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Allegory of the 1st partition of Poland crop
Allegory of the 1st partition of Poland, showing Catherine the Great of Russia (left), Joseph II of Austria and Frederick the Great of Prussia (right) quarrelling over their territorial seizures

The Partitions of Poland or Partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is a term used in history. In the Polish language, the term for the Partitions of Poland is Rozbiór Polski or Rozbiory Polski. In the Lithuanian language, the term for the partitions is Padalijimas. The term describes partitions of the independent and sovereign country named the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. the neighboring countries of Prussia, Imperial Russia, and the Habsburg Monarchy divided the lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth among themselves. Three partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth took place on the dates noted below:

The Partitions of Poland or Partitions of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth took place in the second half of the 18th century and ended the existence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The partitions were carried out by Prussia, Russia and Habsburg Austria dividing up the Commonwealth lands among themselves. Three partitions took place:

The less often used term "Fourth Partition of Poland" may refer to any subsequent division of Polish lands, specifically:



Before the partitions: The Commonwealth at its greatest extent.

During the reign of Władysław IV (1632-48), the liberum veto had evolved. This policy of parliamentary procedure was based on the assumption of the political equality of every "gentleman", with the corollary that unanimous consent was required for all measures Thus one could characterise Poland-Lithuania in its final period (mid-18th century), prior to the partitions as already not a completely sovereign state: it could be seen almost as a vassal, or in modern terms, a Russian satellite state, with Russian tsars effectively choosing Polish kings. This applies particularly to the last Commonwealth King Stanisław August Poniatowski, who for some time had been a lover of Russian Empress Catherine the Great.

In 1730 Commonwealth's neighbours, namely Prussia, Austria and Russia, signed a secret agreement in order to maintain the status quo: specifically, to ensure that the Commonwealth laws would not change. Their alliance later became known in Poland as the "Alliance of the Three Black Eagles" (or Löwenwolde's Treaty), because all three states used a black eagle as a state symbol (in contrast to the white eagle, a symbol of Poland). The Commonwealth had been forced to rely on Russia for protection against the rising Kingdom of Prussia, while Prussia was demanding a slice of the northwest in order to unite its Western and Eastern portions, although this would only leave the Commonwealth with a Baltic coast in Latvia and Lithuania. The Commonwealth could never be liquidated unless its longtime ally, Austria, allowed it,

The Commonwealth had remained neutral in the Seven Years' War, though sympathizing with the alliance of France, Austria, and Russia, and allowing Russian troops access to its western lands as bases against Prussia. Frederick II of Prussia retaliated by ordering enough Polish currency counterfeited to severely affect the Polish economy.

Through the Polish nobles whom Russia controlled and the Russian Minister to Warsaw, ambassador and Prince Nicholas Repnin, Empress Catherine the Great forced a constitution on the Commonwealth at the so-called Repnin Sejm of 1767, named after ambassador Repnin. He dictated the terms of that Sejm and ordered the capture and exile of some vocal opponents of his policies to Kaluga in Russian Empire., including bishop Józef Andrzej Załuski and others. This new constitution undid the reforms made in 1764 under Stanisław II. The liberum veto and all the old abuses of the last one and a half centuries were guaranteed as unalterable parts of this new constitution (in the so-called cardinal laws). Repnin also demanded religious freedom for the Protestant and Orthodox Christians (those demands were the official "cover" for the pro-dependence "reforms"), and the resulting reaction among some of Poland's intolerant Roman Catholic, as well as the deep resentment of Russian intervention in the Commonwealth's domestic affairs, led to the War of the Confederation of Bar with Russia from 1768 to 1772.

The Poles tried to expel foreign forces in an uprising (the Confederation of Bar, 1768–1772), but the irregular and poorly commanded forces had litte chance in the face of the regular Russian army and suffered a defeat. Adding to the chaos was a Ukrainian peasant rebellion, the Koliyivschyna, which erupted in 1768 and resulted in massacres of noblemen (szlachta), Jews, Uniates, and Catholic priests before it was put down by Polish and Russian troops.

First Partition

Rzeczpospolita Rozbiory 1
The First Partition (1772).

On February 19, 1772, the agreement of partition was signed in Vienna. A previous agreement between Prussia and Russia had been made in St. Petersburg on February 6, 1772. Early in August the Russian, Prussian and Austrian troops simultaneously entered the Commonwealth and occupied the provinces agreed upon among themselves. On August 5, 1772, the occupation manifesto was issued; much to the consternation of a country too exhausted by the endeavours of the Confederation of Bar to offer further resistance. Frederick II wrote about the participation of the (catholic) empress Maria Theresa in the first division of Poland in a letter: "The Empress Catherine and I are simple robbers. I just would like to know how the empress calmed down her father confessor? She cried, when she took; the more she cried, the more she took!?"

The regiments of the Confederation, whose executive board had been forced to leave Austria after that country joined the Prusso-Russian alliance, did not lay down their arms. Every fortress in their command held out as long as possible. Famous was the defence of Tyniec, which lasted until the end of March 1773, and also that of Częstochowa commanded by Pułaski. Kraków fell on April 28th, captured by the Russian general Suvorov who exiled the garrison to Siberia.

The partition treaty was ratified by its signatories on September 22, 1772. Frederick II of Prussia was elated with his success, and took great care for the welfare of his new Polish subjects, importing large numbers of Catholic schoolteachers (especially Jesuits whose order was suppressed at about that time) and making it mandatory for Prussian crown princes to learn Polish; Kaunitz of Austria was proud of wresting as large a share as he did, with the rich salt mines of Bochnia and Wieliczka; and Catherine of Russia was also very satisfied. By this "diplomatic document" Russia came into possession of that section of Livonia which had still remained in Commonwealth control, and of Belarus embracing the counties of Vitebsk, Polotsk and Mstislavl.

Prussia took Ermland (Warmia), Royal Prussia without the city of Danzig (Gdańsk) (which in 1773 became a new province called West Prussia), northern areas of Greater Poland along the Noteć River (the Netze District), and parts of Kuyavia (including the city of Thorn [Toruń]).

To Austria fell Zator and Auschwitz (Oświęcim), part of Little Poland embracing parts of the counties of Kraków and Sandomir and the whole of Galicia, less the City of Kraków. By this partition the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth lost about 30% of its territory, amounting at that time to about 484,000 square miles (1,250,000 km2), with a population of four million people. The largest share of the spoils, as far as population and revenue were concerned, went to Austria.

Rejtan Upadek Polski Matejko
"Rejtan - The Fall of Poland", oil on canvas by Jan Matejko, 1866, 282 x 487 cm, Royal Castle in Warsaw.

After having occupied their respective territories, the three partitioning powers demanded that King Stanisław and the Sejm approve their action. The King appealed to the nations of Western Europe for help and tarried with the convocation of the Sejm. When no help was forthcoming and the armies of the combined nations occupied Warsaw to compel by force of arms the calling of the assembly, no alternative could be chosen save passive submission to their will. Those of the senators who advised against this step were arrested and exiled to Siberia by the representatives of Catherine.

By seizing northwestern Poland, Prussia instantly gained control over 80% of the Commonwealth's total foreign trade. Through levying enormous custom duties, Prussia accelerated the inevitable collapse of the Commonwealth (EB.)

Second Partition

Rzeczpospolita Rozbiory 2
The Second Partition (1793)

By 1790, on the political front, the First Polish Republic had deteriorated into such a helpless condition that it was successfully forced into an unnatural and ultimately deadly alliance with its enemy, Prussia. The Polish-Prussian Pact of 1790 was signed. The conditions of the Pact were such that the succeeding and final two partitions of Poland were inevitable. The May Constitution of 1791 enfranchised the bourgeoisie, established the separation of the three branches of government, and eliminated the abuses of Repnin Sejm. Those reforms prompted aggressive actions on the part of its neighbours, wary of the potential renaissance of the Commonwealth. Once again Poland dared to reform and improve itself without Russia's permission, and once again the Empress was angered; arguing that Poland had fallen prey to the radical Jacobinism then at high tide in France, Russian forces invaded the Commonwealth in 1792 (EB.)

In the War in Defense of the Constitution, pro-Russian conservative Polish magnates, the Confederation of Targowica, fought against the Polish forces supporting the constitution, believing that Russians would help them restore the Golden Liberty. Abandoned by their Prussian allies, Polish pro-constitution forces, faced with Targowica units and the regular Russian army, were defeated. Prussia signed a treaty with Russia, agreeing that Polish reforms would be revoked and both countries would receive chunks of Commonwealth territory. In 1793, deputies to the Grodno Sejm in Grodno, last Sejm of the Commonwealth, in the presence of the Russian forces, agreed to Russian territorial demands. In the 2nd partition, Russia and Prussia helped themselves to enough more land so that only one-third of the 1772 population remained in Poland.

Targowica confederates, who did not expect another partition, and the king, Stanisław August Poniatowski, who joined them near the end, both lost much prestige and support. The reformers, on the other hand, were attracting increasing support, and in 1794 the Kościuszko Uprising begun.

Third Partition

Partitions of Poland
Three partitions of Poland on one map

Kosciuszko's ragtag insurgent armies won some initial successes, but they eventually fell before the superior forces of Russian Empire. The partitioning powers, seeing the increasing unrest in the remaining Commonwealth, decided to solve the problem by erasing any independent Polish state from the map. On 24 October 1795 their representatives signed a treaty, dividing the remaining territories of the Commonwealth between their three countries.

The Russian part included 120,000 km² and 1.2 million people with Wilno, the Prussian part 55,000 km² and 1 million people with Warsaw, and the Austrian 47,000 km² with 1.2 million and Lublin and Kraków.


Napoleon set up the Duchy of Warsaw in a smaller area of Poland, but after his defeat and the implementation of the Congress of Vienna programme, things became even worse for Poles than before. Russia gained a larger share of Poland and, after crushing an insurrection in 1831, the Congress Kingdom of Poland's autonomy was abolished and Poles faced confiscation of property, deportation, forced military service, and the closure of their own universities. After the rising of 1863, Russification of Polish secondary schools was imposed and literacy rate dropped dramatically. In the Austrian portion, Poles became the second nationality

As a result of Partitions, Poles were forced to seek a change of status quo in Europe. Polish poets, politicians, noblemen, writers, artists, many of whom were forced to emigrate (thus the term Great Emigration) became the revolutionaries of 19th century, as desire for freedom and liberty became one of the defining parts of Polish romanticism. Polish revolutionaries participated in uprisings in Prussia, Austrian Empire and Imperial Russia Polish legions fought alongside Napoleon and under the slogan of For our freedom and yours participated widely in the Spring of Nations (particularly Hungarian Revolution (1848)).

"Fourth Partition"

The term "Fourth Partition of Poland" may refer to any subsequent division of Polish lands, specifically:

If one accepts more than one of those events as partitions, fifth and sixth partitions can be counted, but these terms are very rare.


As historian Norman Davies stated, because of the observance of the balance of power equilibrium, many contemporary observers accepted explanations of the "enlightened apologists" of the partitioning state. Some, particularly older historians from countries that carried out the partitions, such as 19th century Russian scholar Sergey Solovyov argued that partitions were justified, as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had degenerated to the point of being partitioned because of the counterproductive principle of liberum veto that made decision-making on divisive issues, such as a wide-scale social reform, virtually impossible. Solovyov specified the cultural, language and religious break between the supreme and lowest layers of the society in the east regions of the Commonwealth, where the Bielorussian and Ukrainian serf peasantry was Orthodox. Russian authors emphasized the historical connections between Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, as former parts of the medieval old Russian state where dynasty of Rurikids reigned (Kievan Rus). A new justification for partitions arose with the Russian Enlightenment, as Russian writers such as Gavrila Derzhavin, Denis Fonvizin, and Alexander Pushkin stressed degeneration of Catholic Poland and the need to "civilize" it by its neighbors. Nonetheless other 19th century contemporaries were much more sceptical; for example, British jurist Sir Robert Phillimore discussed the partition as a violation of international law; German jurist Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim presented similar views. Other old historians who challenged such justifications for the Partitions included French historian Jules Michelet, British historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay, and Edmund Burke. More recent studies claim that partitions happened when Poland had been showing the beginning signs of a slow recovery and see the last two partitions as an answer to strengthening reforms in the Commonwealth and the potential threat they represented to its neighbours.

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