** war and social upheaval: Polish Partitions

War and Social Upheaval: Polish Partitions (1772-95)

Figure 1.--This boy during World War II demonstrates the patriotic fervor of the Polish people that has never falted through years of adversity. The Polish Partions wiped Poland off the European map, but not the Polish people or Polish nationalism. This happened again with the two great totalitarian powers, the Soviet Union and NAZI Germany united to launch World War II. Their first victim was a revived Polish nation. The Soviets in their zone of occupation executed many leading Poles and deported large numbers of families to central Europe and Siberia. They targeted families most likely to be Polish nationalists. Many perished in the terrible forced expulsions organized by the NKVD. Nut neither the NAZIs or Soviets could expunge Polish nationalism. When the NAZIs invaded the Sobiet Union (1941), Stalin reluntantly agrred to allow the exiled Poles to leave the Soviet Union. Theu would be the only captive people Stalkin ever let go. As a result, many Poles made the arduous trek to the West through Iran and freedom. Among them were orphaned children. The trek was a challenge for healthy men. One can only imagine what was in the heart of children who made the journey. Many died on the arduous trek on foot to reach freedom. Once in Iran, they were able to reach British controlled areas of the Middle East. The mn joined the 8th Army. The children like the boy here were ared for in Palestine.

Poland at one time was a major Euorpean power. The sucess of the noobility in emasculting the monarchy caused a disatrous decline in Polish fortunes. And ultimately the neigboring powers (Russia, Prussia, and Austria) partitioned and annexed all of the former Polish kingdom (1772-95). This Poland disappeared grom the maps of Europe until being revived after World War I. Russia acquired the largest share of Poland, including all of eastern and central Poland as well as Warsw. Prussia acquired western Poland, much of which was renamed West Prussia (formerly Royal Prussia) and Posen. This was Wielkopolska or Greater Poland. Austria acquired southern Poland, including Kraków and Lwów and renamed "Galicia". During and after the Napoleonic Wars, Poland briefly reemerged as the small Duchy of Warsaw under Napoleon and the Kingdom of Poland within the Tsarist Empire.

Polish Expansion

Poland achied spectacular successes during the Jangellon dynasty which ruled the country until 1572. The relam was prosperous, culturally productive and aajor European power. One of the most sucessful Jangellon was Casimir IV (1447-92) who prpcecuted a protracted and largely successful war with the Teutonic Knights. The Peace of Thorn left Poland in control of western Prussia, Pomerania, as well as other important territories.

Rise of the Nobility

The Polish nobility had unique characteristics. The landed gentry acquired extensive power during Casimir's reign, largely by further supressing the peasantry. Caimir created the Sejm--the Polish parliament (1467). It evolved into a bicameral legislature with chambers for a lesser and higher nobility. Other Jangellon monarchs further extended the boundaries of the Polish kingdom. The Jangellon monarchs did less well domestically and when the last Jangellon, Sigismund II, died (1572), the Polish nobility had largely seized effective control of the Polish state. Poland's hereditary monarchy was replaced with an elected system by which the king was chosen by the nobility through the Sejm. The Sejm adopted a virtually unworkable system-the Liberum veto allowing any member of the Sejm to block legislation. The system at the time also permitted nobels to form military confederations--thus undercutting the building of a strong Polish army. The result was political, economic, and military deteroration. This constitutional system secured the rights of individual nobles to conduct affairs in their fiefdom, but it made it virtually impossible to persure coherent national policies, even in emergencies.

Decline of Poland

The Polish state sreadily declined in power and influence as well as territory throughout the 17th century. Major wars were lost to Brandenburg, Russia, Sweden, and Turkey involving the loss of vast territories. The sole exception was a combined Polish-German army commanded by King John III Sobieski which came to the aid of Austria and defeated a huge Turkish army at the gates of Vienna (1683). By the 18th century, however, Poland had ceased to be a major European power. It was the authoractic Russian state which pressed on Poland most forcefully in the early 18th century. The Russians used a combination of military force and bribes of Polish nobels to undermine the Polish state. The Russians engineered the election of a German to the Polish crown--Frederick Augustus III, elector of Saxony (1734). This brought about the War of the Polish Secession. Some elements of the Polish nobility began to persue a program of national salvation. But without a stringleader and ability of small factions to block action in the Sejm, this proved a difficult undertaking. Russia actually invaded the hearland of Poland and forced Stanislaw II Poniatowski on the Poles (1764). He is best known in history as a paramour of Tsarina Catherine II. Tge other European powers, especially the Turks and German states became increasingly concerbed about Russian expanionism. Turkey declared war on Russia.

First Partition (1772)

Prussia and Austria were increasingly fearful of an expanding Tsarist Empire as well as a possible general European war. They proposed a partition of territory to the Russians. Agreement was reached and a treaty signed in St. Petersburg (August 5, 1772). The area partitioned by Poland's neigbors amounted to about a quarter of the country. The territory was alloted to Russia (35,000 square miles, Austria (32,000 square miles), and Prussia (14,000 square miles). The Austrians acquired Galacia and the area around Lviv/Lemburg). The three powers imposed provisions on Poland to ensure that there would be no national resurgence after partition. The remaining state became the Polish Commonwealth. The acquiesence of the Sejm was obtained through the threat of force and bribery. The territority obtained by Prussia included the Vistula delta. This set in motion the migration of the Mennonites who had been granted a range of concessions by the Poles. The Mennonites migrated to southernRussia/Ukraine. Exemtion from conscription was a major issue for them.

Second Partition (1793)

Polish reformers achieved some success in domestic areas, especially in th area of education which was secularized as well as modernized. Reformers also pushed for constitutional reform, but were blocked by the recalcitarnt and largely conservative nobility. Poland next became caught in the middle of rising tensins between Russia and Prussia. Polish reformers managed to push sweeping reforms through the Sjem. Prussia encouraged the movement largely as an anti-Russian action. The reformers than began redrafting the constitution to reestablish a hereditary monarchy as well as, for the time, advanced democratic reforms. These reforms were adopted (May 3, 1791). Elements of the gentry seeing their virtually feudal positioins threatened, reacted violently to the new constitutioin. Coming as they did after the French Revolution (1789) had begun were also anethma to autocratic Russia. The opposition nobility and Catherine plotted to restore the old order. The plotters organized the Confederacy of Targovitza (may 1792) and inituated military operations with Russian support. The Polish Army was led by Thaddeus Kosciusko valiantly resisted the plotters and Russians for more than 3 months, but did not have forces capable to resist the Russians for an extended period. Although the Prussians had encouraged the reformers, they offered no assistance. The Polish Gvernment was forced to capituale. The Russians occupied easter Poland. Soon afterwards, the Prussians occupied western Poland (early 1793). The Russians and Prussians occupied what amount to two thirds of POland. They then formalized the annexations with a second treaty (September 23, 1793).

Third Partition (1795-96)

The Third Partition followed on the heels of the Second Partition. General Kosciusko took command of what remained of the Polish military and assumed dictatorial powers. He launched a new campaign and achieved unexpected military. The POles liberated large areas of Russian occupied Poland (Summer 1794). Kosciusko humiliated the Russians before Moscow. Dusession among the Poles, however, hampered their operations and they faced the overwealming superiority of the Russian forces supported by the Prussians who had joined them. Then the Austrians entered the fightingv from the south. The Poles could not long sustain operations againstv such odds. The Russians smashed the Polish fircesc at Maciejowice (October 10, 1794). This opened the way ton Wardsa which Field Marshal Count Aleksandr Suvorov entered (November 8). The Russians conducted a terrible massacre in Warsaw. Within weeks the surviving remnanets of the Polish Army surrendered. Partition proved complicated because of disagreements among the three partioning powers, but treaties were eventually concluded (1795-6). The territory was alloted to Russia (45,000 square miles, Prussia (21,000 square miles), and Austria (18,000 square miles). With the Third Partition, Poland no longer existed as an independent country.

Pale of Settlement

Tsarist Russia under Catherine the Great established the Pale of Settlement (1791). Earlier Tsars had attempted and failed to expel the Jews from Russia who refused to convert. The Emperess Elizabeth made the most sustained effort. There were a range of issues involved with mixed religion, nationalism, and economics. Russia in the 18th century was still largely divided mainly into nobles, serfs and clergy. Two developments in the 18th century brought the issue of Jewish settlement to a head. First, Peter the Great institutited a range of reforms which began to bring Russia into Europe. This resulted in social and ecomomic changes which included the first factories and modern industrial production. This also meant the emergence of industrial urban workers and a middleclass. The new Russian middle-class included many Jews. Second, the Polish Partitions, especially the Second Partition, brought large numbers of Jews into the Russian Empire. Until the Partitions, Russia had a fairly limited Jewish population. The Pale in the 19th century would include more than 5 million Jews, this was the largest Jewish population in Europe, about 40 percent of the total. Catherine by restricting where Jews could lived was in part attempting to ensure the emergence of a Russian middle class. Catherine was a German princess and thus vulnerable to charges from Russian nationalists, many of who wanted the Jews expelled. This basically violated Catherine's liberal attitudes. Also the Jews despite the charges of anti-Semites, played a valuable role in the Russian economy, especially their mercantile role in the privinces. The Pale was an area of Western Russia stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. It included what is now the Baltic Republics, Poland, Belarus, and large areas of the Ukraine including the Crimea, although it varied over time. Jews were restricted to settling outside this area. Jews were required to live and work only in this Pale. Authorities required Jews to obtain special permission to enter Russia outside the Pale. Jews in the Pale were mostly urban, but this means villages and small towns and not just cities. They lived in towns and villages, called shtetls. Among the important centers of Jewish life were Warsaw, Odessa, Lodz, and Vilna, communities that would be destroyed by the NAZIs in the World War II Holocaust. Jews even within the Pale lived under many legal restrictions affecting employment. As result many were merchants, shopkeepers, and craftsmen--trades they were permitted to persue. The Pale was finally abolished after the overthrow of the Tasarist regime (1917).

Brief Reappearance

During and after the Napoleonic Wars, Poland briefly reemerged as the small Duchy of Warsaw under Napoleon and the Kingdom of Poland within the Tsarist Empire.


The Polish nation once the most powerful in Europe disappeared as a result of three partitions in the 18th century carried out by Austria, Prussia, and Russia with the major share and Warsaw going to Russia. The Poles resisted these empires and in reaction the Russians in particular set out to destroy Polish national identity and Russify the Poles. Tsar Alexander III launched major Russification effort. Polish nationalism was largely preserved by the nobility and the Church. Large numbers of Poles emigrated, especially from Russian controlled Poland. Many headed to the United States.

World War I

The Polish peasantry was largely a political. Although there was no Polish state, Poles participated in the War as part of the armies of the three empires that had partioned the country. About 2.0 millions participated in the War. Nearly 0.5 million were killed. Polish nationalists were divided in the conflict. Many right-wing Poles led by Roman Dmowski's National Democrats promoted the Allied cause which on the Eastern Front meant the Russians. Dmowski thought that a grateful Russia might agree to autonomy for Poland, perhaps even independence in the future. Josef Pilsudski led the Polish Socialists. He also commanded the Polish Legion in the Austrian Army. He thought that Russia might be knocked out of the War. Austria which had gained Galicia in the partition had been the most willing to allow a measure of Polish autonomy. The poor performance of the Austrian Army on the Eastern Front resulted the Germans assuming command. Marshal Pilsudski refused to take an an oath of allegiance to the Kaiser. German authorities arrested him and imprisoned him in Magdenburg Castle. Russian collapse changed the political situation in the East. America had joined the war. President Wilson promoted the 14 Points wgich included national self determination. With Russia no longer in the war Britain and France came out for Polish self-determination. Although the Germans had achieved their goals in the East reverses in the West changed the political landscape. Revolts broke out in German cities. The Kaiser abdigated and fled to Holland. German authorities released Pilsudski Magdenburg (November 10, 1918). He immeditely headed for Warsaw. He arrived there on the same day the Armistice on the Western Front went into effect (November 11). The Germans had set up a Regency Council in Warsaw. Understanding that a Polish national rising was about to take place, the Regency Council turned to Marshal Pilsudski. The German garrison in Warsaw chose to evacuate by train. The Allies recognized the new Polish state set up by Pilsudski. At Versilles the Poles demanded the boundaries of Poland before the 18th century partitions. The boundaries of the new Polish nation were only established by diplomacy and military engagements (1919-21). Inter-war Poland included a German minority in the west and eastern areas where Lithuanians, White Russians, and Ukranians outnimbered Poles.


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Created: 5:01 PM 9/20/2006
Last updated: 7:00 PM 7/7/2017