Poland Early 18th Century – The Reign of Anarchy II


Polish army throughout the 18th century, by Karol Linder.


Sweden had been wiped out as a significant power by the débâcle of Poltava. Turkey was decisively defeated (Hetman Feliks Potocki’s victory at Podhajce in 1697 was the last Polish-Tatar battle), and by the Treaty of Karlowitz in January 1699 the Commonwealth regained Kamieniec and the whole of left-bank Ukraine. France, despairing of its potential allies in the east—Turkey, Sweden and Poland—shifted its theatre of confrontation with the Habsburgs to Spain and Italy. Distracted by the War of the Spanish Succession, the Habsburgs had failed to take advantage of the recent Northern War.

Prussia on the other hand had taken full advantage of the opportunities on offer to strengthen its military and diplomatic standing. On 18 January 1701 Frederick III, Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia, had dubbed himself ‘Frederick I, King in Prussia’: he could not call himself King of Prussia, since Prussia was not a kingdom, or King of Brandenburg, since that was part of the Holy Roman Empire. The subterfuge caused much mirth in the courts of Europe.

In similar vein, in 1721 Peter I of Muscovy took the title of Emperor of All the Russias. Nobody laughed at this. The recent wars had shown that Russia was not only a growing power, but also that it was strategically unassailable. And Peter had made it clear that he would be playing an active part in the affairs of Europe by extending his sphere of influence westward, into Poland.

The Sejm of 1712 had reached deadlock on reforms proposed by Augustus II, whereupon he brought in troops from Saxony. This rallied the opposition, which in 1715 formed a confederation to resist him. Peter I offered to mediate. With some reluctance, the offer was accepted, and a Russian envoy arrived in Warsaw—accompanied by 18,000 troops who were to keep order. The ensuing Sejm of 1717 was known as the Dumb Sejm. It sat in a chamber surrounded by Russian soldiers, the deputies were forbidden to speak, and the Russian mediator forced his solution on it, couched in the Treaty of Warsaw.

This laid down, amongst other things, that Augustus II could keep no more than 1,200 Saxon Guards in Poland. The Polish army was fixed at a maximum of 18,000 men and the Lithuanian at 6,000, which was deemed sufficient since Moscow arrogated to itself the role of protector, and promised to leave a Russian force in the Commonwealth. Augustus II, who wanted these troops out at any cost, secretly offered to cede Peter some border provinces in exchange for a withdrawal. A lesser man might have accepted, but Peter refused and went on to publish Augustus’s proposals with the degree of indignation befitting the protector of the Commonwealth’s territorial integrity.

On 1 February 1733 Augustus II died of alcohol poisoning in Warsaw. His last words were: ‘My whole life has been one un—interrupted sin. God have mercy on me.’ He had hoped to ensure the succession of his son Augustus to the Polish throne, but this seemed unlikely since Stanisław Leszczyński, whose daughter had married Louis XV of France, was expected to stand for election and to win easily. Russia, Prussia and Austria signed an agreement to throw their combined strength behind the young Saxon, who had already promised to cede Livonia to Russia if elected.

The 13,000 who assembled for the election voted unanimously for Leszczyński, who had travelled to Warsaw incognito. In Paris Voltaire composed an ode of joy, but Russian troops were already on the move. On 5 October 20,000 of them assembled 1,000 szlachta outside Warsaw and forced them to elect Augustus of Saxony. Five days later France declared war on Austria and started the War of the Polish Succession. King Stanisław’s supporters gathered in confederations all over the country and the city of Gdańsk raised a sizeable army on his behalf. Two years of sporadic fighting ensued, but France made peace, having got what she wanted from Austria in Italy. Stanisław was given the Duchy of Lorraine as a consolation prize by his son-in-law, and Augustus III ascended the Polish throne.

The Commonwealth had effectively ceased being a sovereign state in 1718 with the imposition of the Russian ‘protectorate’. It had also virtually ceased to function as a political organism. The Sejm was not summoned between 1703 and 1710, the years of the Northern War, which meant that no legislation was passed and no state taxes could be levied. When the Sejm did sit again, it was hardly more effective. Of the eighteen sessions called under Augustus II, ten were broken up by the use of the veto. The King had tried to impose stronger government, but his policies were poorly thought out. He had an unfortunate conviction that a show of strength by the Saxon army was a necessary prelude to any change, and this had the effect of provoking resistance even in those who would otherwise have agreed with him. In the last years of his reign he did manage to gain the support of a group of magnates and szlachta, but their programme for reform was cut short by his death in 1733.

His son Augustus, Poland’s new monarch, was obese and indolent: he would spend his days cutting out bits of paper with a pair of scissors or else sitting by the window taking potshots at stray dogs with a pistol. He also drank like a fish. Augustus III reigned for thirty years. He spent only twenty-four months of that time in Poland, feeling more at home in Saxony. Yet he was not as unpopular with the szlachta as might have been expected—he never made the slightest attempt to curtail their prerogatives and increase his own. Only one Sejm completed its session under his rule, the army dwindled to half its theoretical size, and all visible signs of nationwide administration disappeared.

This state of affairs favoured the magnates, or rather the dozen or so men who stood at the pinnacle of wealth and power, who had turned into something approaching sovereign princes. It was to the courts of the leading families and not to the royal court at Warsaw or Dresden that foreign powers sent envoys and money. The Potocki, Radziwiłł and similar families involved half of Europe in their affairs and their activities were monitored at Versailles and Potsdam, at Petersburg and Caserta. The marital intentions of the young Zofia Sieniawska were a case in point.

The only daughter of Adam Mikołaj Sieniawski, Hetman and Castellan of Kraków, and of ElŻbieta Lubomirska, Zofia was a formidable heiress. In 1724 she married Stanisław Doenhoff, Palatine of Polotsk, no pauper and also the last of his line, who died four years later. Every family in Poland produced a suitor in the hope of coffering her fortune. Louis XV was quick to realise what was at stake, and the young widow was invited to Versailles, where she might be married to the Comte de Charolais, a Bourbon in search of a throne; Augustus II tried to monitor her suitors; the Duke of Holstein wanted her for himself; the Habsburgs threw their influence behind the Duke of Braganza, for whom they had royal ambitions; and St Petersburg sent ambassadors and money to influence her choice. The interest in the widow was well-founded. In 1731 she settled for the poorest of all her suitors, Prince August Czartoryski, turning his family into the most powerful in Poland over the next hundred years.

The power of these families rested on a combination of wealth and control of their lesser peers, and reflected a growing disparity between rich and poor. The figures for the Palatinate of Lublin provide an example of the dramatic change in the distribution of land over the previous two hundred years. In the 1550s, 54 per cent of all land owned by the szlachta was in holdings of under 1,500 hectares, but by the 1750s only 10 per cent was in such medium holdings. In the 1550s only 16 per cent was in estates of over 7,500 hectares, but by the 1750s over 50 per cent was accounted for by these. The large estates grew larger, the small ones smaller, with the result that by the mid-eighteenth century about a dozen families owned huge tracts of land, another three hundred or so possessed lands equivalent to those of the greatest English or German landlords, and as many as 120,000 szlachta families owned no land at all. The remainder owned small estates which provided little more than subsistence for the family and its dependants.

The ravages of war, outdated methods, lack of investment and the continuous downward trend in agricultural prices condemned these to a vicious circle. Between 1500 and 1800 average yields increased by 200 per cent in England and the Netherlands, by 100 per cent in France, and by only 25 per cent in Poland. Inventories dating from this period show that even in such well-ordered areas as Wielkopolska small estates were in a condition of decrepitude, with buildings falling down, implements worn out and livestock depleted.

The underlying problem was not limited to Poland, and affected the whole of Central Europe, where the old property relationship between landowning lords and tenant peasants proved a formidable obstacle to the adoption of more profitable capitalist solutions. This would have entailed emancipating and at the same time expropriating the peasants, who would then have been in a position to enter into regular contractual relations with the landowners. But the upheaval involved would have been ruinous to both parties. As a result, the only means open to the landowner of intensifying production was to exploit his tenants to the limit, and their only option was a passive participation in this process of their own enserfment.

There was technically no such thing as a serf in the Commonwealth. No peasant belonged to anyone; he was his master’s subject only insofar as he had contracted to be in return for a house and/or rent-free land. Every peasant, however abject, was an independent entity enjoying the right to enter into any legal transaction. Since, however, the relevant organs of justice were controlled by the land—owners, his rights often turned out to be academic. By the seventeenth century the landowners in effect exercised almost unlimited power over their tenantry. How far they were inclined or able to abuse this power varied greatly from area to area, depending on the morality of the master rather less than on the level of education and determination of the peasant. Unlike in Germany, Hungary and almost everywhere else in Europe, let alone Russia, there were no peasant revolts in Poland after the Middle Ages, and no organis—ation to track fugitives. Confrontation with the landlord took place in the courts, such as they were. But the peasant of the 1700s was caught in a poverty trap which impaired his ability to stand up for whatever theoretical rights he had, and he was a poor successor to his forebears.

The most pauperised segment of the population were the Jews, who had been profoundly traumatised by the massacres perpetrated by the Cossacks in 1648 and the Russians in the 1650s. Jewish communities found it difficult to revive economically in a climate of mercantile stagnation which also exacerbated conflicts with Christian merchants, while their institutions ceased to function properly. The palatines who supervised the finances of the kahals in their provinces had done so only sporadically during the decades of war and unrest, with the result that venality and nepotism became characteristic features of their affairs. When a royal commission did eventually look into the kahal finances, it was discovered that most of the communities were on the verge of bankruptcy as a result of massive embezzlement and eccentric banking operations with the Jesuits. The whole Jewish state within the state had to be wound up in 1764 as a result.

The overwhelmingly destitute masses of Polish Jewry lived in an increasingly hostile environment, and it was out of this that Hasidism was born. This was a mystical ecstatic cult, rejecting painful realities and offering a spiritual palliative that attracted vast numbers of the poorest Jews in the teeming provincial shtetls of the Commonwealth. It was founded in Podolia by Izrael ben Eliezer (1700-60), also known as Baal Shem Tov, a charismatic who preached that since God was everywhere He should be worshipped in every thing and every action, even in eating, drinking and dancing. The joyful ceremonies he encouraged appealed to the poorest Jews but drew the ire of orthodox rabbis. They had also had to contend with the heresy of Shabbetai Zevi, who had proclaimed himself Messiah in the 1660s, and acquired a sizeable following. It was the son of one of his disciples who caused the greatest ructions in the Jewish community. Jakub Frank (1726-91) in turn proclaimed himself Messiah and decreed that Poland was the Promised Land. His following grew rapidly. Orthodox rabbis invoked the law to curb the heresy, which turned it into a public issue. The Bishop of Lwów staged a public debate between Talmudic experts and the Frankists, with the Jesuits as adjudicators. To the delight of the Jesuits, Frank succeeded in confounding his accusers and then announced that he and his sect would convert to Catholicism. Frank was baptised in 1759 with the King himself standing godfather, and all the converts were ennobled.

These outbursts of fervour stemmed from the psychological and material Babylon from which there seemed to be no possibility of escape. The depressed shtetls and the stinking Jewish slums of the larger towns were an eyesore which struck all foreign travellers. Yet they were only the darkest spots on a grim landscape of decrepitude and poverty, a poverty made all the more stark by the occasional evidence of fabulous wealth, and by the quantity of new building on a spectacular scale.

A new kind of grand country residence came into existence, no longer defensive but outward-looking and palatial, often modelled on Versailles or one of the great residences of minor German sovereigns. Craftsmen such as Boule, Meissonier, Caffiéri and Riesener in Paris were flooded with orders from Poland. But this magnificence and patronage did not correspond to any deeper artistic or intellectual revival. These buildings were an incidental excrescence, not connected to any informed taste or vision. The Branicki Palace at Białystok contained a theatre with four hundred seats, equipped with one Polish and one French troupe of actors and a corps de ballet, but while the stables held two hundred horses, the library boasted no more than 170 books. Hetman Branicki was not the man to repair the constitution.

The szlachta still believed wholeheartedly in the principles on which the Polish constitution had been founded: personal freedom, representation, accountability, independence of the judiciary, and so on. They knew that the constitution was malfunctioning, but believed that, with some justification, to be the fault of the magnates and of high-handed behaviour by successive kings, who naturally tended to try to turn the Commonwealth into a centralised monarchy. All attempts at reform which issued from the crown or the Senatus Consulta included some measure that would strengthen the central authority, and that ensured their rejection by the szlachta. They had developed an almost obsessive fear of absolutism and an attendant defensiveness with respect to their gloried prerogatives. In the last decade of the seventeenth century and the first of the eighteenth, they had mooted the idea of holding a ‘mounted Sejm’, that is to say appearing at Warsaw in the ranks of the levée en masse in order to challenge the magnates of the Senate on a more equal footing, but this proved too difficult to arrange. Faced with even the slimmest threat to their rights and immunities, they wielded their weapon of last resort, the veto.

The single deputy’s power to block the will of the Sejm by registering his objection derived from the principle that consensus must be reached for legislation to have real force. Its use to invalidate decisions reached by a majority was technically legal though contrary to the spirit of the law. It was first used in 1652, but was not invoked again for seventeen years, and not for another ten after that. It was not until the period between 1696 and 1733 that it became endemic to parliamentary life, and that was a feature of the level to which this had sunk.

Those who made use of the veto tended to be obscure deputies from Lithuania or Ukraine, usually acting on behalf of a local magnate or a foreign power. The device was so convenient to these that in 1667 Brandenburg and Sweden agreed to go to war if necessary ‘in defence of Polish freedoms’ (i.e. to stop the Poles from abolishing the veto), and over the next hundred years the same clause was contained in virtually every treaty made between the Commonwealth’s neighbours.

While many lamented the abuse of the right of veto, they stood by the right of their fellows to exercise it, just as during the Reformation ardent Catholics had refused to allow the persecution of people guilty of sacrilege. It was first and foremost a question of liberty. The phenomenon of the veto, normally viewed as a baffling aberration and the ultimate symbol of the Commonwealth’s political impotence, did serve a specific purpose, that of preventing it from becoming an absolutist monarchy, which it could easily have done in the period of instability and war at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries. As far as the szlachta was concerned, absence of government was preferable to arbitrary government. And many had come to see government as unnecessary anyway.

When the Commonwealth had imploded under the combined assault of the Cossacks, Tatars, Swedes, Brandenburgers and Muscovites in the 1650s, the szlachta had held regional sejmiks to deal with essential local issues. This form of administration turned out to be not only more efficient, but also more accountable and less costly than central government. As a result, local land sejmiks, sejmiki ziemskie, and law and order sejmiks, sejmiki boni ordinis, became favoured instruments of local administration, responsible for electing judges, officers of the law and commanders of the militia; collecting taxes, raising troops and nominating functionaries.

Since life could go on normally without a national Sejm, the szlachta felt justified in proclaiming its dispensability. People began to believe that anarchy, in its literal sense of ‘no government’, was something of an ideal state, particularly as it denied the crown and the magnates the instruments through which to pursue their sinister aim of curtailing the szlachta’s liberties. This was particularly relevant in times of war and instability such as the first decades of the eighteenth century, when a central Sejm might invoke national emergency to bring in pernicious legislation.

The Commonwealth therefore continued in a state of suspended animation, with no central administration beyond that which could be paid for from the king’s personal revenue, and no organ of government other than the Senatus Consulta, which had no writ. Its internal and external affairs were as much the business of Russia, and to a lesser extent of Prussia and Austria, as its own. The three powers looked on its territory more and more as a sort of noman’s-land. Russia moved her troops about it as though it were a training ground, while Prussian and Austrian armies took short cuts through it, in times of war even setting up depots and garrisons in convenient Polish towns.