Poland in the Age of Napoleon and Alexander I


Jan Henryk Dąbrowski in front of the Polish Legions.


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.

Napoleon’s attitude to Polish aspirations had been cynical from the start, and the whole episode had been of no benefit to the Polish cause. Yet the Napoleonic epos was important to the Poles. Since the relief of Vienna in 1683, military glory was something they could only read about. Between 1797 and 1815 they were able to demonstrate their bravery, loyalty and spirit on battlefields all over Europe. Feats of valour such as the charge of the Chevaux-Légers through the defile of Somo Sierra on 30 November 1808 (when a single squadron of 125 men cleared 9,000 entrenched infantry and four batteries from the defile, capturing ten standards and sixteen guns in the space of seven minutes at the cost of eighty-three dead) have gone down in legend. Countless other exploits earned them the respect of enemies, from the Peninsula, where the Spaniards of General Palafox spoke with awe of the ‘infernales picadores’ (the Lancers of the Vistula), to the depths of Russia, where General Colbert of the Guard Cavalry ordered all French units to borrow the capes and caps of Polish lancers before going on picket duty, to keep Cossacks at a respectful distance.

These heroics provided a comforting mythology for generations with no state or army of their own, and Napoleon’s image recurs in Polish art and literature well into the twentieth century as a focus for dreams of glory. The fall of Napoleon, which showed that even the greatest can be brought down by an alliance of lesser creatures, was a source of consolation to Poles who felt their cause had similarly been brought down by cynical collusion. The Romantic vision of Prometheus in chains could cover up a multitude of unpleasant realities.

At his abdication Napoleon committed his Polish troops to the clemency of the Tsar, and Alexander was neither vengeful nor blind to the opportunities of the Polish question. His paramount position in 1814 permitted him to entertain hopes that he would be able to reunite most of the territory of the former Commonwealth in a kingdom under his own sceptre, and he brought Czartoryski as one of his negotiators to the Congress of Vienna. But the Tsar’s wishes were thwarted by Austria, Britain and France, which could not countenance Prussia being given swathes of Germany in compensation for those she would relinquish in Poland, nor indeed the huge westward expansion of Russian power attendant on the creation of a Russian-dominated Poland. The re-establishment of a fully independent Poland was mooted by Britain and France but never seriously considered, and for all his good intentions Alexander would never have been able to sell the idea at home, where opinion reacted to his Polish plans with indignation.

In the end, a Kingdom of Poland consisting of 127,000 square kilometres with a population of 3.3 million was carved out of all three partitions. In addition, Kraków and a tiny area around the city was turned into a republic. The Tsar of Russia was the King of Poland, and all three partitioning powers were the protectors of the Republic of Kraków. The remainder of the Polish lands held by Austria were administered separately, as the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, with the help of docile assemblies. The major share of the Polish lands retained by Prussia was given separate status as the Grand Duchy of Posen. All three partitioning monarchs made fulsome declarations pledging themselves to treat their Polish subjects with benevolence and to respect their institutions.

The new Polish state, usually referred to as the Congress Kingdom, was a curious entity. The constitution, drawn up by Czartoryski, was the most liberal in Central Europe. There was a bicameral Sejm of 128 deputies, seventy-seven of them elected by the szlachta and fifty-one by non-noble property owners, and sixtyfour senators. It lacked any legislative powers, and its function was primarily administrative, regulatory and judicial. Foreign policy and the police were both run from St Petersburg; Alexander’s brother Constantine was installed in Warsaw as commander-inchief of the Polish army; the former legionary General Zajączek was Alexander’s viceroy; and the Russian Nikolai Novosiltsev was Alexander’s commissioner in the government of the Kingdom.

There was something unnatural about the close association between huge, autocratic Russia and the tiny constitutional Congress Kingdom. It was perhaps inevitable that either Poland would act as a springboard for the liberalisation of Russia or that Russia would gradually swallow up and digest its small satellite. At first, the former seemed the more likely. Large sections of Russian society had come under foreign influence as a result of the Napoleonic wars and appeared open to change. As a consequence of absorbing so much Polish territory, by 1815 no less than 64 per cent of the nobility of the Romanov realm was of Polish descent, and since there were more literate Poles than Russians, more people within it could read and write Polish than Russian. The third largest city, Wilno, was entirely Polish in character and its university was the best in the Empire.

In his speech at the opening of the Polish Sejm in April 1818, Alexander held out a succulent carrot to the Poles. ‘Live up to your duties,’ he exhorted them. ‘The results of your labours will show me whether I shall be able to abide by my intention of expanding the concessions I have already made to you.’ But his enthusiasm for liberalism waned, while Novosiltsev, who had no time for Polish aspirations and did not like Czartoryski, did all he could to undermine Polish autonomy. He exploited the incipient conflicts between Alexander and Constantine, and between both of them and various Polish statesmen, promoting the view, which gained acceptance in Russia, that the Poles were not grateful for the favours they had been granted. When, in 1820, the Sejm began to openly debate political issues and stood up in defence of the constitution, which had been infringed by Alexander and his officers, he dissolved it. When he opened the next session, in 1825, he insisted that its deliberations be held in camera and excluded all those deputies he deemed subversive.

The violence done to the territory of the Commonwealth between 1792 and 1815, and the succession of governments to which its various parts had been subjected in the same period, had surprisingly little impact on the life of the nation. The frontiers themselves figured only as administrative impediments in the minds of most Poles, who referred to them as ‘the Austrian cordon’ or ‘the Prussian cordon’. A Pole travelling from Warsaw to Poznań or Wilno in the 1820s crossed into a different country, but as far as he or his hosts were concerned, he was still travelling around his own.

Similarly, people who had fought on opposing sides sat together in the Sejm and Senate. Alexander’s viceroy in Poland had started out as a Jacobin, fought in Kościuszko’s army in 1794, had commanded a Polish Legion in Italy, and been wounded fighting for Napoleon at Borodino. Adam Czartoryski, who had also fought with Kościuszko, was one of the pillars of the Congress Kingdom, although his father had presided over the provisional government set up by Napoleon in 1812. Stanisław Potocki, a prominent Patriot in the 1780s and a minister in the Duchy of Warsaw, was now Minister of Education. Even the chief censor appointed in 1819, Józef Kalasanty Szaniawski, had been a Jacobin in 1794.

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