On January 23, 1793, the Russian Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia signed the Second Partition of Poland, which amputated the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of about 307,000 square kilometers, reducing the country to one-third of its original size.
During the second half of the 18th century, the once mighty Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth started facing many internal problems as King Stanisław August Poniatowski, hand-picked by Empress Catherine II of Russia, spent his reign torn between his desire to implement reforms and his perceived necessity of remaining in subordinate relationship with his Russian sponsors.
Fighting to preserve Poland’s independence, an association of nobles known as the Bar Confederation rebelled against Russia and the Polish liege before being brought under control in 1772. This led to the First Partition of Poland, which saw the Commonwealth lose about 30% of its territory and half of its population to the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Habsburg Monarchy.
The 3 May Constitution
Still the largest state on the continent, the Commonwealth found itself in an increasingly perilous situation. By 1790, it was forced into an alliance with its enemy, Prussia, which gave the federation false hope that it might have at last found an ally that would shield it while the Great Four-Year Sejm enacted a series of political and economic reforms aimed at strengthening the country.
The resulting Constitution of 3 May 1791, often described as Europe’s first modern written national constitution, and the world’s second, after the United States’, established a constitutional monarchy, 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, Catherine the Great, invited by the Targowica Confederation, an alliance of pro-Russian Polish nobles who wished to restore the privileges they had lost under the new Constitution, invaded Poland in 1792, triggering the so-called War in Defence of the Constitution.
Abandoned by their Prussian allies, the Polish pro-Constitution forces, commanded by Prince Józef Poniatowski and a veteran of the American Revolutionary War, Tadeusz Kościuszko, were badly outnumbered. And despite Polish victories at the battles of Zieleńce and of Dubienka, the Russian army kept advancing, forcing the Polish forces to retreat towards the Vistula.
The Second Partition of Poland
With the outcome of the war still undecided and despite the fact that the Poles had reasonable chances of defending the Vistula river line, King Stanisław August Poniatowski decided to sue for peace, hoping that more could be gained through negotiations with the Russians, with whom he hoped a new alliance could be formed. Giving in to the Empress’ demand, the Polish king signed a ceasefire before joining the Targowica Confederation.
In January 1793, a second partitioning treaty was signed, which ceded all of Poland’s eastern provinces to Russia as well as a large portion of Greater Poland to Prussia. Ratified by a coerced Sejm in a short-lived attempt to prevent the complete annexation of Poland, the treaty amputated the country of about 307,000 square kilometres, reducing the Commonwealth to one-third of its original size.
But the King’s hope that the capitulation would salvage some of the reforms and protect the state’s territorial integrity soon turned out to be illusory. In January 1793, a new partitioning treaty was signed in St. Petersburg which ceded all of Poland’s eastern provinces to Russia as well as a large portion of Greater Poland to Prussia, who demanded compensation for its participation in the war against revolutionary France.
The Second Partition of Poland, which was ratified by the coerced Polish Sejm in a short-lived attempt to prevent the inevitable complete annexation of Poland, amputated the country of about 307,000 square kilometres, reducing the Commonwealth to one-third of its original size.
After a final bid to restore the reformed Commonwealth, led by Tadeusz Kościuszko in 1794, 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 new On this Day series.