The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was one of the largest and most diverse countries of Europe, stretching from the Baltic to the borders of Russia to the Black Sea (in modern-day Ukraine). It was inhabited not just by Poles and Lithuanians, but Ruthenians, Germans, Jews, and small numbers of Tatars, Armenians and Scots. It was also religiously diverse, with communities of Roman Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, Jews, and Muslims living within its borders.
While most of Europe became increasingly absolutist during the Early Modern period, Poland-Lithuania maintained a system of strict checks over monarchical power by a legislature (sjem) comprised of the szlachta (nobility). Eventually the King – often from an outside country – was elected by the szlachta.
Though the Commonwealth was prosperous at first, prolonged warfare with Russia and Sweden proved destructive. Famines and epidemics followed invasions, and the population dropped from 11 to 7 million. Economically, Poland-Lithuania could no longer keep up with Western Europe. The strength of the szlachta kept the peasantry in a brutal form of serfdom, which was becoming increasingly obsolete in Western Europe.
Following wars with Lutheran Sweden and Orthodox Russia, the Polish nobility became increasingly religiously intolerant. The ideology of sarmatism, which held that the Polish nobility were descended from Iran, created a sense of Polish exclusivity and difference from the rest of Europe.
Increasingly weak, Poland was under the influence of Russia to the east and Prussia to the west. Russian troops remained in Poland, and terrorised the legislature. In response, Poles formed the Confederation of Bar to challenge Russian influence, and civil war broke out.
The result of civil war was the first partition of Poland in 1772, during which Poland lost almost one-third of its land and population to Prussia, Russia, and Austria.
In the aftermath of the First Partition, Poland experienced a cultural revival. Education was no longer totally controlled by the Jesuit order; the first manufacturing concerns developed; and the rights of the peasantry improved and serfdom was abolished in some places.
When Russia, Prussia and Austria became distracted by the French Revolution, the King met with an emerging group of revolutionary ‘patriots’, inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment. After years of negotiation, they created Europe’s firs Enlightenment ideas influenced by the American Revolution, the King was held responsible to the legislature, as in Polish tradition. However, the legislature was now itself elected directly by the people (albeit those who met certain property requirements). Religious freedom was required and the peasantry were taken under protection of the law, though their status was not reformed much further.
This new constitution, with its moves towards the Enlightenment, was anathema to the conservative rulers of Prussia and Russia. Catherine the Great invaded Poland in 1792, defeating the outnumbered Polish troops led by Józef Antoni Poniatowski and Tadeusz Kościuszko.
In the aftermath, Russia and Prussia further seized Poland’s territory with the Second Partition of Poland. In 1794, Kościuszko raised the banner of rebellion in the rump Poland, in defiance of the King. He offered to emancipate the peasants, bringing them to his cause, but it was not enough – the insurrection was defeated by Russian and Prussian forces. Poland was divided again in 1795, marking its total obliteration from the world map.
This did not mean the end of the Polish struggle, however. Kościuszko became a hero to generations of Polish revolutionaries, who staged rebellions through the 19th century. Polish romantic composers, such as Frédéric François Chopin, composed stirring odes to the Polish cause, which inspired emergent national movements across the world. Even Australian history bears the influence of the Polish struggle for freedom. Australia’s highest mountain, Mt. Koscuiszko, was named for Kościuszko by the Polish explorer Paweł Edmund Strzelecki in 1840.