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

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the older Powers might emulate but could scarcely equal. Poland
was not only the weakest state of her size in that age, but she also
held the most exposed and dangerous position. While Prussian
writers are accustomed to throw the chief responsibility for the
Partitions upon Russia, and Russian writers return the compli-
ment in kind, it would seem fairer to divide the honors evenly,
for, in our opinion, the Second Partition, like the First, was the
result of the common and equal cupidity of both Powers, with
Austria playing the part of an interested, and in the end a duped
and disappointed, accomplice.

Prussian policy during the period surveyed in this book was
essentially one of territorial aggrandizement. The plans, the
methods, the immediate objective varied frequently; but, except,
perhaps, for Frederick William's projected attack on Austria in
1790, the primary purpose of which was, apparently, to settle the
old rivalry between the two German Powers, the great aim — the
aim underlying the Hertzberg plan, the alliance with Austria, the
crusade against the French Revolution, the Prussian machinations
against Poland — was the acquisition of new territories : acquisi-
tions in any quarter — Juliers and Berg, Lusatia, Swedish
Pomerania, Courland, Dantzic, Great Poland, or the whole left
bank of the Vistula; acquisitions by any means but usually with
the minimum of effort, whether by elaborate diplomatic combina-
tions, like Hertzberg's, or by a half-hearted campaign or two, as
in the case of the war with France. This aggressive policy was not
dictated, of course, by any ideas about ' Prussia's German mis-
sion,' or the duty of recovering lands of German nationality. Its

conclusion 493

basis was simply the conviction that this Prussian Monarchy,
which, with its meagre, scattered, and exposed territories, still
seemed to be only the skeleton of a state, must take on flesh and
bulk, unite its disjecta membra, and acquire a defensible frontier.

Well-founded as that conviction might be, it is difficult to over-
look the sordidness and blindness of a policy, which saw in the
unparalleled upheavals which Europe was then going through,
only opportunities for selfish aggrandizement. It is not easy to
construct an apology for a king who, in the course of a very short
reign, allied himself with almost every state in Europe in turn,
and broke faith with almost every one of them. The worst part
of Frederick William's record, however, is his desertion of the
Poles in 1792 in violation of his solemn engagements, and the
initiative which he took in provoking a new partition of the
allied state, which had given him no cause of offence whatever.

Apologists have, at any rate, been found even for Prussia's
treatment of Poland. One need not, perhaps, pay much attention
to such extravagant views as that of Treitschke, who saw in the
Constitution of the Third of May only an outburst of the old
" mortal hatred against the Germans, the Protestants," which
" must be taken by Prussia as a declaration of war " l — unless,
indeed, Prussia was entitled to consider any attempt on the part
of her neighbors to live under decent and orderly conditions as a
casus belli. The most elaborate vindication of Frederick Wil-
liam's policy is that offered by Heinrich von Sybel, whose argu-
ment is substantially as follows.

The alliance treaty of 1790 had been torn up by the Poles
themselves, since they had conspired with the Emperor Leopold
to introduce their new constitution, without the knowledge and
contrary to the wishes of Prussia, and had then passed over more
and more openly into the clientele of Austria, while virtually
abandoning their connection with Prussia altogether. Hence
" we cannot . . . talk of the breach of an effective treaty in the
measures adopted by Prussian policy." Frederick William could,
in any case, have defended Poland only if he received the loyal
support of Austria. But the latter hastened to " tear asunder the

1 Deutsche Geschichie, i, p. 113.


new bond between the German Powers " through " Leopold's
plan of the Polish-Saxon union," which Sybel regards as " the
cornerstone " of the Emperor's whole political system, and as a
plot directed against the most vital interests of Prussia, which was
thereby " driven into the arms of Russia." Frederick William's
decision in favor of a new partition was then forced upon him by
the unparalleled crisis in which he found himself, with Russia,
France, and Austria simultaneously announcing offensive plans
which l threatened the whole Continent with the most violent
convulsions,' ' called all existing rights and titles of possession in
question,' and ' made self-preservation the leading principle of
every individual.' The King simply chose the least of evils, the
only course which did not lead to evident disaster. He could not
have remained neutral in the face of the universal onset of the
other Powers; nor could he have allied himself with " the Parisian
assassins " in favor of " the Polish slaveholders "; nor could he
have thrown himself with all his forces upon the French, while
allowing Russia to seize the whole of Poland. 1

This argument seems to us false in almost every particular,
false as a presentation of the course of events and as an inter-
pretation of the motives that determined the King's policy. No
evidence whatever has yet been discovered to show that Leopold
was consulted in advance as to the introduction of the new Polish
constitution. It seems the height of exaggeration to ascribe so
important a place in the Emperor's plans to the project for the
Saxon-Polish union, or to assert that Prussia was thereby driven
into the arms of Russia. Frederick William's decision in favor of
a new partition was made before the unparalleled crisis described
by Sybel existed — in February or March of 1792 at the latest;
and it would be difficult to prove that the various alternatives
mentioned above presented themselves to the King's mind at all. 2

1 The above is based upon ideas that run through the whole of the Geschichte der
Revolutionszeit, as well as through Sybel's articles in the Historische Zeitschrift, x,
xii, and xxiii; but especially upon the discussion of the broader aspects of the
Second Partition in the work first cited, iii, pp. 224-228.

2 Sybel's work, which passes as one of the classic histories of the Revolutionary
period, bristles with erroneous assertions and judgments regarding Polish affairs.
Askenazy, who has pointed out some of them, goes so far as to accuse the German
historian of perverting the facts deliberately (op. cit., pp. 130 f.).

conclusion 495

The thesis most commonly advanced by German historians is
that Prussia's determination to appropriate a part of Poland was
a " justifiable act of self-defence " (eine That gerechter Notwehr),
since the King was placed in a position where he had to decide
either to tolerate Russia's exclusive and absolute domination in
Poland, or else by a new partition to set bounds to the swelling
flood of Muscovite power. " It was a MachtjrageP The whole of
Poland must not be allowed to fall into Russian hands. Prussia's
own safety forbade her to ' permit the Russian garrisons to fix
themselves as firmly in Posen and Gnesen, as in Grodno and
Warsaw.' l — But this view also rests upon an anachronism. It
ascribes to the Prussian statesmen of that time ideas which
modern historians think they ought to have had, but of which
there is no trace in the records. During the early months of 1792
— the time at which the decision in favor of a new partition was
taken at Berlin — the King and his ministers were aware that
Russia was preparing to recover her old influence in Poland. But
did they view the prospect with apprehension ? Not in the least.
They believed that Russia was only playing into their hands, for
they were at that time firmly convinced that the Empress in-
tended to settle the fate of Poland by a concert of the neighboring
Powers, which would restore her preponderant influence, but
would also assure to the German Courts a suitable voice, in Polish
affairs. The Prussians were not, indeed, disposed to allow Cath-
erine a sole and exclusive influence in Poland, but they did not
believe that such was her aim; and they were quite ready to
accord her a preponderant influence. In numerous Prussian
documents of this time one finds the statement that experience
had proved that it was natural and inevitable that Russia should
always exercise a far greater authority in Poland than either of the
German Powers ; and that such a state of things was not only not
detrimental to Prussian interests, but infinitely preferable to the
situation existing since 1788. 2 It may therefore be asserted that
in resolving to provoke a new partition Frederick William was

1 Cf., e. g., Treitschke, op. cit., i, p. 131; Heigel, op. cit., i, pp. 570-573; Sybel,
op. cit., iii, pp. 224-228, and 152, note.

2 In substantiation of the above, one may cite from among many documents the
rescripts to Jacobi of March 1, 17, April 6, 1792 (B.A., R. 1, 169); to Lucchesini,


consciously choosing, not the lesser of two evils, but the greater of
two advantages. While regarding the restoration of the Russian
ascendancy in Poland, not as an imminent and pressing danger,
but rather as a positive gain for Prussia, he determined, without
any real necessity or compulsion whatever, to exploit the situation
still further in order to satisfy his long-repressed covetousness for
Polish territory.

It may readily be admitted that Prussia needed to acquire
Dantzic, Thorn, and that part of Great Poland which projected so
deeply into the side of the Hohenzollern Monarchy. But it was
also a Prussian interest of equal, and perhaps even greater, im-
portance that the Republic should be preserved as an effective
' buffer-state,' as a real barrier against the great, aggressive
military Empire in the east. We venture to think that a revived
Poland — consolidated and reinvigorated under the Constitution
of the Third of May — could never have proved so serious a
danger to Prussia as the advance of Russia into the heart of
Central Europe to within striking distance of Berlin. At all
events, it behooved Prussia to weigh very carefully the advantage
of every acquisition in Poland against the perils involved in the
aggrandizement of Russia and the necessity of maintaining the
existence of the Republic. Frederick the Great appears to have
realized this, 1 and so did Hertzberg. Whatever charges may be
brought against the latter, it must be said in his favor that he
planned to make the needed acquisitions on the east with the
minimum of loss to the Republic, and then to assure the perma-
nent integrity of Poland's remaining possessions. 2 But those who
came after him were blind to such considerations. In their sense-
less lust for territory, they demanded far more than they had any
need of, thus opening the door to still more inordinate claims on
the part of Russia; and to these latter claims they assented
without a moment's hesitation, although it was obvious that a

January 25 and April 27 (ibid., R. 9, 27); to Goltz, March 22 (ibid., R. XI, Russland,
133); Schulenburg to Brunswick, May 6 (ibid., R. XI, Frankreich, 8gb.).

1 Cf. Sybel, loc. oil.

2 Cf. Hertzberg's Memoir in Schmidt's Zeitschrift, vii, p. 269; P. Wittichen,
Die polnische Politik Preussens, pp. 69 f.; Andreae, Preussische und russische
Politik, p. 27.

conclusion 497

partition arranged on so gigantic a scale could mean only the
virtual annihilation of Poland. Even German historians admit
that Prussia's acquisitions were immeasurably dearly bought. 1
In our opinion, the gain was far outweighed by the disadvantages:
the odium inseparable from so signal a breach of treaty obliga-
tions; the quarrel with Austria over the indemnities, with its
fateful result upon the course of the struggle in the west; the
replacement of a weak, quiet, and altogether inoffensive neighbor
on the east by a powerful, restless, and aggressive one; and the
inclusion within Prussia of a large alien population, which could
not be assimilated, and which, had it been permanently retained,
would have tended to give Prussia the character of a hybrid, non-
national state like Austria. In short, while Prussia obtained by
the Second Partition the largest acquisition of territory that she
had made down to that time, we think this was nevertheless one of
the most short-sighted, disastrous, and morally reprehensible
transactions in her history.


The majority of the historians who have treated of this period
have advanced the thesis that Catherine II disliked partitions;
that she would have preferred to rule over the whole of Poland by
influence rather than to make territorial acquisitions at its ex-
pense, which must be purchased by corresponding concessions to
the German Powers; and that the dismemberment of the Re-
public was forced upon her by Prussia. The Second Partition,
like the First, it is said, was a triumph of Prussian policy over
Russian. It was, above all, Frederick William's threat to abandon
the French war and to turn his attention to the east, coupled
with the incorrigibly refractory temper displayed by the Poles and
the utter failure of the Confederates of Targowica to fulfil the
hopes she had placed in them, which compelled the Empress to
agree to a measure which was repugnant to her and contrary to
the fundamental aims of her Polish policy. 2 The evidence for this

1 Cf. Hausser, Deutsche Geschichte, i, pp. 138, 507.

2 Among the historians who take this general view of Catherine's aims (and
apply it to the Second Partition, in case they treat of that subject at all), one may

49 8


view, however, is very inadequate. As far as the Second Partition
is concerned, it rests chiefly upon the Empress' delay in the
autumn of 1792 in acceding to the demands of Prussia, and then
upon her exposition of the motives that had determined her to
yield, contained in the original instruction given to Sievers. In
our opinion, no such interpretation need be put upon that delay,
which can better be explained by Catherine's momentary irrita-
tion over the disasters in the west, and her natural desire to
affect a certain reluctance about so delicate a transaction; and
she was under no necessity, and not at all likely, to disclose her
real motives in an official document like the instruction to
Sievers, which was not of confidential character and which was
obviously intended chiefly to put the best face possible on a very
unsavory business. We have already expressed the belief that the
Empress' ' opposition ' and ' scruples ' at the time of the First
Partition were chiefly a sham, a bit of stage-play for the sake of
appearances; and we think it highly probable that her attitude
with regard to the Second Partition was very similar.

It is true that no entirely conclusive proof of this can be offered
from the documents available, but the indications point strongly
in that direction. Beneath the guarded phraseology of the famous
rescript to Potemkin of July 18/29, 1791, one can detect Cath-
erine's willingness to accept a new partition if the King of Prussia
displayed a covetousness which, in his case, could be assumed
with tolerable certainty. One does not find here any signs of a
real inclination to resist such a suggestion. We have already
noted the astonishing activity of the Russian envoys at Berlin
and Vienna in ' provoking ' confidential overtures from those
Courts with regard to a partition, and the Empress' discreet but
highly significant hints to Prussia on the subject of indemnities,
the aim of which was probably to divert the King's ambitions
from France to Poland. In April of 1792, at the moment of
beginning the intervention in Poland, the Empress' council laid
down the principle that in return for the great costs of the

name Sybel, Sorel, Raumer, Janssen, Bruckner, Bobrzyriski, Kalinka, Askenazy,
Smitt, Martens, Solov'ev, and Ilovalski. The contrary view is held by only a few
writers, among whom one may cite Herrmann, Heigel, Heidrich, Smolenski, and

conclusion 499

enterprise Russia must strive to obtain at least perfect security
on the side of Poland for all future time, and that no merely-
palliative settlement of Polish affairs could be allowed. 1 Coming
from a body dominated by Bezborodko, one of the earliest
champions of a partition, this dry expression of the protocol gives
matter for thought. In the following October Bezborodko,
reporting the first definite discussions with Goltz about the
Prussian demands, declared joyfully that no opposition was to be
expected to " our intention to take the Ukraine," and that he was
in favor of allowing the King of Prussia to send his troops into
Poland, " since that fits into our plan exactly, and will certainly
lead to the quickest denouement of the affair." 2 When, in
addition to all this and to the considerations elsewhere adduced,
one recalls how easily Catherine might have averted a partition
had she made any genuine effort to do so, how brief and per-
functory her pretended opposition to the arrangement really was,
and how little necessity there was for her to give way had she
seriously wished to stand out, it is difficult to escape the con-
clusion that the generally accepted view about her attitude on
this question is wrong; that at heart she desired a partition, and
from an early date — perhaps from the beginning of her inter-
vention in Poland 3 — secretly intended to bring one about. We
cannot agree, therefore, that the Second Partition is to be con-
sidered as a triumph of Prussian policy over that of Russia. On
the contrary, it seems probable that Russia attained precisely
what she had long desired — and that on terms most advanta-
geous to herself — while thrusting the apparent moral responsi-
bility upon Prussia.

If such was the Empress' policy, what were her motives ? It
may be doubted whether her conduct was guided, as is sometimes
said, 4 by the desire to free the millions of Russian and Orthodox
people in Poland and to complete the political unification of the

1 Protocol of March 29 / April 9, Apx. Toe. Cob., i, pp. 906-910.

2 Note of Bezborodko, of October 26, 1792, Apx. Bop., xiii, p. 275 (here erron-
eously placed in 1793, and otherwise undated).

8 That such was her intention appears to be implied in two letters (of Zavadovski
and S. R. Vorontsov respectively) published in the Apx. Bop., ix, p. 302, and xii,

P- 75-

4 Cf., e. g., Solov'ev, op. cit., pp. 255 f., 304 f.





Russian race. It is true that in a few official documents l Cath-
erine speaks of the liberation of " those of the same faith and
blood as ourselves " as one of the advantages incidental to a
partition; and she sometimes talked of the necessity of regaining
all the lands where the old Russian princes lay buried. 2 But these
sporadic utterances are probably merely phrases intended to
justify the Partition, not Catherine's motives. 3 When she had
' liberated ' her oppressed compatriots from the rule of the Polish
state, she did nothing to free them from the far worse rule of the
Polish szlachta. Except for an attack on the Uniate Church, she
made no effort to assert the Russian character of the annexed
region. Indeed, down to the third quarter of the nineteenth
century, the Russian government and Russian society continued
to regard that region, not as a fundamentally Russian territory,
but as a Polish territory which happened to have a considerable
Russian servile population. 4 The modern conception of the
' rights of nationality ' was so utterly alien to the eighteenth
century, Catherine's policy was shaped on such entirely different
lines, that it seems incongruous to imagine the Empress as
governed by the nationalist impulse, or fired with the ambition
to be the unifier of the Russian race. What she, like her con-
temporaries, was vastly more concerned about, was material
power, and the glory and profit of making territorial acquisitions.
In the various letters that have come down to us in which her
ministers and advisers present their ideas about the advantages
to be gained by the Partition, one finds a great deal about the
strategic improvement of the frontier, and the greater security
against Poland and Turkey; most of all, about the mere magni-
tude of the acquisition in area and population; but nothing at all
about the gain for the cause of Russian national unity. 5 And
doubtless Catherine's views were of the same sort.

1 E. g., in the rescript to Potemkin of July 18/29, 1791, and the instruction to

2 XpanoBimKift, ^HeBHHKt, June 4/15, 1793, p. 250.

3 Cf . KapieBt, Ha^eme IIo.ibmH, p. 1 79.

4 nmraHt, HcTopia PyccKoii SraorpacfnH, iv, pp. 13 ff ; KapieBt, op. cit., pp.
179 ff.

6 Zavadovski to S.R. Vorontsov, January 27/February 7, 1793, Markov to S.R.
Vorontsov, November 8/19, 1792, January 17/28, 1793, April 18/29, July 27/August


One can therefore accept only with qualifications the plea most
commonly put forward by Russian historians in defence of Cath-
erine's policy in the matter of the dismemberments of Poland, and
especially of the Second Partition; the plea, namely, that she was
only reclaiming what Poland had stolen in the days of Russia's
weakness, and continuing the work of the old ' gatherers of the
Russian lands.' . Kostomarov, for instance, declares that the
recovery of the Russian provinces from Poland was the most
justifiable of all the territorial acquisitions made in Europe in the
eighteenth century, for Catherine was restoring to her Empire
what belonged to it in virtue, not of mere dynastic traditions or
documents from the archives, but of an age-long, living national
tie. 1 It may readily be admitted that the great historic result of
her work was the virtual completion of the political unification of
the Russian race; but it must be added that that achievement
appears to have been only an involuntary and accidental result of
her policy. 2 If the provinces in question had never belonged to
Russia, and had contained only a solidly Polish population, it can
scarcely be imagined that she would have acted any differently.

The material gain accruing to Russia from the Second Partition
was immense. Merely in point of size, this was one of the two or
three largest acquisitions of territory that any Power has made on
the continent of Europe in modern times. From the moral stand-
point, there is little to be said for Catherine's conduct. The
hypocrisy and the flagrant breach of promises which give so
odious an aspect to the affair were well set forth by a Russian
statesman of that time, who wrote: " The thing itself is too
notoriously unjust, but the perfidious manner in which it was
executed, renders it still more shocking. Since we were deter-
mined to commit this injustice, we ought to have said frankly that
we were robbing Poland to avenge ourselves, because she had
tried to make an offensive alliance with the Turks against us; but
instead we talked of friendship, we published manifestoes to say
that we were seeking only the happiness of Poland, that we wished

7, Apx. Bop., xii, pp. 77 f., xx, pp. 32, 34 ff., 42 ff., 48 ff.; Markov to Razumovski,
February 25/March 8, 1793, P.A., XV, 576.

1 Op. oil., ii, p. 667. 2 Cf. KapteBt, op. cit., pp. 219 L


to assure to her the integrity of her possessions and the enjoyment
of her old government, under which she had flourished with such
eclat through so many centuries ! " 1 It will always be a matter for
regret that the assertion of the rights of Russia was not effected
without inflicting an even greater wrong upon Poland. And from
the standpoint of purely Russian interests, it may perhaps be
doubted whether the gains made by the Second Partition out-
weighed the resulting disadvantages and dangers, to which the
events of the last century and especially of the present time afford
striking testimony.


In considering the Polish Question in the late eighteenth cen-
tury in its broadest aspects, as one of the great international
problems of that age, one cannot fail to be impressed with the
inefflcacy here of certain factors that have served to maintain the
existence of other states too weak to defend themselves of their
own resources. Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Portugal, and
Turkey have, to a large extent, owed their survival to the fact

Online LibraryRobert Howard LordThe second partition of Poland; a study in diplomatic history → online text (page 50 of 59)