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

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threatening catastrophe was averted is the great merit of Joseph's
brother and successor, Leopold II.

The new monarch brought to his colossal task no very brilliant
talents ; but he possessed a deep understanding of men and affairs,
gained during twenty-five years' experience of rule in Tuscany;
a clear, dispassionate, and independent judgment; a keen instinct
for the practical, coupled with a complete indifference to the am-
bitious plans and love of glory that had haunted his brother;
finally, firmness, prudence, and tact. Having lived in Italy,
and not being accustomed to confide his inmost thoughts to all
comers, he could scarcely hope to escape the reproach so often
cast upon him of being a ' new Machiavelli ' — it comes with
such special grace from Lucchesini's lips — but in fact his policy,
whenever it was the expression of his own will and not that of
Kaunitz, appears straightforward, honest, and surprisingly simple.
It seems possible to reduce Leopold's whole political system to a
very few principles. He wished to secure and maintain peace at
home and abroad; to cultivate the Russian alliance, in so far as
it conduced to that end, and no farther; and to effect an under-
standing with Prussia, as the indispensable condition of per-

1 The Emperor died on February 20, 1790.


manent quiet. Such a policy contains nothing particularly
Machiavellian. And it cannot be doubted that his was precisely
the kind of policy that Austria most needed at that time.

From the moment of his accession, Leopold's foremost aims
were to put an end to the Turkish war, to avert a breach with
Prussia and Poland, and to recover the Netherlands. Naturally
he wished to save as much as possible of the conquests made
during the war, but he was unwilling for their sake to risk the
most essential interests of the Monarchy. In general, he was
prepared to make any sacrifice compatible with honor, in order
to rescue the state from the desperate situation into which his
brother had brought it. This pacific policy conflicted from the
outset, however, with the ideas of the second power in the Em-
pire, the veteran Chancellor. Hating Prussia with all the accumu-
lated bitterness of a lifetime, viewing the glory of the Monarchy
as identical with his own, Kaunitz revolted at the thought of
anything resembling a surrender to the rival at Berlin. Rather
than endure such shame he would have risked as many wars as
might come. The result of these diverging tendencies was, at
first, a compromise.

It was decided to keep open both avenues of action. On the
one hand, while negotiating with England, whose disinclination
to the aggressive plans of Prussia was well known at Vienna,
Leopold meant to press operations vigorously against the Turks
in the hope of forcing a speedy peace, and to make sure of the
assistance of Russia in case of an emergency; on the other hand,
he hoped to avert an immediate outbreak of hostilities on the
part of Prussia and her satellites by making friendly overtures to
the Court of Berlin. Accordingly, immediately after his arrival
in Vienna, he wrote Frederick William an eminently amicable
letter, expressing his desire for peace and for better relations.
With it went a memorial announcing the Austrian terms for a
peace with the Turks: the frontier as formerly established by
the Peace of Passarowitz. 1

1 The letter and the memorial are printed in Van de Spiegel, op. cil., pp. 222-
230 ; the letter also in Hertzberg's Recueil, pp. 50 f . In both these texts the
date is given as March 25, as also by Duncker, H. Z., xxxvii, p. 14, and Beer,


Even so unexpected and friendly a communication, novelty
as it was in the relations between Berlin and Vienna, might of
itself have produced little effect upon Frederick William. Since
August his heart had been set on war, on fighting out the old
rivalry with Austria to a finish. His anti-Hapsburg coalition
was formed; his army was mobilizing; it was no time now for
turning back from the great enterprise. But just at this moment
England intervened and played into the hand of Austria.

It has already been noted that the two leading members of the
Triple Alliance pursued very different aims during this protracted
European crisis. While Prussia was eager to utilize the situation
for her own schemes of aggrandizement, Pitt desired only to
restore peace as soon as possible, and in such a manner as would
make the least possible change in the existing equilibrium and
would ensure the existence of the small states against the aggres-
sive and rapacious Powers. Under such circumstances it had
not been easy to maintain even a semblance of harmony between
the two allies. Both agreed that the Triple Alliance was called
upon to restore the peace of Europe; but when it came to a dis-
cussion of ways and means, there were endless bickerings and
recriminations. Early in 1 790, however, an agreement had appar-
ently been reached. At the close of February, Pitt had brought
forward his favorite formula of the status quo ante helium as the
basis upon which the allies should attempt to effect a general
pacification. Being at that time still ignorant of the real temper
of Austria's new ruler, the Prussians readily assented. They
reckoned that both the Imperial Courts would reject a principle
that involved the sacrifice of practically all their conquests; and
in that case, Prussia would have not only a pretext for war, but a
right to demand the armed cooperation of England and Holland. 1
Pitt, who was now determined to take up the great work of
pacification in earnest, had meanwhile been vastly encouraged

Leopold II, Franz II und Catharina, p. 16. Ranke (Die deutschen Mdchte, ii,
pp. 174 f., note), Sybel {Gesch. d. Revolutionszeit, i, p. 213), and Heigel {Deutsche
Geschichte, i, p. 250, note 2) give the 26th, which is also the date of the copy of
the letter among the Expeditionen, Preussen, 1790, in the Vienna Archives.

1 Salomon, William Pitt, i H , pp. 465 f.; Rose, Pitt and National Revival, pp.

5i9 ff-


by an event in another quarter. Leopold's first act, on learning
of his brother's death, was to summon the British envoy at
Florence to a secret interview, at which he expressed in the
strongest terms his desire for peace, his willingness to make the
sacrifices that might be necessary, and his wish that England
should assume the role of mediator. It was true that he did not
commit himself definitely to the status quo ante principle, and
that after his arrival in Vienna, under the influence of Kaunitz,
his tone altered and stiffened considerably. But Pitt did not
wait for further particulars. Delighted by the request for media-
tion, and convinced that Austria was already converted to his
favorite principle, he hastened to send out invitations to all the
belligerents for a peace negotiation on the status quo ante basis.
At the same time he wrote to Berlin that the new King of Hungary
seemed sincerely 'anxious for peace on fair and moderate terms;
that he did not share his predecessor's ambition, or his predilec-
tion for Russia, or his jealousy of Prussia; and that it was to
be presumed that he would accept the status quo ante principle,
or something approximating it. If Prussia refused that basis, in
order to pursue offensive plans of her own, she was warned that
she could not count upon the cooperation of England. If she
accepted it, on the other hand, the principle need not be inter-
preted so strictly as to exclude certain reasonable modifications
of the old frontiers to the reciprocal advantage of the interested
parties; but great changes of territory would be out of the ques-
tion, and no changes ought to be insisted upon to the point of
producing a new war. 1

This communication from England, following close upon the
overture from Austria, placed the Prussians in a highly embar-
rassing situation. Should they go forward resolutely with their
offensive plans, paying no further attention to their inconsiderate
ally at London, or should they enter upon the path of negotiation,
as Leopold invited, and Pitt exhorted, them to do ? And if they
negotiated, could they afford to admit the status quo basis ?
Undoubtedly that principle now appeared in very different light

1 This dispatch, Leeds to Ewart, March 30, is analyzed in Salomon, Pitt, i H ,
p. 470; Rose, Pitt, pp. 523 f.; Ranke, Die deutschen Mdchte, ii, pp. 182 f.


from that in which they had welcomed it only a month before.
Then it had meant a device by which they could draw England
after them into aggressive action against Austria. Now it meant
a formula by which, if they accepted it, Leopold could at any
moment strike the arms from their hands. Frederick William
was now furious against the English for declaring in favor of so
insidious a principle, and he was strongly tempted to ' emanci-
pate ' himself from them entirely. Hertzberg, however, was
rather pleased with the course events had taken. Always in-
clined to prefer diplomacy to arms and increasingly pessimistic
about a war with Austria, he now saw a new chance for his old
plan, the universal panacea — at least for the old plan in a some-
what reduced and more moderate form. In one report after
another he urged upon his master how dangerous it would be to
break with England entirely and to risk his fortunes in a war
undertaken with no more reliable allies than Turks, Poles, or
Hungarian rebels. On the other hand, if he negotiated, he would,
indeed, have to admit the status quo ante basis, but he could give
that principle so loose a meaning as to cover a bargain with
Austria for reciprocal advantages. England might be expected
to favor certain just and moderate acquisitions for Prussia, since
Pitt had himself declared that the status quo principle need not
be taken too strictly. In this way, perhaps, Dantzic and Thorn
might at last be won, without the necessity of striking a blow or
risking anything. It would, at least, do no harm to try, and
His Majesty could, of course, break off the negotiation whenever
he chose. At this point, if ever, it was time to dismiss a minister
obsessed by incongruous and impossible schemes. But although
Frederick William had long lost faith in the miraculous efficacy
of the ' grand plan,' and was still as eager for war as before, he
allowed Hertzberg to have his way. The chief reason was that
the army was not ready for action, nor likely to be for more than
a month. Unfortunately for Prussia, the date for the completion
of mobilization had been fixed at May 15. 1 Hence Hertzberg
was to have one more chance to exhibit his virtuosity as a diplo-
mat, although, as the King insisted, the military preparations

1 P. Wittichen, Die polnische Politik Preussens, p. 51.


were to continue, and Prussia must be ready to strike within
two months. 1

This was, we think, a disastrous decision. The King com-
mitted himself to a formal negotiation in which the only alterna-
tives under discussion were to be: the strict status quo ante, which
was of all solutions the most repugnant to Prussia, or the status
quo modified according to Hertzberg's peculiar ideas, which was
likely to be repugnant to everybody else. The negotiation was
destined to consume many precious weeks, to wear out the
patience and arouse the suspicions of Prussia's allies, to involve
Prussian policy in a maze of uncertainty, irresolution, and con-
tradictions. Above all, the King was laboring under a delusion
as bad as his minister's in imagining that he could keep open at
one and the same time the possibility of executing his original
offensive plan and that of carrying through the Hertzberg ex-
change project. The two plans were fundamentally antagonistic
and incompatible. The one involved the cooperation of Poland
and Turkey and the annihilation of Austria; the other involved
the spoliation of Turkey and Poland and advantages for Austria.
When both plans became simultaneously known to the world,
the result could only be to rob Prussia of the confidence of all
parties concerned, and to make the realization of either project
almost impossible. Therein lies the cardinal reason for the total
fiasco that followed.


The Austro-Prussian negotiations were spun out for two months
through an interchange of letters between the two sovereigns, and
of memorials and ' verbal communications ' between the two
chancelleries. Hertzberg began by offering the Austrians the
choice between two bases for the pacification: either the strict
status quo ante or an arrangement for reciprocal advantages be-
tween the interested Powers. He indicated clearly enough that

1 On this important turning in Prussian policy, see, Duncker, in H. Z., xxxvii,
p. 15; Ranke, op. cit., ii, pp. 183 ff.; Ritter, Die Konvenlion von Reichenbach, pp.
3 ff.; Salomon, Pitt, i» pp. 470 f.; Reede to Van de Spiegel, April 15, Van de
Spiegel, op. cit., pp. 196 ff.


Prussia preferred the second alternative. The arrangement he
proposed was substantially as follows. The Porte, acting on the
benevolent advice of Prussia, should cede to Austria the ' frontiers
of Passarowitz ' ; Austria should restore to Poland the whole of
Galicia except the Zips, Pocutia, and Halicz (these last two dis-
tricts forming the southeast corner of the province, contiguous
to the Bukovina) ; and the Republic should cede Dantzic, Thorn,
and some small districts in Great Poland to Prussia. 1 In short,
it was the old ' grand plan ' warmed over, very little disguised,
abridged, or improved.

These propositions made anything but a favorable impression
at Vienna. It was true that the admission of the status quo basis
by Prussia placed in the hands of the Austrians at least the possi-
bility of avoiding a rupture; but they feared that the Court of
Berlin would give that principle a stricter interpretation than
England had done, while they found the plan of "exchange, com-
pensation, and depredation" still more inaccep table. At a great
ministerial Conference (April 26), it was decided that the
negotiation would have to be spun out for a time, because it
was impossible to risk a breach with Prussia while the Turkish
war lasted, and it was the opinion of the Conference that a double
war must be prevented at all costs. If it proved possible by
vigorous military operations to extort a speedy peace from the
Porte, or if Russia would back up her ally by an imposing parade
of force, then Austria might take a bold tone towards the would-
be dictator. If not, if it became necessary to accept the mediation
of the Triple Alliance, then Austria would prefer the basis of the
1 status quo non materiel ' (i. e., with certain slight alterations of
the old frontier in her favor), or even the status quo strict, by
which, at least, Prussia would get nothing, rather than to consent
to the thoroughly objectionable Hertzberg plan. 2 Steadfastness

1 The alternative was put to Austria in general terms in Frederick William's
letter to Leopold of April 15, 1790, Hertzberg's Recueil, iii, pp. 54-58; Van de
Spiegel, op. cit., pp. 230-233. The details of the ' arrangement for reciprocal
advantages ' were imparted by Hertzberg to Reuss, the Austrian envoy, in an
interview of the same date (Reuss' report of April 16, V. A., Preussen, Berichle,

2 Protocol of the Conference, V. A., Vortrdge, 1790.


and tenacity in misfortune are virtues that have rarely deserted
Austrian statesmen; and, desperate as was the situation in that
spring of 1790, these qualities were not lacking on that occasion.
However much Leopold might be inclined to concessions, his
ministers were resolved to put on a bold face as long as they
could, and even, under certain circumstances, to fight rather than
surrender their conquests of the past two years or submit tamely
to the dictatorship of Prussia.

In accordance with the resolutions of the Conference, Leopold
once more wrote Frederick William a friendly yet utterly non-
committal letter, announcing that he could give no definite reply
to the Prussian propositions until he had consulted his ally, the
Empress of Russia. 1 A month earlier such dilatory tactics would
scarcely have succeeded in Berlin, but in May the atmosphere at
that Court was much more pacific. The trouble once more was
with the army. The further the mobilization proceeded, the
more the inadequacy of the Prussian military preparations came
to light. The services of provisions and transportation were in
such woful disorder that the minister responsible for them com-
mitted suicide. While it had originally been intended that the
army should be ready by the middle of May, it now appeared
that at least another month would be required. Meanwhile the
Austrians had massed such large forces in Bohemia and Moravia
that they had for a time decidedly the superiority. There was a
moment when the Prussians feared an invasion of Silesia. Those
about the King urged or pleaded with him not to undertake a war.
Under the influence of all these deterrents Frederick William's
martial ardor was vanishing. His old faith in the absolute mili-
tary superiority of Prussia was shaken. For nearly a year he
had wanted war and nothing but war, but in May of 1790, when
the time for action had come, he scarcely knew what he wished. 2

The natural result of this was that Austria's wholly unsatis-
factory reply to the first propositions of Prussia evoked, not a
sharp ultimatum, but a mild offer of still a third basis for nego-

1 This letter of April 28 is printed in Hertzberg's Recueil, iii, pp. 58 ff., and
in Van de Spiegel, op. cit., pp. 235 ff.

2 For the above see especially Ritter, op. cit., pp. 7 f.; P. Wittichen, op. cit.,
pp. 5° ff.


tiation. Hertzberg suggested, namely, that Prussia might be
satisfied with a very small cession in Galicia, about one-sixth of
that province, though in that case the Austrian acquisitions from
Turkey would naturally have to be reduced. 1

Now at last the plans of the Prussian pacificators began to
find an echo at Vienna. Were they not already reducing their
demands ? And this new proposition, it appeared, might not be
their last. Only a little dexterous bargaining, using the status
quo to frighten them into concessions, and Austria might get off
with a handsome acquisition from the Turks and an insignificant
cession to Poland. This was, at least, the opinion of the majority
of the ministerial Conference, and especially, it seems, of Spiel-
mann. 2 Kaunitz was not so optimistic about the possibilities of
negotiation. He still pinned his hopes to imposing military
demonstrations to be made in concert with Russia, and would
even yet have trusted, if necessary, to the arbitrament of war.
Leopold was chiefly anxious for peace and the recovery of the
Netherlands. How far he entered into Spielmann's views, it is
difficult to say, but for whatever reason, he still postponed a final
decision. In accordance with the opinion of the Conference, one
more dilatory answer was sent to Berlin, to the effect that Austria
could not declare herself definitely until the arrival of the long-
awaited courier from Petersburg. Provisionally it was stated
that while preferring even the status quo strict to the other
propositions as formulated by Prussia, the Court of Vienna was
willing to treat on the basis of the exchange plan, providing it
could be made really fair and reciprocally advantageous. 3

Such procrastination could not continue much longer without
producing an explosion of wrath at Berlin, as the Austrians were
well aware. In reality, their final decision now depended on the

1 Frederick William to Leopold, May 11, and note verbale of the same date,
Hertzberg, op. cit., iii, pp. 60-64; Van de Spiegel, op. cit., pp. 237-243; Reuss'
report of May 12, V. A., loc. cit.

2 Conference protocols of May 21 and June 9, V. A., Vortrage, 1790.

3 Leopold to Frederick William, May 23, with the accompanying Memoir e
from the State Chancellery, V. A., Vortrage, 1790; printed in Hertzberg, op. cit., iii,
pp. 65-69, and Van de Spiegel, op. cit., pp. 243-248, and in both dated erroneously
May 25.


replies expected from Russia. Had Catherine not failed them,
they might, perhaps, have escaped the humiliation of Reichen-


Ever since the offensive plans of Prussia had come to light in
the previous autumn, the ambassador Cobenzl had been straining
every nerve to induce the Russians to come to the defence of their
sorely-menaced ally. Now, if ever, he incessantly declared, was
the time for the Empress to show her gratitude for all the loyal
services and sacrifices of Austria in the past ten years. He
demanded that Russia should at once send a corps to protect
Galicia; that the Empress should issue a declaration that she
had guaranteed that province to Austria, and would regard an
attack upon it as an attack upon herself; and that a supreme
effort should be made that spring to force the Turks to peace.
Above all, he wished Russia to make imposing military demon-
strations against Prussia and Poland, to indicate precisely what
forces she would bring into the field in case of a new war, and to
concert with Vienna a plan for joint operations. All these de-
mands and exhortations elicited, however, only unsatisfactory

At times the Russian ministers professed to see no way out of
the situation except a new partition of Poland, and they even
offered to propose that solution at London and Berlin. As usual,
Cobenzl combated this idea with all the arguments at his com-
mand, and the Russians did not insist. 1 On the other hand, in
May Austria for the first time requested her ally to consent to
certain Prussian acquisitions in Poland as a last resource, in case
the Court of Berlin insisted absolutely upon the Hertzberg plan.
The Russians consented to this without much opposition. 2 Re-
quest and assent are equally significant. The Imperial Courts
had long made the inadmissibility of further Prussian acquisitions
in Poland one of the chief principles of their alliance: now both

1 Cobenzl's report of April 9, V. A., Russland, Berichte, 1700.

2 Kaunitz to L. Cobenzl, May 1, the latter's report of the 18th, V. A., Russ-
land, Exped. and Berichte, 1790.


of them were willing in pessimo casu to allow Prussia such

In general, the Russians protested warmly their determination
to do all that was humanly possible for their ally, but they con-
stantly avoided committing themselves to precise and definite
engagements. All the military arrangements, they told Cobenzl,
were in the hands of Potemkin, and it was impossible to know
what Potemkin would or would not do. These assertions corre-
sponded pretty closely to the facts of the situation. The Empress
was really disposed to do what she could for Austria; x she was
still as bitter against Prussia as ever; but her attention through-
out the spring was absorbed in the Swedish war, which was then
reaching its climax. At a moment when Gustavus' cannon were
thundering almost at the gates of St. Petersburg, or when the
Russian and Swedish fleets were breathlessly chasing each other
about the Gulf of Finland, the Empress could scarcely ven-
ture to commit herself to still a third war, or even give much
attention to the course of events in the West. Whatever was to
be done for the assistance of Austria depended primarily on
Potemkin; and Potemkin had plans of his own.

Throughout the whole first half of 1790 the Tauric Prince was
flaunting himself in regal state at Jassy, the capital of his pros-
pective ' Kingdom of Dacia,' already assuming the airs of an
Oriental despot, 2 and occupied far less with the Turkish war
than with his own schemes for personal aggrandizement. The
failure of his project for a Confederation in Poland at the out-
break of the Eastern war, and the new situation created since
the opening of the Diet, far from putting an end to his designs
upon the Republic, had only led him back to an old plan more
dangerous than all the others. He meant to raise a Cossack army,
get himself appointed Hetman — a title to conjure with in Little
Russia — enter the Republic at the head of his Cossacks, call the
whole Orthodox population of the Ukraine to arms against their
Polish masters, and then lead a war of national liberation. The

1 Rescript to Potemkin, March 19/30, 1790, M. A., Typiiia, IX, 15 (copy).

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