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The First Polish Partition of 1772 (Part II)

By: Randall Lesaffer

Although the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) did not lead to a major territorial reshuffle in Eastern Europe, it did cause a shift in the balance of power. After its defeat against Britain, France redirected the focus of its diplomatic and military efforts towards the Atlantic while its influence in continental Europe, where it had been the dominant power for about a century, started to decline. 

The major cause of the war on the European continent had been the desire of the Austrian Habsburgs to enact revenge against Frederick II of Prussia for his invasion and conquest of Silesia in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748). At the end of the Seven Years’ War, the coalition between Vienna, Versailles, and Saint Petersburg had collapsed. In 1762, at the time when Prussia was close to defeat, the Russian Tsar Peter III (r. 1762) saved the Prussian king, whom he greatly admired, by breaking ranks with his allies and offering Frederick a separate peace (Peace of Saint Petersburg of 24 April 1762, 42 CTS 149). This left Austria without any chance of recuperating Silesia and reshuffled the diplomatic scenery. Prussia and Russia were the clear winners of the war in Europe, with the latter power now gaining the ascendancy in Eastern and Northern Europe. Bereft of its ally Britain, which it had abandoned in the final phase of the war, Prussia was now isolated and exposed and had no alternative but to seek an alliance with Russia.

After the assassination of her husband Peter III, his wife assumed the imperial throne of Russia as Catherine II. The new tsarina did not share her husband’s admiration for the Prussian king but was not in a position to sever the newly forged bond. Her first order of business was to stabilize her hold on the throne and to avoid the outbreak of a new war. For this reason, Catherine II chose not to exploit Russia’s preponderance to demand territorial concessions from its neighbour Poland but to continue the traditional policy of keeping the country intact as an informal protectorate.

The death of the Wettin King Augustus III of Poland (r. 1733–1763) in October 1763 opened both an opportunity and a risk. It drove Saint Petersburg and Berlin closer to one another as the tsarist government wanted to enlist Prussia’s support to secure the election of Catherine’s candidate, the Polish nobleman and Catherine’s former lover Stanislaus Poniatowski (r. 1763–1795). Under Russian pressure, Poniatowski was duly elected and took the throne under the name Stanislaus II August. The following year, Frederick II achieved his desire for solidifying his bond with Russia. With the Treaty of Saint Petersburg of 11 April 1764 (31 March 1764 by the Julian calendar) (43 CTS 1), Prussia and Russia forged a defensive alliance for eight years. The alliance was extended for an additional eight years in 1769 (Treaty of Saint Petersburg, 12 October 1769, 44 CTS 337).

For Frederick II, the bilateral relation with Russia was his lifeline and shield against the ambitions of Austria and the threat of a new war, which he could not afford and wanted to prevent at all costs. For the Russian government, it was a pillar in the so-called Northern System it wanted to construct. The Northern System would be a network of allies with Russia at its head and would replace the old Eastern System of France. The ambition was to draw in at least Denmark, Poland, Prussia, and Sweden.

The diplomatic game which ultimately led in 1772 to the first partition of Poland started in 1768. Its determining factors were a constitutional crisis and civil war in Poland and the Ottoman-Russian war, both of which erupted that year.

The new Polish king proved less manageable to his Russian sponsors as had been expected. In the early phase of his reign, Stanislaus August succeeded in having passed a series of bills that on appearance introduced a few modest constitutional reforms but had the potential of hollowing out the liberum veto. The reforms provided for the establishment of financial commissions, whose decisions would be ratified by the Sejm by majority votes. Once the Russian government became aware of the risk this constituted, it began to push back. With the aid of its Prussian ally, the Russian government launched a counteroffensive in the Sejm to mobilize the nobles and proponents of the republican constitution against the perceived onslaught of the royal government on traditional liberties. The tsarist government used its traditional role as protector of the Orthodox faith to demand more religious and political rights for the religious minorities. Aside from the Orthodox, this mainly pertained to Protestants, on behalf of whom Prussian support could be enlisted. 

In late 1767, a crackdown against the opposition and Russian military intimidation secured the election in the Sejm of a confederated delegation to prepare a new constitutional settlement and a new treaty with Russia. The Second Separate Act that came out of this affirmed that all important, so-called cardinal laws, which concerned the Polish constitution, could only be amended by a unanimous vote. The Treaty of Warsaw of 24 February 1768 (44 CTS 83) expressly made the Russian empress into the guarantor of the new religious and constitutional settlement in Poland and gave her a right of intervention to protect the rights and liberties of the commonwealth. The Second Separate Act was included in the treaty, making the Polish constitution subject to the treaty relations between the two powers and giving Russia a say over its future amendment. In March 1768, the Sejm duly ratified the work of the delegation, its decisions, and the treaty.

With this pushback, the tsarist government had overplayed its hand. In February 1768, republican forces in Poland formed the Confederation of Bar. Within months, a war erupted which opposed the rebels against the Russian army and the royal government.

The fighting in Poland caused a war between Russia and the Ottoman Porte. Incursion into Ottoman territory by Russian troops from Poland led to an open rupture between the two powers in October 1768. After some initial difficulties, the Russian armed forces scored a series of victories both on land and on the sea. By late 1770, the Russians were in control of the Crimea, Moldavia, and Walachia—all vassal territories of the Porte—and had as good as destroyed the Ottoman fleet on the Black Sea. Catherine’s demands rose with the success of her armies and navy. By the beginning of 1771, she demanded the right of free navigation on the Black Sea, territorial cessions around the Sea of Azov, and the independence of the Crimea—permanently—and of Moldavia and Walachia—for 25 years. The demands relating to Moldavia and Walachia, which would make Russia effectively an important power in the Balkans, disconcerted Vienna. The Habsburg court threatened war, beefed up its support for the Polish rebels, and even went as far as signing, but not ratifying, an alliance with the Ottoman sultan in early 1771.

Already in 1769, Frederick II had committed himself to active diplomacy in order to avoid war between the great powers of Eastern Europe. He approached Vienna to offer joint mediation to the Russians and Ottomans. During 1769, he for the first time raised the idea for a partition of Polish territory to compensate Russia for relaxing its demands in Southern Europe. The plan, however, took second place to more direct schemes of peace between Russia and the Porte, and moved to the background as it met with little or no support in Saint Petersburg. 

The partition plan gradually gained traction through Austrian and Prussian moves into Poland. Already in 1768, Austrian troops had crossed from Hungary into Poland. Their presence was justified as a measure to provide a safety zone for the Habsburg lands against the possible spilling of violence over the border, and as a sanitary measure to stop the spread of the plague. To Frederick, who followed suit by moving troops into Poland under the same claims, this was perfectly acceptable.

Calculations shifted once the Viennese government started to make claims on the Polish enclave of Spitz and some territories around the border. As these expanded during 1770, the Prussian king started to take the partition plan more seriously. The mission of his brother Henry (1726–1802), who was a proponent of the partition plan, to Saint Petersburg between October 1770 and January 1771, aided in bringing it to the fore, although at the time it was still seen as a possible alternative among different peace schemes.

It was the change of heart at the court of Saint Petersburg, which occurred in the early days of 1771, that made the partition scheme viable. War-weariness, the enhanced interest of some military leaders to extend the western border of Russia, and a scare for war against Austria combined into persuading Catherine II of the merits of the Polish partition plan. The plan rested on a double rationale. Russia would avoid war with Austria by ceding any claims over Moldavia and Walachia in exchange for territorial expansion against Poland. In order not to overhaul the balance of power, Austria and Prussia would also receive a share of Poland. Under the original plan, Poland itself would be compensated with territories in Moldavia and Walachia, but the enduring resistance against the Russians and the duplicity of the Polish king did nothing to motivate the Russians for this leg of the plan. Compensation of Poland would ultimately be dropped from the scheme.

Once the Russians had indicated their interest in the partition scheme, Frederick kicked into higher gear. He stood to gain the most as the Polish partition plan opened an opportunity to link his heartlands with Eastern Prussia. It took another year of active, subtle, and skilful diplomacy to gain the full commitment of the Russian government, but in early 1772 Prussian and Russian diplomats were ready to sign a bilateral convention on the partition of Poland. The treaty was kept secret, but for Austria, which was invited to join (Convention of Saint Petersburg of 4 January 1772, 44 CTS 465). Although Austria had little ambition to extend its border into Poland beyond the minor claims it had made before, the Viennese government quite quickly realized that it had walked into a trap of its own making. Through its moves to annex Spitz and round off its borders, it had made itself complicit in taking territories from Poland, and by aligning itself with Russia over the scheme, Prussia had called Vienna’s bluff of going to war with Russia. 

As the third and reluctant partner to the scheme, Austria found itself, however, in a strong bargaining position to gain as much as possible from the deal. Frederick II was wise not to overextend himself by demanding Danzig, Poland’s outlet to the Baltic, or control over Polish trade over the Vistula, and keep his powder dry for the later wrangling over border demarcation and commercial arrangements. He let the game of maximizing land gains play between Austria and Russia. With the tripartite agreement of 5 August 1772, the deal of the partition of Poland was sealed between the three great powers. Meanwhile, the lands at issue had already been largely occupied by the troops of the three powers. 

In the year to follow, the three powers moved to impose the deal on Poland and force them to ratify and legalize it. Berlin and Vienna largely left the diplomatic wrangling to the Russian resident diplomat. The three powers, however, agreed to send a military delegation to Warsaw to coordinate the occupation of Poland. In May 1773, the Sejm was forced to vote a delegation into existence that would negotiate the treaties with the great powers. In order to smooth the process, new territorial demands were referred to later talks in the border demarcation commissions that would be set up. The final treaties stuck to the text of the tripartite agreement of 5 August 1772 in as far as the territorial cessions were concerned. On 18 September 1773, three treaties, one for each of the great powers, were formally signed with Poland at Warsaw (45 CTS 233, 243, and 253). Twelve days later, the Sejm ratified them. The rump state which was left was further manhandled by the Russians to amend its constitution and continued as a Russian satellite for another two decades.


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