Nobles' Republic Polish Partitions, 1772-1795

Poland : The Era of Liberty

A.) Poland during the Wars of the 17th and 18th century

Since Poland's Catholic Wasa kings did not give up their claim to the throne of Lutheran Sweden, relations between both countries were strained. Sweden, smaller in size, with a smaller population and a much smaller state revenue, had to regard a Catholic Wasa on Poland's throne as a permanent threat.
Gustavus II. Adolphus, crowned king shortly after the Swedish defeat in the BATTLE OF KLUSCHINO (1610), reorganized his army, and after ending the war with Russia in 1617, turned his attention on Poland. The Swedes took LIVONIA and in 1621 the city of RIGA. Then they turned southward, occupying the Duchy of Prussia, but failing to take DANZIG. The success of the Catholic League in the 30 Years War saved Poland. In order to concentrate it's forces on the Germany campaign, Sweden and Poland signed the TRUCE OF ALTMARK, according to which the Swedes evacuated most of the Duchy of Prussia, keeping only the coastal cities. Poland accepted Swedish rule over Livonia. In 1635 the truce was extended, but Sweden gave up the Prussian ports. Poland ceded most of Livonia with Riga, keeping the Daugavpils area (POLISH LIVONIA).
In 1654, Karl X. had been crowned King of Sweden. King Jan Casimir of Poland, still claiming the Swedish throne for himself, did not recognize him. A Swedish army invaded in 1655, beginning the 1ST NORDIC WAR. The Swedes quickly occupied much of Poland proper; Polish historians refer to the event as the DELUGE. Karl's plan was to partition Poland amongst the Dukes of Brandenburg, Transylvania, the Cossack's Hetman Chmielnicki, Lithuania's prince Radziwill and himself. However, his 'allies' held back, and when the monastery of JASNA GORA was able to hold out under Swedish siege, Poles rallied to defend their country. Duke Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg switched sides; the disaster was avoided. In 1660, the PEACE OF OLIVA was signed, in which Jan Casimir finally renounced his claim to the Swedish throne. Poland did not cede any additional territory to Sweden, but it renounced it's sovereignty over the Duchy in Prussia.
In 1648, the COSSACKS under Hetman DANIEL CHMIELNICKI revolted, against Polish rule as well as against the Jesuits. At first successful (1649), the revolt was suppressed in 1654 and Chmielnicki, with a number of followers, payed homage to the Czar in return for a recognition of the Cossacks' privileges. A part of Ukraine thus became Russian. Poland regarded Russia's action as a violation of the Treaty of 1634. War between Russia and Poland broke out; Russian troops raided northern Lithuania and sacked Vilnius (1655). In 1667 Poland and Russia signed the TREATY OF ANDRUSSOVO, in which Poland ceded eastern Ukraine as well as the cities of SMOLENSK and KIEV to Russia.
In 1668, the Cossacks on the right bank of the Dnjepr had seceded from Poland and placed themselves under the Sultan. The successive war ended with an Ottoman victory (1672); Poland had to cede PODOLIA. In 1673, Hetman JAN SOBIESKI defeated the Ottomans, with the HUSSARS being his 'secret weapon', a highly disciplined cavalry which used devices to create panic among the enemy horses. Jan Sobieski was elected King of Poland in 1674. When the Ottomans laid siege to Vienna in 1683, it was the Polish army lead by King Jan Sobieski which decided the battle against the Ottomans, which relieved Vienna. Poland regarded itself the BULWARK OF CHRISTIANITY. The Ottoman Empire ceded PODOLIA back to Poland in 1699.
In 1700, Swedish King Charles XII. defeated a superior Russian army at Narva and then turned his attention toward Poland. Warsaw was occupied in May 1702. The Swedes convened a Polish died which declared King August the Strong deposed and elected Stanislas Leszczynski instead. For years, Charles XII. was undefeated, humiliating enemy after enemy - the Poles, Saxons, Brandenburgians, Danes. Then, in 1709, hoping that the Hetman of the Cossacks would join his force, he lead is army into Ukraine, where he was defeated in the Battle of Poltava. Poland had survived another Swedish 'deluge'. Thanks to the Russians, the country had regained it's independence; deposed King August the Strong was reelected. However, Livonia now was Russian.

B.) Poland's Constitution

When King Jan Casimir wanted to sign a treaty with the Cossacks in 1652, it required the Sejm's approval. However, it failed because one nobleman resisted. Traditionally, the diet's decisions were regarded as unanimous. From 1652 onward, this was interpreted as requiring every single nobleman's approval. One vote would torpedo any decision (LIBERUM VETO). In fact, numerous debates thus ended without any decision taken. Poland continued to be a Nobles' Republic, but with an excessive, unpractical constitution.
In addition, groups of noblemen since 1572 formed organizations with the aim to achieve common goals (partially outside the Sejm), the so-called CONFEDERATIONS. These Confederations often were willing to use violence. Poland's inability to defend itself against the Swedes partially is to be explained with a lack of unity among Poland's nobility.
With the monarchy having become electoral, often candidates regarded to be weak were elected, the nobility keenly guarding their old privileges, and often trying to improve them. Foreign diplomats used cash handouts to influence the election of a king, or decisions to establish a military alliance. Thus France, Austria and Russia gained indirect influence over Poland's policy.

Polish Warfare 1450-1699, from Polish Renaissance Warfare
Censorship in Poland : From the Beginning to the Enlightenment, excerpt from Derek Jones, Censorship : A World Encyclopedia
Polish Socinians, by Marian Hillar
DOCUMENTS The Polish constitution (unwritten, pre-1772), by F. Kobylarz
Maps of The Baltic Lands 1701, The Baltic Lands 1772, from Freeman's Historical Geography 1903, posted by Perry Castaneda Library, UTexas
Images from Chronik 2000 Bilddatenbank : King Stanislas Leszczynski, August II., the strong, elector of Saxony and King of Poland; Stanislas Leszczynski, August the Strong
King Jan Sobieski's Account on Raising the Siege of Vienna, 1683, from Hillsdale
SUMMA QUAE, Encyclica by Pope Clement XIII on the Church in Poland, Jan. 6th 1768
The Secret History of the Reign of Jan Sobieski, 1683 AD, from Modern History Sourcebook
Portrait of August the Strong, c. 1718, from AKG
REFERENCE Enno Meyer, Grundzüge der Geschichte Polens (Main Features of Polish History),
Darmstadt : Wissenschaftliche Buchgemeinschaft 1977

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted in 2000, last revised on July 27th 2006

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