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14: The End of the Ancien Regime

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In Poland the eighteenth century started with a new foreign war, only one year after the peace with Turkey and the internal pacification of the country. Frederick-Augustus, the elector of Saxony, whom Russian and German pressure had forced upon the Poles as King Augustus II, had hardly been universally recognized when, contrary to the interests of the country, which badly needed peace and internal reforms, he carried out a project of aggression against Sweden, secretly planned at a meeting with Peter the Great soon after his arrival in Poland.

    In the war against young King Charles XII, the commonwealth was to regain from Sweden that part of Livonia which was ceded in 1660. But as a matter of fact, Augustus II, who from the beginning of his reign plotted with Poland’s enemies with a view to establishing his absolute rule in the country, only served the interests of his powerful ally, the czar, who wanted to secure for Russia an adequate access to the Baltic. The Great Northern War which began in 1700 with unexpected Swedish victories over Denmark, and particularly over Peter the Great at the Battle of Narva, was for more than twenty years to be the main problem of Eastern Europe. After its decisive turn in favor of Peter the Great, and following the end of the Spanish War of Succession in 1713, it was also to be an object of concern for all Europe where the alarming rise of Russian power was for the first time realized. For East Central Europe, that is, for all peoples between the two empires, the old German and the new Russian Empire which was formally proclaimed in 1721, after Sweden’s final defeat, that long war, largely fought on the soil of these peoples was one more step leading to their doom.

    The first to take advantage of that situation was a German ruler who tried to remain neutral, though in an ever-closer understanding with Peter the Great. This was the Elector of Brandenburg who in 1701 made himself a king, not of Brandenburg, however, but of Prussia, where he was crowned in Königsberg. Since he really controlled only East Prussia, that isolated German enclave which until 1657 had been a Polish fief, while West Prussia continued to be a Polish province, that coronation was a challenge to Poland and a manifestation of German power beyond the frontiers of the empire, deep in the East Central European region.

    At about the same time, Charles XII made the first of his strategic mistakes which affected the fate of East Central Europe even more than that of Sweden. After Narva, instead of advancing against Russia he turned against Augustus II, thus giving Peter the Great the necessary time for reforming his army and crushing internal troubles, while in Poland the Swedish invasion created only misery and division. For Charles XII tried to force upon the Poles a king who would be his subservient ally. Though he chose an excellent candidate, Stanislaw Leszczynski, that election in 1704 was obviously illegal. A large part of the Poles, as well as an important faction in Lithuania, remained loyal to Augustus II in spite of his deplorable policy.

    In addition to his unfortunate interference with internal Polish problems, the King of Sweden made another mistake when, after defeating Augustus II in his own Saxony and forcing him to renounce the crown of Poland, in 1708 he at last resumed the offensive against his most dangerous opponent, Peter the Great. Instead of moving in the direction of Moscow, he turned toward the south with a view to joining the forces of the Cozack hetman Ivan Mazepa in the Ukraine.

    That Cozack leader in the eastern, Russian-controlled part of the Ukraine was indeed anxious to liberate the country from the czar’s rule. But he proceeded so cautiously that at first Peter the Great refused to believe those who warned him against Mazepa. The czar even tried to use him for strengthening Russian influence in the Polish part of the Ukraine. The Cozacks themselves were left under the impression that their hetman continued to be loyal to the czar, and they were hardly prepared for a well-organized insurrection when Mazepa, after inviting the King of Sweden to come to the Ukraine, at last openly broke with Russia and led the troops which he had at his disposal to the Swedish camp.

    But he, as well as Charles XII, suffered a great disappointment when the revolt failed to spread all over the Ukraine, where the Russians immediately took and destroyed Mazepa’s capital. The old Cozack center, the Sich, was inclined to join the independence movement now formally launched by the hetman, but it was too late. Only a few thousand Cozacks, instead of the promised thirty thousand, compensated Charles XII for the destruction of his own Swedish reinforcements, which, hurrying southward from Livonia, were defeated in October, 1708 at the Battle of Lesna in White Ruthenia.

    A much more famous battle, momentous in European history, was fought on the eighth of July of the next year before the Ukrainian city of Poltava which the Swedes besieged in vain. It was there that Charles XII and Mazepa were completely beaten by overwhelming Russian forces, but they escaped to Turkey. That victory over the experienced Swedish army and its famous leader convinced both the Russians themselves and the outside world that a new great power had risen at the border of the European community and was henceforth to influence the destinies of the Continent in a frequently decisive manner.

    Except for its Polish section, the Ukraine was now definitely outside East Central Europe, and the cause of Ukrainian independence was lost for two centuries. The new hetman, Philip Orlyk, elected by the followers of Mazepa, who died a few months after his defeat, continued to work for that cause in exile and even drafted a constitution for the planned Ukrainian state. But all Orlyk’s diplomatic versatility proved futile. Ivan Skoropadsky, whom Peter the Great designated as hetman after Mazepa’s revolt, was nothing but a Russian puppet. What remained of Cozack autonomy was considered an internal problem of the Russian Empire until that autonomy was gradually liquidated after Skoropadsky’s death in 1722. Governed by the so-called Little Russian Board, the Ukraine was turned into a Russian province where a Ukrainian national movement was not revived before the end of the eighteenth century.

    The progress of Russia in the steppes north of the Black Sea greatly alarmed the Turks who in 1696 had already lost to Peter the Great a first foothold on the shores of that sea, the port of Azov. But when they declared war upon Russia soon after the Battle of Poltava, it was not in order to support the Cozacks, as Orlyk hoped, nor in favor of Leszczynski whose partisans were defending Poland’s independence, but in order to check the Russian advance and possibly to gain once more part of or all the Ukraine for themselves. Therefore the Russian-Turkish rivalry which now started and was for the next two centuries to become a permanent element of the so-called Eastern question, did not directly affect the cause of the freedom of the peoples of East Central Europe, although it encouraged the liberation movement in the Balkan countries. Peter the Great entered Moldavia, but only to be encircled by Turkish forces at the Prut River, and the peace of compromise which he had to conclude in 1711 obliged him even to restore Azov to the Turks and to promise them not to interfere with the affairs of Poland and of the Polish Ukraine which the Ottoman Empire continued to covet.

    However, that only setback in the czar’s career did not really prevent him from taking advantage of his victory over Charles XII in order to “pacify” Poland, where Augustus II at once replaced Stanislaw Leszczynski. Contrary to his formal engagements in renewed treaties with Turkey, the czar never hesitated to march Russian troops into the commonwealth. Without showing any interest in changes of the frontier or in partition projects which were several times suggested by the Saxon king of Poland himself, Peter the Great was gradually turning Poland into a Russian protectorate. As a matter of fact, this was a much greater challenge to the established balance of power in Europe than the change in the relations between Russia and Turkey. And Russia’s advance toward the center of Europe—the main drive of her expansion—was creating an Eastern question more dangerous than the developments in the Ottoman Empire which are usually designated by that expression.

    While Turkey’s attention was distracted by new wars with the Republic of Venice and with Austria, Russia contributed to internal troubles in Poland between partisans of Augustus II and of his rival Leszczynski. Peter the Great tried to play off one side against the other and to act as arbiter between them. The Polish patriots, who were equally opposed to Saxon domination and to Russian interference, had joined in one of their “confederations” which were supposed to supplement the executive in times of crisis through voluntary association of the nobility. But after serious reverses of that poorly organized liberation movement, it was easy for the czar’s envoy, Prince Gregory Dolgoruky, to play the role of a mediator and practically dictate the disastrous decisions of the so-called “Silent Diet” of 1717. It was under that Russian pressure that the worst features of the Constitution, particularly the liberum veto, were perpetuated; the army was reduced to eighteen thousand in Poland and to six thousand in Lithuania, leaving the commonwealth at Peter’s mercy and helpless between the rising militaristic powers of Russia and Prussia.

    More than these events in Poland, the progress which Russia made in the war against Sweden, when her armies, violating Poland’s neutrality, appeared for the first time on German soil, seriously alarmed the Western countries. In 1719 Emperor Charles VI signed a treaty in Vienna with England which was concerned with Russia’s role in the Baltic, and with Saxony, the homeland of Augustus II. In his Polish kingdom, however, an approval of the Vienna Treaty would have been necessary and it was refused by the Diet of 1720. It was understandable that the Poles wanted to avoid another war and that they distrusted their king who was mainly responsible for the critical situation. But a unique opportunity for stopping Russia, with the assistance of the West, was lost and the next year Sweden, which had continued to fight after the death of Charles XII, was obliged to sign the Peace of Nystadt.

    Peter the Great successfully ended the Northern War by occupying Finland and using that autonomous province of Sweden as a basis for raids on the Swedish coast of the Baltic, even threatening Stockholm. He did not, however, claim Finland in the treaty which even so was extremely advantageous for Russia. She regained her former access to the sea in Ingria, at the Gulf of Finland where Peter had already started building his new capital of St. Petersburg in 1703, and furthermore she received from Sweden the Baltic provinces of Estonia and Livonia which Ivan the Terrible had tried in vain to conquer.

    After the prosperous period of Swedish rule which had notably contributed to the cultural development of those provinces and had even slightly improved the position of the Estonian and Latvian peasant population, the long war years left the whole area completely devastated. But even under Russian domination the Baltic provinces remained Western in their general character. The Protestant faith was definitely established, and the German nobility had even strengthened its predominance.

    The extension of Russia’s boundaries was not only decisive for the old issue of the dominium maris Baltici, but also another threat, now from the north, came to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which still possessed the southeastern corner of Livonia and the duchy of Curland as a fief. Therefore, far from regaining Riga for herself, Poland, whose king had foolishly entered the war in 1700, was now, more than twenty years later, in a position much worse than at the end of the seventeenth century. The last part of the reign of Augustus II, until his death in 1733, was for the country a real “dark age.” The growing opposition against the king, this time entirely justified by his desire to establish an absolute form of government and by his intrigues with Poland’s neighbors, made any constructive reform plan impossible. And the commonwealth, still one of Europe’s largest countries, indispensable to a real equilibrium on the Continent, could hardly have any foreign policy of its own.


Throughout the whole course of history East Central Europe had been under a dangerous pressure coming from two sides: from the western German part of Central Europe and from the East where at first Asiatic invaders and then the rising power of Moscow created a situation of permanent tension. Combined with the Turkish onslaught from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, that pressure had reduced the area of free peoples in that region of Europe to the Polish Commonwealth, and by the end of the seventeenth century it also reduced the territory of that commonwealth to an area much smaller than in the past. At about the same time the pressure from West and East became more threatening than ever before, since the electors of Brandenburg, now the main representatives of German aggression, created the kingdom of Prussia, while Czar Peter the Great, through his victories in the Northern War combined with his internal reforms, transformed Muscovy into the modern Russian Empire.

    In spite of their entirely different origin, both newcomers in the European state system had much in common. Both were militaristic powers under an absolute centralized government with a far-reaching program of territorial expansion. Both wanted to be culturally associated with Western Europe in spite of the growing German nationalism in Prussia and of the superficial character of Russia’s “Europeanization,” ruthlessly enforced by Peter. The policy of both of them completely upset the balance of power in Europe and had a common interest in destroying the state which separated them from each other, which also separated East Prussia from Brandenburg, and which was in the way of Russia’s advance in the western direction.

    Already, two hundred years before, the first Hohenzollern established in East Prussia, originally as last grand master of the Teutonic Order and then as secular, hereditary ruler, had considered the possibility of cooperating with Moscow against Poland and Lithuania. The liberation of East Prussia from Polish suzerainty had been at least indirectly facilitated by Russia’s simultaneous invasion of the eastern part of the commonwealth. And it was in Königsberg that Peter the Great, visiting the elector who a few years later was to be the first king of Prussia, had planned his interference with the Polish election after Sobieski’s death.

    The year 1720 brought a decisive step in the development of cooperation between the kingdom of Prussia and the Russian Empire which was formally proclaimed the next year. Even before the Peace of Nystadt between Russia and Sweden, Frederick William I of Prussia took advantage of the latter’s precarious position in order to obtain in a separate treaty all that the Swedes still possessed in Pomerania, including the city of Stettin which the Great Elector had in vain tried to occupy. The whole of Western Pomerania now being united with Brandenburg, the Polish province of Eastern Pomerania, with Danzig, was becoming a mere “corridor” between the two sections of the Prussian State. And the Russian armies which had defeated Sweden on so many fronts, including an appearance in Pomerania, before Stettin in 1717, had decisively contributed to that success.

    It was also in 1720 that King Augustus II, disappointed by the opposition of the Polish Diet, turned from his transitory project of opposing Russia’s imperialism to another scheme of dismembering his own Polish kingdom which he secretly presented in Berlin and also sent to Vienna. Strangely enough, it was Peter the Great, whose participation was of course a prerequisite condition, who rejected that partition plan and even revealed it to the Poles. He did it not only in order to give them the impression that he was Poland’s loyal protector, but also chiefly because he still hoped to control all the commonwealth. For that purpose, however, he needed the cooperation of Prussia and therefore he concluded a personal treaty with King Frederick William I in which both dangerous neighbors of Poland pledged themselves for the first time to protect in common the “freedom” of that country and particularly the rights of its minorities.

    Two different problems must be distinguished in that Russian-Prussian guaranty which until the complete elimination of Poland was repeated in a whole series of treaties between the two powers. It was, first, a threat directed against any reform of the Polish constitution which would do away with the abuses of individual liberties and strengthen the government of the commonwealth. It seemed to be merely a threat against the king, who was indeed quite prepared to violate any constitutional rights, but as a matter of fact it was also a check on all constructive reform projects which even in the dark years of Saxon rule were soon to appear in the writings of enlightened leaders of the nation.

    On the other hand, Orthodox Russia and Protestant Prussia were equally eager to find a quasi-permanent opportunity for interfering with Poland’s internal problems by acting as protectors of their coreligionists in that country. Russia had already made a first attempt in that direction by inserting clauses in favor of the Orthodox in her peace treaty concluded with Poland in 1686. In the meantime the number of these Orthodox had been greatly reduced, thanks to the fact that the Ruthenian dioceses of Lwow and Przemysl now joined the Union of Brest, so that the synod held at Zamosc in 1720 completed the reunion with the Catholic Church of almost all the Ruthenians who were still under Polish rule. There remained, indeed, a limited number of Orthodox non-Uniate peoples in the White Ruthenian diocese of Mstislav in the grand duchy of Lithuania, and in addition to Orthodox peasants, a small number of noble families also continued to adhere to that faith. Similarly, in addition to Protestant communities in various cities, there were also some nobles who from the days of the Reformation remained Lutherans or Calvinists. And it is true that Poland was no longer so tolerant in religious matters as she had been in the sixteenth century. But only the anti-Trinitarians, the so-called Arians, a group very small in number, had been expelled in 1658, being suspected of collaboration with the Swedish invaders. The restrictions of the constitutional rights of all non-Catholics, voted by the Diets from 1717 onward, touched only a few noble families now excluded from office and no longer eligible as deputies.

    Nevertheless, Russia and Prussia, where religious discrimination against Catholics went much further, considered the situation in Poland a real persecution, and soon found an occasion for a violent protest in which they were joined by King George I of England. In 1724, in the city of Torun, the main center of Lutheranism in Poland, German Protestants raided the Jesuit college, desecrating the Host and holy pictures. The king, a former Protestant himself, who had become a Catholic only to gain the Polish crown, appointed a special commission which sentenced to death not only nine leaders of the assault but also the mayor of the city for not having checked the mob. Moreover, a church was taken away from the Protestants and given to a Catholic order. The sentence, unusually severe and unique in Polish history, was carried out in spite of an intervention of the papal nuncio, and it was branded by the Germans as a “trial of blood,” while Augustus II confidentially explained that he was unable to control the fanaticism of the Poles.

    The protest of Poland’s neighbors had no serious consequences because Peter the Great died the next year. But the way had been opened to a continuous interference by Russia and Prussia under the pretext of protecting the “dissidents,” as the religious minorities were then called. That process was leading directly to the crisis which preceded Poland’s first partition.

    In the meantime, Russian-Prussian cooperation was steadily developing in connection with the general European situation and also with the rise of German influence in the Russian Empire. Peter the Great has himself been called “a Germanized Russian,” and it was in the North German states along the coast of the Baltic Sea, which he was so eager to dominate, that his efforts to establish close relations with Western countries proved most successful.

    Among the marriages which he arranged between Russian princesses and German rulers, though the latter were of limited political power, that of his niece Anne with the last Duke of Curland, of the Kettler family, already concluded in 1710, was to have particularly important consequences. Curland, the southern part of old Livonia, had been a Polish fief since 1561 and formally continued to be so until the last partition in 1795. But when in 1721 the northern part of Livonia, along with the other Baltic provinces, was ceded by Sweden to Russia, the latter’s influence in Curland, favored by Anne’s marriage, became predominant and played a decisive role when Anne, already a widow, was made Empress of Russia in 1730, after the short reigns of Peter’s widow and grandson. A German of humble origin, Bühren, later called Biron, a favorite of the empress, was eventually made Duke of Curland, although the local nobility wanted a Saxon prince and the Polish Diet had tried in vain to incorporate Curland into the commonwealth. Furthermore, in addition to Biron, who during the ten years of Anne’s reign was practically the ruler of Russia, many other Germans from the newly acquired Baltic provinces also soon occupied leading positions in the Russian army and diplomatic corps, while a German from Westphalia, A. I. Ostermann, later made a count, exercised decisive power as vice-chancellor.

    It was only natural that the so-called “German party” which then directed Russian affairs favored the cooperation with Prussia, which already under her second king, Frederick-William I (1713—1740) was the strongest power in northern Germany, separated from Russian-controlled Curland only by a small strip of Lithuanian territory. On the other hand, the King of Prussia was the only monarch with whom the German-born king of Poland, Augustus II, maintained friendly relations until the end of his long and disastrous reign, contrary to the interests of the country where he wanted his son, Frederick-Augustus, to be elected after his death. He was even prepared to pay for Prussian support by territorial concessions.

    It is true that in these years Russia did not favor the plan of Saxon succession in Poland. Twice, in 1726 and 1732, she made agreements with Austria in order to exclude the Wettins from the Polish throne. But both of them were even more opposed to the election of Stanislaw Leszczynski, the exiled pretender whose chances were increased through the marriage of his daughter Mary, in 1725, to Louis XV of France. And since the pro-German Russian empress as well as Emperor Charles VI permitted the King of Prussia to take part in their projects, it was easy to anticipate, first, that the forthcoming Polish election would be decided, even more than the preceding one, by the joint pressure of the future partitioning powers, and secondly, that contrary to the wishes of the great majority of the Poles, disgusted with Saxon misrule, the elector of Saxony would have the best chance to succeed his father in Poland also.

    France and her possible allies, the Bourbon king of Spain, and also Sweden and Turkey, were decidedly opposed to such a solution, and the Polish succession was therefore a big problem of international relations when Augustus II died in 1733. But at the same time it had ceased to be a problem which the Poles themselves could decide. Their country, which already under the first Saxon king had lost any initiative in the field of foreign policy, was to have no such independent policy at all under his son. The last free country in East Central Europe, encircled by the cooperation of Russia and Prussia, with Austria’s inconsiderate participation, was under the appearance of neutrality a mere pawn in the game of power politics. This became clearly apparent during the European wars of the next generation which disturbed the precarious balance of power on the Continent until the partitions of Poland destroyed it completely.


The first of these European wars of the middle of the eighteenth century, after a brief period of peace which followed the War of the Spanish Succession in the West and the Great Northern War in the East, is called the War of the Polish Succession. The very name seems to indicate how important Poland’s place continued to be in the European state system, and the war indeed started in consequence of the Polish election of 1733. But it developed outside Poland, without any participation of Poland as a sovereign power, and when it was concluded two years later the fate of Poland had practically ceased to be the main issue in the conflict among the other powers.

    Before the election, at the so-called Convocation Diet, the Poles decided to exclude all foreign candidates and amidst great enthusiasm the primate, on September 12, proclaimed Stanislaw Leszczynski king of Poland. Leszczynski had been able to reach that country by secretly crossing Germany, but his election, signed by about twelve thousand voters, was undoubtedly legal, and expecting French and Swedish assistance through the Baltic he moved to Danzig. Help was indeed badly needed because Russia, supported by Austria and with Prussia s silent approval, decided to enforce the election of Frederick Augustus of Saxony, as King Augustus III, after abandoning the extravagant idea of offering the throne of Poland to the Infante of Portugal. Under the control of the Russian army which occupied Praga, the eastern suburb of Warsaw, no more than a thousand voters signed the fake election of Augustus III who, after a short visit in Cracow, returned to Dresden where he was to spend most of his thirty years’ reign in leisurely indolence.

    The Poles were not at all prepared to recognize him. The nobility joined in “confederations” set up to support the lawful king, but their main leaders were defeated before they could reach Danzig with reinforcements. The city, also loyal to Leszczynski, was soon besieged by a strong Russian army under General Münnich. Besides a small group of Swedish volunteers, only two thousand French soldiers under Count Plélo, ambassador to Denmark, tried to rescue the king, but they were thrown back and their heroic commander was killed in action on May 27, 1734. To save the city from destruction, Leszczynski escaped to Königsberg where he was kept as hostage by the King of Prussia. Danzig surrendered one month later and the Primate of Poland was himself among the prisoners.

    The resistance movement continued both in Poland, under the Tarlo family, and in Lithuania, where another confederation was formed, but it was necessarily limited to partisan warfare, with foreign support as only a possible hope. But even France, where a Polish embassy signed a pact of friendship with Cardinal Fleury, then directing the policy of Louis XV, did not take her engagements very seriously. She had declared war on Austria and Russia, together with Spain, Naples, and Sardinia, but was more interested in the situation in Italy and Western Germany. While the French attacked the Austrian forces in Italy, Russia was supposed to be checked by Sweden and Turkey. But neither country seized that opportunity for a joined action against the rising Russian power, and General Münnich’s forces soon appeared in the Rhineland. It was therefore in Western Europe that the war was decided and it was there that France was looking for compensation for the setback of her policy in East Central Europe. When it became obvious that St. Petersburg would not accept the ally and father-in-law of Louis XV as king of Poland, Fleury, at the Peace of Vienna, signed on October 3, 1735, obtained for him, instead of Poland, the duchy of Lorraine from Emperor Charles VI, it being understood that after his death that province would be united with France.

    Leszczynski’s court at Lunéville was to be an important center where the king-in-exile educated young Poles and drafted reform projects not only for the Polish constitution but also for Europe’s international organization. But his idea of a permanent peace under French leadership was no more utopian than his own return to power in Poland. His successful rival, Augustus III, recognized by the Pacification Diet of 1736, was to reign until his death, two years after that of Leszczynski, in 1763.

    Soon after the end of hostilities in Western Europe, the Ottoman Empire started a belated war against Russia, whose southern border was raided by the Crimean Tartars. But it was in vain that Austria, which after a futile attempt at mediation entered that war on Russia s side, suggested to the Saxon king of Poland to join, as in the time of Sobieski, the action against Turkey, promising in reward to permit internal reforms in the commonwealth. And it was in vain, too, that Leszczynski’s partisans were planning a revolt with Turkish and possibly Swedish support. Poland did not even receive any satisfaction for the violation of her territory by the Russian forces which defeated the Turks and, in spite of a separate peace made by Austria, forced the Ottoman Empire to conclude a much less satisfactory treaty with Empress Anne, in 1739. Russia did not yet reach the Black Sea, the Azov area being made neutral, but she advanced her frontier in the steppes north of that sea and close to the Polish border at the Boh River. The Ottoman Empire not only recognized Russia’s control of what remained of the Ukrainian Cozacks, but did not claim this time, as in the earlier treaties of the century, any stipulation guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Poland.

    Thus Russia’s position in Eastern Europe was considerably strengthened and Poland’s independence even more threatened when in the following year, 1740, the death of Emperor Charles VI was followed by the outbreak of another war called the War of the Austrian Succession. Charles VI was the last Habsburg in the male line but he had obtained from practically all powers a formal recognition of the Pragmatic Sanction which was to guarantee the hereditary rights of his daughter, Maria Theresa. The new king of Prussia, Frederick II, later called “the Great,” was the first to violate that promise when he invaded Silesia.

    That act of aggression was of vital significance for Poland. An old Polish land where, in spite of its loss four hundred years before, a large Polish population continued to live, was now being taken away from the Slavic kingdom of Bohemia and from a dynasty which was not basically hostile to Poland and conquered by one of her two most dangerous neighbors with the apparent approval of the other. Russia’s own internal troubles between Anne’s death in 1740 and the accession of Peter’s daughter Elizabeth at the end of 1741, as well as the war declared by Sweden at that critical time, prevented Russia from at once taking a decided position in the Austrian war. But even so, Frederick II succeeded in keeping almost the whole of Silesia.

    Furthermore, from the beginning of his reign he started the skillful diplomatic game which he had already prepared as crown prince, with a view to annexing Polish Prussia and maintaining the inner weakness of the commonwealth. That game was greatly facilitated by the inept policy of Poland’s second Saxon king and of his favorite minister Count Brühl. Some Polish magnates, particularly Leszczynski’s old adherent, Stanislaw Poniatowski, the father of the future king, recognized how dangerous Frederick II was to be for Poland’s integrity and Europe’s peace. But while appeasing the Polish gentry whose liberties he promised to protect, the King of Prussia, through Brühl’s influence, persuaded Augustus III to conclude with him a military alliance as elector of Saxony.

    He promised him a strip of Silesian territory which would connect Saxony with Poland, and possibly even Moravia, but that fantastic promise was not kept. On the contrary, when, in the peace treaty of 1742, Silesia, except the two southern duchies, Troppau (Opava) and Teschen (Cieszyn), which were left to Maria Theresa, was for the first time ceded to Prussia, the two states of Augustus III were separated from each other more definitely than before and the whole of Western Poland, not only Royal Prussia, was now surrounded by Hohenzollern possessions. All those possessions which, in addition to comparatively small parts of Western Germany, constituted the state of Frederick II, now definitely a European power, had formerly been Slavic or Baltic. Thus the non-German, eastern part of Central Europe was greatly reduced by the advance of German political power which was accompanied by a steady progress of Germanization.

    At the same time, however, there was a temporary decline of German influence in Russia. After putting in jail the young prince of Brunswick who had been proclaimed emperor on Anne’s death, and after sending Anne’s German advisers to Siberia, the new empress Elizabeth and her chancellor, A. P. Bestuzhev-Riumin, of purely Russian stock, first ended the Swedish war and then proceeded to a reorientation of Russian diplomacy. Sweden, instead of regaining her losses, had to cede to Russia a first section of Finland in 1743, with the important city of Vyborg, and having thus strengthened her position in the Baltic region, Russia was looking for other allies instead of Prussia. This could bring about a change of her attitude toward Poland where the anti-Prussian party, led by the Czartoryski family, tried to obtain Russia’s consent to financial reforms and to an increase of the Polish army. But Frederick II’s intrigues made the Diet of 1744 a disgraceful failure and Russia proved to be much more interested in confirming her alliance with Austria and in concluding a new one with England.

    Furthermore, Augustus III continued his undecided attitude, while in France the secret policy of Louis XV played with the idea of placing Prince de Conti, a grandson of the French candidate in the election of 1697, on the throne of Poland. As a matter of fact, this project had hardly more significance than the place reserved for Poland in the Austro-Russian treaty of 1746. When, according to this treaty, Russia interfered on Austria’s side in the second phase of the War of the Austrian Succession, again it was by marching her troops, sent to the Rhine, back and forth through the territory of Poland, disregarding her neutrality and continuing to oppose, this time together with Austria, any constructive reform of the Polish constitution, particularly the suppression of the liberum veto.

    The Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 brought no real change in the general European situation. Silesia was left in the hands of Frederick II, and Russia’s only gain was her growing influence in Poland which, in the days of Elizabeth as before, was treated like a Russian protectorate. But through the British ambassador in St. Petersburg, Sir Charles H. Williams, efforts were now made to bring both Augustus III and Elizabeth of Russia into the English political system. A treaty with the former had already been concluded in 1751 with a view to getting Russia’s approval for the Saxon succession in Poland after the king’s death, and at last, in 1756, the Russian-English alliance was signed, directed, as it seemed, against France and Prussia.

    It was based upon the assumption that the Russian auxiliary forces which were supposed to secure the Hanoverian possessions of George II, would as usual march through “neutral” Polish territory. But this provision was the only one which remained in force throughout the following period. In that same year of 1756, an alliance which England concluded with Prussia made the one with Russia meaningless. It was an answer to the unexpected alliance between the traditional enemies, France and Austria, and the prelude to another European war which was also fought in the overseas colonies of the Western powers. Poland had no share in these negotiations, and as a result she had a dangerous opponent in each of the two hostile camps.


The “reversal of alliances” on the eve of the Seven Years’ War is sometimes called the “diplomatic revolution” of the eighteenth century. But much more revolutionary were the basic changes in the structure of the European state system which became apparent at the same time and even more in the course of the war. These changes resulted from the gradual process which during the preceding century had replaced Sweden, Poland, and Turkey by Prussia and Russia as leading powers in the eastern part of Europe.

    France, which had considered the former three as her natural allies against the leading power in Germany, the Habsburgs, realized at last that, first, she now needed other allies, and secondly, that the rulers of Austria were no longer supreme in the empire whose merely symbolic crown the house of Lorraine, now called Habsburg-Lorraine, continued to bear after the extinction of the Habsburgs. France was also becoming aware, much more so than England, that the rise of the Prussian Hohenzollerns to a leading position in Germany had to be checked, were it even in alliance with Austria, and for the first time she fought in cooperation with another entirely new ally in Eastern Europe, with Russia. Although Russian armies had made occasional appearances on German battlefields before, they now for the first time played a decisive role there. They could do it because Poland was no longer a barrier between Russia and the West, but rather a convenient passage. And while toward the middle of the war it seemed that, thanks to Russian assistance, Prussia would be reduced to her former modest place or even partitioned, a sudden change of Russian policy at the end of the war another reversal of alliance, more decisive than that at the beginning, or rather a return to the traditional Russian-Prussian cooperation saved Prussia as a great power. The eastern wing of the balance-of-power system was now definitely composed of Prussia and Russia.

    The consequences of such a turn of events for Western and West Central Europe are well known, though sometimes underestimated. Instead of the Ottoman Empire, which had ceased to be a danger to the peace of the Continent; instead of Sweden, which had been such a danger for only a short time; and instead of Poland, which had never been a threat, the West had now to face two dynamic, aggressive powers which were resolved to eliminate all that remained of the East Central European region between them. A considerable part of that region was already in their possession. Russia had annexed Latvia and Estonia, along with a small but important part of Finland, and was absorbing her section of the Ukraine. The Prussian kingdom had taken its very name from a territory outside Germany, near the heart of East Central Europe, so important strategically that the Russians, as long as they were fighting Frederick the Great, occupied it with a view to keeping it permanently. Furthermore, Silesia too, Frederick’s most valuable conquest, definitely secured through the outcome of the Seven Years’ War, had originally belonged to East Central Europe.

    The final loss of Silesia in 1763 directly affected the Habsburgs, both their position in the empire and the territorial basis of their hereditary power, a power chiefly founded on their Bohemian and Hungarian kingdoms. The desire to connect with the Austrian center, as intimately as possible, all of the lands of the Bohemian crown that still remained in their hands, as well as Hungary, naturally became even stronger after such a painful loss. The relative freedom of all non-German East Central European countries which were under Habsburg rule was therefore vanishing more and more rapidly. These countries were merely serving to strengthen the position of the dynasty in the struggle against the Hohenzollern rivals, a struggle which was to be continued, though chiefly by diplomatic methods, for the following hundred years. But always considering herself a German power, Austria, even as Prussia’s opponent, was neither representing the real interests of East Central Europe nor was she a real ally of the West against Prussian imperialism. Furthermore, the Western powers were never quite decided which of the two German rivals they should support against the other.

    In general, Russia was to prove more skillful at that game of power politics, and Poland was the main victim, were it only because of her geographical situation. During the Seven Years’ War it seemed that the danger which threatened that last island of freedom in East Central Europe was not so much partition among her neighbors but complete control by the strongest of them, that is, by Russia.

    That perspective is the only possible justification for those Polish magnates who amidst continuing internal quarrels made it impossible for Augustus III, invaded and humiliated by Frederick the Great in Saxony at the very beginning of the war, to gain his Polish kingdom for the great anti-Prussian coalition. The Czartoryskis were probably right when, in spite of their English sympathies, they considered a victory of that coalition and a defeat of Prussia the best possible solution for Poland. But it seems rather doubtful whether any Polish participation in the war would have restored to the commonwealth that East Prussia which Russia wanted for herself. Furthermore, the leaders of the opposition against the Saxon king could point at the continuing occupation of Polish territory by the troops of his Russian ally who never left Poland from the spring of 1757 to the end of the reign of Augustus III, a few months after the peace of 1763.

    It is true that Poland also seemed to have friends on both sides of the fighting powers. But the France of Choiseul, exclusively interested in the overthrow of Prussia and England, did not want to become involved in the East by supporting any Polish claims, were it only by helping to abolish the liberum veto, now merely a tool for Prussian and Russian intrigues. On the contrary, even France was rather prepared to consider Russia’s claim for a revision of Poland’s eastern frontiers, raised during the diplomatic campaigns of the years 1759 to 1760. Strangely enough, the English cabinet also contemplated the possibility of satisfying Russia at Poland’s expense, and therefore flatly rejected the proposal of a few younger Polish leaders to start, with English support, an uprising against the Russians which would relieve Britain’s Prussian ally.

    Frederick the Great, too, was only waiting for an opportunity to direct his policy of territorial annexations against helpless Poland. He already envisaged the connection of East Prussia with Brandenburg and Pomerania by an occupation of Polish Prussia. In the meantime he flooded Poland with false money forged in the Leipzig mints of her king, and he kidnaped Polish people to put them in his army. Finally, the changes on the Russian throne in 1762 not only decided the Seven Years’ War in favor of Prussia but also opened new prospects for Frederick’s eastern policy.

    When, after the death of Elizabeth, the last of the Romanovs, Peter III, a German prince of Holstein-Gottorp and a blind admirer of the King of Prussia, became emperor, the first of these changes seemed to indicate that Russia would completely pass over to Prussia’s side. When, a few months later, Peter III was murdered in a court plot, and succeeded by his wife Catherine II, also a German of the Anhalt-Zerbst family, Russian policy became more balanced again. But the new empress, too, decided to withdraw from the war against Prussia and to cooperate with Frederick II against Poland.

    Like her husband, Catherine II first resolved to continue the policy of her Russian predecessors with regard to Curland. Already in 1762 Prince Charles of Saxony, the son of Augustus III who hoped to succeed him in Poland, had been expelled from that old fief of the commonwealth which was restored by Catherine II to the Russian puppet Biron. Furthermore, the rumors of a possible partition of Poland, which circulated during the brief reign of Peter III in connection with the secret articles of a twenty-year treaty of friendship which he concluded with Frederick II in June, 1762, seemed to find full confirmation in the first diplomatic activities of the new empress.

    It is true that at the outset she rather seemed to follow the example of Peter the Great, that is, to aim at the exclusive control of all Poland, guaranteeing her frontiers and obsolete institutions. But since such a policy was a challenge to all other countries including Prussia, Catherine II also had to consider Frederick’s suit for an alliance which would necessarily give him a share in the Polish spoils. Already in the spring of 1763, shortly before the Treaty of Hubertsburg ended the Seven Years’ War, the empress agreed with the king of Prussia as to the future election in Poland, after the impending death of Augustus III.

    In 1697 and 1733 the election of a Saxon candidate had been imposed upon the Poles by Russo-German intervention, contrary to the decision of the great majority of them. Now a continuation of Wettin rule, poor as it had proved, seemed to the Polish nobility a lesser evil than another foreign dictation. On the contrary, Russia and Prussia jointly decided that a native Pole ought to be elected instead of a member of the Saxon dynasty, but a candidate designated by them and ready to serve as their subservient puppet. For that very reason Catherine II disappointed the Czartoryskis who at the end of Augustus III’s reign were ready to collaborate with Russia, and who expected that one of them would be made king and permitted to carry out the constitutional reforms, thus preparing a better future for their country. The empress decided in favor of a nephew of the Czartoryskis, Stanislaw Poniatowski, a son of Leszczynski’s partisan, a man of refined, Western culture, but a weak character and worst of all a former lover of Catherine, to whom he always remained personally attached. On April 11, 1764, the empress concluded a treaty with Frederick the Great who at the price of an alliance for eight years promised to support that Russian candidate and to join in the guaranty of all abuses of the Polish constitution.

    Thus the election of the same year was decided in advance by the two powers which now together controlled North Eastern Europe. But on the one hand, the agreement with the king of Prussia necessarily directed Russian policy toward a partition of Poland instead of total absorption. On the other hand, that preliminary deal was made without the participation of Austria, Poland’s third neighbor, whose influence had been decisive, along with the Russian, in the two preceding elections. Now Maria Theresa, so recently defeated by Prussia and abandoned by Russia in the Seven Years’ War, was not prepared to cooperate with them. On the contrary, she earnestly wanted the Polish crown to remain in the allied Wettin dynasty. Austria’s policy was, however, far from being coordinated with that of the other two powers which opposed the Russo-Prussian project. These powers were France and Turkey, both of which wanted Poland to remain free from the predominance of her neighbors because they themselves were alarmed. France was fearful of the ambitions of Prussia, Turkey of Russia’s expansion, and both of the alliance of the two newcomers in the European state system. Finally, neither of these countries, though fully aware of the international importance of what was to be the last election of a king of Poland, made any serious effort to prevent that triumph of Catherine II and Frederick II which was, on September 7, 1764, the unanimous choice of Stanislaw Poniatowski by those who attended the Election Diet.

    There was, indeed, in Poland a strong opposition against the new king which soon proved an obstacle even to his genuine attempts at improving the internal as well as the external situation of the country. In France and in Turkey there was also a deep dissatisfaction with that turn of events, thus creating high hopes among the Polish patriots. However, before studying why no effective help came from either side in the critical years before the first partition of Poland, it must be explained why Austria, contrary to her own real interests, embarked on a policy which led to her participation, along with Russia and Prussia, in that dismemberment, which confirmed the consequences of the Seven Years’ War for Eastern Europe. One of the factors of that policy was Austria’s own role in the political development of the large section of East Central Europe which, south of Poland and north of the Ottoman Empire, remained under Habsburg rule.


Poland’s southern neighbor was not Austria in the proper sense at all. Throughout the eighteenth century that name officially continued to designate only the German lands in the eastern Alps which from the later Middle Ages were the basic hereditary possessions of the Habsburgs. These lands also included some Italian territories and the whole area inhabited by the Sloven people, as far as the Adriatic coast and the boundaries of the Republic of Venice. Since the Slovenes were deprived of any historic role, the Austrian provinces as a whole could hardly be considered part of East Central Europe but they were most intimately connected with its history which they deeply influenced, thanks to their union with Bohemia and Hungary.

    That union was originally merely dynastic through the persons of the Austrian archdukes who were at the same time the rulers of these two kingdoms. Both of these kingdoms were, however, more and more affected by the general policy of the Habsburgs. The Bohemian and Hungarian estates had not only ceased to deny the hereditary rights of their German dynasty but as early as 1720 and 1723 they accepted the Pragmatic Sanction, that is, the succession of Maria Theresa in all lands left to her by her father Charles VI, the last male representative of the Habsburg family. By that same act all Habsburg possessions were declared indivisible and pledged to mutual assistance against external aggression. The new dynasty, Habsburg Lorraine, which was Habsburg only in the female line, was recognized in Bohemia and Hungary as well as in the Austrian Erbländer.

    But the empress—as Maria Theresa was called after her rather insignificant husband, Francis I of Lorraine, was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1745—wanted to achieve even more. So, too, with much more ruthless energy, did her and Francis’ son and successor, Emperor Joseph II, who after his father’s death in 1765 was also his mother’s co-regent in Austria. They both tried to unify the kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary with Austria under a common centralized administration and through a common culture which was to be predominantly German. The process was analogous in both kingdoms, but not without specific features in each of them which partly resulted from their different geographical situations.

    In the Bohemian lands there had been a revolt against Maria Theresa, or rather a defection from her, in the first years of the War of the Austrian Succession, but not because of any religious or national reason. These lands simply had as their immediate neighbors all the enemies of the young queen in Germany. Of these, the Duke of Bavaria invaded Bohemia proper, was recognized as king by a large part of the nobility, and with French aid maintained himself until 1743 when Maria Theresa was at last crowned in Prague. She wisely avoided too severe repressions, but after careful preparation in 1749 she decided to unify the administration of her Austrian and Bohemian possessions. The Bohemian chancellery which, functioning in Prague with mostly Czech officials had symbolized the unity and autonomy of the Bohemian lands, was now abolished. Abolishing at the same time the separate Austrian chancellery in Vienna, the empress created new offices (Directorium in publicis et cameralibus) whose authority extended over both Austria and Bohemia but whose headquarters were in Vienna. They had a distinctly German character. The supreme court also was now common for both regions under the direct control of the crown.

    It is true that during the dangerous crisis of the Seven Years’ War some minor concessions had to be made, and in 1761 the new supreme office received the double name of Austro-Bohemian Chancellery (Hofkanzlei). But the growing influence of Joseph II, and finally his succession after Maria Theresa’s death in 1780, inaugurated an era of particularly violent centralization and Germanization which in Bohemia was facilitated by the long decline of national culture and the abandonment of the native tongue by the upper classes. The emperor, a typical representative of the so-called enlightened absolutism, favorable to religious tolerance, to judicial improvements, and to the partial emancipation of the serfs, alienated even those who benefitted from his decisions by enforcing the use of the German language, not for any racial reasons but in the interest of linguistic unity.

    The conservative opposition, although already in contact with the early beginnings of a Czech national revival, was chiefly interested in defending the traditional state rights of Bohemia and the privileges of the estates, which indeed regained part of their historic influence during the two years of the reign of Leopold II (1790—1792), Joseph’s brother and successor. But under Francis II the trend was to be reversed again so that the constitutional reforms of the closing century were, as a matter of fact, a prelude to the complete amalgamation of all Habsburg possessions into one Austrian Empire which was proclaimed in 1804.

    That unification was also supposed to include Hungary, but in contradistinction to the largely Germanized lands of the Bohemian crown, which had been part of the Holy Roman Empire and whose position had suffered from the loss of almost all Silesia, the Hungarian kingdom and its nobility, attached to the national tradition, could organize a much stronger resistance. Subtler methods had to be used to reduce their spirit of independence.

    That Hungarian resistance was no longer an armed insurrection, as it had been at the turn of the seventeenth century. The Peace of Szatmár in 1711, concluded between the generals of the emperor and those of Francis Rákóczi who went into exile and died in Turkey in 1735, promised a general amnesty and the respect of constitutional rights. What followed was as a matter of fact a period of comparative quiet and compromise and Maria Theresa, at the critical beginning of her reign, received the enthusiastic support of the Hungarian nobles against her foreign aggressors. She never forgot that, and she always showed much more sympathy to the Hungarians than to the Czechs.

    Even in her time, however, there remained the economic and social problems of what is called the era of reconstruction after the long years of Turkish wars. In that field, too, the empress had a genuine understanding of Hungary’s most urgent needs, and she gave that country direct access to the sea by attaching the Croatian port of Fiume to Hungary proper as a corpus separatum. But the colonization which she officially encouraged in the devastated country, establishing in 1766 a special colonization committee in Vienna, chiefly brought German settlers to Hungary and thus considerably increased the number of the German minority. At the same time the importance of the Serb and Rumanian element was also growing. The Serbs were particularly numerous in the southern frontier districts. These, which were the last to be recovered from the Turks, were placed under a military administration. As early as 1741 the Orthodox Patriarch of Ipek transferred his see to Karlowitz, now on Hungarian territory, where he became the religious and political leader of the Serb population. In Transylvania the Orthodox Rumanians concluded a religious union with the Catholic church soon after the establishing of Habsburg rule in 1700, and constituting the majority of the population in a province which remained a separate administrative unit, like the other nationality groups they could easily be played off against the Magyars by Vienna. And since the non-Magyars were chiefly a peasant population, that problem was inseparable from the general issues between landlords and peasants whose condition Maria Theresa had already tried to improve through her Urbarium of 1767.

    This was indeed a constructive reform, but most dangerous for Hungary’s state rights was the fact that ultimately all Hungarian affairs were under the control of the central authorities in Vienna. There was, it is true, a Hungarian deputy council (consilium locumtenentiale) in Pozsony (Pressburg) and later in Buda, presided over by the palatine and anxious to protect the traditions of self-government in the Hungarian counties. But the royal court chancellery was in Vienna where the king, or queen, was under the influence of Austrian officials. In their opposition to the trend toward absolute government, the Hungarians used to have the support of the estates of Croatia which continued to occupy an autonomous position. But here, too, the frontier districts were under a German controlled military administration, even after the final peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire which was concluded in 1739.

    That treaty deprived Hungary of the temporary gains in the Balkans made in the Treaty of Passarowitz in 1718 after another victorious war and fixed the frontier along the Sava-Danube line, continued toward the east by the Carpathians of southern Transylvania. This frontier, as in general all boundaries of historic Hungary, was to remain unchanged until the Treaty of Trianon in 1918, and the geographic unity of that whole large territory was another element which made impossible a complete absorption by the centralizing policy of Vienna.

    That policy entered a particularly aggressive phase, however, when Maria Theresa was succeeded by Joseph II. The new king wanted to abolish even the old county system and he decided to divide the whole country into ten districts under royal commissioners. An even greater mistake was his language decree of 1784. Latin, which had always remained the official language of Hungary, was to be replaced by German. Just as in the case of Bohemia, this was to be a radical measure for enforcing the administrative unity of all Habsburg possessions, but here, where German was much less known, the planned reform proved completely impracticable. Rather, it was a challenge to turn to the use of the Magyar language in connection with the general cultural revival of the country.

    This revival was to a large extent based upon the cosmopolitan ideas of the Enlightenment and combined with a lively interest in French ideas, as represented by the foremost writer of the whole generation, George Bessenyei. But while these intellectual leaders were in sympathy with some of the liberal ideas of Joseph II, they even more strongly opposed his violations of constitutional and national rights. And when his campaign against the Turks in 1788-1789 ended in failure, shortly before his death he had to revoke all his edicts except those which guaranteed religious tolerance and the improvement of the lot of the peasants.

    His successor, Leopold II, had to face such dissatisfaction in Hungary that, even more than in Bohemia, he had to make far-reaching concessions, undoing his brother’s efforts. In the compromise of 1791 it was recognized that in spite of the Pragmatic Sanction Hungary was a regnum liberum where the king could govern only in conformity with the laws passed by the Diet. But on the other hand, alarmed by the attitude of the Magyar nobility, Vienna continued to oppose the other nationalities to the Hungarians, and the tension continued under Francis II, whose younger brother had been made palatine of Hungary in 1791.

    Strangely enough, it was under the pretext of the historic rights of the medieval kings of Hungary that the Habsburgs claimed their share in the partitions of Poland. But the “Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria,” thus acquired, was never attached to Hungary. On the contrary, thanks to that formerly Polish province, Austria was also to surround Hungary from the north, and ties of sympathy and sometimes also of active cooperation were to develop between the defenders of what remained of Hungary’s freedom and those who fought for the independence of Poland after the three partitions which seemed to annihilate the last fully independent country of East Central Europe.

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