Robert Howard Lord.

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

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the two states abroad were to act in harmony, and to keep each
other informed of all the important business that passed through
their hands. Russia received the right of representing Poland
at courts where the Republic did not maintain diplomatic agents.
Finally, the Empress guaranteed the constitutional and other
cardinal laws that the present Diet might enact; and the King
and the Republic bound themselves in turn to make no constitu-
tional changes in future without her consent. 1

The treaty thus gave Russia practically unrestricted control
of the army and the foreign relations of the Republic. It deprived
the Poles of the right of altering and reforming their fundamental
laws and institutions at their discretion. It gave legal sanction
and the widest opportunities for Russian interference in almost
every branch of Poland's domestic affairs. It was indeed a
pactum subjectionis el incorporationis, as the Zealots in the Diet
ventured to call it. 2 Catherine deserves the credit of having in-
vented, or at least of having first perfected, that system of 'veiled
protectorates ' which European Powers have applied so frequently
in Asia and Africa in recent times ; for the position of Poland as
fixed by this alliance treaty can be compared only to that of
Egypt, Tunis, or the vassal states of India today.

That the Empress did not intend to allow the Republic the
slightest vestige of real independence appears from a rescript
sent to Sievers immediately after the conclusion of the treaty.

1 The text of this treaty is printed in Angeberg, op. cil., pp. 347-353.

2 De Cache's report of October 16, V. A., Polen, Berichte, 1793.


The alliance, she declared, was only a device for adding what
remained of Poland to her Empire without stirring up the oppo-
sition of Austria and Prussia. She meant to assert the right to
advise the Republic how to act and conduct itself; and it must
ask for her advice and follow it. She expected from Poland ' com-
plete submission to her counsels, plans, and views.' Her am-
bassador at Warsaw was to direct everything that went on in the
Republic, and to consider himself " the head of the country." l
And Sievers, accurately grasping her intentions, assured her:
" The future king of Poland will be chosen by Your Imperial
Majesty, and will receive a major-domo under the name of the
Russian ambassador, who will have infinitely greater power than
any Sicilian viceroy or than the governor-general of Your
Majesty's province of Tver." 2

From the standpoint of such principles, Sievers' practice dur-
ing the last months at Grodno left nothing to be desired. He
directed all the operations of the Diet with so high a hand that
one of the Zealots declared openly that it was a farce to go on
with this assembly: it would be far better for the Marshal simply
to invite the ambassador to make whatever arrangements about
Poland he chose, and to let the deputies go home. 3 Among the
characteristic enactments of that period were the law annulling
all the acts of the Four Years' Diet; the decree reducing the army
to approximately 18,000 men; and the revised constitution, pre-
pared by the ambassador, and rushed through with scandalous
haste during the last hours of the assembly. 4 This set of ' cardinal
laws ' sanctioned the traditional rights of the Diet and the tradi-
tional impotence of the Crown; the Liberum Veto and the elec-
tive kingship; the exclusive rights of the szlachta to civil and
ecclesiastical honors and dignities; serfdom — and in short all
the worst features of the old constitution. In order to perpetuate
these abuses, it was decreed that no future Diet could " change,
correct, modify ... or interpret " these cardinal laws, even by a

1 Many excerpts from this remarkable rescript are given in KoCTOMapoBt, op. cit.,
ii, pp. 411 ff.

2 Ibid., p. 415.

3 Wegner, Sejm grodzietiski, ostalni usl$p, pp. 169 f.

4 The text is printed in Angeberg, op. cit., pp. 354~357«


unanimous vote; and that they were to remain forever " sacred,
stable, and immutable."

After this worthy pronouncement, and after sending an envoy
to Catherine to thank her for her benefits to Poland, the assembly
dispersed (November 24) in gloom, shame, and humiliation.

" The name of Poland has virtually been erased from the list
of states," was the comment of the ' men of the Third of May '
upon the work of the Grodno Diet. 1 The Second Partition had
terminated with the loss,' not only of more than half the territory
of Poland, but of the independence of what was left. It was
practically the end of the old Republic.

But the Polish people remained to be heard from. No nation
not utterly bereft of a sense of honor, patriotism, and self-respect,
could have submitted passively to such disasters, losses, and
humiliations. Caught helpless, unprepared, and almost dazed
by the action of the partitioning Powers in the spring of 1793,
and then goaded to desperation by the shameful scenes at Grodno,
the better part of Polish society had been gathering itself and
rousing itself for a great effort. Since July of 1793 plans were on
foot which were to lead in the following spring to the great
national uprising under Kosciuszko and to the final struggle for
Polish independence. But that story belongs to the history of
the Third Partition.

1 Vom Entstehen und Untergange der polnischen Konstitution vom 3 May, ii, p.
311. This book, the apologia of the exiled Polish reformers, appeared in Germany
about the close of 1793.




The Second Partition was the death-sentence of the Polish state
— of that there can be no question. The First Partition had
foreshadowed the ultimate catastrophe, but did not render it
inevitable. That initial dismemberment was only an amputation
at the extremities; it left a body politic that still contained the
elements essential to continued national life; in some respects it
was even a salutary operation. The Third Partition, on the other
hand, was the necessary and immediate result of the Second: it
merely ended an intolerable situation in the only possible way.
It was the Russo-Prussian Treaty of 1793, therefore, that decided
the solution which the Polish Question was to receive. It was
the Second Partition that sealed the fate of the Republic.

While any attempt to analyze the causes of this historic tragedy
or to assess responsibilities must be attended by grave and obvious
difficulties, the reader may, perhaps, fairly expect the author to
state whatever conclusions he has reached, and to explain to what
extent the results of the present investigation accord with the
views advanced by previous historians.

The favorite thesis of German and Russian writers — that the
Poles themselves were primarily responsible for their own down-
fall — is, of course, true in this sense, that through individual and
class egoism, indifference to the common weal, and blindness to
the most elementary laws of sound political life, the Poles had
reduced their country to a state of weakness without which the
Partitions would scarcely have been possible. One can hardly
escape the feeling that the First Partition was the just retribution
for all the accumulated sins and errors of the two preceding cen-
turies. But with the Second Partition, the case is different. The
crime for which the Poles were then punished was that of an



attempt at national regeneration. The Second Partition was the
reply of the neighboring Powers to the effort made by the Four
Years' Diet to reform the constitution, recover the nation's inde-
pendence, and restore Poland to its proper place among European
states. Hence Polish patriotism has been able to find some con-
solation — or additional motives for embitterment — in the
thesis set up by the men of the Third of May in their apologia,
that Poland fell " without any fault on her side, without having
given the neighbors the slightest cause for revenge or hostility —
just at the moment when she had prepared all things necessary
for her happiness." l

But the question presents itself : was it wise or prudent to make
the attempt for independence at that time and under the given
circumstances ? It is often said that the Poles made the mistake
of seeing the root of their troubles in the Russian domination,
whereas the real causes of the evil lay in their own perverted
political habits and prejudices, their own moral and intellectual
shortcomings, their own military and economic weakness; that a
long period of internal transformation was necessary before the
nation could safely try to recover its independence; and that in
the meantime it was the part of prudence to submit to the Russian
protectorate, which at least ensured the continued existence and
the territorial integrity of the state, and which was not, in the last
analysis, incompatible with gradual and moderate reforms. This
was, in essence, the policy of Stanislas Augustus after the First
Partition. But, we are told, " fantastic political ideas " and
" patriotic impatience " prevailed. Unwilling to content them-
selves with what might have been attained by protracted hard
work, the Poles threw themselves into the pursuit of external
political independence, which was at that time unattainable.
With no accurate appreciation of their own resources or of the
hard realities of the situation, they insisted on hazarding every-
thing upon a single throw, and thus the existence of the Republic
was played away. 2

1 Vom Entstehen und Untergange der polnischen Konstitulion vom 3. May, 1791,
11, pp. 323 f.

2 The above represents fairly, I think, the views of Bobrzyhski and Kalinka
among Polish historians, and Kostomarov and Kareev among the Russians.


However convincing this indictment may seem in view of what
actually happened, it is nevertheless open to many objections.
If the decline of the Republic is to be ascribed chiefly to the
defects of the worst constitution then to be found in Europe, as
most historians agree, then the first and most indispensable step
in the regeneration of Poland must be to get rid of this constitu-
tion, and to establish a government capable of concentrating the
strength of the nation for great national tasks, of repressing the
evil tendencies, and of creating and fostering the ameliorating
forces. The material and moral resources of the country were not
altogether inadequate; the worst evil was the lack of a govern-
ment able to make use of them. In our opinion, the Polish
patriots of that time were right in raising the political reform to
the first plane. But no such reform was possible as long as Russia
retained her control over the country. Moreover, the indictment
in question rests upon the utterly unproved and unprovable
hypothesis that Poland's integrity was safe as long as the nation
submitted passively to the Russian protectorate. It assumes that
under the beneficent auspices of Russia the Republic could have
looked forward to a long unbroken period of peace, recuperation,
and steady progress; and that Poland could have afforded to re-
main for a generation or two unarmed and defenceless, trusting
solely to the protection of her great neighbor. The men of the
Four Years' Diet refused to make so naive an assumption. Since
1772 they had lived in constant fear of a new partition; they
knew that every crisis in the North put their political existence
in peril; they believed that they could never be safe as long as the
country remained in its helpless condition, dependent solely upon
the mercy of the foreign Powers. In this case, too, it is difficult
to blame them. We do not believe that the Empress was so
averse to a new partition as is commonly asserted. At any rate,
it is not at all certain that in case of a serious crisis in general
European politics she would not have decided to free herself
from embarrassments by a new partition, no matter how docile
the Poles might have shown themselves. It has already been
pointed out that the rest of Europe constantly expected a further
dismemberment of the Republic, and that this had become, one


might almost say, the accepted formula for settling conflicts
between the great Eastern Powers. When one recalls, moreover,
how long and assiduously Potemkin pursued his designs against
the Republic; how seriously a partition was discussed at St.
Petersburg in almost every year of the Oriental crisis, in 1789,
1790, 1791 — and that not so much as a means of punishing
Poland as of disarming the hostility of Prussia; and how readily
the Empress succumbed to the temptation of a new partition
in 1792; one can hardly avoid the conclusion that submission to
Russia afforded no guarantee of security to Poland, and that the
policy advocated by Stanislas offered no more certainty of salva-
tion than the policy adopted by the Patriots. Indeed, it is
probable that had Poland remained submissive and passive, she
would have fallen a victim to a new partition and to the loss of her
political existence sooner or later — with the sole difference that
then she would have perished shamefully, and her ruin would have
been infinitely more deserved.

The general European crisis following the outbreak of the
Oriental war offered the Poles a great opportunity and forced
them to make a great decision. Three courses lay open to them:
alliance with Russia, alliance with Prussia, or timorous neutrality.
An alliance with Russia could have been purchased by bartering
away still more of the sovereignty of the Republic, and by hand-
ing over the nation's army, its fortresses, and its richest provinces
to Potemkin, whose ambitions to become King of Dacia, Duke of
the Ukraine, or liberator of the ' oppressed ' Orthodox people
were tolerably well known at Warsaw. It would almost certainly
have drawn down upon the country an attack from Prussia, and
one may imagine how much protection Poland would have re-
ceived from Catherine, absorbed, as she was, with the two severe
wars she already had on her hands. Neutrality would apparently
have been the worst of all courses, for it would have left the
Republic exposed unaided to aggressions from both sides. The
Four Years' Diet decided in favor of alliance with Prussia;
decided to seize what seemed to be a unique and, if lost, irre-
coverable opportunity; decided to attempt at once the great
venture of throwing off the foreign yoke and putting through the


political reforms, without which no solid national revival was

The attempt itself was justifiable enough, but was it well
carried out ? On the whole, we think the effort was distinctly-
creditable. The Diet displayed an energy, a patriotic enthusiasm,
a liberal, enlightened spirit, and a high appreciation of its task,
such as no Polish parliament had shown for two centuries. It
succeeded within three years in doubling the revenues and
trebling the military forces of the state; it gave the country an
administrative system which, within the short period of its exis-
tence, performed an immense work; it made a brave and promis-
ing attempt to win for the Republic the sympathies and support
of the classes always hitherto neglected — the bourgeoisie, the
Dissidents, the Jews, the peasantry — by legislation in their
favor; and finally, by establishing the Constitution of the Third
of May, it proved that the nation had broken away from its old
errors and prejudices and was ready to enter upon a new period
of sound and well-ordered political life. 1 But, as against all this,
there is much to be put on the debit side. The Diet was guilty of
wounding Catherine unnecessarily by tactless oratory and some
gratuitous affronts. The refusal to cede Dantzic and Thorn and
even a small part of Great Poland to Prussia was probably a
mistake, although a very intelligible one, for the Poles thus lost
their last chance of satisfying the natural ambitions of Berlin
without a new partition, their last chance of giving their alliance
with Prussia some prospects of permanence. It would have been
wiser, perhaps, had the makers of the new constitution contented
themselves with designating the Elector of Saxony as the future
king, while postponing the establishment of the hereditary succes-
sion until a later period; for they would thus have gained their
essential object — to guard against the dangers of a new inter-
regnum — at least for a long time to come, and they would have
avoided stirring up that storm of alarm and exasperation which

1 Cf. the quite contrary opinion about the new constitution of KocTOMapoBt,
op. cit., ii, pp. 115 ft"., and Solov'ev, op. tit., pp. 251 f. Most of the Polish historians
pass eulogies upon the constitution itself, but some of them (Bobrzynski and
Kalinka) doubt the wisdom of introducing such fundamental changes at such a


the idea of an hereditary monarchy in Poland aroused at Berlin
and St. Petersburg. 1 But the worst mistake of the Diet lay in not
pressing forward sufficiently the military preparations of the
Republic. The army of 100,000 men, which was voted at the
beginning of the Diet, could and should have been raised; but
three and a half years after that memorable vote, at the outbreak
of the war with Russia, hardly more than half of the appointed
number of troops were actually under arms, and in other respects
as well Poland was lamentably unready. This fatal negligence
was due in part to the fact that the Diet, which had such a multi-
tude of affairs on its hands, did not find time to attend properly
to military matters; in part, to an exaggerated reliance upon the
friendship and support of Prussia, and later, of the Emperor
Leopold; in part, and chiefly perhaps, to the lack of money and
credit. Both might have been procured, if the Polish leaders had
known how to set about the task. Hence a distinguished his-
torian has expressed the opinion that the fundamental cause of
the disasters of Poland was the amazing ignorance of the Polish
statesmen of that time, particularly with regard to economic and
financial matters. 2 At all events, the failure of the Poles to arm
themselves properly during the three years' respite that was
granted to them, avenged itself with ruinous results in the cam-
paign of 1792.

That campaign presents a painful spectacle. What is one to
think of a nation which, after boasting of its regeneration, when
called upon to fight for its liberty and very existence allows itself
to be conquered by a hostile army of only 100,000 men, after a
struggle lasting barely two months ? Many historians have
drawn the conclusion that the heart of the nation was not in this
contest; that the enthusiasm manifested over the work of the
Third of May was purely factitious outside the capital ; that the
mass of the szlachta preferred the old constitution and secretly
sympathized with the Targowicians ; and that the nation as a
whole was too far sunk in lethargy and demoralization to be able

1 Cf. Korzon, Wewnetrzne dzieje, Zamkniecie, pp. 40 f., Kalinka, Der polnische
Reichstag, ii, pp. 755~76o.

2 Korzon, op. cit.,, pp. 33 f.


to rouse itself to a manly effort even in such a crisis. 1 On the
other hand, the historian who has most thoroughly investigated
the question, has discovered so many signs of real enthusiasm and
self-devotion for the national cause that he arrives at the convic-
tion that "patriotic zeal was universal"; "the government
received from all sides encouragement and exhortations to per-
severance "; " the nation ardently desired to defend its inde-
pendence." 2 Why, then, this sudden and shameful collapse ?
The blame must fall largely upon the King, who, after volun-
tarily undertaking the direction of the national defence, mis-
managed everything, refused to issue the summons for a general
rising of the nation in arms until it was too late, and then, while
the military situation was still far from desperate, cravenly and
traitorously went over to the enemy. But it is unfair to make the
King the scapegoat for the whole disaster. What shall one say of
the Patriotic leaders who, with unpardonable shortsightedness,
entrusted the direction of the defence to a man whose whole past
record showed him tragically unfitted for such a responsibility ?
Or, when the King's intention to surrender had become apparent,
why did no one find the courage to thrust him aside and to force
on the continuation of the struggle till the bitter end ? Or why
did the mass of the szlachta wait for a summons from Warsaw,
instead of rushing spontaneously to their country's defence ? The
sum of the matter would seem to be that — in spite of warm and
widespread patriotic zeal — the nation did not find in itself or in its
leaders or, least of all, in its king that iron will; that indomitable
resolution; that readiness to risk everything; to sacrifice every-
thing; and to stop at nothing, which alone might still, perhaps,
have saved it. The lack of a great man of action at the head was
cruelly felt, but the morale of the nation was also at fault.

In reviewing the causes of this collapse, one should not over-
look how signally fortune had turned against the Poles in the
preceding two years, how many events on the broader stage of
Europe had combined to thwart their hopes and expectations and
to produce a situation infinitely unfavorable to them. As ex-

1 So, for instance, Bobrzynski, Dzieje Polski, ii, pp. 338 f., KapieBi., Ha^eme
IIojibfflH, pp. 25 ff., KocTOMapoBt, op. cit., ii, p. 119.

2 Korzon, op. cit., v, pp. 157 ff.


amples, one might cite the fiasco of Prussian policy in 1790, the
backdown of the Triple Alliance before Catherine in 1791, the
sudden and complete change in the European political constella-
tion that followed, the premature death of the Emperor Leopold,
the outbreak of the Revolutionary War at the very time when
Catherine most desired to have her hands free, and the un-
paralleled treachery of Prussia at the moment of the Russian
attack on Poland. Few nations, perhaps, have had to conduct
their struggle for liberty under such adverse conditions.

The effort made by the Four Years' Diet ended, apparently, in
total failure, with the dismemberment of the country and the
virtual annihilation of the Polish state. But mere material
success or failure is not the highest standard for judging such an
effort; there remains the ethical criterion. If the great Powers
had annexed the whole of Poland in 1772, the world would have
said that the Poles deserved their fate, and, in view of the deathly
languor displayed by the nation at that time, it seems probable
that the Polish name and Polish nationality would also have
perished. Twenty years later, however, a new era had dawned,
and Poland fell, not at the moment of her deepest degradation,
but just when she was beginning to put forth new life and to show
her greatest patriotism and energy. The work of the Four Years'
Diet, the lofty character of its leaders, the generous enthusiasms
and high hopes of the period, the Constitution of the Third of
May, the effort of the Polish army in 1792, and the new struggle
for liberty under Kosciuszko in 1794 — these things brought at
least this inestimable advantage that they furnished the nation
with a treasure of spiritual goods upon which it could live and
maintain its faith in itself and its future after the loss of its inde-
pendence. From these tragic but ennobling experiences later
generations could convince themselves and the unprejudiced
outside world that this nation had not deserved to perish. And
so, we think, the Patriots of 1788 deserved well of their country.
They did not succeed in saving the Polish state — perhaps no one
could have done that; but they did succeed in saving Polish
nationality and the spiritual life of their people, which was, after
all, more important.



Those Polish historians who are wont to trace their country's
downfall to the facts of geography are at least right in this respect,
that Poland had the unique misfortune of being placed midway
between two states, which, having been the last to attain the
rank of great Powers and having their territorial foundations only
half-built, were throughout the eighteenth century reaching out
around them on all sides with a restless, youthful energy, an
insatiable voracity, and an indifference to moral scruples, which

Online LibraryRobert Howard LordThe second partition of Poland; a study in diplomatic history → online text (page 49 of 59)