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The First Polish Partition of 1772 (Part I)

By: Randall Lesaffer

After many months, even years, of diplomatic manoeuvring and negotiations between their courts, the representatives of Austria, Prussia, and Russia formally signed a set of three bilateral conventions at Saint Petersburg on 5 August 1772–25 July 1772 under the Julian calendar (45 CTS 57, 67, and 73). The tripartite agreement allowed each of the three great powers of Central and Eastern Europe to annex a part of the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. 

For Prussia and Russia, the annexations meant the achievement of long-held territorial ambitions. With Livonia and parts of Belorussia, the tsarist government moved its border westwards, away from its vulnerable capital, Saint Petersburg. Although the Prussian gains were less than half the size of those of the Austrians and Russians, both in terms of territory and population, they were of greater strategic significance. The acquisition of Polish Prussia forged the disparate possessions of the Prussian King Frederick II (r. 1740–1786) in Germany and Eastern Prussia together into one contiguous whole. Apart from an enclave within the border of the Kingdom of Hungary at Zips and some minor border demarcations or ‘rectifications’, the Austrian Habsburgs had not entertained any expansionist ambitions against Poland before. But as the diplomatic game between the three eastern great powers had moved during 1771 and 1772 towards a Prussian-Russian agreement to dismantle parts of Poland, the Empress Maria Theresia (r. 1740–1780) and her son the Emperor Joseph II (r. 1765–1790) had not wanted to be left out. They had actually sold their agreement at the price of a massive extension of their borders towards the north, securing among others the important town of Lvov (Lemberg, Lviv). In all, the Polish state lost about 80,000 square miles out of a total pre-partition territory of about 282,000. Two further partitions, in 1793 and 1795, would wipe the state from the map.

The hold-up by the three great powers against Poland was justified as a necessary step in order to safeguard the peace and tranquillity of Europe and to uphold the balance of power. In the largely identical preambles to the three treaties, it was argued that the internal troubles and anarchy within Poland jeopardized the peace among its neighbours, which implied the acknowledgement that any gain by one of the three great powers needed to be compensated by a gain for the others. Above all, the deal was the result of a plan by the Prussian King to avoid a war among the three powers, a war not over Poland, but over the spoils of Russia’s victory in its ongoing war with the Ottoman Porte. The fourth article of each treaty contained a guarantee from the Russian Tsarina Catherine II (r. 1762–1796) not to demand the annexation or the independence of the principalities of Moldavia and Walachia from the Porte. For Austria, which watched the Russian advances towards the lower Danube with fear and jealousy, this would constitute a reason for war.

Poland’s weakness and incapability to withstand the onslaught of the three great powers had deep structural roots. The Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth had been formed through the personal union of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand-Duchy of Lithuania back in 1386. Since 1569, the composite state had been turned into a constitutional union. Between the 15th and 18th centuries, the Polish kings had failed to establish a strong central government or build up royal power. To the contrary, the constitution of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth had progressively enshrined limitations on royal power. Although some dynasties had occupied the throne for a few generations, none had succeeded in turning it into a hereditary right. By the 18th century, the Polish kingship was one of the few in Europe which remained both formally and practically elective. The fact that the constitution prevented the Diet from electing a new king during the lifetime of the incumbent had not only stopped a gradual transition to a hereditary monarchy but also weakened the position of the aspirant-king. Only by promising to uphold and often enhance the liberties and privileges of the powerbrokers in the commonwealth could anyone secure election.

Ultimately, power within the commonwealth resided with the Sejm, or Diet, which was dominated by the landed nobility. The Sejm held control over the legislative process. It functioned more to secure the rights and liberties of its members and the different parts of the country than to provide effective government. The ultimate symbol and weapon of the liberty of the leading classes was the so-called liberum veto, the right of any delegate to veto a decision which he deemed detrimental to the commonwealth. This structural impediment to effective government was assuaged in two different manners. The first was to form a temporary confederation of delegates, which was granted certain powers by the Sejm and could make majority decisions. The second was through the executive and regulatory powers of the two high courts—one for Poland and one for Lithuania—which also ruled by majority votes.

The failure of consecutive kings and dynasties to bolster the central government also meant that Poland lagged behind its greater and smaller neighbours in the build-up of a grand military power and the fiscal-bureaucratic apparatus to sustain it. By the early 18th century, Poland, which could hardly field an army of over 10,000 men, was no longer a match to its neighbours. Poland also lacked an effective diplomatic service. It had few, if any, resident diplomats abroad and there was no diplomatic corps to speak of in Poland. The two kings from the house of Wettin, who were also electors of Saxony and held the throne between 1697 and 1763, circumvented this problem by using the Saxon diplomatic service. They could, however, not prevent the continuation of parallel and private diplomacy by some of the leading noble magnates from the commonwealth.

Its victory in the Great Northern War (1700–1721) made tsarist Russia into the greatest power in northern and eastern Europe. It also secured Russia’s ascendancy over and within Sweden and Poland and reduced the latter to a virtual satellite or protectorate. Although Russia held some territorial ambitions towards lands of the commonwealth, it chose not to prioritize them or pursue them diligently. At the end of the war, Russia had obtained the Baltic provinces from Sweden, including the larger part of Livonia (Peace of Nystadt of 30 August 1721, 31 CTS 339). This led it to claim border corrections from Poland-Lithuania and to aspire at obtaining the commonwealth’s part of Livonia. But the consecutive tsarist governments chose to keep the commonwealth intact and pursue a policy of informal control. The structural weakness of the Polish government, as enshrined in its constitution, was considered to be a central pillar of Russian control. 

With this, the Russian government did nothing but continue a policy of interference in the Polish constitutional settlement that had already been tried by other European powers in the 17th century. The oldest treaty whereby foreign powers expressed an interest in the maintenance of the Polish constitution and arrogated to themselves a right of intervention to uphold it dated back to an agreement between Brandenburg-Prussia and Sweden from 1667 (Treaty of Stockholm of 22 June 1667, Article 4, 10 CTS 177). After 1720, Russia made similar clauses in treaties with other powers, such as Saxony, Sweden, Prussia, and even the Ottoman Porte, into a linchpin of its control over Poland. Article 2 of the eldest of these treaties, that with Prussia from 1720, stipulated that both powers would assist the forces of liberty in Poland against any attempt to vest a strong monarchical regime, not excluding the use of force (Treaty of Saint Petersburg of 24 February 1720, 31 CTS 155). Although these types of clauses seemed to give Russia and its treaty partners an equal stake, no one was duped. They were part of Russia’s strategy to be recognized as the ultimate powerbroker in Polish affairs.


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