A nation that has allowed itself to be wiped off the map by anything other than sheer brute force must confront the shortcomings that brought this about if it wished to continue to think of itself as a nation […]. But the implications of such a confrontation were so complex and so unpleasant that it was easier to avoid them in favour of an altogether simpler way out of the problem: to blame Stanisław for everything. 1
One of the reasons why I’m so fond of Polish history, is because it is spilled with lessons that so well apply to the times I live in. Endless times I’ve heard an oversimplified judgement of a personality as complex as the times he lived in. Raise thy hand thee who hath bear no guilt of delusion. As much as our human mind might naturally tend to laze around, we cannot forget us able to disentangle complexity. I argue, we must.
Note: All block quotations are from the book “The Last King of Poland”, from Adam Zamoyski, which in fact represents most of the inspiration for this blogpost. 2
“His abdication was an act of no practical significance whatsoever: his refusal would have made not one jot of difference. But generations condemned to captivity cannot see beyond the fact that it was he who signed the sentence, and in their hearts reproach him for having been able to live while his country perished. The underlying charge is that he did not die.” 3
Context is often the key, or at the very least a starting point. With this in mind, before dealing with the demise of Poland, we must answer the question of when and where did this happen to begin with. The years of the Commonwealth are painfully framed in times turbulent to the entire world: from the beginning of the Great Sejm in 1788, to the final partition in 1795, it is necessary to analyse the internal and the international state of affairs of the time.
It’s 1788. Russia, who has been the protector of the Polish Status Quo since 1709 —more on this later—, is now severely worn off by its recurrent conflicts with The Porte —as the sublime central government of the Ottoman Empire is called—, plus a second front with the Swedish, hence its army runs entirely away from Poland. In line with the Enlightenment philosophy of the time, the Americans had shown France that a rebellion based on Enlightenment principles, including natural rights and equality for all citizens, against an authoritarian regime, could succeed, unfolding one of the most relevant stream of events in history. As the French establishment failed again and again, ever more liberal and desperate in its attempts, to get bread to the populace —among a bazillion other more severe issues—, summoning the Estates-General was the last resort. While Russia is away, a segment of the magnates decides to line with Prussia, ruled by Friedrich Wilhelm II, who two years into his reign, risks being the first Prussian ruler not to add new lands to the royal estates. Stanisław rightly distrusts Friedrich Wilhelm, who simply seeks confrontation within Polish politics: Stanisław argues, the Prussian policy is to socially divide the Commonwealth, and then «Prussia would offer to drop his support for her party in Poland, in return for which a grateful Russia would permit her to a second partition»4. Stanisław here tries to avoid such division, and decides to align with the rebels, keeping the Commonwealth in a united front, despite the fact that this new unity aligns with the most viperous of her neighbours.
It’s 1789. In April, Washington becomes the first President of the United States. In May, the Estates-General meet in France, in June the National Assembly is convened, defying all traditional order; finally, in July, the Bastille is stormed. In August, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen is published —one of the main inspirations for our contemporary United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights—, further unfolding the French crisis, which Stanisław was following closely with initial excitement. In September, Warsaw appoints a new deputation to prepare a new constitution. In December, Friedrich Wilhelm II personally encourages Poland to reform.
It’s 1790. In March 1790, Prussia being concerned about the recent gains of Austria and Russia against the Ottomans, signs a military defence pact with the Commonwealth, filled with Prussian promises such as recovering Galicia from the Austrians. Soon enough, in July Prussia hesitates, seeing no real gains, and so she signs the Convention of Reichenbach with Austria in favour of the Status Quo, leaving Poland having antagonised both Austria and Russia and with nothing to offer to Prussia. Also in July, Louis XVI accepts a constitutional monarchy, markedly republican. In August, diverse members of the Sejm propose a new form of government based on monarchical terms, and write the first draft of the constitution. Two weeks later, Sweden signs peace with Russia.
It’s finally 1791. In March, William Pitt the Younger is alarmed at the Russian expansion, and enables an alliance with Prussia, the Dutch, Sweden, Turkey, and also Poland, to force Russia into submission, but Russian diplomacy holds public opinion in England and Pitt wavers, saving Catherine. Comes May, and on the 3rd, the new Polish constitution is, finally, successfully voted. This was received in places like Britain or the United States with great approval, comparing the peaceful Polish revolution to the rivers of blood of the French one. But while the French constitution is much more republican in essence, the Polish one is more monarchical, centralized in a hereditary crown. This crown is to be given to the Saxon house upon Stanisław’s death, but the Saxons delay their answer on the offer, raising concerns. In the meantime, Catherine shrieks: «How dare they alter the form of government that I guaranteed!»5, and makes clear that it will be the Russian Policy to overthrow the new Polish order mercilessly. In September 1791, the French king swears oath to the new French constitution, and in January 1792, the Treaty of Jassy ends the Russo-Turkish war. Now Russian troops are fully available.
The last few years have been a whirlpool of events, changes, treaties, shifts of powers, and revolutions. And this way we arrived at the key moment, that which, nor Stanisław, nor the bravest Jan III Sobieski, nor any other great hero, could have ruled. Not to say that the entirety of the Polish society hasn’t made many decisions far above the allowance the very Polish system gave to their rulers, all of which are not to blame to their ruler but to their citizens and their traditions. But here, in a greater order, we face a challenge that lies in the hands of nothing else than luck, or fate, or the arbitrariness of history. The French Revolution.
With an army of well over a hundred thousand men, hardened and well-trained in years of war, well equipped and prepared, and ready for even the most protracted war, considering its infinite supplies of men and resources, Russia prepares to invade. Her army is vastly superior to that of the Poles: amounting to a total maximum of 65000 men, the army had only been raised in the last two years, and at this point, only two rifle factories have been set up in Poland, one of them by private money from Stanisław himself. There’s no possibility to buy arms abroad, as all German factories are overbooked in preparations for the war with France. Barracks and stores are not even built yet, the officer corps represented less than 5 per cent of the total number of men. Poland’s fate depended on the support it could rally.
In May 1792, in the little town of Targowica, Feliks Potocki, Seweryn Rzewuski, Ksawery Branicki, and a bunch of other magnates, proclaim a confederation and invoke Russian aid. Stanisław and the Sejm almost unanimously decide to fight, and work hard on raising the army’s capabilities, while seeking the needed support. But Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia declines to follow the alliance with Poland he himself architected, in the grounds of the state of affairs being entirely different to that of the days the alliance was sign: just like Stanisław suspected, Prussia made up an alliance, encouraged reform, and then promptly dropped their support. The French would not support anything but the most radical Republicanism, but the British and the Prussian would react to any slight Jacobinism in Poland. And Austria was entirely dragged by their conflicts with Jacobin France. In this context, desertion among the Polish troops skyrocketed, so as much as high profile figures seeking Russian favour beforehand and revealing military secrets.
It is in this context were Stanisław summons an extraordinary council on the 23rd of July, with the attendance of the Primate Michał Jerzy Poniatowski, Marshalls Michał Jerzy Mniszech and Ignacy Potocki, Stanisław Sołtan, Ludwik Tyszkiewicz, Antoni Dziekoński, Tomasz Ostrowski, Chancellor Jacek Małachowski, Vice-Chancellor Hugo Kołłątaj and Joachim Chreptowicz, Marshall of the Sejm Stanisław Małachowski and Kazimierz Sapieha, and prince Kazimierz Poniatowski. It was this council that agreed, by a vote of 7‑to‑5, and with the strong support of the near-Jacobin and very well respected Kołłątaj, to surrender to Catherine’s request to unconditionally drop the constitution and join the Confederation of Targowica.
Ultimately, it was the tradition who kept the army small and unprepared. It was the magnates who legitimise Russian’s intervention. It was the French Revolution who already disrupted all the diplomacy and balance of powers of Europe. And it was a council of royalists, republicans, Jacobins, bishops, and soldiers, who agreed to surrender.
“Some historians have traced the root of Poland’s downfall to the Jagiellonian kinds of the fifteen and sixteenth century, others to the Cossack and Swedish wars of the seventeenth, but to the majority of Poles the most obvious critical moment is the reign of Stanisław Augustus, and the quest for the decisive cause of disaster inevitably centres on his person. There is a widespread conviction that if he had done one thing or left undone another, then everything would somehow have been all right.”6
But one more question arises once this has been disputed: how did this whole states of affairs come to be?! Was it possible to be avoided, was it possible to cut it at the roots? Here I always liked to present one argument, at least by how provocative it is: that Polish sovereignty was already lost long before Stanisław was even born.
Wind back almost a century. It’s 1697, and the glorious Jan III Sobieski dies. Poland runs elections, and the Prince de Conti, from the House of Bourbon, is elected. But before he arrives to Poland to take his crown, August of Saxony, second runner in the election, rushes into Poland with a Saxon Army and secures a coronation by the proclamation of the Bishop of Kujawy, with the pure intention to turn the Commonwealth into an absolutist and hereditary monarchy, like that of his own in Saxony. A sacred election has been rigged, 35 years before Stanisław was even born.
It’s 1700, and Spain just entered its war of Succession, upon the death of Charles II “El Hechizado” — I had to study that one a lot in high school. Louis XIV, the sun-king, fought to put his family on the Spanish throne, at the expense of the finances of his country, which assumed debts it would carry for the rest of the century, up to the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. At the same time, a young Peter of Russia seeks to recover access to the Baltic Sea, attacking the Swedish powerhouse with the alliance of Denmark, Prussia, and Saxony — Augustus has entered the war as the king of Saxony alone, but then forced the Commonwealth into battle by his own persona. Charles XII of Sweden promptly smashes all of it rivals, and pursues Peter into deep Russia. Augustus, ironically, actively seeks defeat in order to weaken Poland and proceed with his monarchical plans.
It’s 1709, and Charles XII is decisively defeated in Poltava and flees to the Ottoman Empire. Prussia offers a better deal to Peter than that of Augustus: partition Poland, between Russia and Prussia. «Es sei nicht praktikabel»7, Peter refuses, at the time Russia is not ready to conquer the new land, but instead seeks to weaken the Commonwealth. Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia will state in his testament his will to proceed with the annexation of Polish territory. A partition has been just planned, the seed has been planted. 21 years before Stanisław was even born.
It’s 1717, and Peter is the sole victor of the Great Northern War. Augustus seeks to take control of the Commonwealth, and the nobles confederate and request assistance to Peter. Peter accepts, but on his own terms: the Russian army invades, forcibly pacifies the country, and summons a confederated Sejm, which runs under strict control of Russian Troops. Known as the Silent Sejm (Sejm Niemy), because only the marshal and a few selected other deputies were allowed a voice, «with Russian soldiers “guarding” the proceedings»8. This Sejm enacts laws favourable to Poland againts Augustus, like the removal of Saxon troops from the Commonwealth, and disallowed the king to grant any office to foreigners, but others severely weaken the Polish State: the army was to be reduced to somewhere between 20 to 30 thousand soldiers —while Russia had above 300 thousand—, to be financed by crown estates —effectively rendering an army 12000 strong only, due to limited budget—, and establishing a fixed State income and expenditure —limiting centralised decisions on economy—, and protecting the Liberum Veto. All while Russia would be the power that would guarantee the settlement9. Poland has just unofficially become a Russian protectorate, 15 years before Stanisław was even born.
It’s the year 1762, and the Seven Years War —which Leon and I like to call, jokingly, “World War Zero”— is nearing its end. So it’s Prussia, exhausted and surrounded, and just about to be invaded, when Elizabeth of Russia dies, and Peter III succeeds to the Russian throne. Peter III, being a near-psychopath, and fervently pro-Prussian, withdraws all Russian troops from the war. Prussia has been just saved in what is known as the —second— Miracle of the House of Brandenburg. The Russian military is enraged, and so is Peter’s wife, Catherine, who plot a coup d’état. Catherine immediately decides for Stanisław to be the next king of Poland. Another election has been rigged, two years before Stanisław’s coronation. Whether he would agree or not made no difference, as Catherine would have simply placed anyone else. The only option was to play along and try to take advantage of the protection.
Historians like nowadays Adam Zamoyski and Norman Davies, or of previous generations like Walerian Kalinka and Emanuel Rostworowski, argued in favour of the inevitability of the events. I’d add here something that my mother used to tell me as a kid, and I suppose any other mother told to their kids: it’s just too easy to blame someone else, it takes a lot of wisdom to see one’s own faults.
“The annihilation of Poland and the Napoleonic wars bred generations of patriots dedicated to active struggle. As they formed their legions and prepared their uprisings, each as ill-starred as that of 1794, they were in no mood for reflection on the real causes of Poland’s downfall.”10
In the aftermath of the Targowica Confederation and the Second Partition, Stanisław was severely humiliated. Catherine would promise protection of the Polish lands, to then gibber ideas of Russian protection to Polish Freedoms —The Golden Freedoms, benefiting a priori mostly magnates— and the need for punishment to the rebels — the Constitutionals. She would promise protection of the important figures, only to later dismantle the army and imprison leaders.
The original plan of the Council of July 23rd was to submit to Russian dominance and take over the Targowica Confederation by sheer numbers — the original confederates were in disarray, and here a group of twelve widely respected men have just joined it. Kołłątaj himself signed his own accession to Targowica, but by December, it became clear to him that collaboration with Russia would be unfeasible «[…] for, as I presently perceive, all the courts are now interested solely in uniting against the French, and as a reward for all their costs they intend a division of Poland»11, as he wrote to Małachowski.
They reassessed their plan: they were to dissociate from the King and the policy they’ve just agreed. They now blamed him, circulated pamphlets across the country that it was all Stanisław’s machinations alone, the Polish army was well supplied and ready to fight. Books circulated blaming Stanisław for treason and indifference: «sam stał się oboiętnum tilko świadkiem tego, co seym równie dla niego, iak dla narodu, przedsiębrał» 12. They were written by Kołłątaj.
The plan wasn’t to insult Stanisław, but to build the platform for a new policy. In order to carry on the struggle, they had to show that victory was possible. In order to persuade people of that, they had first to persuade them that victory had been within reach in 1792, and that the Polish nation was only robbed of it by a number of circumstances, the most important being the king’s betrayal.13
The original Targowican had disappeared from the stage, and the new-joiners from the Council have just leave as well, blaming Stanisław for everything. And Stanisław was there, alone, in the hands of the Russian minister Bulgakov. All over Europe, diplomats knew that Stanisław had just became the scapegoat.
During the Kościuszko uprising, Stanisław tried to step in, if only to pacify the European courts that feared Poland might become the next France. European politics were radicalised: have no king and you’re a Jacobine to be smashed by the Ancient Order, put a king and nobody will trust you as a revolutionary. There was no middle-ground, and hardly anybody would find an equilibrium.
The uprising failed, as it was doomed to do, and Catherine was determined to cleanse the “Jacobin disease”, incarcerating all of those who had taken part in the Uprising. Stanisław begged Suvorov —one of the greatest military commanders of all times— mercy for the wounded, tried to stop the looting of the Polish insignia, and even tried to recycle the Cadet Corps into a high school, to preserve its existence — all to no avail.
When the last partition was signed, Kraków looted by the Prussians before giving her to the Austrians, and so Warsaw looted by the Russians before giving her to the Prussians, Stanisław was held in Grodno. He exchange correspondence with all the figures of Europe, trying to assert some influence in helping the people of Poland. Eventually, when things seem to have cooled down, Catherine agreed to free him, though never to live in Austria, but in Italy. But in the last moment, Catherine demanded he be moved to Moscow. Stanisław knew that this meant he’d be incarcerated in Russia for the rest of his days. The French were victorious against the Prussians and Austrians, and General Bonaparte was sweeping through Italy: «Catherine would not dream of allowing the king of Poland, that potent symbol of the injustice of the three monarchies, to go wandering in Europe». Stanisław was a hostage in Russia, again because of the French Revolution.
When Catherine died, Tsar Paul changed Russian policy towards Poland for a much softer one. Tsar Paul himself seem to have told to Stanisław that he believed Stanisław was his father, but this makes no sense, Paul was born before Stanisław and Catherine even met for the first time.
As the tripartite convention has agreed to remove the name of Poland from all diplomatic documents, and the Prussians took over the remainders of Stanisław’s property back in Poland, Stanisław suffered a stroke, and died unexpectedly on the 12th of February, 1798. He was buried, on orders of Paul, on the Church of St. Catherine in St. Petersburg.
The romantic movement and the Napoleonic Wars that followed did more harm than good to his reputation, for enlightened Stanisław was scarcely good material for romantic poets interested in intuition and emotion rather than rationalism and realpolitik.
Polish poets of the Romantic period inherited only failure, and they did their utmost to give it meaning. Mickiewicz used the symbolism of the Crucifixion to exalt Poland, which he represented as the Christ of nations, whose suffering was not only glorious but redemptive as well. As a result, the Poles began to elevate such bloody fiascos as the Confederation of Bar into expressions of triumph. Suffering or a grim death on some forgotten battlefield became ends in themselves. And Stanisław had not suffered and he had not died in battle.14
The Present, again
Polish history is terribly unknown to the world. In high school back in Spain, I saw the history of the world as the history of the big players, were Poland was not event remotely in the list. The education curricula of most countries barely mentions Poland as “the place where a lot of bad stuff happened in WWII”, which is terribly sad to say the least. But again, the question that needs to be asked is when and where did this happen, and how did it come to be. And playing the blaming game leads nowhere, the very Polish history is a lesson of this.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant defined enlightenment as the liberation of man from his self-induced condition of deficiency or self-abasement. Polish society has been in such a condition since the seventeenth century, fighting a losing emotional and spiritual battle against reality. It is only when that struggle is over that the Poles will be able to look at their history with dispassionate reason. That day has yet to come. History is still, for most of them, a morality play. 15
- The Last King of Poland, Epilogue, p 453–454
- The Last King of Poland, ISBN 0−224−03548−7
- The Last King of Poland, Epilogue, p. 459
- The Last King of Poland, The Great Seym, p. 311.
- The Last King of Poland, The Nation with the King, p. 347,
- The Last King of Poland, Epilogue, p. 459.
- The Last King of Poland, Epilogue, p. 454.
- The Last King of Poland, Nemesis, p. 393. Itself a quote from a letter to Małachowski, 13 XII 92. See also Konfeferacya Targowicka, Smoleński Władysław, p. 377, for example here
- The Establishment and Fall of the Polish Constitution of the 3rd May, chapter 4. Archive in Polish available here.
- The Last King of Poland, Nemesis, p. 394.
- The Last King of Poland, Epilogue, p. 461.
- The Last King of Poland, Epilogue, p. 462