Why we should remember the first Partition of Poland: when three European powers carved up a commonwealth
Historian Janet Hartley considers the importance of the first Partition of Poland, in September 1772
When was the First Partition of Poland and why did it take place?
The First Partition was in September 1772. Russia was at war with the Ottoman empire and made such large territorial gains in the northern Balkans that it started to alarm Austria. Frederick II of Prussia suggested to Catherine the Great that – in order to preserve a balance of power between Russia, Prussia and Austria – lands should be taken from the Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Formed in 1569, the Commonwealth had become one of the largest states in Europe by the 17th century. The partition saw the three powers seize a third of its lands.
How did the people of the Commonwealth react to the partition?
It was an enormous shock to the educated classes and forced them to attempt to modernise the remaining part of the country. On 3 May 1791, a new constitution replaced the elective monarchy – which had allowed foreign interference at every regime change – with a hereditary one, as well as creating modern structures of government and extending political rights to the urban population. It was one of the first modern written constitutions in the world. How was Polish land further divided in the subsequent years?
The three powers feared that modernisation could make Poland more independent and, in Catherine’s view, the new constitution was influenced by the dangerous ideas of the French Revolution. Invasion of Polish territory by Russian and Prussian forces, a Polish revolt, and further partitions – in 1793 and 1795 – followed. As a result, Poland-Lithuania disappeared from the map.
Why should the First Partition of Poland be remembered?
These were some of the most cynical acts of power politics in the 18th century: great powers believing they had the right to dismember a state in their own interests, disregarding not only the will of the king and parliament of Poland-Lithuania, but the ethnic and religious composition of their new subjects. What is significant, however, is its long-term failure. The partitions created a constant source of instability between the three powers now sharing common borders.
Above all, we should remember the partitions because they served to strengthen national identity. Polish forces joined Napoleon in the 1812 invasion of Russia and there were major revolts against Russian rule in 1830 and 1863. The 3 May Constitution, which led to the dismemberment of the state, became a symbol of the Polish struggle for independence. What’s more, 3 May became a national holiday in Poland after independence in 1918, and has been celebrated in Lithuania since 2007.
Janet M Hartley is emeritus professor of international history at LSE. She is author of The Volga (Yale, 2021)
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This article first appeared in the August 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine