IV. THE FIRST PARTITION: 1768-72

Polish patriots and priests agreed with Frederick in not accepting the situation. The Roman Catholic clergy forcefully condemned the surrender of Poland’s autonomy to a Russian infidel. Adam Krasiński, bishop of Kamieniec, and Józef Pulaski (father of the Casimir Pulaski who fought for America) roused the Poles, by sermons and pamphlets, to reassert their political freedom and religious dictatorship. Within a week after the surrender of the Diet to Repnin a group of Poles formed (February 29, 1768) the Confederation of Bar—a town on the Dniester in the Polish Ukraine. The magnates who financed the movement were inspired by hatred of Catherine and the King; the “imbecile mass,” as Frederick called their followers, burned with zeal for the one true faith; and this ardor was voiced by poets lamenting, in somber threnodies, the humiliation of Poland and the “apostasy” of its King. Arms and funds were sent to the patriots by Turkey and Austria, and Dumouriez came from France to organize them into fighting units. Poles who wished to restore the Saxon dynasty entered the movement, which soon spread to scattered points throughout the land; “All Poland is on fire,” Repnin reported to Catherine. Poniatowski thought of joining the Confederation, but the hotheads in it frightened him away by demanding his deposition, if not his death.29 If we may believe Voltaire,30 thirty confederates took an oath at Czéstochowa:

We, excited by a holy and religious zeal, having resolved to avenge the Deity, religion, and our country, outraged by Stanislas Augustus, a despiser of laws both divine and human, a favorer of atheists and heretics, do promise and swear, before the sacred and miraculous image of the Mother of God, to extirpate from the face of the earth him who dishonors her by trampling upon religion.... So help us God!

Repnin ordered Russian troops to suppress the rebellion. They drove the confederates over the Turkish border, and burned a Turkish town; Turkey declared war upon Russia (1768), and demanded Russian evacuation and liberation of Poland. Cossacks took advantage of the turmoil to invade the Polish Ukraine, killing landlords, Jewish stewards, Roman Catholic or Protestant peasants in an orgy of indiscriminate slaughter; in one town they slew sixteen thousand men, women, and children. The confederates retaliated by murdering all available Russians and Dissidents, so that Protestants and Jews suffered double jeopardy. Altogether in those years (1768-70), fifty thousand inhabitants of Poland died by massacre or war.31

All sides now began to talk of partition. The confederates were charged by their enemies with having agreed to divide Poland between themselves and their allies.32 In February, 1769, Frederick sent to St. Petersburg a proposal for dividing Poland among Russia, Prussia, and Austria; Catherine replied that if Prussia and Austria would help Russia to expel the Turks from Europe, she would consent to Prussian appropriation of that part of Poland which separated mainland Prussia from East Prussia—the remainder of Poland to be under a Russian protectorate;33 Frederick demurred. Choiseul, for France, suggested to Austria that it should seize Polish territory adjoining Hungary: Austria thought it a good idea in a good time, and in April, 1769, it occupied the Polish province of Spiż, which had been mortgaged to Poland by Hungary in 1412 and had never been redeemed.34 In 1770 the Turks, then at war as a defender of Poland, proposed to Austria a partition of Poland between Austria and Turkey.35

While these negotiations were proceeding, the Western powers resigned themselves to the partitioning of Poland as the fated result of her political chaos, her religious animosities, and her military impotence; u the catastrophe was recognized as inevitable by every Continental statesman.”36 But the anti-Confederation Poles at this time sent a member of the Diet to ask the socialist philosophe Mably and the antiphilosophe Rousseau to draw up tentative constitutions for a new Poland. Mably submitted his recommendations in 1770-71; Rousseau finished his Constitution of Poland in April, 1772—two months after the first partition treaty had been signed.

The Confederation of Bar had some moments of ecstasy before its collapse. In March, 1770, from the Turkish city of Varna, it proclaimed the deposition of Poniatowski. On November 3, 1771, some confederates intercepted him as he was leaving the house of an uncle at night, overpowered his escort, shot one of them dead, dragged the King out of his carriage, cut his head with a saber blow, and abducted him from the capital. In the forest of Bielny they were attacked by a patrol; in the melee Poniatowski escaped, and communicated with the Royal Guards, who came and escorted him, disheveled and bloody, back to his palace at five o’clock in the morning. All chances of reconciliation between the government and the Confederation disappeared. Poniatowski fell back upon Russian aid, and the Confederation was suppressed, leaving a remnant in Turkey—the Crescent protecting the Cross (1772).37

Meanwhile the advance of Russia’s armies to the Black Sea and the Danube disturbed both Prussia and Austria. Neither Frederick II nor Joseph II took pleasure in contemplating Russian control of the Black Sea, much less of Constantinople. By treaties of 1764 and 1766 Prussia had pledged help to Russia if Russia should be attacked; Turkey was formally the aggressor in the Russo-Turkish war of 1768; Prussia was now endangering its solvency by sending subsidies to Russia. Austria, resenting the entry of Russian forces into Wallachia, was threatening to ally itself with Turkey against Russia; in that case Russia would expect Prussia to attack Austria. But Frederick had had enough of war. He had fought two wars to take and hold Silesia; why risk it now? He preferred diplomacy. Perhaps the three powers could be appeased with servings of Polish soil? As things were going, with the Russian ambassador the real ruler of Poland, it was only a matter of time till Russia would completely absorb the country, under whatever phrase. Was it still possible to prevent this? Yes, if Catherine would consent to take only eastern Poland, to let Frederick take western Poland, and to withdraw from the Danube. Would a share in the spoils moderate Joseph’s belligerency?

In January, 1771, Prince Henry, Frederick’s brother, proposed the plan to the Russian diplomats at St. Petersburg. Panin objected that Russia had guaranteed the territorial integrity of Poland; he was reminded that this guarantee was conditional upon Poland’s adherence to her new constitution and her alliance with Russia, and this adherence had ceased when so many deputies joined the rebellious Confederation of Bar. Even so, Catherine was reluctant. Why give Frederick a part of Poland when she might soon take all? Why strengthen Prussia with additional territory, resources, Baltic ports, and more six-foot troops? But she did not want to fight Frederick; he had 180,000 men in arms; she preferred to have him keep Joseph from uniting with Turkey against Russia. Her present goal was not Poland but the Black Sea. On January 8, 1771, almost casually at a party, she indicated to Henry her tentative consent to Frederick’s scheme.

A year passed before negotiation could settle the division of the spoils. Frederick wanted Danzig; Catherine objected; so did Britain, whose Baltic commerce anchored on that port. Meanwhile Austria mobilized, and secretly allied itself with Turkey. On February 17, 1772, Frederick and Catherine signed a “convention” for the partition of Poland. Catherine softened Joseph by renouncing all Russian claims to Wallachia and Moldavia; and the failure of the 1771 harvest had made it impossible for him to feed his troops. On the other hand, Maria Theresa was using all her tears to keep her son from joining in the rape. Frederick and Catherine forced his hand by beginning actual seizure of their self-assigned terrain. On August 5, 1772, Joseph added his signature to the partition pact.

The treaty, after invoking the Blessed Trinity, agreed to let Poland keep two thirds of her soil and one third of her population. Austria took southern Poland between Volhynia and the Carpathians, with Galicia and western Podolia—27,000 square miles, 2,700,000 souls. Russia took “White Russia” (eastern Poland to the Dvina and the Dnieper)—36,000 square miles, 1,800,-000 souls. Prussia took “West Prussia,” excepting Danzig and Thorn—13,000 square miles, 600,000 souls. Frederick took the smallest share, but he had bound the conspirators to peace, and had “sewed together,” as he put it, West Prussia and East Prussia with Brandenburg. After all, said the patriotic Treitschke, this was merely restoring to Germany “the stronghold of the … Teutonic Order, the lovely Weichsal Valley, which in days of yore the German knights had wrested from the barbarians.”38 Frederick reminded Europe that the population of West Prussia was predominantly German and Protestant, and Catherine pointed out that the region she had taken was peopled almost entirely by Russian-speaking Greek Catholics.39

The three powers soon occupied their shares with troops. Poniatowski appealed to the Western powers to prevent the partition; they were too busy; France was expecting war with England, and hesitated to oppose her ally Austria; England faced incipient revolt in America, with danger from France and Spain; George III advised Poniatowski to pray to God.40 The partitioning powers demanded that a Diet be called to confirm the new geography; Poniatowski temporized for a year; finally he summoned a Diet to meet at Grodno. Many nobles and prelates refused to attend; some who came and protested were sent to Siberia; others accepted bribes; the rump Diet changed itself into a confederation (in which majority rule was permitted by Polish law), and signed the treaty ceding the expropriated territories (September 18, 1773). Poniatowski, like Maria Theresa, wept and signed.

Western Europe accepted the first partition as the only alternative to the complete absorption of Poland by Russia. Some diplomats, we are told, “were startled by the moderation of the partners, who took only a third when the whole was theirs for the asking.”41The philosophes rejoiced that an intolerant Poland had been chastened by their enlightened despots; Voltaire hailed the partition as an historic repulse of l’infâme .42 It was, of course, the triumph of organized power over reactionary impotence.

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