition of the Polish peasants.
Of course, others opposed these reforms and called on Russia for help. The Russian army quickly crushed the Polish defenders of the new constitution. As punishment, Russia, joined by Prussia, partitioned Poland for a second time in 1793, reducing Poland to only a third of its original size and population.
The Polish people, led by army officer Tadeusz Kosciuszko, made one more effort to resist the partitions. From March to November of 1794, they fought to restore Poland, but their valiant efforts failed and they were crushed by Russia and Prussia. In 1795, Russia, Prussia, and Austria divided up what was left of Poland. When they finalized the deal in 1797, Poland was completely removed from the map of Europe. It would not exist as a sovereign state again until after World War I.
In the 18th century, Poland, which was officially called the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, was governed by an elected king and the Sejm, a legislature comprised of nobles who exercised a consensus rule. Poland was heavily influenced by foreign nations, especially Russia, and often found itself in the middle of foreign conflicts.
In 1697, Polish nobles, bribed by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, elected the Saxon Augustus II as the Polish king. Augustus, who was allied closely with Russia, soon plunged Poland into the middle of a war between Russia and Sweden. After a civil war nearly broke out in 1717, Poland became a client state of Russia, and the Alliance of the Three Black Eagles, Russia, Prussia, and Austria, worked hard to weaken Poland further. Succeeding kings Augustus III and Stanislaw August Poniatowski were decidedly pro-Russian.
Following a civil war, Russia, Prussia, and Austria partitioned Poland for the first time in 1772, each taking a portion of Polish territory. The shocked Polish people attempted a series of reforms, including a new constitution in 1791. The Russians crushed this attempt and, joined by Prussia, partitioned Poland a second time in 1793. The third and final partition took place in 1795 after a Polish uprising led by army officer Tadeusz Kosciuszko. By the time the partition was finalized in 1797, Poland was no more. It had been completely removed from the map of Europe.
This video will enable to:
- Describe the 17th/18th-century government of Poland and the role of the Sejm
- List the three countries that dominated Polish politics in the 18th century
- Discuss the process that led to Poland being wiped, temporarily, from the European map