On October 24, 1795, Austrian, Prussian, and Russian representatives met to dissolve the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, known as the Third Partition of Poland, which ended the existence of an independent Polish and Lithuanian state for the next 123 years.
During the second half of the 18th century, the once mighty Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth started facing many internal problems and became increasingly vulnerable to foreign influences.
By 1768, the federation was more or less considered to be an unofficial protectorate of the Russian Empire, and its last king, Stanisław August Poniatowski, hand-picked by Empress Catherine II of Russia, spent his reign torn between his desire to implement reforms necessary to save the state, and his perceived necessity of remaining in subordinate relationship with his Russian sponsors.
The fall of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
An association of Polish nobles known as the Bar Confederation, which rebelled against Russia and the Polish king and fought to preserve Poland’s independence, was brought under control in 1772 and led to the First Partition of the Commonwealth, between the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Habsburg Monarchy.
Following the First Partition, which saw the Commonwealth lose about 30% of its territory and half of its population, King Stanisław August Poniatowski enacted a series of reforms to enhance Poland’s military, political system, economy, and society. These reforms led to the May Constitution of 1791, which established a constitutional monarchy with separation into three branches of government, strengthened the bourgeoisie and abolished many of the nobility’s privileges as well as many of the old laws of serfdom.
But once again angered by what was seen as radical republican Jacobin-style reforms, Empress Catherine II invaded Poland in 1792, invited by the pro-Russian alliance of Polish nobles, known as the Targowica Confederation, who wished to restore the privileges they had lost under the May Constitution.
After its defeat in what came to be known as the War in Defence of the Constitution, Poland was forced to sign the Second Partition in 1793, which ceded a large portion of Greater Poland to Prussia and all of Poland’s eastern provinces to Russia, reducing Poland to one-third of its original size.
Outraged with the further humiliation of Poland by her neighbors and the betrayal by the Polish nobility, and emboldened by the French Revolution unfolding in France, the Polish masses quickly turned against the occupying forces of Prussia and Russia.
Following a series of nationwide riots, Polish patriot Tadeusz Kościuszko, a veteran of the American Revolutionary War, took command of the Polish armed forces and declared a nationwide general uprising against Poland’s foreign occupiers in a speech in the Kraków town square.
The Third and final Partition of Poland
Catherine II and Frederick William II were quick to respond and, despite initial successes by Kosciuszko’s forces, the uprising was crushed by November 1794. According to legend, when Kościuszko fell off his horse at the decisive Battle of Maciejowice, he said “Finis Poloniae”, meaning in Latin “[This is] the end of Poland.”
After the failure of the Kościuszko Uprising, Austrian, Prussian, and Russian representatives met to officially dissolve the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. The three conquering powers signed a treaty to divide the region in 1797, which gave the Habsburg Monarchy control of the Western Galicia and Southern Masovia territories, while Prussia received Podlachia, the remainder of Masovia, and Warsaw, and Russia the remaining land, including Vilnius.
The Third Partition of Poland ended the existence of an independent Polish and Lithuanian state for the next 123 years.
Polish poets, politicians, noblemen, writers, artists, many of whom were forced to emigrate, became the revolutionaries of the 19th century, and participated in uprisings in Prussia, the Austrian Empire and Imperial Russia. Polish legions also fought alongside Napoleon and participated widely in the Spring of Nations, and particularly the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.
While Poland would be briefly resurrected in 1807, when Napoleon set up the Duchy of Warsaw, it would not regain full independence until the end of World War I, when the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and the collapse of the Russian Empire allowed for the resurrection of Polish national sovereignty, and the birth of the Republic of Poland.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.