In the late 18th century, Russia, Austria, and Prussia finished with the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This state was a union of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania that had dominated Eastern and Central Europe for centuries. Characterized by an elective political system, a “noble’s democracy,” and military prowess that inspired many, the Commonwealth is a real historical wonder for any political analyst or geopolitics specialist.
The violent subjugation of this large country caused the disappearance of Poland and Lithuania from the European map until the aftermath of World War I. But before its era of weakness, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a power to reckon with. It controlled a large chunk of territory spanning from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
Before the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
Poland and Lithuania are countries that go back to the medieval ages. Their history is as rich as that of France, Great Britain, Russia, and other European nations.
Lithuania’s history began in the early 13th century when local pagan Baltic tribes organized themselves into a single state. By 1230, the chieftain Mindaugas emerged as the leader of Lithuania and adopted Catholic Christianity in 1251, which allowed him to be crowned king. He then expanded his realm to the east and south, defeating some Russ principalities and annexing territory from the Golden Horde. Mindaugas was fast to revert to paganism, and for more than a century, Lithuania was a strong pagan state that had control over large chunks of Eastern European territory.
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During this century, Lithuania became a major mix of ethnicities, cultures, and religions. The Lithuanian princes ruled over Orthodox and Catholic Slavs, Muslim Tatars, and pagan Baltic tribes. By the 14th century, the Gediminid Dynasty rose to power, and one of its rulers, Jugaila, adopted Christianity and became the Grand Duke of Lithuania. A few years later, Jogaila ascended to the Polish throne as Władysław II and created the Jagiellonian Dynasty. The conversion to Catholicism caused a profound rift in the Gediminid Dynasty, as some members chose Orthodoxy and grew closer to Muscovy in the East.
The Kingdom of Poland was formed when a number of Polan tribes under Duke Mieszko I in today’s central Poland adopted Catholic Christianity in the second half of the 10th century. His son, Boleslaw the Brave, was crowned king in the early 11th century. From that point onward, the newly-founded kingdom continuously expanded, reaching its peak under the Jagiellonian Dynasty in the 15th century. Polish territory stretched from a few dozen ports on the Baltic Sea to Moldova.
By the time of the establishment of the Commonwealth, Poland had a strong government and army that continuously pushed the borders of its immediate German neighbors. The House of Jagiellon ruled over Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, and Bohemia and was a significant player in European politics.
The Union of Lublin
The ascension of Jogaila to the Polish throne in 1386 did not unify the two countries. Poland and Lithuania remained independent from each other for two more centuries and were managed independently, despite having the same monarch. It was a common case of personal union, which happened often in European dynastic dynamics.
In 1401, the two governments signed the Pact of Vilnius and Radom, which granted Duke Vytautas lordship over Lithuania under the Polish crown. This act was followed by the Union of Grodno in 1432, which strengthened the ties between the two kingdoms and encouraged Lithuanians to seek Polish protection in the event of Tatar or Muscovite incursions.
In 1492, King Casimir IV died and divided his realms between his sons. John I Albert became King of Poland while his brother Alexander was made Grand Duke of Lithuania. However, pressure from Tatars, Ottomans, and Muscovites pushed the two brothers to ally against their common foes. This coalition was strengthened by the Union of Cracow and Vilnius, signed in 1499 with the acceptance and support of nobles of both countries. This new pact stipulated that Poland and Lithuania would keep their independence but that the rulers of each nation would have to be validated by the other. However, John’s sudden death in 1501 saw the rise of Alexander to the Polish throne, and the two nations were again ruled by the same monarch.
The process of unification continued in the sixteenth century. While the Polish nobility mostly supported this fusion, some Lithuanian noblemen strongly opposed it, especially those following the Eastern Orthodox Church. Some, such as the Golitsyn, cousins of the ruling Jagiellonians and descendants of the Gediminids, chose to immigrate to Muscovy, while others tried to hamper the merging of their country with Poland.
King Sigismund II Augustus strongly hastened the process of unification. In 1569, he conveyed a Sejm–a parliament composed of nobles of both countries, the Szlachta–in the city of Lublin. Despite the opposition of some Lithuanian magnates, the Act of Union was imposed by the King via direct edict. A new single government was created, with one currency and army. It was the birth of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
King Sigismund died in 1572 without an heir. The interregnum that followed allowed the nobles of both countries to make some adjustments to the agreement signed in 1569 and introduce the Pacta Conventa. This legal document dictated that the king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was to be chosen by a Sejm in a free election. All nobles were equal regardless of rank and wealth; this system was called the “Golden Liberty.” This elective monarchy, also called “noble’s democracy,” explains the second known name of the Commonwealth: the Rzeczpospolita, a Polish translation of the word “Republic.”
The Golden Age of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
In 1573, the Sejm elected the French Henri of House Valois, brother to the French monarch Charles IX, as King. However, following his brother’s death, Henry abandoned the crown and returned to Paris. The interregnum that followed allowed the nobility to gain even more privileges but also brought to light the strong divisions among them.
A group of nobles affiliated with the Habsburg Dynasty proposed to offer the throne to Maximilian II of the Holy Roman Empire. The latter, however, was rejected by the majority of the Sejm, and Anna Jagiellon, sister to the late King Sigismund II Augustus, was elected. The Transylvanian Voivode Stephen Bathory was chosen to rule alongside her despite the opposition of some Lithuanians and German lords.
The antagonism between the two rulers led to an open rebellion in the German port city of Danzig (today’s Gdańsk). Denmark supported this uprising.
Unable to break the town’s defenses, Bathory granted greater privileges to the rebels in 1577. In 1583, the ruler of the Commonwealth was able to regain his lost prestige by definitively annexing the Livonian Order, Riga, and the Duchy of Courtland and Semigallia in modern-day Latvia and Estonia. This victory also secured the Polish-Lithuanian position as the dominant power in Eastern Europe, as it allowed Warsaw to inflict a severe defeat on Russia, ruled at the time by Ivan IV the Terrible, who himself attempted to make a claim on the Polish throne.
Stephen Bathory and Anna Jagiellon died respectively in 1586 and 1587. In the following months, the Sejm elected Sigismund Vasa of Sweden as king. The latter managed to solidify his claim by defeating the invading forces of Maximilian III of Austria.
The elected King was a devout Catholic who hoped to institute absolutism in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and crush Protestantism in Sweden. His strong stance in favor of the Counter-Reformation caused a revolt in his home country in 1599. Eventually, he was forced to abandon the Swedish throne to his uncle Charles IX. The king’s religious ideals found more success among Polish Roman Catholics.
The death of Feodor I in Russia ushered in an era of civil unrest known as the time of troubles. Sensing an opportunity, King Sigismund decided to intervene. From 1605 to 1606, he supported the claim of “Fake Dimitri,” a supposed son of the late Ivan IV and brother to Feodor. The latter was deposed by the Boyar Vasili Shuisky, who crowned himself Tsar. In 1609, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth fully invaded Russia with the intent of making Władysław, son of Sigismund, Tsar.
Moscow was conquered after the epic Polish victory at the Battle of Klushino in 1610. Influential factions of the Russian nobility were keen on accepting the Commonwealth’s dominion as long as their culture and religion were preserved. However, Sigismund’s intolerance towards Orthodoxy proved too much for the boyars.
Following the occupation of Moscow by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth forces, Sigismund attempted to crown himself as Tsar of Russia instead of his son. His strong zealot Catholicism made him widely unpopular among Russian Boyars, who quickly organized resistance and drove the Polish troops out of the capital in 1612. In the following months, Michael Romanov was crowned Tsar. The war continued until 1618, when Russia made important territory concessions to the Commonwealth in exchange for relinquishing all claims on the throne.
In 1621, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was beaten by the Ottomans and had to relinquish Moldova to Constantinople. However, victory over the Turks at the First Battle of Khotyn allowed securing the Southern border for the remainder of Sigismund’s reign.
From 1626 to 1629, Sigismund faced his Swedish cousin Gustavus II Adolphus. Facing exhaustion, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had to sign the Treaty of Almark and transfer much of Livonia to Sweden. Thanks to the opposition of the parliament, the Commonwealth did not interfere in the Thirty Years’ War, despite the King’s sympathy for the Catholic cause.
In 1632, Władysław IV, son of Sigismund, ascended to the throne. The new king sought to limit Habsburg influence in the Commonwealth and established closer ties with France. He also attempted to make a claim on the Russian throne. However, Władysław was unable to prevent the persecution of Orthodox Christians and brought on himself the ire of the autonomous Ukrainian Cossacks on the border of the Commonwealth with the Tatars.
In 1648, Władysław IV was succeeded by his brother John II Casimir. The latter was unable to prevent the Era of the Deluge, a time of constant warfare between the Commonwealth, Sweden, and Russia. His first challenge was the Ukrainian Khmelnytsky Uprising. Supported by the Russian Tsar, the Cossacks managed to push the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth out of their lands in the South-East and went as far as to occupy Kyiv. In 1654, a semi-independent Ukraine was born in the form of the Zaporozhian Sich. This new country owed allegiance to the Tsar but ruled itself independently.
In the following years, Russia declared war on Poland in order to enforce its dominion over Ukraine. In 1655, Sweden joined the fray and inflicted several defeats on the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Transylvania and Brandenburg also attacked, and soon enough, Warsaw was forced to make considerable concessions.
In 1657, Poland-Lithuania renounced its suzerainty over Brandenburg. The latter grew into the Kingdom of Prussia and became a major player in European politics. Poland also relinquished the totality of its claims on Livonia in favor of Sweden. Finally, by 1686, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth officially recognized Russian suzerainty over the Zaporozhian Sich’s territory.
The only event that saved the Commonwealth’s prestige was the epic charge of the Winged Hussars on the Ottomans besieging Vienna in 1683. Thus, Poland-Lithuania was credited with breaking Turkish power in Central Europe. But times were about to get harder for the Commonwealth, and the eighteenth century would prove fatal.
The Partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
With the death of King John Sobieski in 1696, the Commonwealth’s power started to crumble at a worrying pace. The European Great Powers progressively started influencing the various factions of the Sejm, and soon enough, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth found itself on the brink of a civil war.
In 1700, the country was brutally plunged into the Great Northern War, which pitted Sweden against Russia and Denmark. Each side supported a different candidate for the Polish throne. In 1704, it seemed that Stockholm’s faction, the Warsaw Confederation, was about to win, but five years later, the Russian forces managed to dislodge the Swedish candidate, instating Augustus II as King.
The Great Northern War was ultimately won by Russia in 1721. However, Augustus’ death in 1733 ushered in the War of the Polish Succession, opposing a faction backed by Russia and Austria to one supported by France. In 1736, the war ended in favor of Saint Petersburg and Vienna, which instituted Augustus III as King in exchange for major territorial concessions.
In 1764, Stanisław II August rose to the throne with the support of Russian Empress Catherine II and attempted to reform the ailing country. In 1768, the revolt of the Bar Confederation against Saint Petersburg’s influence prompted a ferocious Russian intervention in the country. Feeling threatened by Russia’s successes, Prussia and Austria also invaded the country. In 1772, the first partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth took place and saw important chunks of territory transferred to the invaders.
In 1791, Stanislaw II instituted a Constitution that emancipated the bourgeoisie and terminated most of the privileges of the noble class, thus instituting a constitutional monarchy. This action was met with a brutal Russian invasion. Feeling threatened, Prussia intervened, and a second partition took place in 1793, this time involving Saint Petersburg and Berlin. Moreover, the king was forced to abandon his progressive reforms.
The final blow came in 1795, when Austria, Russia, and Prussia, following a series of popular revolts, decided to end the existence of the ailing country. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s territories were divided between the three major powers at the third partition. Thus, Poland and Lithuania ceased to exist as independent states until 1918.
Legacy of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
Territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth remained under Russian, Austrian, and Prussian control for more than a century. Eastern and northern Poland were fully incorporated into the German Empire in 1871, and Russia made several attempts to snuff out Polish and Lithuanian identity in the form of persecution and bans on languages.
Nonetheless, Polish and Lithuanian identity and culture could not be extinguished. For the whole duration of the 19th century, despite extensively brutal repression, Poles revolted several times against the occupiers. The fight for independence would finally pay out in the aftermath of World War I. In 1918, Warsaw and Vilnius both regained their freedom.
Nowadays, the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth represents a major historical trauma in the development of the Polish and Lithuanian nations. For Poland, the Commonwealth represents a “first republic,” a precursor to the current Polish state.
World War II, Soviet occupation, and communist rule are other difficult periods in the history of these two nations. The partition of the Commonwealth and the difficult years of the 20th century explain Poland’s and Lithuania’s fierce stance against Russian expansionism, as well as their staunch support of the Ukrainian cause in the war we are witnessing today.