Magazine Poland

Poland… from Partition to Independence

Coinciding with the celebration of the Armistice in other countries, Independence Day is celebrated in Poland on November 11 to commemorate the anniversary of the restoration of Poland’s sovereignty after 123 years of partition.

Here are the key events to help you better understand the epic story of Poland’s long road to independence:

1772: The First Partition

Tadeusz Rejtan protests against the First Partition of Poland during the Sejm of 1773, by Jan Matejko.

In the spring of 1768, an association of Polish nobles, known as the Bar Confederation, rebelled against King Stanisław August in an attempt to save the independence of the waning Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, increasingly threatened by its neighbours. Taking advantage of the confusion, Russia, Prussia and Austria simultaneously invaded the Commonwealth in August 1772 and partitioned the occupied provinces between themselves. The ensuing First Partition treaty deprived Poland of approximately half of its population and almost one-third of its land area.

1791: the May 3 Constitution

King Stanisław August enters St John’s Cathedral, in Warsaw, where deputies will swear to uphold the May 3 Constitution, by Jan Matejko.

Still the largest state on the continent, the Commonwealth found itself in an increasingly perilous situation. And in 1788, the Great Four-Year Sejm began enacting a series of political and economic reforms aimed at strengthening the country, which culminated with the adoption of the Constitution of May 33, 1791, drafted by King Stanisław August himself. Often described as Europe’s first modern written national constitution, and the world’s second, after the United States’, the Constitution of May 3 ensured more freedom and political equality in the country, established a constitutional monarchy, and abolished many of the nobility’s privileges as well as many of the old laws of serfdom.

1793: the Second Partition

Polish victory at the Battle of Zieleńce, by Wojciech Kossak.

Angered by what was seen as radical republican Jacobin-style reforms on Russia’s doorstep, Catherine the Great, invited by the pro-Russian alliance of 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. Despite initial victories at Zieleńce and Dubienka, King Stanisław August decided to sue for peace, hoping that the capitulation would salvage some of the reforms and protect the state’s territorial integrity. But this soon turned out to be illusory, and in January 1793, a new partitioning treaty amputated the country of about 307,000 square kilometres, reducing the Commonwealth to one-third of its original size.

1795: the Kościuszko Uprising and the Third Partition

Tadeusz Kościuszko falls from his hors during the Battle of Maciejowice, by Jan Bogumi Plersz.

King Stanisław August’s capitulation was a hard blow for Tadeusz Kościuszko, a veteran of the American Revolutionary War, who declared a general uprising in March 1794. Gathering an army of 6,000 men, largely composed of peasant “scythemen”, Kościuszko marched on Warsaw. But despite initial successes, Kościuszko’s forces were defeated and the uprising crushed. 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.” The following year Austria, Prussia and Russia signed the Third and final Partition of Poland, which officially dissolved the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.

1807: the Creation of the Duchy of Warsaw

Jan Henryk Dąbrowski enters Poznań leading the first units of the French army, by Jan Gładysz.

Following Jan Henryk Dabrowski’s Greater Poland uprising and Napoleon’s victories against Prussia and Russia in 1807, the French Emperor cemented his control over Central Europe at the Treaties of Tilsit. Arguably influenced by his Polish mistress Maria Walewska, Napoleon created two client states out of the area recovered from Prussia, the Free City of Danzig and the Duchy of Warsaw, giving hope to Poles of restoring Polish sovereignty. But after the French Emperor’s failed invasion of Russia in 1812, the territories fell to Russian and Prussian forces and were formally partitioned between the two powers at the Congress of Vienna, which solidified the long-term division of Poland in 1815.

1830: the November Uprising

Taking of the Warsaw Arsenal, by Marcin Zaleski.

At the Congress of Vienna, Russia assumed hegemony over the so-called Congress Kingdom of Poland, a semi-autonomous state established in the territory that formed the short-lived Duchy of Warsaw. In November 1830, a group of conspirators led by a young cadet from the Warsaw officers’ school, Piotr Wysocki, took up arms against the Russian occupation of Poland and stormed the Warsaw Arsenal. But following the intervention of Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich the following year, which crush the November Uprising, Tsar Nicholas abrogated the Polish constitution, integrating the Congress Kingdom much more closely into the Russian Empire.

1846: the Kraków Uprising

Attack of the Krakusi during the 1846 uprising, by Juliusz Kossak.

After the failure of the November Uprising of 1830, during which the Free City of Cracow served as a base for the smuggling of arms into the Russian partition, the autonomy of the city republic, established at the Congress of Vienna, was severely restricted. in 1846, inspired by French Utopian socialism and supported by members of the Polish nobility and middle class, an uprising broke out in Kraków and in the neighbouring districts of western Galicia. But despite being successful in quickly taking over the Free City, the insurgents fared badly in the wider countryside where the peasants, encouraged by the Austrian authorities, led a counter-revolt in the course of which many manors were burned down and landowners killed.

1848: the Springtime of Nations in Greater Poland

Funeral services held in Posen for commemoration of the fallen, by Jerzy Zajączkowski.

Initially part of the Revolutions of 1848, known as the pringtime of Nations, that broke out in many European countries, the so-called “March Revolution” were a series of loosely coordinated protests and rebellions in the states of the German Confederation, including Austria and Prussia. Inspired by the events in Vienna and Berlin, demonstrations were also organized in the Grand Duchy of Posen, roughly corresponding to the territory of Greater Poland, which had been under Prussian control since the partition of Poland. Conflict soon broke out and despite inititial victories, the Prussian army managed to defeat the Polish forces. The Grand Duchy of Posen was then fully integrated as a province of the Kingdom of Prussia, which rejected any further ideas of autonomy.

1863: the January Uprising

“The Battle” from the cycle of paintings “Polonia” dedicated to January Uprising of 1863, by Artur Grottger.

After Russia’s disastrous defeat in the Crimean War, Tsar Alexander II enacted a series of reforms which aroused nationalist sentiments among the Polish citizens of the Russian partition. By January 1863, triggered by forced conscriptions into the Russian army, thousands of young Poles rallied around the revolutionary banner. Organized in one of the world’s earliest campaigns of urban guerrilla warfare, the uprising quickly spread to Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and Ukraine before being inevitably crushed. Russia then revoked the separate status of the Polish lands, incorporating them directly into the Russian Empire and placing them under the dictatorial rule of Mikhail Muravyov-Vilensky, known as the Hangman of Vilnius.

1866: the Baikal Insurrection

Farewell Europe, by Aleksander Sochaczewski.

Harsh reprisals followed the failure of the January Uprising and large numbers of Polish men and women were sent to Siberia, where they then became known as Sybiraks. In June 1866, a group of about 700 Poles who were assigned to the construction of the Circumbaikal Highway near Lake Baikal decided to disarm the guards and escape via Mongolia to China. Calling themselves the Siberian Legion of Free Poles (Syberyjski Legion Wolnych Polaków), the insurgents liberated other small groups of prisoners and raided local institutions such as the post office. But the insurrection was swiftly crushed by Russian soldiers and most of the insurgents were either killed or captured.

1905: the Russian Revolution and the Łódź Insurrection

Cossack patrol escorting Polish insurrectionists, by Stanisław Masłowski.

At the turn of the century, worsening economic conditions contributed to mounting political tensions in the Russian Empire, including Poland, where tens of thousands of Polish workers lost their jobs, while conscriptions into the Russian army, and ongoing russification policies further aggravated the Polish population. By January 1905, news of the Russian revolution quickly spread from Saint Petersburg across the Russian Empire and into Russian-controlled Poland, which saw the largest wave of strikes the country had ever seen. By February, students at Polish universities had joined the demonstrations, demanding the right to study in Polish. In Łódź, the strikes escalated into a full scale insurrection, which saw several days of fighting and over two thousand casualties.

1918: the Resurrection of Poland

The Resurrection of Poland, by Władysław Barwicki.

The outbreak of World War I in the Polish lands offered Poles unexpected hopes of resurrecting the Polish nation from the political grave to which it had been consigned since 1795. After initially supporting the Central Powers against Russia, the military commander Józef Piłsudsk switched allegiances to gain the support of the Entente, particularly France and the United Kingdom, for the cause of Polish independence. In July 1917, he famously forbade Polish soldiers to swear allegiance and obedience to the Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany, which led to him being arrested. But on November 11, three days after being released from prison, Piłsudski became Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Army and de facto head of what was about to become the Republic of Poland, effectively restoring Polish independence after 123 years of Prussian, Austrian and Russian occupation.

1919: the Greater Poland Uprising

Greater Poland insurgents on the streets of Poznań, by Leon Prauziński.

Until the Paris Peace Conference formally established Poland as a sovereign state, many territorial and sovereignty issues remained unresolved. Critically, most of Poland that was annexed by Prussia, which included the region of Greater Poland and its capital Poznań, was still part of Greater Germany at the close of World War I. After Wilhelm II’s abdication and the proclamation of the Weimar Republic, Poles living in German-controlled territory, incited by Polish pianist and composer Ignacy Paderewski, took up arms against Germany, and by the end of January 1919, the insurrectionists controlled most of Greater Poland. Fighting continued until the final signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, which formally awarded the area won by the insurrectionists to the new Polish Republic.

1920: Poland’s Wedding to the Sea

Poland’s Wedding to the Sea, by Wojciech Kossak.

Guaranteeing Poland “a free and secure access to the sea” was one of United States President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, and in June 1919, the Treaty of Versailles awarded to the new state the lands of the so-called Polish Corridor, which connected Poland to the Baltic Sea. In a heavily orchestrated ceremony, General Józef Haller, who was entrusted with the command of the Pomeranian Front, created to peacefully recover the former German Empire’s province, boarded a train from the Free City of Danzig to the small seaside town of Puck, further up the coast, where he now famously threw into the water a platinum ring given to him earlier by Polish Danzigers, concluding Poland’s symbolic wedding to the sea.

1920: the Miracle on the Vistula

Allegorical painting of the Battle of Warsaw, by Wojciech Kossak.

While the young Polish state solidified its independence in a series of conflicts that re-defined the country’s border, the Bolsheviks gained the upper hand in the Russian Civil War and Vladimir Lenin began viewing Poland as a bridge to bring communism to Central and Western Europe. War soon broke out between Russia and Poland, and despite early setbacks, the Red Army launched a successful counter-offensive, forcing the Polish army to retreat westward. In August 1920, the Bolsheviks launched what was expected to be the final assault on Warsaw. But despite suffering some 20,000 casualties, the Poles managed to flank and break the over-extended Soviet forces. The renewed offensive was so unexpected and drove the Red Army so far back that the Soviets eventually sued for peace several months later. Poland gained 200km of territory east of its former borders in the peace deal, which secured the Polish state’s eastern frontiers until 1939…