On August 5, 1772, Austria, Prussia and Russia signed the First Partition of Poland, which deprived the once mighty Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of approximately half of its population and almost one-third of its land area.
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.
But in the spring of 1768, fighting to preserve Poland’s independence, an association of Polish nobles known as the Bar Confederation rebelled against Russia and the Polish liege. Often described as the first Polish uprising, the Bar Confederation took up arms against the Russian troops and units loyal to the Polish crown, even though the prospect of success was dim from the start.
Supported by France and Austria, the Bar Confederattion appealed for help from abroad and contributed to bringing about war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. But despite the retreat of some Russian forces needed on the Ottoman front, the irregular and poorly trained confederate forces, formed from volunteers, militias and deserters from the royal army, were eventually defeated.
The First Partition of Poland
With war with the Ottoman Empire dragging on, and as Russian forces moved into the Daubian Principalities, Frederick II of Prussia and Maria Theresa of Austria began to worry that the seemingly inevitable defeat of the Ottoman Empire would severely upset the balance of power in Central and Eastern Europe and began engineering the partition of Poland.
In order to avoid an escalation of the Russo-Turkish War and determined to calm Austro-Russian relations, Frederick the Great attempted to encourage Russia to direct its expansion towards the weak and dysfunctional Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, still devastated by a civil war and by Russian intervention and, therefore, incapable of resisting territorial seizures.
Under pressure from Frederick the Great, who had long wanted to annex the northern Polish provinces and build a territorial bridge between Pomerania and his East Prussian province, the three powers agreed on the First Partition of Poland. Taking advantage of the confusion in Poland, Russian, Prussian and Austrian troops simultaneously entered the Commonwealth and occupied the provinces that had been agreed upon among themselves in August 1772.
Signed on August 5 and ratified a month later by the Polish Sejm, the First Partition treaty deprived Poland of approximately half of its population and almost one-third of its land area.
Russia received all the Polish territory east of the line formed roughly by the Dvina and Dnieper rivers. Prussia gained the economically valuable province of Royal Prussia, excluding the cities of Gdańsk and Toruń, and also gained the northern portion of Greater Poland. Austria acquired the regions of Lesser Poland south of the Vistula River, western Podolia, and Galicia.
The Second and Third Partitions
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 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.
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 eventually defeated.
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, who demanded compensation for its participation in the war against revolutionary France.
Ratified by the coerced Polish Sejm in a short-lived attempt to prevent the inevitable complete annexation of Poland, the Second Partition reduced 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.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.
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