Partitioning of Poland Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Poland was partitioned, partly annexed, and finally completely absorbed by the more powerful states surrounding it. After the third partition, the nation of Poland no longer existed, as it had become part of the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian empires. Poland would not become a sovereign state again until the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

By the eighteenth century, the international position of Poland had become precarious and its domestic condition unstable. Although it was one of the largest states in Europe, Poland lacked the natural frontiers that would have enabled it to resist the expansionist policies of its three predatory neighbors: Russia, Prussia, and Austria. The threat imposed on Poland by these three countries was accentuated by the decline of Sweden and the Ottoman Empire, states which had previously kept the czars and the Habsburgs at bay. The Poles could expect no substantial help from these states, nor from France, which was preoccupied with threats from Great Britain, still another state with no real interest in Poland. [kw]Partitioning of Poland (Aug. 5, 1772-Oct. 24, 1795) [kw]Poland, Partitioning of (Aug. 5, 1772-Oct. 24, 1795) Partitions of Poland [g]Poland;Aug. 5, 1772-Oct. 24, 1795: Partitioning of Poland[2010] [g]Germany;Aug. 5, 1772-Oct. 24, 1795: Partitioning of Poland[2010] [g]Prussia;Aug. 5, 1772-Oct. 24, 1795: Partitioning of Poland[2010] [g]Russia;Aug. 5, 1772-Oct. 24, 1795: Partitioning of Poland[2010] [g]Austria;Aug. 5, 1772-Oct. 24, 1795: Partitioning of Poland[2010] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Aug. 5, 1772-Oct. 24, 1795: Partitioning of Poland[2010] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Aug. 5, 1772-Oct. 24, 1795: Partitioning of Poland[2010] [c]Government and politics;Aug. 5, 1772-Oct. 24, 1795: Partitioning of Poland[2010] Catherine the Great Frederick the Great Frederick William II Maria Theresa Kaunitz, Wenzel Anton von Ko{sacute}ciuszko, Tadeusz Stanis{lstrok}aw II August Poniatowski

The isolation Poland encountered in the international sphere was paralleled by the instability of its domestic affairs. Ethnically, Poland was a heterogeneous state, the eastern two-thirds of which was inhabited by Lithuanians, White Russians, and Red Russians (Ukrainians). Many of these Russians embraced the Orthodox religion of neighboring Russia and were referred to by the Roman Catholic Poles as the “dissidents.” Socioeconomically, the non-Polish population made up the bulk of the peasantry, who suffered under the harsh conditions of life imposed upon them by the nobility, who themselves were generally of Polish extraction. Such repression, reinforced by the religious intolerance of Polish Catholicism, caused these non-Polish peoples to look for salvation from without, especially from Russia.





Constitutionally, Poland was a weak, decentralized state presided over by a weak elective king. Participation in the national diet was restricted to the Polish nobles, any one of whom could defeat a proposition under discussion and at the same time dissolve the assembly simply by casting a veto (the so-called liberum veto). Such a requisite of unanimity meant that few diets lasted long enough to carry out needed reforms; hence, factions of the nobility resorted to the formation of “confederations” or armed leagues to secure by force what could not be accomplished by defunct institutions of government.

Seeking to make capital from these deplorable conditions, Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia concluded an alliance in April, 1764, wherein they resolved to maintain the existing constitution of Poland. A few months later, Catherine dispatched Russian troops into Poland to secure the election of Stanisław II August Poniatowski, her former lover, as king, “because,” as she put it, “he had less right than any other candidate and therefore should be all the more grateful to Russia.” In her efforts to obtain Polish toleration for the “dissidents,” however, Catherine touched off, in 1768, a revolt led by the antiroyalist, anti-Russian Confederation of Bar, which sought the support of France.

Although unable to provide direct aid to the Poles, France did succeed in stirring up the Turks against Russia. The Turks, however, needed little prodding, resentful as they were of the Russian advance into Poland and of Russians in general. When a Cossack Cossacks band violated the Turkish frontier while pursuing some Polish rebels, the Ottoman Empire used the incident as an excuse to declare war on Russia. When Frederick and Catherine signed their alliance in 1764, they had not calculated on a Polish uprising, let alone what now seemed to be developing into an international conflict.

An alarmed Frederick now feared that Prussia would be involved not only in quelling a Polish insurrection but also in the expansionist policies of Russia, which seemed about to invade the Danubian principalities of the Ottoman Empire. This aggressive move threatened war between Russia and Austria, since Russia was encroaching on Austria’s southeastern flank. Frederick’s own ambitions would be thwarted if he should be caught in an Austro-Russian conflict. Thus Frederick suggested that Russia annex part of Poland instead of the Danubian principalities, and that Prussia and Austria would also take their shares of Poland to balance Russia’s. This plan pleased Catherine the Great, who had long coveted parts of Poland. Maria Theresa of Austria objected to partition on both political and moral grounds, but she accepted her share of the spoils rather than see Russia and Prussia absorb all of Poland. The details were negotiated in part by Maria Theresa’s state chancellor, Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz.

Under terms of the first partition, August 5, 1772, Poland lost about one-third of its territory and one-half of its inhabitants. Russia obtained the district of White Russia. Austria received Galicia and large parts of Red Russia and Podolia. Prussia’s share (West Prussia) was the smallest, but it gave Prussia the vital block of territory needed for the unification of its purely German lands with outlying East Prussia. The Polish diet had no choice but to accept the partition. One contemporary observer remarked that in time Poland would be “totally swallowed up by the neighboring powers.”

Total annexation occurred within twenty-five years. For a while, however, it appeared that Poland might be able to survive. Its three adversaries turned their attention from the Polish question during the 1770’s and 1780’s in order to fight among themselves and become involved in other ventures. Austria and Prussia resumed their struggle for supremacy in central Europe, this time over the issue of the Bavarian succession. Simultaneously, Austria allied itself with Russia against the Turks, and by 1787 another Russian-Turkish war had broken out, with the Habsburgs and Swedes taking their traditional sides. Poland, meanwhile, used this respite from outside interference to initiate needed domestic reforms. In May, 1791, Polish patriots enacted a new constitution abolishing elective kingship, the liberum veto, and the confederations. Catherine, after concluding peace with the Turks, responded to these new developments by sending Russian armies into Poland in May, 1792. The old constitution, as a result, was soon restored.

In order to forestall future efforts to strengthen the Polish state, Catherine decided during 1792 to effect a second partition of the country with Prussia, whose new sovereign, Frederick William II, was eager to compensate himself for the loss of face suffered in fighting revolutionary France. The second partition treaty of January 23, 1793, to which Austria was not a party, left Russia with most of Lithuania, the remaining parts of White Russia, most of Black Russia, and the western Ukraine. Prussia secured the area of Great Poland and the vital port of Danzig.

The second partition provoked a gallant and popular revolt, led by Tadeusz Kościuszko, who fought with distinction in the American Revolution. Kościuszko spurred a national uprising not only to secure an independent Poland but also to preserve the ideal of liberty and democracy that had been instituted in the new Polish constitution Catherine the Great had revoked. Kościuszko’s revolt represented, as well, the spirit of the French Revolution, which Prussia, Russia, and Austria were determined to put down at all costs. Overwhelmed by both Russian and Prussian armies, Kościuszko was defeated, but his courageous example inspired generations of Poles, who would rebel again in 1830-1831 and in 1863, never forsaking the cause of an independent and free Poland.

After Kościuszko’s defeat, Poland was partitioned a third time on October 24, 1795. Austria, invited by Catherine to participate to restrain Prussian territorial demands, received some territory north of Galicia, including Cracow. Russia acquired Courland and the remainder of Lithuania and Black Russia. Prussia obtained lands just to the south and east of East Prussia, including the Polish capital, Warsaw.


The third partition of Poland in 1795 resulted in the disappearance of that state from the map of Europe until 1918. Russia was now pulled deeply into Europe, sharing long frontiers with Prussia and Austria, a fact of considerable importance when World War I broke out in 1914. Yet the powers that had participated in the division of Poland had no reason to regret the dissolution of what had really been a buffer state between them. Indeed, in modern times, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia ignored this point in subjecting Poland to a fourth partition.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ascherson, Neal. The Struggles for Poland. New York: Random House, 1987. See especially the chapters tracing the rise and fall of independent Poland from 966 to 1900. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cowie, Leonard W. Eighteenth-Century Europe. New York: Frederick Unger, 1963. Chapter 15 presents a concise introduction to the three partitions and the inherent weakness of eighteenth century Poland.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davies, Norman. Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Present. New ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Works backward from the events in the early 1980’s to eighteenth century Poland, emphasizing those factors that were most important in shaping the country’s present. Includes maps, genealogical tables, and gazetteer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Florinsky, Michael T. Russia: A History and an Interpretation. Vol. 1. Reprint. New York: Macmillan, 1973. In this work, which was first published in 1947, Florinsky provides a good discussion of the three partitions from the vantage point of the expansion of eighteenth century Russia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holborn, Hajo. 1648-1840. Vol. 2 in A History of Modern Germany. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964. Provides a brief treatment of the first partition of Poland.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lord, Robert. The Second Partition of Poland. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1915. A classic work that provides an outstanding treatment of the subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lukowski, Jerzy. The Partitions of Poland, 1772, 1793, 1795. London: Longman, 1999. Describes the causes, course, and consequences of the three partitions and their impact on Poland and other countries in Europe. Explains the attitudes that Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great, and the Habsburgs held about Poland and the rulers’ motives for the partition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lukowski, Jerzy, and Hubert Zawadzki. A Concise History of Poland. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. A general introduction to Polish history, divided into two parts: Poland to 1795, and Poland after 1795.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wandycz, Piotr S. The Lands of Partitioned Poland, 1795-1918. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1974. Chapters on the aftermath of the partitions, the age of insurrections, and the road to independence. Includes a bibliographical essay.

Great Northern War

Ottoman Wars with Russia, Venice, and Austria

Russo-Austrian War Against the Ottoman Empire

Accession of Frederick the Great

Maria Theresa Succeeds to the Austrian Throne

War of the Austrian Succession

Ottoman Wars with Russia

Joseph II’s Reforms

Russo-Swedish Wars

Allgemeines Landrecht Recodifies Prussian Law

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i>

Catherine the Great; Frederick the Great; Joseph II; Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz; Tadeusz Kościuszko; Maria Theresa. Partitions of Poland

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