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May 19, 2024

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The Breakup of Poland

“When freedom goes out of a place,” cued Walt Whitman, “it is not the first nor the second thing to go; it is the last. All others go before it.”

After its third and final partition in 1795 by Prussia, Russia and Austria, Poland had practically been blotted out from the map of Europe. But there remained 11 million Poles, ashamed and grieved at their loss of a national existence. They looked around for help, and no help was in sight, except what might be available from France. Thousands of Poles had volunteered to serve in the Army of the struggling Republic, but the French law of the time did not permit their enrollment. The Poles were able, however, to give their services to Lombardy, a country who fought against Austria. So, they, at least, fought hard and bravely against one of the despoilers of Poland.

When Napoleon became Emperor of the country, French policy changed and permitted the enlistment of foreign soldiers, and the Polish Legion of the French Army became fact. Poland was made a French recruiting ground and, in spite of its heavy losses, the Polish Legion was maintained at full strength.

In 1801, Austria and France signed a peace treaty at Luneville. The Poles, numbering 15,000 in the Legion, remained steadfast in spite of the new French ally still occupying Polish territory. Their disappointment did not shake their faith in Napoleon, for they looked to him as their Redeemer. Eventually, they were dispatched by Napoleon to the West Indies to suppress a revolt. Unable to resist the ravages of yellow fever, they died in the thousands, and only a wretched and disease-racked handful returned to tell the tale.

The Poles had more cause for hope and courage in 1806 when war broke out between France and Prussia, and Napoleon carried the operations into Prussia itself. The Battle of Jena, for example, on October 4, 1806, provoked a revolt in Prussian Poland; the patriots were joined by a force of Lithuanians, and the Prussians were driven from the country. Napoleon entered Poznan in triumph and was received with enthusiasm by the Poles. Hopes were high at the time, for a new national existence for the dismembered Kingdom.

But, Napoleon had no Polish policy. He was concerned with affairs much nearer to himself. He issued a vague and evasive proclamation, suggesting that Poland was on the eve of a new birth. “Shall the throne of Poland” he asked, “be re-established, and shall this great nation resume  its existence and independence? Shall it spring from the abyss of the tomb to life again?” But, the only answer he could supply for this self-asked question was bitterly disappointing. “God only, who holds in His hands the issues of all events, is the Arbiter of this great political problem; but certainly there never was a more memorable or a more interesting event.” Napoleon succeeded in driving the Prussians out of Poland, and on January 14, 1807, after a long hard battle, his army entered Warsaw in triumph.

It was now, if he had ever intended to consider the aspirations of the unfortunate Poles and the future of the destroyed kingdom, that Napoleon might have restored Poland and given it a new lease on life. But now, as afterwards, he played for his own hand only, and made haste to conclude peace with Russia. On June 14, 1807, he defeated the Russians at Friedland, and made peace with Russia and Prussia immediately after. By the terms of the Treaty of Tilsit, Prussia was allowed to retain West Prussia, and the provinces of Posen and Warsaw were constituted a Grand Duchy, with the elector of Saxony as its Grand Duke. The new Grand Duchy of Warsaw, as it was called, had a population of about 3,000,000 inhabitants. It was, however, a mere oversight for France. After his custom, Napoleon provided a liberal Constitutions, freed the serfs, established the Code Napoleon with it severe but equal justice for all, and provided for an administration of Polish ministers, and a Diet elected on open and equitable conditions.

The Poles were soon to learn how reserved Napoleon was with reference to them. Eager to grasp at any straw, the Poles failed to see the French Emperor in his true light. Napoleon needed Poland because it helped to isolate Prussia from France; he could use it as a buffer and a means of barter, and more importantly, it supplied him with recruits for his army.

This trust in Napoleon never weakened until the very end. For when Russia and France came to blows once more in 1812, Poland raised an army of 80,000 men to support Napoleon. For the purpose of inciting the Polish soldiers with hatred for the Russians, Napoleon addressed them stating that had he be reigning at the time of the partitions he would not have allowed the dismemberment to take place. He neglected, however, to say anything about the liberation of Poland if the Russian campaign was a success.

Prince Joseph Poniatowski, who had distinguished himself against the Turks, had been appointed lieutenant-general of the Polish forces by his uncle King Stanislas. Though young and lacking experience, he had fought with courage and skill against the Russians. When his uncle, the King, agreed to the articles of the Confederation of Targowica, he went to France and offered his services to Bonaparte. He held a commanding position in Napoleon’s Russian campaign and strongly advised against the invasion of Russia. He counselled Napoleon to remain within the confines of Poland, but the Emperor did not heed his advice, thereby bringing disaster and destruction upon himself and his army. He was made Marshal of France at the Battle of Leipsiz in 1813. But, Napoleon’s star was on the decline. His army had melted away in Russia from whence he fled under the guard of Polish suttans. His troops began to desert him and he was forced to abdicate and was banished to Elba. It is significant that the only squadron which accompanied him to his exile was that of the Polish ‘chevaux legers’ under Colonel Jerzmanowski. Shortly, however, he returned from Elba and with a handful of men was determined to reconquer the throne but was completely defeated at Waterloo in 1815.

After Napoleon had been exiled to St. Helena, the European Powers met at Vienna. Poland’s fate lay in their hands. Alexander I of Russia, a brilliant man of high principles, came unexpectedly to the fore and demanded that Russia be allowed to maintain the whole of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw except Poznan and Torun which were to be given to Prussia. This was agreed upon only after much heated discussion. During Alexander’s reign, the Poles, though not free, were to be treated at least with some degree of consideration.

Poland’s fate was still the same. Instead of being split into three divisions, she was now divided into five: Austrian Poland, Prussian Poland, the Lithuanian provinces held by Russia, the Russian Grand Duchy of Warsaw, and the tiny Republic of Cracow which the Powers ruled jointly. It will be noticed that, though split into five divisions, the same three powers — Austria, Prussia and Russia — had complete control over the country and that Russia owned the largest part.

And, so, here we have another instance in the ravaged history of our Fatherland where the Pole was again made a fool of! Doesn’t that really make you feel good?

. . . . SEE YOU SOON , GOD BE WILLING . . . .