The dismemberment of the Commonwealth presents the historian of Poland with something of a dilemma: should he henceforth chart the progress of each of the orphan nations—the Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Jews, Germans and other minorities which inhabited its territory—or should he concentrate on the Poles? The latter would appear to be the sensible course, but it raises the immediate question: which Poles? Somewhere around 90 per cent of ethnic Poles were illiterate peasants with no national consciousness, while the Polish ‘political nation’ of the szlachta and the new educated middle class was made up of every nationality represented in the Commonwealth.
To most of the peasants, the question of which kingdom or empire they might be living in was irrelevant, and they would pray for the Austrian Emperor in church on Sunday as readily as for the King of Poland. Much the same went for the Jews, who had no reason to feel any reluctance to transfer their loyalty to new masters. The German minority had no difficulty in becoming faithful subjects of the King of Prussia or the Emperor of Austria, or even the Tsar of Russia. The Lithuanians, Belarusians and Ukrainians faced a less congenial future under Russian rule, since this was accompanied by a programme of cultural and religious assimilation. But while that made some retain bonds of loyalty to the Polish world of which they had been part, it led others to search for a new identity of their own.
The constitution of 3 May 1791 had been, as much as anything else, a kind of regenerative act of faith and a pledge of a new start for the Polish project. It would have gradually turned the multicultural Commonwealth into a more homogeneous multi-ethnic nation bound together by a set of shared political values. And although both constitution and country were swept away, the political class that had brought it into being remained faithful to that vision; as a result their struggle for the restoration of a Polish state was based not on Polish ethnicity, but on the entire population of the former Commonwealth.
This introduced tensions, not only between the Polish supporters of this project and ethnic groups such as the Lithuanians, Belarusians and Ukrainians, but also within these. Some in these groups embraced loyalty to their new masters, but others yearned for a national identity of their own, distinct from both the Polish and the Russian. While these tensions form an integral part of it, the history of Poland in the period when there was no sovereign Polish state must be the history of the efforts and struggles of those who saw themselves as the guardians of the ideals of the Commonwealth and its political testament—particularly as those struggles flowed from the events of 1792 and 1794.
Champions of the Polish cause were back in the field against the three powers before the ink had dried on the treaties of partition. In Paris Józef Wybicki was planning a rising in Poland in connection with a French attack on Austria. A secret confederation was formed in Kraków, and in 1796 Colonel Denisko assembled a force of 1,000 men in Moldavia under the covert protection of the Porte which he led into action against the Austrians. In 1797 a regular Polish army was formed under French aegis.
The thousands of Polish soldiers who had taken refuge in Revolutionary France after the collapse of Kościuszko’s insurrection had been absorbed into the French army, but when it emerged that many of the prisoners taken by the French in the Italian campaign were Poles conscripted by the Austrians in Galicia, General Bonaparte decided to concentrate them in discrete units. In 1797 a Polish Legion was formed in Milan under the command of Jan Henryk Dąbrowski. The soldiers wore Polish uniforms, Italian epaulettes and French cockades, and marched to a song written by Józef Wybicki which would, in the twentieth century, become the Polish national anthem. In 1798 a second Polish Legion was formed in Italy under General Zajączek and in 1800 a third, the Legion of the Vistula, on the Danube under General Kniaziewicz.
The Poles who fought in these legions believed that after liberating northern Italy from Austrian rule they would march through Hungary into Galicia, from where they would launch an insurrection throughout Poland. But after the Treaties of Campo Formio (1797) and Lunéville (1801), in which France made peace with Austria and other members of the coalition, the legions became an inconvenient embarrassment. Dąbrowski’s temporarily became the army of the new state of Lombardy, some of the Polish units were disbanded, others were scattered throughout the French army, and one contingent 6,000 strong was sent to subjugate the black rebellion in Saint Domingue. Many felt let down by Bonaparte, but this was not to be the end of the Polish Napoleonic dream.
Although the image of the legions fighting for Poland’s freedom in faraway lands haunted the young, more pragmatic supporters of the cause applied themselves to diplomatic solutions. Chief among these was Prince Adam Czartoryski, son of Adam Kazimierz. After the 1794 Insurrection, in which he took part, he was sent to St Petersburg as a hostage for his family’s good behaviour. There he befriended his contemporary the Grand Duke Alexander, an idealistic young man enthused by the ideas of the Enlightenment and eager to right what he saw as the wrong of the partition of Poland. When he ascended the throne in 1801, Alexander nomin—ated a ‘Committee for Public Salvation’ consisting of five close advisers which was to transform Russia into a modern constitutional monarchy. Czartoryski was given the brief of foreign affairs, and also placed in charge of education in the former Polish territories, the eight Western Gubernias of the Empire.
Czartoryski encouraged Alexander’s dislike of Prussia in the hope that sooner or later Russia might recover the parts of Poland taken by Prussia, add them to her own share, and recreate a Polish state more or less loosely tied to Russia. It was, however, Napoleon who beat Prussia, in 1806. After the battles of Jena and Auerstadt his armies entered Poznań, led by a Polish corps under General Dąbrowski. Napoleon allowed Dąbrowski to issue a call for insurrection, adding his taunt: ‘I want to see whether the Poles deserve to be a nation.’While many were cautious, large numbers of volunteers did come forward. On 28 November Marshal Murat marched into Warsaw and a few weeks later Napoleon himself entered the capital, greeted with triumphal arches and delirious crowds.
He was convinced, if not that the Poles deserved to be a nation, that they could provide him with plenty of good soldiers. Poland was no more than a minor element in his schemes, and his most pressing imperative was to force Russia to join him in alliance against Britain. He achieved this during his meetings with Tsar Alexander at Tilsit in 1807, and one consequence was a compromise on Poland. The Prussian share of the second and third partitions of the Commonwealth was reconstituted as the Duchy of Warsaw, under Frederick Augustus of Saxony (the candidate proposed by the constitution of 3 May 1791).
The Duchy was in no sense a sovereign Polish state, but Polish patriots saw it as a basis for further development. Many of those hitherto wary of Napoleon’s intentions agreed to serve in its government, including Małachowski and Stanisław Potocki, and the last King’s nephew, Józef Poniatowski, became commander-in-chief and Minister for War. Małachowski wanted to convoke a sejm similar to that of 1792, but Napoleon was having none of it. Before leaving Warsaw he dictated a constitution which included a bicameral sejm based on a suffrage that included non-noble voters, but this had virtually no legislative powers. He also introduced the Code Napoléon, which effectively removed the peasants’ disabilities and made all equal before the law.
Napoleon exploited the Duchy of Warsaw for his own ends, mainly financial and military. Property and land confiscated by Prussia in 1792 was now sold back to the duchy by France at exorbitant rates. The economy could hardly flourish while Napoleon’s European blockade constricted the grain trade, and while the duchy was expected to pay for a standing army rising to 60,000 men. In addition, Napoleon required six regiments of foot and two of horse for his Spanish campaign, some 10,000 men in all serving as the Legion of the Vistula, as well as a regiment of Chevaux-Légers for the Imperial Guard. When the duchy went bankrupt, France lent money and collected the interest in cannon fodder.
The Duchy of Warsaw was invaded by Austria in 1809. Poniatowski counterattacked and went on to capture Kraków and Galicia. However, when peace was made between France and Austria at the Treaty of Schönbrunn, the Poles had to give up most of these conquests. The enlarged duchy was nevertheless a source of alarm in Russia, where it was viewed as a magnet which would, sooner or later, attract all the former Polish lands. Matters came to a head in 1812, during what Napoleon called his ‘second Polish war’.
Napoleon’s intention was not to conquer Russia but to cow Alexander into submissive alliance. He was prepared to use the reestablishment of a strong Poland as a threat, but meant to keep his options open were Alexander to give in. So while he whipped up Polish hopes, he bypassed a Warsaw full of delegations from the provinces of the former Commonwealth. In Wilno he called the Lithuanians to arms, but refused to be drawn on the question of independence for Lithuania.
The war turned into a catastrophe for Poland. Some 96,000 Poles marched in the ranks of the Grande Armée, by far the largest non-French contingent. Countless others joined it in Lithuania and the eastern reaches of the former Commonwealth. They played a significant role in the operations. Polish lancers were the first to swim the Niemen and carry the French tricolour onto Russian territory: Colonel Umiński’s dragoons were the first into Moscow; the Chevaux-Légers saved Napoleon’s life from a pack of marauding Cossacks; the Legion of the Vistula defended the Berezina crossings. At least 72,000 never returned, and many more died of wounds or typhus in the following months. Yet they were the only contingent not to lose or abandon a single field-gun or standard to the enemy during the disastrous retreat.
As the remnants of the Grande Armée streamed westwards and Napoleon hurried to Paris, the Duchy of Warsaw was left defenceless. Dąbrowski’s division followed the French army into Germany, but Poniatowski fell back on Kraków with 16,000 men. Alexander was not vindictive, and in the spring and summer of 1813, using those who had remained on the Russian side, he tried to persuade Poniatowski and his army to cast off their loyalty to Napoleon.
Poniatowski rejected Alexander’s proposals and led his army off to join Napoleon in Saxony. On 19 October, the last day of the Battle of the Nations at Leipzig, the heavily wounded Prince died while trying to swim the river Elster when the French, whose retreat he was covering, blew the remaining bridge. The Poles continued to follow Napoleon. When he went into exile on the island of Elba, half of the symbolic guard he was allowed were Polish Chevaux-Légers.