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15: The Partitions of Poland and the Eastern Question

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The three partitions of Poland, in 1772, 1793, and 1795, entirely eliminated one of the largest and oldest countries of Europe and completed the absorption of a whole region of Europe by neighboring empires. The western, German section of Central Europe and Russian Eastern Europe now for the first time became immediate neighbors, and the increase in power of the three partners in the dismemberment was not accompanied by any similar advance of the countries of Western Europe. Therefore that process, unique in history, completely destroyed the balance-of-power system and at the very time when the French Revolution shook the European state system in the West, the equally revolutionary action against Poland created a tension in the East which also affected the whole Continent.

    It may seem, however, that all this is true only with regard to the final and total partition of 1795 and also the preceding one which two years before created a situation which could not possibly endure, since what was then left of  Poland had obviously no chance to survive. The first partition, more than twenty years earlier, meant, on the contrary, only a territorial loss which, though considerable, and suffered under unprecedented conditions, seemed to leave to the remaining center of the commonwealth, still a very large country, possibilities of development, utilized in an unusually successful reform movement that was both constitutional and cultural.

    Yet the difference between the two crises is more apparent than real. The national revival which made the last two partitions particularly shocking had to a large extent already started before the first one. Furthermore, the partitioning powers, at least the two responsible leaders of the whole political action, Russia and Prussia, whose interference with Polish affairs had so long delayed the execution of any reform projects and had limited it so severely in the years before the first partition, were already determined in these years to destroy Poland’s independence altogether. They considered their annexations of 1772 as only a first step in that direction.

    There can be no doubt that the idea of destroying Poland through a series of partitions originated in Prussia, which could not possibly envisage controlling all of Poland by herself. Such control of the whole country was, on the contrary, the original aim of Russia. It can be traced back as far as Peter the Great’s reign, and it still appeared clearly in the first part of that of Catherine II when Count Nikita Panin was her main collaborator in the field of foreign relations. But Frederick the Great, taking advantage of the Prussian-Russian alliance, which in 1769 he proposed to extend until 1780, tried to find out at the same time, through Count Lynar‘s mission to St. Petersburg, whether Russia would not agree to a simultaneous annexation of Polish territories by all three neighbors. After a rather vague but by no means negative answer on that first occasion, Catherine II, two years later, in January 1771, receiving at her court Prince Henry of Prussia, the brother of Frederick the Great, no longer hesitated to discuss the proposed transaction in detail.

    From the Russian point of view this was a change of attitude and a concession which cannot be exclusively explained by Catherine’s first war with Turkey, which was still far from a successful end. Even that war was originally the consequence of a strong resistance against Russian control and interference which had at last started in Poland. It was precisely that unexpected resistance which made the empress give up the plan of an absorption of the whole commonwealth by Russia alone.

    That resistance was unexpected for two different reasons. First, Catherine had hoped that her former lover, whom she had made king of Poland, would prove completely subservient. But Poniatowski, now King Stanislaw II, in spite of his many shortcomings, took his new responsibilities very seriously. He even made an attempt at an independent foreign policy through a rapprochement with Austria and France, both of which had opposed his election. And he continued the efforts toward constitutional reforms, which had started during the interregnum under the leadership of his uncles, the princes Czartoryski, and which included the abolition of the liberum veto, beginning with majority rule in financial matters where drastic changes were particularly needed. Unfortunately for Poland and her king, even before Frederick the Great won over Catherine II for his partition project, he reached a full agreement with her in a matter which was to completely distort the whole reform movement.

    While opposing the most urgent reforms of a constitution which they had decided to “guarantee,” the two powerful neighbors started to enforce, through a joint interference with Poland’s internal problems, the abolition of all legal restrictions which gradually had limited the civic rights of the “Dissidents.” Among these religious minorities, Catherine II wanted to protect the Orthodox, and Frederick II the Protestants. Other Protestant powers, particularly Britain and Denmark, were induced to participate in their protests, although the non-Catholics of Poland enjoyed much more religious liberty than the Catholics in most of the non-Catholic states. As a matter of fact, the whole matter was nothing but a pretext for controlling Poland through the Russian ambassador, Prince Repnin, who did not hesitate to arrest and deport four members of the Polish parliament who most decidedly opposed his requests.

    The king himself, strongly influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment and fully tolerant in religious matters, would have been for a compromise and for making it acceptable to the nation, but Russia now took advantage of the profound cleavage between a foreign imposed ruler and the majority of the people. Not only the Confederations of the small group of non-Catholic nobles, but also the Confederation of Radom, in that same year of 1767, which apparently united the opposition against both Poniatowski and foreign pressure in favor of the “Dissidents,” were inspired by Russia with a view to creating a state of anarchy.

    But when, early in 1768, the Diet was forced to proclaim “fundamental” laws which gave the “Dissidents” full equality and at the same time made intangible the elective character of the monarchy and the unlimited use of the liberum veto, the answer of the Polish patriots was another confederation, this time directed against Russian control. It was concluded in Bar, a frontier town in Podolia, under the leadership of Bishop Krasinski and the Pulaski family, and must be considered the first of so many Polish struggles for national independence. That revolt in defense of faith and freedom was the other unexpected reaction which disturbed Russia’s projects—unexpected because it came after the long years of apathy under Saxon rule and testified to a real national revival among the masses of the gentry.

    The heroic fight of the Bar Confederates, spreading all over Poland, lasted four years but had no chance of success. First, because inspired by opponents of the king, it never came to an understanding with him. A hopeless attempt at kidnaping Poniatowski only harmed the cause of the patriots and seemed to justify the cooperation of royal troops with the Russians who were determined to crush the “rebellion.” Furthermore, the hopes of the confederation to obtain foreign support against the overwhelming forces of Catherine II were disappointed to a large extent. From France, whose attitude seemed decisive, came only a small group of military advisers whose cooperation was of little help and which sometimes even contributed to the confusion in the leadership of the movement. Turkey, it is true, declared war upon Russia in the year 1768. She was alarmed by the situation along her northern border which was obviously leading to Russian predominance, but she did not do it in Poland’s interest at all. That war continued for six years on various distant fronts. Indeed it diverted Russia’s attention and forces, but it could not prevent the final defeat of the confederates. Among their leaders who had to go into exile, Casimir Pulaski became famous in the American Revolution, but the Polish Revolution which had preceded it only served as one more pretext for punishing a country which was in a state of civil war.

    The first step in the direction of partial dismemberment was taken by a neighbor who, unlike Russia and Prussia, had no interest whatever in Poland’s gradual destruction and had even seemed to the Confederates to be another prospective ally. Already in 1769 Austrian forces had occupied the cities of the Spisz region, in northern Hungary, which for three and a half centuries had belonged to Poland. Crossing the Carpathians under pretext of sanitary control, the Austrians continued to advance farther into the southern provinces of the commonwealth. These had been contemplated, as Austria’s compensation for Russia’s and Prussia’s gains in the planned partition, if not by Maria Theresa, at least by her son, Joseph II, and her chancellor, Count Kaunitz.

    The final partition treaties made by all three powers were not signed before August 5, 1772, when Czestochowa, the famous shrine defended to the last by the Confederates, had been taken by the Russians. But already on February 17 of that fateful year, the agreement between Catherine II and Frederick II was secretly concluded and the annexations of Polish territory outlined. Russia’s share, which was the largest, gave her a better frontier along the upper Dvina and Dnieper rivers. No ethnic considerations whatever determined that occupation of an arbitrarily chosen part of White Ruthenian lands, together with the Polish corner of Livonia, which was important for Russia as a hinterland of the port of Riga. Strangely enough, the losses which Russia had suffered because so many of her serfs were escaping across the Polish border was given as the main justification. Even a harder blow for Poland were the Austrian annexation of Galicia, a name which was artificially given not only to the Halich region in the east, with Lwow as main center, claimed in the name of medieval rights of the Hungarian crown, but also to the western part of the new province, the south of Little Poland to the upper Vistula and to the gates of Cracow. Poland lost not only her natural frontier in the south along the Carpathian mountains, however, but also, in the north, her access to the Baltic Sea, because Prussia’s smallest, but particularly precious share included, with a district of Great Poland, almost the whole of Polish Pomerania, that “Royal Prussia” which had separated East Prussia from the other Hohenzollern possession. It is true that not only Torun but also the great port of Danzig was left to Poland, but that port was completely cut off from her remaining territory and henceforth was at Prussia’s mercy.

    Accepted without any protest by the other European countries in spite of a desperate appeal which Stanislaw Poniatowski sent to the King of England, that first dismemberment dictated by the three partners had to be ratified by the Polish Diet. That disgraceful transaction was accomplished the next year under the strongest pressure of Russian troops which only one courageous deputy dared to challenge and in vain. Even worse was the fact that these Russian troops now remained in what was left of Poland, supporting the position of the Russian ambassador in Warsaw who pretended to be the real master of the country. It seemed, therefore, that at the price of abandoning some Polish territories to two German powers, Russia had not only gained other territories for herself but she had also realized her first objective to a large extent. This was to turn all that continued to be called Poland into her protectorate.

    Why the internal development of that mutilated Poland turned during the following twenty years in the opposite direction, that must be studied in connection with the general situation in East Central Europe.


The Eastern question, even in the specific meaning of the problem of the Straits and the control of the Balkans, is as old as European history. It was a particularly urgent problem, even affecting the whole East Central European region, at the time of the rise of Ottoman power. So long as that power was solidly established on both sides of the Straits and in the whole Balkan Peninsula, there seemed to be no Eastern question in the usual sense. For several centuries that question was superseded by the much more alarming issue of defending Europe against a further Turkish advance. But when that advance turned into a gradual retreat, and when a partition of at least the European possessions of the Ottoman Empire seemed possible and even imminent, the Eastern question reappeared under that very name, and since medieval traditions are so frequently disregarded, that question is sometimes considered a practically new development in international relations that are typical of the later eighteenth and the following century.

    In this interpretation the two Turkish wars of Catherine II of Russia seem to be at the very origin of the Eastern question. Indeed, they caused a momentous change in the situation of Southeastern Europe. Therefore these wars affected the balance of power in Europe as a whole, and their impact was even more fully realized in this respect than that of the simultaneous partitions of Poland. Both series of events are, however, intimately connected with each other, and were it only for that reason, these two wars, in the second of which the Habsburg monarchy also participated, largely belong to the history of East Central Europe.

    They also belong to that history for another reason. They were fought by the empires which always influenced the destinies of the peoples of East Central Europe in one way or another, and one of the issues was indeed which of these peoples would be liberated or conquered, or which would change their master in consequence of these wars. That problem is perhaps even more important than the usual aspects of the so-called Eastern question if considered from the point of view of the big powers only.

    The first war which Catherine II had to conduct against Turkey and which had started in 1768 in connection with her Polish policy, was chiefly fought in regions far away from Poland. When it was concluded in 1774 by the Kuchuk Kainarji Treaty, the first partition of Poland was already an accomplished fact. That fact, and more particularly the annexation of Galicia by Austria, also made it possible for the latter to claim a share in what seemed to be a first partition of Turkey, the northwestern corner of Turkish-controlled Moldavia called the Bukovina. Henceforth there were Rumanians not only under Hungarian but also under Austrian rule.

    The Rumanians of Moldavia and Wallachia had expected something different: liberation from Turkish rule, which Russia’s victories seemed to make possible for all the Orthodox peoples of the Balkans. Even the Greeks, far in the South, were stirred by the spectacular appearance of a Russian fleet in 1770, which after an amazing voyage all round Europe came from the Baltic Sea into the Aegean and defeated the Turkish navy off the Greek coast. But the only territorial changes which were really made in consequence of the long war were in the steppes north of the Black Sea where Russia, without yet reaching that sea directly, advanced her southern frontier and gained a new area of colonization east of the Ukraine. Her hold of the Ukraine on the left bank of the Dnieper was thus strengthened, and the final liquidation of the last traces of Cozack autonomy was accelerated. Furthermore, the Khanate of the Crimea, which had been a vassal of Turkey for three hundred years, was now declared independent, and in view of the general situation this was only a step in the direction of Russian control over that state which once had been a permanent threat to her as well as to Poland.

    Most significant for the future, however, was another article of the Kuchuk-Kainarji Treaty which for the first time gave Russia the right to interfere in case of a violation of the religious freedom of the sultan’s Orthodox subjects. That unilateral guaranty of their privileges by the great Orthodox Empire was a recognition of Russia’s unique position in the Balkans. It confirmed these peoples in the conviction that an improvement of their situation, possibly leading to eventual liberation from the Turkish yoke, could only be achieved through Russian interference. Even before that liberation and before any change in the existing frontiers, these populations were thus becoming a pawn in the game of the big powers.

    Along with the first partition of Poland and what seemed to be permanent Russian control of the rest of that country, the peace of 1774 contributed so much to Catherine’s prestige that five years later she could act as mediator in the Austro-Prussian rivalry in German affairs. But her main interest seemed to be in the Eastern question which had been only temporarily settled. The annexation of the Crimea in 1783, which at last made Russia a Black Sea power also, and her obvious preparations for another conflict with Turkey, induced the Ottoman Empire to start a preventive war again in 1788.

    This time the implications were even greater. While the King of Poland came in vain, and under rather humiliating conditions, to visit the empress in Kaniow, at the Dnieper border, and was not permitted to join the campaign, Emperor Joseph II, who also visited Catherine II, entered the war on her side in order to share in the spoils. His participation, however, made the growing Austro-Russian rivalry in the Balkans even more apparent. Being quite unsuccessful from the military point of view, it led to a separate peace that was concluded with Turkey long before Russia, after a series of important victories, at least partly reached her own objectives in the Peace Treaty of Yassy in 1792.

    The hopes of the Balkan populations, especially of the Rumanians, were again disappointed. Although the Russian armies reached the Danube, where the fortress of Ismail was temporarily taken, this time, too, the Ottoman Empire made no territorial concessions in that region. But in addition to the Crimea, Russia obtained access to the Black Sea east and west of that peninsula, and the question as to how wide that access would be was the most controversial issue not only in the negotiations between the two conflicting powers but also in the opinion of all those who in Western Europe became concerned with Catherine’s rapid progress. While nobody questioned her conquest of distant Azov, her determination to keep the port and fortress of Ochakov, which had been conquered after a long siege by Field Marshal Suvorov, almost provoked a general European crisis, although the place—not far from present-day Odessa—had been practically unknown in the West.

    Once a port of the Jagellonian federation in the fifteenth century, then for a long time in Turkish hands, Ochakov indeed to a great extent controlled the Black Sea coast between the mouths of the Dnieper and Dniester rivers. Therefore William Pitt the Younger decided to make Russia’s claim to that place an issue which he placed before the British Parliament in March, 1791. The majority which supported him in that matter was so small, however, that he could not risk the danger of a war against Russia and gave up his protest. That British withdrawal greatly facilitated Catherine’s success at Yassy where Russia obtained a long shore line along the Black Sea, including Ochakov.

    It was easy for the opposition leader, Fox, to argue that the question of Ochakov could hardly affect the balance of power in Europe, and for Edmund Burke to wonder whether the Ottoman Empire could be considered a member of the European state system at all. But though the issue as such was badly chosen, there could be no doubt that Catherine’s second victorious war against Turkey, with much more important territorial gains than after the first and with new possibilities for interference with the Balkan problems, basically affected the whole Eastern question, and also indirectly the situation in the Mediterranean, in which Britain was always so deeply interested. Furthermore, Russia’s advance in that direction was only part of an old process of expansion, greatly accelerated under the ambitious empress, which encircled East Central Europe from the South and from the North. Facilitated by these pincer movements, the main drive was directed through East Central Europe toward the heart of the Continent.

    In the midst of her second Turkish war, Catherine II had indeed to fight a shorter and less spectacular war in the North, in the Baltic region where the change along the Black Sea had immediate repercussions. Sweden also thought it a propitious moment to start a preventive war, hoping again to reconquer the lost territory at the Finnish border. That hope failed once more, and the Treaty of Väräla in 1790 merely confirmed the status quo. For Sweden, which under the poor reign of Gustavus III and amidst a serious internal crisis was, just like Poland, threatened in her survival as an independent nation, even such a result was almost satisfactory. Were it only for geographical reasons she proved to be safer from Russian conquest and less important for the progress of Russian expansion than either Turkey or Poland. However, with Sweden eliminated as a possible member of an anti-Russian coalition, it was not only easier for Russia to force harsh peace conditions upon Turkey but the time had also arrived when Catherine II could at last concentrate all her military and diplomatic forces against Poland.

    At the same time, Pitt’s idea of a federal system uniting all countries of the northern part of Europe against the rising power of Russia—an idea which could have saved Poland—lost much of its chance of success and was soon abandoned altogether in view of Britain’s growing concern with the much nearer problems of the French Revolution. Even the Eastern question, with all its Mediterranean implications, could now seem almost secondary, and in spite of his occasional talks with Polish diplomats, Pitt never realized that the gradual elimination of Poland would upset the balance of power much more than the decline of Turkey, or rather that it would destroy that balance completely.

    It is true that during most of the breathing space granted to Poland between the first and the second partition, her diplomacy had continued to be rather passive, and that the king’s attempts to obtain for his country the possibility of participating in the solution of the Eastern question were a total failure. But during all these years both Stanislaw Poniatowski and the Polish nation, which now recognized him universally, made a tremendous effort to take advantage of Russia’s absorption in other problems in order to at last achieve the badly needed constitutional reforms, accompanied by a remarkable revival of Polish culture.

    That revival, conspicuous in the field of literature and art where the king proved to be an outstanding patron, was even more important in the field of education which is inseparable from the most urgent problems of political and social progress. The reforms accomplished by the Commission of National Education, which was created immediately after the first partition and is frequently called the first Ministry of Education in European history, changed the whole intellectual atmosphere of the country. To a large extent it explains why, on the eve of the second partition, that country was quite different from the dark years of Saxon rule. Decisive, however, was the convocation in 1788, just at the beginning of the Russian-Turkish war, of the so-called Great Diet. This remained in session for four years, gave Poland a new constitution without any break with the national tradition, and also tried to give her a new, constructive foreign policy. It was the failure of that policy, however, unavoidable in the European situation of these years, which made all internal achievements futile and raised another Eastern, or rather East Central European, question which, parallel to the French Revolution, inaugurated a new period of European history.


If the defects of her constitution had been the real cause of Poland’s fall, she should have been saved by the comprehensive reforms of the Four Years’ Diet. The work of that assembly was praised by many contemporaries in the Western countries because, though revolutionary in its results, it was accomplished without any violence through well-balanced evolutionary methods. It was even more remarkable that those who carried out such a far-reaching reform program, the representatives of the nobility and gentry, did it at the expense of their own privileged position and to the advantage of the community and the other classes of society. Only one of the political writers who inspired the whole movement, Stanislaw Staszic, was himself a burgher. But the personal initiative and cooperation of the king also proved extremely helpful.

    He himself had little to gain from the basic change in favor of the monarchy which was declared hereditary in order to avoid the troubles of “free” elections in the face of foreign interference. For it was not the family of the childless Poniatowski, but the Saxon house which was chosen as the hereditary dynasty to succeed after his death. Whether this was a wise decision is questionable in view of the sad experiences made with the two Augustuses, but it shows the desire to assure the continuity of traditions which were merely adapted to new conditions and not altogether rejected.

    It was more important, however, that the strengthening of royal authority, so badly needed, was skillfully combined with the modern conception of parliamentary government based upon a clear distinction of the three powers, legislative, executive, and judicial. The total abolition of the liberum veto, now replaced by majority rule, did away with the main distortion of a parliamentary tradition of which the nation was otherwise so rightly proud. Modernized was also the functioning of the ministries, the whole cabinet being placed under the control of a special body called the Guard of the Laws. These central departments were now common for both the kingdom of Poland in the proper sense and the grand duchy of Lithuania, but that step in the direction of unification of the commonwealth was combined with a reaffirmation of the equality of both constituent parts, by now completely assimilated in their general culture and way of life.

    Reaffirmed was also the respect for the traditional position of the Catholic church and for the rights of the nobles. But the former did not affect the full religious freedom of all other denominations, now guaranteed without foreign pressure, and the latter were made accessible to the burghers through a special bill in favor of the cities, which was declared part of the constitution. The representatives of the cities were now to share in the legislative power of the Diet in all matters concerning their interests, and admission into the szlachta was greatly facilitated. It is true that serfdom was not yet abolished, but a solemn declaration in favor of the peasants emphasized their importance for society at large, contrary to inveterate prejudices. All new settlers were promised complete freedom, and the others were placed under the protection of the law which made binding the numerous individual contracts concluded between landowners and peasants with a view to improving the situation of the latter.

    After long discussions, already conducted under the majority rule—the Diet having been made a “confederation”—the new constitution was voted on May 3, 1791, with only a very small minority in opposition. It was at once solemnly sworn in a ceremony which closely associated the king and the nation, and it can be well compared with the almost contemporary American and French constitutions whose influence undoubtedly accelerated the native reform trends, making clearly apparent Poland’s intimate connection with the Western world once more.

    There was, however, a great difference which resulted from the obvious fact that the United States of America, though only recently liberated from foreign rule, and France, though threatened by foreign invasions amidst revolutionary excesses and émigré activities, were in a much less dangerous international situation than Poland, placed as she was between two equally hostile neighbors, Russia and Prussia. The Great Diet was fully aware of that situation, and even before adopting the new constitution it was unanimously decided to raise the armed forces of the country to the figure of a hundred thousand men, great progress if compared with the almost complete disarmament of Poland which can be traced back to the Russian intervention of 1717.

    But even so the Polish army, which could not reach that increased number immediately, remained much smaller than either the Russian or even the Prussian, and it was obviously helpless against a joint action by both. There appeared, therefore, the diplomatic problem of coming to an understanding with at least one of the dangerous neighbors.

    Since the king’s attempts to appease Catherine II had always failed, the so-called Patriotic Party, which was chiefly responsible for the constitutional reforms, decided in favor of an alliance with Prussia. This was concluded on March 29, 1790. That alliance was indeed exclusively defensive, but even so it was of rather doubtful value from the outset because Prussia only waited for an opportunity to annex more Polish territories, beginning with the cities of Danzig and Torun. Nobody in Poland was prepared to pay such a price, and the project of Frederick William II’s minister, von Herzberg, to obtain these cities by having Galicia restored to Poland never had any serious chance of acceptance by Austria in spite of the compensations promised to Vienna. Nevertheless the treaty with Prussia seemed to be a guaranty against Russian aggression because it included Poland in the group of countries allied with Britain. For that very reason the value of the Polish-Prussian alliance was already greatly reduced when a year later the decisive turn in Pitt’s policy, connected with the Eastern question, made it obvious that no British support against Russia could be expected. The real test came in 1792, however, when Catherine II, after making peace with Turkey, was ready to punish the Poles for having changed their constitution without her permission.

    A small reactionary opposition against the Constitution of 1791, led by no more than three magnates who succeeded in getting only ten additional signatures for their “confederation” concluded in Targowica, offered the empress a convenient pretext for invading Poland in defense of her “freedom” against a “Jacobin” conspiracy. Even more disingenuous was the pretext invoked by the king of Prussia when he refused to honor the alliance. It had been concluded with a republic and could not bind him with respect to the monarchy established in 1791. Instead of supporting Poland, he sided with Russia in order to gain as much as possible of Poland’s territory by means of another partition which had already been discussed in secret negotiations.

    Under these conditions the resistance of the Polish army under Prince Joseph Poniatowski, the king’s nephew, and Thaddeus Kosciuszko, already famous, thanks to his participation in the American Revolution, was doomed to failure in spite of initial successes. To make things worse, the king lost his courage and joined the pro-Russian Confederation of Targowica, thus giving it the appearance of legality and making possible the cancellation of all constitutional reforms. Once more his policy of appeasement proved disastrous and could not prevent the second partition of Poland, carried out in 1793, this time without the participation of Austria, which during the whole crisis and particularly under Leopold II had been rather friendly. Again the Russian share was larger than the Prussian, extending as far as a line from the eastern tip of Curland to the Austrian border and cutting off all the White Ruthenian and Ukrainian lands that still remained to the commonwealth. In addition to Danzig and Torun, Prussia claimed the whole western half of Great Poland.

    Coming after the break of the alliance, that claim was particularly resented by the Poles so that even the Diet, convoked at Grodno after Russian-controlled elections and resigned to approve the Russian annexations, refused to ratify the Prussian contention. Terrorized by Russian forces, the deputies remained silent, but eventually that silence was interpreted as consent. Under such circumstances it was unavoidable that the rest of Poland, in its artificial boundaries, would be treated as a Russian protectorate. But for that very reason and under the influence of the internal revival that set in between the first and the second partition, immediately after the latter a strong resistance movement began which found an inspiring leader in the person of Kosciuszko.

    Though insufficiently prepared, his insurrection, which openly started in Cracow on March 23, 1794, seemed to develop successfully when the Russians suffered a first defeat at Raclawice and both Warsaw and Wilno liberated themselves a few days later. Particularly promising was the participation in the struggle for independence of both townsmen and peasants. Kosciuszko’s manifesto of May 7, issued at Polaniec, was a decisive step toward the complete abolition of serfdom. Although he had practically dictatorial powers, he exercised them with great moderation, stopping occasional revolutionary excesses and taking no action against the helpless king. The situation became desperate, however, when the Prussians proved more interested in easy gains in the East than in fighting in the West against the French Revolution, which disappointed the Polish hopes for support and cooperation but which indirectly profited by the diversion of Prussian forces.

    These forces decided the battle of Szczekociny and besieged Warsaw until Kosciuszko suffered a final defeat at Maciejowice and the Russians under Suvorov stormed Praga. Terrified by the massacre in that suburb, the capital surrendered, and the whole insurrection, after spreading far into Prussian Poland under General Dabrowski, as well as to the eastern border of the commonwealth, ended in failure and served as an excuse for the total dismemberment of the country.

    This time, too, Austria, whose sympathy Kosciuszko had tried to gain, again claimed her share. She was afraid of the progress of the two other powers. After long negotiations, that share was reduced to the triangle between the Pilica and Bug rivers, a rather artificial addition to Galicia, which, however, included Cracow and almost reached Warsaw. Prussia, which tried in vain to annex the former city, after taking away the royal insignia, obtained the capital and reached the Niemen River, thus creating a new province of South-East Prussia. Russia took almost all that remained of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, including Curland, and the territories east of the Bug. Although most of the peasant population in the provinces annexed by Catherine II was White Ruthenian and Ukrainian, in addition to the Lithuanians, no ethnic considerations whatever determined the drawing of the new frontiers which arbitrarily divided a body politic that had existed for many centuries. An additional secret convention held in 1797 decided to eliminate forever the very name of Poland whose last king, forced to abdicate, died as an exile in St. Petersburg.

    The consequences of that dismemberment, unique in history, affected not only Poland and the peoples of the former commonwealth. The balance of power in Europe was deeply disturbed, although the Western powers, in conflict among themselves, were rather slow to realize it. Since the last country which in the course of modern history had remained free and independent in East Central Europe now disappeared, that whole region of the Continent simply ceased to exist. The German part of Central Europe now became the immediate neighbor of East European Russia, with only two possible alternatives: a German-Russian domination of Europe or a German-Russian conflict, impossible to localize. Which of these possibilities would prevail, this was to be the big issue of the following period of about a hundred and twenty years, decisive not only from the point of view of power politics but also for the fate of all the peoples of East Central Europe which after a proud medieval tradition now seemed to be completely submerged.

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