East Central Europe during the Polish and Austrian Succession Wars


French Infantry during War of The Polish Succession 1734-35. 1. Bourbonnois Regt. Drummer. 2.Bretagne Regt. Grenadier. 3.Richlieu Regt. Sergeant 4.Royal Rouissillon Regt, Officer with Colours & Fusilier

The first of these European wars of the middle of the eighteenth century, after a brief period of peace which followed the War of the Spanish Succession in the West and the Great Northern War in the East, is called the War of the Polish Succession. The very name seems to indicate how important Poland’s place continued to be in the European state system, and the war indeed started in consequence of the Polish election of 1733. But it developed outside Poland, without any participation of Poland as a sovereign power, and when it was concluded two years later the fate of Poland had practically ceased to be the main issue in the conflict among the other powers.

Before the election, at the so-called Convocation Diet, the Poles decided to exclude all foreign candidates and amidst great enthusiasm the primate, on September 12, proclaimed Stanislaw Leszczynski king of Poland. Leszczynski had been able to reach that country by secretly crossing Germany, but his election, signed by about twelve thousand voters, was undoubtedly legal, and expecting French and Swedish assistance through the Baltic he moved to Danzig. Help was indeed badly needed because Russia, supported by Austria and with Prussia’s silent approval, decided to enforce the election of Frederick Augustus of Saxony, as King Augustus III, after abandoning the extravagant idea of offering the throne of Poland to the Infante of Portugal. Under the control of the Russian army which occupied Praga, the eastern suburb of Warsaw, no more than a thousand voters signed the fake election of Augustus III who, after a short visit in Cracow, returned to Dresden where he was to spend most of his thirty years reign in leisurely indolence.

The Poles were not at all prepared to recognize him. The nobility joined in “confederations” set up to support the lawful king, but their main leaders were defeated before they could reach Danzig with reinforcements. The city, also loyal to Leszczynski, was soon besieged by a strong Russian army under General Münnich. Besides a small group of Swedish volunteers, only two thousand French soldiers under Count Plélo, ambassador to Denmark, tried to rescue the king, but they were thrown back and their heroic commander was killed in action on May 27, 1734. To save the city from destruction, Leszczynski escaped to Königsberg where he was kept as hostage by the King of Prussia. Danzig surrendered one month later and the Primate of Poland was himself among the prisoners.

The resistance movement continued both in Poland, under the Tarlo family, and in Lithuania, where another confederation was formed, but it was necessarily limited to partisan warfare, with foreign support as only a possible hope. But even France, where a Polish embassy signed a pact of friendship with Cardinal Fleury, then directing the policy of Louis XV, did not take her engagements very seriously. She had declared war on Austria and Russia, together with Spain, Naples, and Sardinia, but was more interested in the situation in Italy and Western Germany. While the French attacked the Austrian forces in Italy, Russia was supposed to be checked by Sweden and Turkey. But neither country seized that opportunity for a joined action against the rising Russian power, and General Münnich’s forces soon appeared in the Rhineland. It was therefore in Western Europe that the war was decided and it was there that France was looking for compensation for the setback of her policy in East Central Europe. When it became obvious that St. Petersburg would not accept the ally and father-in-law of Louis XV as king of Poland, Fleury, at the Peace of Vienna, signed on October 3, 1735, obtained for him, instead of Poland, the duchy of Lorraine from Emperor Charles VI, it being understood that after his death that province would be united with France.

Leszczynski’s court at Lunéville was to be an important center where the king-in-exile educated young Poles and drafted reform projects not only for the Polish constitution but also for Europe’s international organization. But his idea of a permanent peace under French leadership was no more utopian than his own return to power in Poland. His successful rival, Augustus III, recognized by the Pacification Diet of 1736, was to reign until his death, two years after that of Leszczynski, in 1763.

Soon after the end of hostilities in Western Europe, the Ottoman Empire started a belated war against Russia, whose southern border was raided by the Crimean Tartars. But it was in vain that Austria, which after a futile attempt at mediation entered that war on Russia’s side, suggested to the Saxon king of Poland to join, as in the time of Sobieski, the action against Turkey, promising in reward to permit internal reforms in the commonwealth. And it was in vain, too, that Leszczynski’s partisans were planning a revolt with Turkish and possibly Swedish support. Poland did not even receive any satisfaction for the violation of her territory by the Russian forces which defeated the Turks and, in spite of a separate peace made by Austria, forced the Ottoman Empire to conclude a much less satisfactory treaty with Empress Anne, in 1739. Russia did not yet reach the Black Sea, the Azov area being made neutral, but she advanced her frontier in the steppes north of that sea and close to the Polish border at the Boh River. The Ottoman Empire not only recognized Russia’s control of what remained of the Ukrainian Cozacks, but did not claim this time, as in the earlier treaties of the century, any stipulation guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Poland.

Thus Russia’s position in Eastern Europe was considerably strengthened and Poland’s independence even more threatened when in the following year, 1740, the death of Emperor Charles VI was followed by the outbreak of another war called the War of the Austrian Succession. Charles VI was the last Habsburg in the male line but he had obtained from practically all powers a formal recognition of the Pragmatic Sanction which was to guarantee the hereditary rights of his daughter, Maria Theresa. The new king of Prussia, Frederick II, later called “the Great,” was the first to violate that promise when he invaded Silesia.

That act of aggression was of vital significance for Poland. An old Polish land where, in spite of its loss four hundred years before, a large Polish population continued to live, was now being taken away from the Slavic kingdom of Bohemia and from a dynasty which was not basically hostile to Poland and conquered by one of her two most dangerous neighbors with the apparent approval of the other. Russia’s own internal troubles between Anne’s death in 1740 and the accession of Peter’s daughter Elizabeth at the end of 1741, as well as the war declared by Sweden at that critical time, prevented Russia from at once taking a decided position in the Austrian war. But even so, Frederick II succeeded in keeping almost the whole of Silesia.

Furthermore, from the beginning of his reign he started the skillful diplomatic game which he had already prepared as crown prince, with a view to annexing Polish Prussia and maintaining the inner weakness of the commonwealth. That game was greatly facilitated by the inept policy of Poland’s second Saxon king and of his favorite minister Count Brühl. Some Polish magnates, particularly Leszczynski’s old adherent, Stanislaw Poniatowski, the father of the future king, recognized how dangerous Frederick II was to be for Poland’s integrity and Europe’s peace. But while appeasing the Polish gentry whose liberties he promised to protect, the King of Prussia, through Brühl’s influence, persuaded Augustus III to conclude with him a military alliance as elector of Saxony.

He promised him a strip of Silesian territory which would connect Saxony with Poland, and possibly even Moravia, but that fantastic promise was not kept. On the contrary, when, in the peace treaty of 1742, Silesia, except the two southern duchies, Troppau (Opava) and Teschen (Cieszyn), which were left to Maria Theresa, was for the first time ceded to Prussia, the two states of Augustus III were separated from each other more definitely than before and the whole of Western Poland, not only Royal Prussia, was now surrounded by Hohenzollern possessions. All those possessions which, in addition to comparatively small parts of Western Germany, constituted the state of Frederick II, now definitely a European power, had formerly been Slavic or Baltic. Thus the non-German, eastern part of Central Europe was greatly reduced by the advance of German political power which was accompanied by a steady progress of Germanization.

At the same time, however, there was a temporary decline of German influence in Russia. After putting in jail the young prince of Brunswick who had been proclaimed emperor on Anne’s death, and after sending Anne’s German advisers to Siberia, the new empress Elizabeth and her chancellor, A. P. Bestuzhev-Riumin, of purely Russian stock, first ended the Swedish war and then proceeded to a reorientation of Russian diplomacy. Sweden, instead of regaining her losses, had to cede to Russia a first section of Finland in 1743, with the important city of Vyborg, and having thus strengthened her position in the Baltic region, Russia was looking for other allies instead of Prussia. This could bring about a change of her attitude toward Poland where the anti-Prussian party, led by the Czartoryski family, tried to obtain Russia’s consent to financial reforms and to an increase of the Polish army. But Frederick II’s intrigues made the Diet of 1744 a disgraceful failure and Russia proved to be much more interested in confirming her alliance with Austria and in concluding a new one with England.

Furthermore, Augustus III continued his undecided attitude, while in France the secret policy of Louis XV played with the idea of placing Prince de Conti, a grandson of the French candidate in the election of 1697, on the throne of Poland. As a matter of fact, this project had hardly more significance than the place reserved for Poland in the Austro-Russian treaty of 1746. When, according to this treaty, Russia interfered on Austria’s side in the second phase of the War of the Austrian Succession, again it was by marching her troops, sent to the Rhine, back and forth through the territory of Poland, disregarding her neutrality and continuing to oppose, this time together with Austria, any constructive reform of the Polish constitution, particularly the suppression of the liberum veto.

The Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 brought no real change in the general European situation. Silesia was left in the hands of Frederick II, and Russia’s only gain was her growing influence in Poland which, in the days of Elizabeth as before, was treated like a Russian protectorate. But through the British ambassador in St. Petersburg, Sir Charles H. Williams, efforts were now made to bring both Augustus III and Elizabeth of Russia into the English political system. A treaty with the former had already been concluded in 1751 with a view to getting Russia’s approval for the Saxon succession in Poland after the king’s death, and at last, in 1756, the Russian-English alliance was signed, directed, as it seemed, against France and Prussia.

It was based upon the assumption that the Russian auxiliary forces which were supposed to secure the Hanoverian possessions of George II, would as usual march through “neutral” Polish territory. But this provision was the only one which remained in force throughout the following period. In that same year of 1756, an alliance which England concluded with Prussia made the one with Russia meaningless. It was an answer to the unexpected alliance between the traditional enemies, France and Austria, and the prelude to another European war which was also fought in the overseas colonies of the Western powers. Poland had no share in these negotiations, and as a result she had a dangerous opponent in each of the two hostile camps.