The Downfall of the First Republic: Polish Nobility, Five Eternal Rights, Three Contributing Failures, and Three Conspiring Powers
Polish nobility were guaranteed five eternal and invariable principles in the constitution of 1793. Unfortunately the monarch and the people were notably left out. Without the absolutism of France (which also failed) or the great rights of Venetian or German merchants and burghers, the middle class, Poland found itself following a colonial model in the chaos of the ancien regime in Europe. The downfall of the First Polish Republic in 1795 was the result of a series of coinciding factors, each of which will be addressed fully and with concise clarity.
The primary contributing factors to the downfall of Poland that will be addressed are economic destabilization, civil strife and political turmoil, as well as an incapacity to perform militarily in such a way as to maintain Poland’s borders in the new nation-state system imposed on much of Europe by nationalism, in a geopolitical sense. Inability to compete economically with other nations created a myth of Poland as a nation without a purpose. Specific trade inequalities as well as industrial non-competitiveness will be seen first, and as a contribution to the exacerbation of other elements of the devolution of the Polish state before its removal from political maps (if not from that of cultural identity).
Economic malaise: The New World and Europe’s Grain Basket
Poland lies along the Oder and Vistula rivers and with the unification of Lithuanian and Polish lands through personal union with the creation of the Republic of the Two Nations in 1569, a great amount of grain harvest was gained. As control of these far flung regions began to disintegrate, so to did the economic prosperity of Poland. The rest of Europe underwent nationalization in an industrial sense, while Polish reforms came too little, too late.
While German reforms granting power to burghers were necessitated by squabbles within the Holy Roman Empire, and in France and Italy these protections were de facto incorporated with their national development in the middle ages, it was not until 1791 that “Poland transformed from a nation of gentry to a nation of proprietors” (Taras, 34). This late realization of economic equality and prosperity to national success meant that “putting-out” systems in Europe took longer to occur in Polish lands, and with them the seeds of industrialization which made European colonial ambitions reality.
Historically, nature had protected Poland from the malevolent forces of economic sabotage or instability. When civil wars or marauding Tartars devastated the farmlands, merchants and nobility were comfortable to wait for times to change, safe in the knowledge that it was impossible for rudimentary military operations to effectively control the territory (at times this included Poland’s own rulers). Unfortunately, divides which economically split these nobles would also result in military conflict later on.
The shift towards Moscow and the Orthodox church resulted in times of entire regions simply refusing to pay tribute or taxes, and in the Great Deluge, the nation was torn apart in civil war waged by Poland’s elite nobility. Costly military and political conquests, such as union with Lithuania began to fall apart because “to Orthodox nobles, especially in the distant eastern borderlands, taking service with Moscow often seemed to offer a more promising path of advancement” (Lukowski and Zawadzki, 56).
When economic tithes stopped coming to Roman Catholic authorities, the progression of other country splitting heresy, such as that in Prussia, began to become more commonplace, and the crown and military found itself in a disadvantage. This was worsened by the introduction of New World markets, destabilizing demand for raw materials that Poland was known for. Their economic advantage was destroyed as England’s industrialization provided eastern lands with better products, in a similar manner to the colonies, which undermined the historical technological advantages Polish merchants and forces enjoyed.
Five Liberties, and How Oppression and Repression Tear Poland Apart at the Seams
When the big three neighbors of Poland, Austria, Russia, and Sweden, that were primarily responsible for the nation’s fall, were disorganized and ineffective at projecting power beyond their own borders, Polish chariots established an effective rule over one third of continental Europe. However, as these nations consolidated under the power of some of the most effective rulers in history, and in France the absolutism of Louis XIV became the envy of Europe, Polish compromise made political change grind to a halt. Even in wars within Poland, there was no satisfaction and the nobles expressed indignation at their “oppression” or at the inability to act in a reactionary manner, in either case neither side’s ambitions could be fulfilled, and consequently little conquest, economic development, or other trade marks of the absolute monarch such as imperialism could be fulfilled.
This was endemic and intrinsic to a policy change forced upon the king, “nothing new” in which the Polish Sejm or parliament, “hereby affirmed for all time to come that nothing new may be enacted by Us and our Successors save by the common consent of the senators and the envoys of the constituencies” (Lukowski and Zawadzki, 64), which meant that even funding for a defensive war that the monarch approved of could take three or four years to be approved, if at all. The weakness of a central authority in Poland is illustrated in the case of certain magnates or nobles which held more economic wealth than the royal treasury. Polish neighbors had no love for this egalitarian noble led state, much later, after the fall, Prince Metternich, the Austrian Chancellor stated, “Polonism is only a formula, the sound of a word underneath which hides a revolution in its most glaring form” (Taras, 36). For foreign nations, in pre-revolution and pre-napoleonic Europe, revolutionary ideals were more hated even than the most bitter foes.
Under one king, August III, “only one session of the Sejm was able to pass any legislation at all” (Taras, 31). Enemies of Poland, and of religious authority alike took full advantage of this system to make a mockery of attempted nationhood. The inability to rule was compounded by liberum conspire under which Polish nobility had the right to conspire against authority, and indeed even to wage warfare against the king.
Moving from Polish insurrections to foreign policy, seeing that “this system also generated self-destructive tendencies, especially when skillfully exploited by Poland’s foes” (Taras 32), draws a vivid picture of the conspiracy of multiple malevolent forces in the fall of Polish authority. With one third of the population dead due to war and war-related famines and hardship, and substantial territory lost, this authority had dwindled for nearly a century before the famous partitions and direct involvement of foreign belligerents.
Polish Military and Geopolitical Power: More Than Technological Disadvantage
Neighboring nations had a contempt for national Poland. The viewpoint of the rest of the world was that Poland was a nation, once too powerful to deal with, with unchanging ideology in the face of a rapidly changing world. While Renaissance and middle age era kings of Poland were able to boast resounding victories over heretics and foreign opponents alike, by the time gunpowder fuelled war machines took dominance, the nation fell apart on the battlefield as well as at home.
While the ultimate elimination of the Polish state was diplomatic, a result of treaties and occurred gradually over the last decade of the 18th century in partitions, it was causally linked to vicious warfare which left the country and people in tatters. With no choice but to fight, and no war machine to fight with, it was easy for foreign nations to dictate terms to Polish nobility, a class that by this time was facing humiliation in the face of successful peasant authority throughout Europe. Poland had no choice to throw its power behind a monarch or decentralize into the peasant masses, either option was fundamentally undermined by the very constitution Poland considered to be the premier among democratic or republican movements at the time.
This was one example of a compromise that failed. Where once, in times of duchies and feudal rule, compromise gave Poland unprecedented authority in negotiations and in integrating new cultures and classes, now this conciliatory nature tore the nation to pieces. With nationalist ideologies spreading in Europe, a mixed background of constituents made consolidation impossible, except through the guiding force of the greater powers.
Unfortunately for occupying powers, this did not work. Poland was ripped apart, eaten digested, and excreted nearly in whole, and periodic nationalist rebellions proved this point. While they did little to restore the Polish state, the idea of a Polish nation remained so ingrained to its people behavior that nearly 150 years later, the state was able to rise again, a testament to the strength this culture possessed.
The nation survived bitter persecution and is now stronger for that effect. Without the conspiring influence of war and struggle, however, it is possible that Poland could have exerted control over some greater lands and resources. Failure to recognize the future of Europe as interconnected to the destiny of Poland is a failure that is not likely to repeat itself. Thought that which has seen Poland survive thus far is the fierce loyalty to land and nation, and this remains paramount in this nation-state as it has successfully repulsed attempts by the Soviet Union and other powers to absorb their cultural identity.
Lukowski, Jerzy, and W. H. Zawadzki. A Concise History of Poland. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2006. Print.
Taras, Ray. Consolidating Democracy in Poland. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1995. Print.