Basically weakened by the proud individualism of her nobility, and by economic stagnation through persistent serfdom, Poland had been unable to resist the three partitions (1772, 1793, 1795–96) that had divided her among Russia, Prussia, and Austria. She ceased to be a state, but continued as a culture rich in literature and art, and as a people passionately resolved to be free. They were nearly all Slavs, except for a pocket of Germans in the west, and a minority of Jews in Warsaw and the east. The Poles were Roman Catholics, fervent and dogmatic because that religion had supported them in their grief, had inspired them in their hopes, and had preserved social order amid the ruin of their state. So they condemned heresy as treason, and their patriotism was intolerant. Only the best-educated and most comfortable among them could feel any brotherhood with the Jews who were rising in commerce and the professions—much less with those poorer Jews who, bearing the mark and miseries of the ghetto, could not believe that he in whose name they had been persecuted was the Messiah who had been promised them.
Christian and Jew alike marveled at Napoleon’s humiliation of Austria and Russia at Austerlitz, still more at his victories over the Prussians at Jena and Auerstedt; and now, 1806, he was sitting in Berlin, sending orders to half a continent. He had chastened Poland’s despoilers; he was on his way to fight Russia; might he not, en route, declare Poland free, give her a king and a constitution, and the promise of his powerful protection? A delegation of leading Poles went to appeal to him; he sent them back with polite assurances that he would help them now as much as he could, but that the liberation of Poland would have to wait upon the results of his coming confrontation with Russia.
Kosciusko, the most persevering of the Polish patriots, cautioned his countrymen not to put their hopes in Napoleon. “He thinks only of himself. He hates every great nationality, and still more the spirit of independence. He is a tyrant, and his only aim is to satisfy his own ambition.” When Napoleon sent to inquire what Kosciusko wanted, the Polish leader answered: A government like England’s, freedom of the serfs, and a Poland ruling from Danzig to Hungary, from Riga to Odessa.15
Meanwhile the Poles had organized a small army, and had expelled the Prussians from Warsaw. When Napoleon entered the capital on December 19, 1806, the populace gave him a wild and joyous reception; Polish troops joined his army, eager to fight under him against Russia, as a Polish legion had already fought for him in Italy. Perhaps the Emperor appreciated still more the beauty and grace of the Polish women. Mme. Walewska, who at first gave herself to him as a patriotic sacrifice, fell deeply in love with him, and remained with him through the severe winter that nearly destroyed his army at Eylau. Then she returned to Warsaw, while he went on to defeat the Russians at Friedland.
At the Peace of Tilsit (July 9, 1807) he compelled Frederick William III to surrender Prussia’s claims to central Poland. Article IV of the treaty recognized the new grand duchy of Warsaw as an independent state to be ruled by the King of Saxony. On July 22 Napoleon gave the duchy a constitution based on the French, establishing equality before the law, religious toleration, conscription, higher taxes, and censorship of the press. The Catholic Church was placed under the authority of the state, but the state accepted and protected the Catholic faith as the religion of the Polish people. The constitution gave full rights to the Jews, but required state authorization of their marriages and their acquisition of land.16 Napoleon, foreseeing a war to the death with Alexander, tempered the Polish Constitution to ensure Polish support of France.
In this matter his calculation was largely justified. When Armageddon came, all classes in Poland supported Napoleon until, in 1814, he could no longer protect them. The Polish legions in his various armies fought for him to their last breath. When, returning from Russia in the greatest military disaster in history, many Poles were drowned in the collapse of a bridge over the Berezina, some of them cried, “Vive l’Empereur!” as they sank to their death.