Robert Howard Lord.

The second partition of Poland; a study in diplomatic history online

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break on the part of Prussia by preaching at St. Petersburg
moderation, patience, and long-suffering, especially with regard
to Polish affairs. If the catastrophe that might have been ex-
pected did not at once befall the audacious Poles, this was due in
large part to the mollifying influence which Austria now brought
to bear upon Russian policy.

Count Cobenzl at Petersburg found himself between Scylla and
Charybdis. On one side was a party which advocated meeting
the high-handed actions of England and Prussia with equally
vigorous measures, so that a new war might easily have followed.
On the other side there were many who would have gone so far as
to sacrifice a part of Poland, in order to conciliate the Court of
Berlin. The views of the former party, which was dominant in
the Council of the Empire, undoubtedly accorded best with
Catherine's own inclinations. Long weaned from any fondness
for Prussia, despising Frederick William II almost as much as she
did George III, the Empress had felt ever since the beginning of
the war a growing and passionate indignation against the two
monarchs who had dared to cross her plans and to set themselves
up as ' dictators ' in Europe. She approved the bellicose resolu-
tions adopted by the Council in September, 1788, in reply to the
first hostile demonstrations of Prussia; and when one of her
ministers presented a dissenting opinion, she shed tears of rage. 1
The events in Poland added fuel to the flames. " I swear to
Almighty God," she wrote to Potemkin, " that I am doing every-
thing possible to endure all that these Courts, and especially the
almighty Prussian one, are doing; but it [the latter] is so puffed
up that, if its head does n't burst, I see no possibility of agreeing
to its shameful demands. ... I am not revengeful, but what is
opposed to the honor of my Empire and its essential interests is
harmful. ... I will not give province for province, nor have
laws prescribed to me. . . . They will come to grief, for nobody

1 See the protocol of the Council of September 18/29, l 7&&> Apx. Toe. Cob.,
i, pp. 606-611, and XpariOBim,Kiii, ^hobuhki., September 29/October 10, p. 95.



ever yet succeeded in such a course. They have forgotten who
they are, and with whom they have to deal; and that is why the
fools hope we shall yield." * " The Empress is entirely ready to
strike against the King of Prussia," wrote Cobenzl at the end of
November; " the ministers, with the exception of Count Oster-
mann, are of the opinion that perhaps this is the most favorable
moment for the two Imperial Courts, if we can secure, if not the
alliance, at least the neutrality of the Bourbon Courts; for it is
hard to believe that England will engage to furnish more than
indirect aid [to its ally]." 2

Joseph, however, was furious at the idea. The roles had
changed completely. The Austrians, who for years had been
preaching the necessity of ' reducing the Margrave of Branden-
burg to his proper place in the world,' were now as disinclined to
act against him as the Russians were eager to do so. 3 From
December on, Cobenzl counselled nothing but prudence and self-
restraint. When at the beginning of 1789 the Russians were
much alarmed at the talk of a Prusso-Polish alliance, he urged
that such a treaty would be made only to be torn up again, and
that protesting about it would be quite useless under the circum-
stances. In case of war, it might even be better to have Poland
on the side of Prussia than neutral; and at any rate, the two
Imperial Courts ought to take no open measures to prevent such
an alliance. 4 While the Russians refrained from presenting a
protest on the subject at Warsaw, while they met even the over-
throw of the Permanent Council with studied indifference, there
was grave danger that their patience would be strained to the
breaking-point by the demand formally made by the Republic,
with the diplomatic support of Prussia, for the immediate evacua-

1 Letter of November 27/December 8, 1788, Pyc. Clap., xvii, p. 22.

2 Report of November 28, V. A., Russland, Berichte, 1788.

3 Cf. Joseph's letter to L. Cobenzl of November 24, 1788 as to the Empress'
desire to go to war with Prussia, F. R. A., II, liv, pp. 303 f. The view is advanced
by P. Wittichen {Polnische Politik Preussens, pp. 17 f.), and Beer (Orientalische
Politik Oesterreichs, p. 112) that if the Russians occasionally talked of war, it was
only in order to soothe their allies. A slight study of the Russian documents would
show how utterly mistaken is this point of view. Moreover, to talk of going to war
with Prussia at that moment was to do anything but to soothe the Austrians.

4 Cobenzl's reports of January 7 and April 15, 1789, V. A., Rtissland, Berichte.


tion of Polish territory by the Russian troops. But armed with
an intercepted letter of Hertzberg, in which that minister de-
clared that his Court hoped to find a pretext for a rupture in the
affairs of Poland and expected to be ready to strike in July,
Cobenzl was able to argue forcibly that the best way to foil the
Prussians was to remove their last remaining excuse for inter-
vention. 1 The Empress was highly exasperated by the constant
denunciations to which she was subjected by the Polish Diet, and
by the frequent collisions in the Ukraine; she wished nothing so
much as to avenge herself in Prussia; but finally prudent coun-
sels prevailed. In May orders were given to withdraw all Russian
troops and magazines from the territory of the Republic. Hence-
forth the Court of Petersburg adopted an attitude of complete
indifference to the doings of the Diet of Warsaw. The first period
of the Polish crisis thus came to an unexpectedly peaceful close.
While they strove successfully to prevent a rupture with the
Court of Berlin over Polish affairs, the Austrians had also to
guard against the contrary danger of an agreement between
Russia and Prussia at their expense and Poland's. A more con-
ciliatory policy towards Prussia was advocated by the favorite
Mamonov ; by Ostermann and Suvalov among the ministers;
by the Grand Duke Paul, who had long conducted a secret corre-
spondence with Frederick William; and above all by Potemkin.
It seemed only too obvious that Russia could free herself in a
moment from all her growing embarrassments by sacrificing the
Austrian for the Prussian connection. But there was " the
Empress' pretended dignity " (as the heir to the throne expressed
it). If any human power could prevail over that, it must be
Potemkin's, and after the capture of Oczakow the Prince was
coming to Petersburg. The court and the town looked forward to
his coming " as to a second Advent," the Prussian and English
ministers and their partisans with keen impatience, Cobenzl with
natural misgivings. The Prince was coming, people whispered
' to overthrow everything.' 2

1 Report of April 15, V. A., Russland, Berickle, 1789.

2 For the above, the letters of Gamovski in the Pyc. Crap., xvi; the letters of
the Grand Duke Paul and his wife to Nesselrode in the Leltres et papiers du chart-


For a time there was, indeed, talk of great changes. Potemkin
told the Prussian envoy that the neighboring Powers would have
done much better at the time of the Partition to divide up the
whole of Poland, and he added that it might still be done if
the Prussians would indicate what they wanted. 1 In a slightly
different strain he remarked to Cobenzl that he wished the
King of Prussia would seize a bit of the Republic ; the two
Imperial Courts would do the same, the Poles would get their
just deserts, and the Court of Berlin would lose all credit in
Poland. With equal chagrin the ambassador heard Ostermann
declare that a partition of Poland between the three Courts
would perhaps be the best way out of the present embarrassing
situation. 2

All this was not merely diplomatic gossip. About this time
Bezborodko, the most trusted of the Empress' ministers, laid
before her two memorials, in which he advocated using the good
offices of Prussia in making peace with Sweden and Turkey, and
declared that if in this way Russia could secure the desired terms,
there would be no disadvantage in renewing the alliance with the
Court of Berlin, or even in allowing the latter some acquisition in
Poland. This was to be effected through a secret negotiation with
Prussia, into which the Emperor was to be initiated only when it
was approaching completion. Had the plan been carried out,
Austria might have been confronted by the same situation as in
1793: by a bargain made behind her back between Russia and

celier comte de Nesselrode, i, pp. 126, 130, 133, etc.; the correspondence of the
Prussian envoy Keller for January-February, 1789 in Dembinski, op. cit.

1 Keller's report of February 26, 1789, Dembinski, op. cit., i, p. 180.

2 Cobenzl's report of April 15, V. A., Russland, Berichte, 1789. The am-
bassador wrote: "... sagte mir Graf Ostermann, dass es ihm lieb seye, dass die
Preussen zu ihrem alten Projekt, ein Stuck von Pohlen zu erhalten zuruckkehrten;
dieses wiirde vielleicht das beste Mittel seyn, sich aus der damaligen verworrenen
Lage zu ziehen. Es verstiinde sich von selbst dass man dem Konig in Preussen
nicht zulassen wiirde sich in Pohlen zu vergrossern, ohne dass die beyden Kays.
Hofe wenigstens ein gleiches Aequivalent erhielten; der Konig miisste uns bey
solcher Verhaltniss der Sachen freye Hande lassen, die Pohlen wiirden fiir ihr
ausschweifendes Benehmen den verdienten Lohn empfangen, und die beyden
Kays. Hofe bald wieder die Oberhand in diesem Konigreich gewinnen und den
Preussischen Credit vertilgen." Such a transaction would have been a very exact
repetition of the Partition of 1772.


Prussia for the partition of Poland. 1 Fortunately, however, the
Empress stood firm. The talk of a new partition quickly died out,
and the Austrian alliance not only remained unshaken, but was
about this time renewed for another eight years. 2

Potemkin's stay in St. Petersburg (February-May), while it
may have improved his own position, seems to have had no politi-
cal results, except to confirm the Empress in the resolution to
adopt a somewhat more friendly attitude towards Prussia. As an
outward sign of a more conciliatory disposition, in the early
summer of 1789 Alopeus again appeared in Berlin with a secret
commission. Its real object seems to have been merely to lull the
Prussian Court with specious hopes, to gain time, and to postpone
the outbreak of open hostility in that quarter. It led to a tor-
tuous and futile negotiation, carried on chiefly through the royal
favorite Bischoffwerder, which was dragged out for two years and
resulted in practically nothing. 3

1 These memorials are printed in the Pyc. Apx., 1875, ii, pp. 36 ff. Cf. also
Bezborodko to S. R. Vorontsov, October, 1789, Apx. Bop., xiii, pp. 167 ff.

2 This time also by the exchange of autograph letters between the two sovereigns
under the dates of May 21 and May 24/ June 4, 1789.

3 The character of Alopeus' mission and the credibility of his reports have
formed the subject of a lively controversy between Professors Dembinski and
Askenazy. See the Kwartalnik Historyczny, xvii and xviii. After a study of these
reports for the years 1789-93, I find myself quite in agreement with Professor
Dembinski. Alopeus was undoubtedly strongly pro-Prussian in his sympathies and
extremely eager to effect a reconcilation between the two Courts; but that he was
in these years in the pay of Prussia and that his reports were concocted between
him and the Prussian ministers, seems to me utterly improbable, M. Askenazy

Alopeus' mission may probably be regarded as a result of Potemkin's exertions
at St. Petersburg. His instructions were drawn up April 28/May 9, i. e., about a
week before the Prince set out to return to the army. The mission must also stand
in some kind of connection with the proposals of Bezborodko outlined in the two
memorials mentioned in the text. In Bezborodko's mind, it was to be some-
thing more than a mere 'dilatory negotiation': it was to lead, if possible, to
a satisfactory peace with Sweden and the Porte, reconciliation and alliance with
Prussia, an agreement with the latter Power for equal ' advantages ' to both
Courts at the expense of Poland and Turkey (cf. his letter to S. R. Vorontsov of
October, 1789, cited above). The mission fell very far short, however, of effecting
such important results, owing both to the Empress' " insuperable antipathy to a
rapprochement with Prussia " (the phrase is Bezborodko's), and to Hertzberg's
obstinate insistence upon his utterly inacceptable ' grand plan.'


The Prusso-PolIsh Alliance

The favoring circumstances of the moment had restored to
Poland a precarious independence; but it remained to consoli-
date the new position, to provide against the dangers of all kinds,
external and internal, with which the audacious venture of the
Patriots was menaced. On July i, 1789, at a secret meeting of
four leaders of the party, 1 it was decided to direct the future
labors of the Diet solely upon three great tasks: the establish-
ment of a new and stronger form of government, the introduction
of the hereditary succession to the throne, and the conclusion of
an alliance with Prussia. These three projects were inseparable
and mutually supplementary. A reformed constitution would
be of little avail if at the death of the present elderly and ailing
King the state was to be exposed to the anarchy and the foreign
intervention that regularly accompanied an interregnum. The
Prussian alliance seemed an indispensable guarantee of security
at a moment when Poland was engaged in the difficult task of
reorganization, and was constantly forced to fear an attack from
her powerful and vindictive eastern neighbor.

As we look back upon it now, this Prussian alliance appears
to be the supreme and tragic mistake of the Four Years' Diet.
Those who in that last hour undertook to save the Republic,
pinned their hopes to one Power, and that Power betrayed them.
Prussia encouraged the Poles mortally to offend Catherine; she
filled them with false hopes, and bound herself to them by the
most solemn engagements; she led them on and on from one
perilous adventure to another; and then in the end she deserted
them and sold them to Russia. That is the history of the Prusso-
Polish alliance as viewed from the Polish standpoint. The

1 The two Marshals of the Confederation, Malachowski and Sapieha, Ignacy
Potocki and Bishop Rybinski. (Lucchesini's report of July 4, B. A., R. 9, 27.)


Patriots have been overwhelmed with blame for staking their
country's fortunes upon so dangerous, so artificial, so unnatural
a connection. Unnatural it undoubtedly was, in view of the
fundamental contradiction between the aims of the Patriotic
party and Prussia's unalterable determination to keep Poland
weak and to continue the dismemberment of the Republic. It
was an alliance in which there could be little sincerity or confi-
dence on either side, and which could have slight chances of
permanence. And, judged by its result, the whole policy of the
alliance seems imprudent, false, and wellnigh suicidal.

But if we do not judge merely by the outcome, but attempt to
place ourselves in the position of the Polish leaders at that time,
we may well ask what else they could have done.

A great and unlooked-for opportunity had presented itself;
the nation insisted that that opportunity should not be thrown
away; as far as human foresight could predict, it might well be
the last chance. National independence and national revival
were not to be hoped for, if Poland remained on the side of
Russia. Had the Patriotic leaders recommended this latter
course, the nation would have repudiated them: they had no
choice but to attempt to rid the state of the Muscovite control.
But when that had been accomplished, Poland could not relapse
into a nerveless neutrality. Forced as she was to guard against
the future vengeance of the Empress, too weak, as yet, to defend
herself single-handed, obliged also to reckon with the danger
that Lhe neighbors would settle their differences, as usual, by a
bargain at her expense, Poland was compelled to make sure of
the support of one of the great Powers, and as matters then
stood, support could be expected only from Prussia.

The Patriots were tolerably well aware of the dangers of the
Prussian alliance, although they did not foresee the supreme
treachery of 1792, — and how could they, since that desertion
is almost without parallel in history ? They realized from the
outset that the alliance would have to be bought with a heavy
price — Dantzic, Thorn, perhaps a part of Great Poland -

1 See the program discussed by the leaders of the party in Paris in January,
1788, Dembinski, "Piattoli et son role," loc. cit., pp. 54 ff.; also Lucchesini's report


although later, unfortunately, the leaders were unable to bring
the nation to make the sacrifice. They also seem to have recog-
nized that even if this price were paid, no great confidence could
under ordinary circumstances be placed in Prussian friendship.
But the present situation was of a decidedly extraordinary sort.
Prussia had allowed herself to be driven into an antagonism to
the Imperial Courts that seemed bound to end in open war. By
joining in that struggle, Poland might win solid claims to Prussian
gratitude, and also provide handsomely for her own immediate
interests. Such a war was likely to spell disaster for the already
hard-pressed Imperial Courts; it might put an end to Catherine's
power of aggression for good and all; at any rate, it would create
such a gulf between Poland's two most dangerous neighbors that
a new partition would be out of the question for a long time to
come. Under such circumstances the ordinarily ' unnatural '
Prussian-Polish alliance might become the most natural thing
in the world.

Moreover, there was another contingency in which the Prus-
sian connection might prove useful and salutary. Prussia was a
member of the Triple Alliance, which seemed to be more and
more the dominant factor in European politics. It was true that
that alliance contained divergent tendencies. Prussia was eager
to make it the instrument of her own plans of aggrandizement,
while Pitt's great aim was to restore peace to Europe, to maintain
the balance of power, and to protect the weaker states against
such aggressive monarchs as Catherine and Joseph. But which-
ever tendency prevailed, Poland stood to gain something, pro-
viding the Triple Alliance held together and continued its policy
of opposition to the Imperial Courts. And if Poland, by means
of an alliance with Prussia, could gain admission to this wider
union, the advantage would be inestimable. The Republic would
not only free itself from too close dependence upon Berlin, but
would also gain the security resulting from membership in an
imposing league of states — England, Holland, Prussia, Sweden,
perhaps also Denmark, Turkey and the German Furstenbund —

of July 4, 1789, as to his first conferences with the Poles on the subject of the


a' league of states banded together for peace and mutual protec-
tion. Perhaps it was not too much to hope that the Triple
Alliance, which had rescued Holland from France, which had
delivered Gustavus III from the direst necessity, which was
ready to come to the aid of the struggling Turks, might also
undertake to defend Poland against the vengeance of Catherine.
These hopes proved to be fallacious and illusory, but under
the circumstances one cannot unreservedly condemn the Polish
statesmen for cherishing them. Certainly the Poles were not
alone in miscalculating the outcome of the general European
crisis: Prussians and Belgians, Swedes and Turks were equally
deceived. The difference was only that Poland had infinitely
more at stake on the issue. The general situation in 1789 was
indeed such as to warrant high hopes, and to make an alliance
with Prussia, incongruous as it might be at other times, appear
under the given circumstances a matter of sane and practical
politics. It seems probable that the alliance would have justified
itself, if Prussia had drawn the sword against the Imperial Courts
in 1790, or if the Triple Alliance had not executed so inglorious
a retreat before Catherine in 1791. Undoubtedly the Poles did
not perform all that might have been expected of them to make
their alliance with Prussia a success; but the great reasons for
the failure of that alliance are to be found, not in anything that
they did or left undone, but in the vacillations, contradictions,
and fiascos of Prussian policy and in the collapse of Pitt's 'Federa-
tive System.'


The proposal for a Prusso-Polish alliance came originally from
the Poles themselves. The idea, as we have seen, formed part
of the program of the Patriots as early as the beginning of 1788.
It was strengthened by Frederick William's first declaration to
the Diet (October, 1788), in which the King suggested that if
the Republic really needed an alliance, he would offer his own.
That offer was hardly intended to be taken seriously, for the King
was merely trying to checkmate the proposed Russian alliance;
but it raised hopes. As soon as the Patriots had gained control


of the Diet, they turned their attention to the realization of this
favorite project, combining it with the plan of securing admission
to the Triple Alliance, and with the establishment of an heredi-
tary monarchy in favor of the Elector of Saxony, who was also to
be drawn into the Federative System.

It is significant of the desire of the Polish leaders not to be de-
pendent upon Prussia alone that they at once attempted to open a
separate negotiation with England. In January, 1789, and again
in June we find them making overtures at London, looking
towards closer political and commercial relations between Great
Britain and Poland. But Pitt was not yet interested in the
Republic. Not long before he had confessed to the Prussian
envoy, who wanted to discuss the Polish crisis, that he had not the
ghost of an idea about the constitution or the affairs of Poland. 1
His foreign policy had not yet taken on the comprehensive
scope and the marked anti-Russian bias that it was soon to
have; and moreover, he felt that, as far as Poland was con-
cerned, it behooved Prussia, as the Power chiefly interested, to
prescribe the attitude to be adopted by the Triple Alliance. He
therefore intimated to the Poles that England could enter into
no negotiations, political or commercial, with them apart from
Prussia. 2

The leaders of the Diet had been sounding the ground at Berlin
ever since the close of the preceding year; but now, in July, 1789,
they came out more openly with their proposals. At a series of
secret meetings with Lucchesini and Hailes, the British envoy,
they set forth at length their desire for an alliance with Prussia,
admission to the Triple Alliance, a new constitution, and the
hereditary succession in the House of Saxony. 3

Hertzberg was fairly aghast at such ' precipitate projects.'
The Poles must be bereft of common sense, he wrote, if they
imagined that Prussia would aid them to turn their Republic

1 Luckwaldt, F. B. P. G., xv, p. 35.

2 Salomon, Das politische System des jiingeren Pitt und die zweite Teilung Polens,
pp. 24 &.; Lucchesini's reports of June 13 and 17, 1789, B. A., R. 9, 27; Kalinka,
Der polnische Reichstag, ii, pp. 242 ff.

3 Lucchesini's reports of November 5, 1788, January 26, May 9, 23, 30, July 4,
11, 19, 22, 25, 1789, B. A., Fol. 323 and R. 9, 27.


into a strong hereditary monarchy in permanent union with
Saxony. It might, indeed, be desirable to designate the Elector
as the future King, if that prince could thus be won over definitely
to ' the Prussian system ' ; but Prussia could never permit the
Polish crown to become hereditary — at least not without obtain-
ing an enormous compensation. It may be that on this point the
minister was not in agreement with his master, for in March,
through his confidant, BischofTwerder, Frederick William had
assured the Elector of his willingness to allow and support the
hereditary succession in the Saxon House ; l but the King
had probably not seen fit to inform either Hertzberg or the

Online LibraryRobert Howard LordThe second partition of Poland; a study in diplomatic history → online text (page 13 of 59)