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East Central Europe, A History of

13: The Second Half of the Seventeenth Century

<< 12: The First Half of the Seventeenth Century || 14: The End of the Ancien Regime >>


The countries of East Central Europe were under a permanent pressure from the west and from the east. After the conquest of the Balkans by the Turks, the remaining part of the most exposed region of Europe also had to suffer from an additional pressure coming from the south. But only on exceptional occasions did invasions from the north, from across the natural boundary of the Baltic Sea, add new dangers to the precarious position of East Central Europe. Except for the protohistoric period of the Norman raids and migrations, that happened only in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries when Sweden played the part of a great power.

    The invasion of Livonia by Charles IX, and even the invasions of Gustavus Adolphus which reached as far as Prussia, were only preludes if compared with the conquests of Charles X Gustavus in the middle of the seventeenth century. And though they ended in failure, as did those of Charles XII later, they seemed to have more chance of success and they did have more lasting consequences for East Central Europe, as well as less disastrous results for Sweden herself, than the adventures of the last Swedish conqueror.

    This time the Polish-Swedish war was no longer a dynastic dispute between two branches of the Vasa dynasty which in Sweden had been replaced by the German family of Pfalz-Zweibrücken. Neither was it a territorial conflict limited to Livonian and Prussian lands. What was at stake was the existence of Poland as an independent nation, her union with Lithuania, and all that remained of free political development in East Central Europe. The greater was the responsibility of a few traitors who encouraged the  unprovoked aggression of Charles Gustavus and facilitated his advance. Even the fact that John Casimir, the last of the Vasas, continued to use the title king of Sweden, was no justification for the break of the truce of Stumdorf which had left him that title and was to expire only in 1661.

    In July 1655 the Swedes first invaded Great Poland where the only forces which could be mobilized, in view of the dangerous situation in the East, capitulated before the well-trained veterans of the Thirty Years’ War and recognized the protectorate of Charles Gustavus. Three months later the most powerful Lithuanian magnate, Prince Janusz Radziwill, signed the agreement of Kiejdany which replaced Lithuania’s union with Poland by a union with Sweden. He hoped thus to obtain a leading position in the grand duchy and possibly also Swedish help against the simultaneous Russian invasion. But the majority of the Lithuanians considered his arbitrary decision just another act of treason, and under the leadership of Paul Sapieha they continued to resist in the no man’s land between the advancing Swedish and Russian forces.

    The commonwealth was in danger of total partition because Charles Gustavus, who had occupied most of Poland proper including Warsaw and Cracow, promised some Polish territories to Frederick William of Prussia, the “Great Elector,” who, deserting the Polish suzerain of East Prussia, made that province in January, 1656, a vassal duchy of Sweden. In what would remain of Poland after the additional losses in the East, Charles Gustavus wanted to be king himself, having forced the legitimate ruler to go into exile in Silesia. Only Danzig held out against Swedes and Prussians, and so did Lwow against Cozacks, Tartars, and Russians, but the turn of the tide came with the successful defense of the monastery of Czestochowa at Christmas, 1655.

    The retreat of the Swedish forces before a handful of monks and knights who refused to surrender the famous shrine of Our Lady was an inspiration to the whole country which suffered hard from the conqueror’s absolute rule and which particularly resented the persecution of Catholicism by Protestant invaders. Returning to Poland, John Casimir created a general enthusiasm when he solemnly swore in Lwow to venerate the Virgin Mary who had saved the country as Queen of the Crown of Poland, and to improve the conditions of life of the peasant population.

    Unfortunately the badly needed reforms regarding the peasants were neglected in the midst of a war which was to continue for several years with varying success. The whole country remained a battlefield, and in spite of a series of victories of the Polish forces under the able command of Stefan Czarniecki, Warsaw, retaken at the end of June, 1656, was re-occupied by the Swedes a month later after a battle of three days in which the invaders had the support of the Great Elector. Even after another liberation of the capital, the enemies of Poland, including the Prince of Transylvania who temporarily entered Cracow, signed a treaty at the end of the same year which was, as a matter of fact, a plan of partitioning the whole country.

    Russia was, however, no part of that agreement. An armistice had been concluded with the czar, to whom the succession after John Casimir was promised in order to gain some respite on the eastern front. These negotiations were hardly taken seriously and were never ratified by the Diet. But Czar Alexius himself, who was alarmed by the Swedish advance, turned against Charles Gustavus, hoping to gain access to the Baltic for Russia. Even more alarmed were the Habsburgs, especially since Sweden had the support of all Protestant powers, including even distant England under Cromwell. The Polish-Austrian treaty of 1657 not only brought to the commonwealth some reinforcements sent by Leopold I, but also encouraged Sweden’s old rival, Denmark, to join that alliance and to enter the war on land and on sea. And since France, as usual, was eager to mediate between Poland and Sweden, practically all Europe became interested and at least indirectly involved in the conflict.

    Leopold I needed the voice of the Elector of Brandenburg for his forthcoming election as emperor and therefore he avoided having to fight against the Hohenzollern. But he persuaded him to pass from the Swedish to the Polish side, with Poland, however, having to pay a heavy price. By the Treaty of Wehlau, concluded on September 19, 1657, she gave up her suzerainty over the duchy of Prussia. Her former vassal, who had deserted her in the most critical phase of the war, became completely independent. East Prussia, with even some temporary gains in Polish West Prussia which separated that duchy from Brandenburg, was now an even more dangerous enclave in the commonwealth because it was completely under German control.

    In the meantime George Rákóczi who with Sweden’s assistance had advanced as far as Warsaw and inflicted one more occupation upon the unhappy capital had been forced to a disastrous retreat and had been practically annihilated by the Tartars before he reached his own country. But on the other hand, Charles Gustavus defeated the Danes, who had to sign a separate peace in February, 1658, and only in the fall of that year, Polish and allied forces, after crossing the sea, were sent to Denmark. A little later almost the whole of Polish Prussia was at last reconquered from the Swedes, who lost not only the control of Poland but even their most important gains along the Baltic shores. And when after Cromwell, their own king unexpectedly died too, the Swedes were ready for the French mediation which eventually led to the Treaty of Oliwa, near Danzig, signed on May 3, 1660.

    In spite of her military successes in the last years of the Swedish war, Poland had to make serious concessions because she continued to be threatened in the east. Most of Livonia, occupied by the Swedes in the time of Gustavus Adolphus, was now definitely ceded, including the port of Riga. Only the region on the upper Dvina, with the city of Dünaburg, was left to the commonwealth, and the duchy of Curland which, in spite of all the troubles of the period was able to gain colonial possessions in Africa, remained a Polish fief under the Kettler dynasty. It was much less important that the last of the Vasas finally had to give up his theoretical rights to the Swedish crown, keeping only his title for life.

    Thus, after sixty years, the conflict between Sweden and Poland, harmful for both countries, seemed finally concluded. After threatening Poland’s survival, the great Swedish invasion had provoked a real rebirth of the vitality of the nation which avoided disaster in spite of so many simultaneous aggressions. Poland’s position on the Baltic was badly shaken, however, not so much because of the territorial losses in Livonia but particularly through the emancipation of East Prussia, a decisive step in the rise of the Hohenzollern dynasty which now, from both Berlin and Königsberg, was able to exercise a growing influence not only in the empire but also in East Central Europe. It is true that the agreement of 1657, confirmed at Oliwa, left Poland a claim to East Prussia in case of the extinction of the Hohenzollern dynasty, and some rights of interference in favor of the Prussian estates which were soon to suffer from the ruthless centralization of the new regime. But even in the most striking cases, these rights proved of no avail to the defenders of the old liberties. While avoiding an open conflict with Poland, the Great Elector could now embark on his general policy of aggrandizement. This was to cause much trouble to that same Sweden which had first helped him to gain full independence for the duchy of Prussia.

    In addition to her losses on the Baltic and the terrible devastation of the whole country, Poland, in consequence of the so-called “Deluge,” also had to suffer from a serious internal crisis which even after the Peace of Oliwa did not allow her to concentrate on the grave eastern problems. During the most critical years of the war, Queen Louise Marie de Gonzague, the widow of Wladyslaw IV whose second husband was John Casimir, had played a very remarkable part in general politics. Better than anybody else she realized the necessity for strengthening the royal authority, and she was deeply concerned with the problem of succession after the death of the childless king. The plan which in her opinion was to replace the fictitious idea of a candidature of the czar was the election of a French candidate during the king’s lifetime. That return to the conception of Sigismund Augustus would have replaced the Austrian alliance by a close cooperation with the queen s country of origin and was to be combined with constitutional reforms. But for these very reasons Louise Marie’s action was opposed not only by the partisans of the Habsburgs but also by all those who feared an absolutum dominium on the French model. Therefore the Swedish invasion was followed by a civil war which prolonged the crisis of the country.


Twice in the seventeenth century the basic idea of the Polish constitution, that the king had to be obeyed only as long as he respected the laws of the country, led to an armed rebellion of those who considered the reform projects of the court as being contrary to the constitution. The first of these rebellions, called rokosz—a designation of Hungarian origin—was directed in 1606 against Sigismund III and its consequences explain the lack of unity in Polish politics during the “time of troubles” in Russia. The rokosz of George Lubomirski, which openly broke out in 1664 and lasted two years, was even more dangerous. True, it ended like the first one in a defeat and humiliation of the opposition leader, but again the royal authority suffered greatly and all reform projects had to be abandoned. Furthermore, Poland, in her exposed position and with the foreign wars not yet ended, could not afford a bloody, internal crisis which, similar to the almost contemporary French Fronde, had much deeper repercussions in international relations.

    Not only was the succession problem left open, inviting the intrigues of foreign powers in view of the forthcoming election after John Casimir, but the fruits of earlier victories in the war against Russia were lost, the prospects of reuniting the Ukraine within the limits of the commonwealth had no longer any chances of success, and in 1667 an armistice had to be concluded at Andruszowo which involved much greater sacrifices than the Treaty of Oliwa and more profoundly affected the balance of power in Eastern Europe.

    On the Russian side, the negotiator on behalf of Czar Alexius was A. N. Ordin-Nashchokin, a skillful diplomat who sincerely aimed at a lasting betterment of the relations with Poland. But even he, of course, wanted to save for Russia most of the gains which resulted from the pact concluded with the Ukrainian Cozacks thirteen years before, and the compromise which was accepted was definitely to Russia’s advantage. It is true that in the northern, White Ruthenian region only Smolensk, with its province, was definitely ceded by the commonwealth, and in the south the Ukraine was divided along the Dnieper River, which seemed to be the best possible natural boundary. But it was precisely Smolensk, which in all previous wars had proved of decisive military importance, and the eastern, left-bank Ukraine alone was much easier to absorb by Russia than the whole of it. On the other hand, in spite of large territorial cessions, Poland did not at all get rid of the troublesome Cozack problem which only changed its aspect.

    One of the new features of that problem was the possibility of Russian influence and even interference in the territories on the right bank of the Dnieper, which continued to be part of Poland but retained close ties with those Cozacks who were now under Russian rule. But what was particularly dangerous was the solution of the problem of Kiev. Though situated on the western side of the dividing river, that center of the Ukraine and of the whole old Rus was ceded to Russia, with its environs, for two years and it was doubtful from the outset whether it would be returned to Poland after that period. Ordin-Nashchokin was himself in favor of respecting that clause of the treaty, but his opinion did not prevail and Kiev was never given back, thus providing Russia with a strong base on the right bank.

    It is therefore hardly necessary to point out the strategic weakness of the new frontier which, strangely enough, was to last longer than any other boundary line in that region of transition. It was not changed before the partitions of Poland more than a hundred years later. But this is precisely an indication that in the following period of Polish-Russian relations the main issue was no longer any question of boundaries but of Russian penetration far into Poland with a view to either controlling the whole of her territory or if necessary partitioning it with another power. That basic change in the situation did not appear immediately. Indeed there seemed to be a certain improvement in the relations between the two countries during the years after the Andruszowo truce so that it was transformed into a “permanent” peace in 1686. This improvement, however, was to last only as long as Russia had her own problems of succession, after Czar Alexius and his feeble-minded eldest son Fedor, who died in 1682. During these years of trouble within the Romanov dynasty, which this time did not lead to any foreign intervention, there still was some equality of forces between the commonwealth and Russia. Only when Peter the Great became the uncontested master of his country did its full power appear in the relations with all its neighbors.

    Even before Peter’s violent and rather superficial “Westernization” of Russia, there was a remarkable cultural progress in that typically East European or rather Eurasian land, and this was one more result of the annexation of Kiev and of the final transfer of that important center from Poland to Russia. Its influence, which introduced some Western elements into the life of the latter country, was not strong enough, however, to check Muscovite influence which in turn penetrated into the eastern Ukraine, leading to its gradual Russification and cutting it off from the West. There was also a parallel progress of the Polonization process in the western Ukraine so that the new frontier was just like the previous one, a clear dividing line between a reduced East Central Europe, part of the Latin world, and a different, predominantly eastern sphere of culture. At the same time this was a serious setback for the Ukrainian national movement into which the Cozack opposition against Poland had developed under Khmelnitsky’s leadership.

    But the Ukraine also suffered from the steady advance of Ottoman power which took advantage of the precarious situation of Poland and more and more seemed to concentrate its onslaught in that direction. It is true that warfare was also continuing along the Turkish-Austrian border in western Hungary, but there an Austrian victory, under Montecuccoli, at the Battle of Saint Gotthard, in 1664, was followed by a twenty years  truce concluded at Vasvár, while two factors contributed to an increased pressure against Poland. These were, first, the decision of the Cozack hetman Peter Doroshenko to place the part of the Ukraine which he controlled under Ottoman protection in 1666, and two years later, the abdication of King John Casimir. Doroshenko’s policy of course raised Turkish claims to just that section of the Ukraine which the agreement with Russia left to Poland. And the last of the Polish Vasas who had shown real qualities of leadership in the worst situations, but who now, pessimistic as to the future of the country, left for France, proved to be very difficult to replace.

    At the election of the following year, the Poles, disgusted by foreign intrigues, particularly the rivalry of Austrian and French partisans which reflected the general situation in Western Europe, decided to choose a native candidate. But Michael Wisniowiecki, the son of Prince Jeremiah—the hero of the earlier Cozack wars—was entirely different from his father and as king proved a great disappointment. Even his marriage to a sister of Emperor Leopold I did not contribute to his prestige, and his poor rule of four years, far from strengthening the position of the Commonwealth in Europe after all failures of the preceding reign, offered the Turks an excellent opportunity for another aggression.

    The war ended with the humiliating Treaty of Buczacz in 1672, which, besides the obligation to pay a tribute to the sultan, deprived Poland not only of her part of the Ukraine but also of the province of Podolia, whose capital, the important fortress of Kamieniec, had been taken after a dramatic siege. The territorial losses in the north and in the east were now followed by a similar retreat in the south which was a retreat of Western Christendom to an artificial boundary, impossible to defend.

    It was then that a great military leader, John Sobieski, saved Poland and as a matter of fact all Christendom, although his universal role was only to become evident ten years later during what might be called the last crusade in European history. Already his less spectacular victory of 1673, at Chocim, the same place where the forces of the Commonwealth had stopped the Turks in 1621, was of decisive importance. Although it did not end the war, it marked the turn of the tide. Sobieski’s election as King of Poland in 1674, after the death of Michael, immediately after the Battle at Chocim, was a well-deserved reward.

    At the same time it seemed a success for France and her partisans, to which party Sobieski had belonged for a long time. Thanks to his wife, Marie Casimire d’Arquien de la Grange, Poland again had a French queen, less talented but as ambitious as Louise Marie had been, and Louis XIV expected that under John III Poland would be his faithful ally. The new king was mainly known as a persistent and successful opponent of Turkey, another link in the traditional French system of alliances, and even French mediation could not finally settle the Polish-Turkish conflict. But a preliminary agreement was reached at the southern front in 1676, and Sobieski, realizing that the struggle against the Ottoman power had to be postponed, proved equally interested in the problems of the Baltic.

    Here the general European situation seemed to favor an attempt at recovering East Prussia at least, since the Hohenzollerns were indeed more dangerous for France than any other German dynasty, including the Habsburgs, had ever been. After Poland’s reconciliation with Sweden in 1660, cooperation with that country, another traditional French ally, against the common enemy, seemed quite possible. But Sobieski’s plan to occupy East Prussia with Swedish cooperation and French support was doomed to failure because of the skillful policy of the Great Elector and the frequent shifts of alliances among the Western powers. From 1678 Frederick William, after defeating the Swedes, was himself in the French camp, and the Peace of Nimwegen, in the following year, made a necessarily isolated Polish action completely hopeless.

    The Polish Diet of 1679 1680 was a turning point in Sobieski’s policy which also affected the European situation. More than personal disappointments of his wife in the relations with Louis XIV, the missed opportunity on the Baltic contributed to a cooling off in John III’s French sympathies. In spite of the intrigues of the French ambassador and his partisans in Warsaw, the king decided to turn again to the main task of his life, the defense against the Muslim danger. He did it with the hope that all European powers, possibly even France herself, could be gained for a joint action, and therefore he sent diplomatic missions to practically all the European courts.

    And in spite of his sympathy with the Hungarian opposition against the Habsburgs, led at that moment by Emeric Thököly, he did not hesitate at a rapprochement with that dynasty, convinced that such cooperation between the two powers directly threatened by the Ottoman Empire, was indispensable. For the commonwealth it was more than a question of security. It was a unique occasion to play again a leading part in the European community.


From the beginning of the year 1683 it was apparent that the Turks, under the influence of Grand Vizier Kara Mustapha, were planning a new war. It was uncertain, however, whether their main onslaught would be directed against Austria or against Poland. In any case a formal alliance between both threatened powers now became urgent, and with the papal nuncio in Warsaw acting as mediator, it was concluded there on March 31. The treaty provided that sixty thousand men would be mobilized by the emperor and forty thousand by the king of Poland, and that in case of a siege by the Turks of either Vienna or Cracow, all efforts would be made by the ruler of the other country to liberate the capital of his ally.

    At that time it was already easy to foresee that Vienna, easy to reach from the Turkish-controlled part of Hungary whose other part was in open rebellion against Habsburg rule, would be the goal of that last Ottoman attempt to penetrate deep into Central Europe. Warfare also continued, however, on the Podolian front where part of the Polish forces, supported by loyal Cozacks, had to be kept during the whole campaign. Nevertheless, as soon as Sobieski was informed that the siege of Vienna had started, he rapidly moved with an army of twenty-five thousand through Silesia and Moravia to Austria’s assistance, while a Polish auxiliary corps of six thousand, under Hieronymus Lubomirski, had already joined the imperial forces before the king’s arrival.

    The question as to who would be the commander in chief of the allied armies, which included contingents from most German states with the exception of Brandenburg-Prussia, was decided in favor of the King of Poland, since the emperor was not present in person. The main leader of the imperial forces of seventy thousand men, Charles of Lorraine, agreed to place himself under the orders of Sobieski whose unique experience in fighting the Turks was universally recognized and particularly stressed by the papal representative, Marco d’Aviano. It was the King of Poland who, after the junction of both armies, drafted the plan of the battle which was fought before Vienna on September 12, 1683, and was to be one of the decisive battles in European history.

    The Christian forces occupied the mountain range west of the city, which in spite of the heroism of its defenders under Rudiger von Starhemberg was already in a desperate position, and from these heights they launched their attack against the Muslims. The fighting started at the left wing near the Danube, where the imperial regiments distinguished themselves, but according to all witnesses the battle was decided through a brilliant assault of the Polish cavalry at the right wing, which under the king’s personal leadership penetrated into the camp of the Turks and broke their resistance.

    The victory was so complete that the liberation of Vienna could be followed immediately by an advance far into Hungary. But while the population of the Austrian capital welcomed Sobieski with grateful enthusiasm, misunderstandings between the two monarchs arose at the arrival of the emperor. Leopold I resented the fact that the king had not waited for him to enter Vienna and at once he wanted to discourage Sobieski’s hopes that his eldest son James, who had also fought bravely in the great battle, would receive an archduchess in marriage. In spite of his disappointment, the king, with all Polish forces, joined in the Hungarian campaign, and after a setback in the first battle of Párkány, where he himself was in mortal danger, he won another important victory near that place and also participated in the taking of Esztergom, Hungary’s ecclesiastical center. Furthermore, he tried to mediate between Leopold I and the Hungarians and to make the reconquest of their whole country a real liberation.

    That war was to continue for sixteen years. Though Sobieski and his army returned to Poland at the end of 1683, he remained resolved to participate in the struggle against the Ottoman Empire and to eliminate the Muslim danger to his own country and to the whole of Christendom once and for all. Therefore in 1684 he joined the so-called Holy League which included, besides Austria and Poland, the Republic of Venice, eager to regain its possessions in the Levant, and Pope Innocent XI, who from the very beginning had inspired the joint action in defense of Christendom.

    Now, however, the forces of Austria and those of Poland were concentrated on two different fronts. For Leopold I, the main objective was the occupation of all Hungary. Sobieski wanted to regain Podolia with Kamieniec and, advancing in the direction of the Danube, to bring Moldavia and possibly also Wallachia under Polish suzerainty again. Unfortunately both actions were not only insufficiently coordinated but they were also troubled by a growing distrust between the Allies. The Emperor was afraid that Poland’s progress in the neighborhood of Transylvania, the old stronghold of the Hungarian independence movement, would attract the sympathies of the anti-Habsburg elements on the other side of the Carpathians. If these apprehensions proved unjustified, it was mainly because the Austrian campaigns of the following years were much more successful than Sobieski’s campaigns had been.

    Two events were decisive in the Hungarian war. In 1686 Buda, the old capital, was retaken from the Turks who had ruled there for 145 years, a victory which produced an impression second only to the triumph before Vienna and which at last made the Habsburgs the real masters of a country which they had claimed since 1526. That success, gained by Prince Charles of Lorraine, was supplemented in 1697 by the victory of Prince Eugen of Savoy, another prominent Austrian general of foreign origin, in the battle of Zenta. Two years later the Turks were obliged to sign the Treaty of Karlowitz which was the first step in their withdrawal from conquered East Central Europe. In addition to important concessions to Venice, they had to give up all Hungary with only the exception of the banat of Temesvár at the southern border. Leopold I, whom the Diet of 1687 had already recognized as hereditary king of Hungary in the male line, also decided directly to govern Transylvania whose prince, Michael Apafy, a puppet of the Turks and opponent of the Habsburgs for almost thirty years, died in 1690. The former principality was now supposed to be merely an autonomous province of the kingdom, although a descendant of the Rákóczis, Francis II, looking for French and possibly Polish support also, was already leading a resistance movement against Austria.

    The Treaty of Karlowitz also at last restored Podolia to Poland, but John Sobieski did not live to see the liberation of Kamieniec which he had simply bypassed in his Moldavian campaigns. In spite of all his efforts, including the appeasement of Russia in the Treaty of 1686, these campaigns ended in failure. Only one of them, undertaken that same year, parallel to the Austrian advance to Buda, had any chance of success. The immediate reason why the Polish forces, after advancing far into the Danubian principalities, had to retreat, as they also had to in subsequent expeditions until 1691, was the lack of support from the native Rumanian population. Even at the height of her power, Poland had failed to win their full confidence in a lasting protection against the Turks. Now, seeing their homeland turned into a battlefield once again, they were even less prepared to exchange a loosening Ottoman overlordship for the rule of the commonwealth, which in recent years had so poorly defended its southern borderlands, or for the domination of the Sobieski family.

    For even in Poland there was a suspicion—one more reason for the king’s failure—that he wanted to turn the conquered territories into a private domain for one of his sons, thus strengthening his own power and securing the future election of his descendants to the Polish throne. The result was, on the contrary, a growing opposition to Sobieski which disregarded all his outstanding achievements and troubled the end of his otherwise so glorious reign until his death in 1696.

    It would be vain to speculate whether it would have been wiser, instead of persisting in the Danubian project which proved beyond Poland’s military power, to concentrate on a better solution of the old Ukrainian problem with a view to regaining access to the Black Sea in the steppes between the Dniester and Dnieper rivers. This no man’s land would have been much more difficult to defend by the declining Ottoman Empire, and nobody would have been better qualified to make an attempt in that direction than Sobieski, who to a large extent appeased the Cozacks, restored order in the borderlands torn by war and revolution, and time and again even succeeded in coming to an understanding with the Crimean Tartars.

    Their invasions, which had plagued these borderlands and the commonwealth as a whole from the thirteenth century—there had been about two hundred Tartar incursions in the course of those four hundred and fifty years—ceased completely at the end of the seventeenth century, and this was only one of the lasting results of Sobieski’s victories. Another was not only the disappearance of the Turkish danger which had so frequently paralyzed Poland’s policy from the days of Varna and Mohács, but also a basic change in Polish-Turkish relations. Permanent tension, if not open hostility, was replaced by bonds of common interest between two countries, formerly great powers, both now facing decline if not destruction. After the last abortive Polish endeavors to interfere with the Balkan problems, any interference with the internal situation of Poland, coming from powers which also began to threaten the Ottoman Empire, was considered contrary to Turkey’s own interests.

    This was particularly the case of Russia, whose cooperation in Sobieski’s Turkish wars had been inadequate throughout the regency of Sophia, the elder sister of Peter the Great. Peter himself, from the outset hostile to Poland and determined to take advantage of any possibility of intervention opened by the 1686 treaty, began by attacking the important Turkish outpost of Azov which he conquered shortly before Sobieski’s death. The pressure which the czar, jointly with Austria, Turkey’s other opponent, exercised upon Poland in connection with the election after John III, was chiefly directed against a candidate who would have well suited the Ottoman Empire, since it was a French prince, François de Conti, supported by the policy of Louis XIV.

    That policy, after the crisis in French-Polish relations during Sobieski’s cooperation with the Habsburg emperor, resulted in 1692, after John III’s gradual withdrawal from the Turkish war, in another plan of cooperation with France’s traditional allies in the East. Sweden seeming to be powerless and Turkey suffering unprecedented defeats, Poland remained the most important of these possible allies, and the establishment there of a branch of the French dynasty would have changed the whole balance of power in Europe to the advantage of Louis XIV. But this was precisely one of the reasons why Poland’s neighbors opposed such a solution which, coming soon after the rise of her prestige in 1683, could have saved her from either Russian control or partition. That they succeeded in forcing upon Poland in the first election, which was not really free, the worst possible candidate, the Elector of Saxony, was to influence the history of East Central Europe throughout the eighteenth century and must be explained by the constitutional crisis of Poland and of that whole region of Europe toward the end of the seventeenth.


It is an almost universally admitted opinion that the Polish constitution, as finally developed after the extinction of the Jagellonian dynasty, was very inadequate if not simply “crazy,” and that it led almost fatally to the decline and fall of the commonwealth. This interpretation requires, however, three rather important qualifications.

    First, the Polish institutions, though far from being perfect, were not at all so bad, particularly if considered against the background of the period and of the neighboring countries. There was in Poland much more political freedom than in most of the other states of modern Europe. No other country except England had such a powerful legislature, based upon a long tradition of parliamentary government. And in spite of the strict limitations of the executive, the authority of the king largely depended on his own abilities and spirit of initiative. Until the middle of the seventeenth century, when unanimity rule in the Diet, the only too well-known liberum veto was first applied in its extreme form, the whole constitutional machinery, unique in its kind, worked fairly well.

    What really was deplorable was the gradual abandonment of any ideas of constitutional reform, so seriously discussed and carried out on many occasions in the earlier periods of Polish history. Royal attempts toward a strengthening of the executive power failed one after the other, including Sobieski’s rather vague projects in that direction, not without a serious responsibility of those of his predecessors who had tried to achieve their aims through court intrigue and illegal action. The stagnation of the normal evolution of political institutions, which was to last well into the second half of the eighteenth century, was indeed extremely harmful but certainly not irremediable as long as the nation was free to direct its own destinies.

    Secondly, Poland’s internal crisis around 1700, greatly aggravated by the political and economic consequences of so many foreign invasions, was not exclusively nor even predominantly of an institutional character connected with the form of government. Much more serious were the social and the cultural crises both of which reached their climax in the same period.

    It was more than a defect of the constitution that all liberties, of which the Poles were rightly proud, remained limited to the szlachta which identified itself with the nation at large. It is true that this typically Polish privileged class was never limited to a small closed circle of aristocratic families, but, jealous of a truly democratic equality of rights and opportunities for all its members, constituted about one-tenth of the population. But being equally jealous of the development of the cities, so prosperous in earlier centuries, that numerous nobility reduced the burghers to an insignificant role, and worst of all, kept the peasants in conditions of serfdom which, though not worse than in most Western countries and definitely better than in Russia, badly required a basic reform which was completely neglected in spite of the promises of 1656.

    What might be called Poland’s hundred years war in the seventeenth century brought the general level of culture much lower than it had been in the “golden age” of the sixteenth. Even Polish literature of the period of crisis, though not so insignificant as it was for a long time supposed to have been, produced no masterpieces comparable to those of the Renaissance. The old universities, to which that of Lwow had been added in 1661, were declining, and education of all degrees, largely in the hands of the Jesuit Order, whose influence is, however, often misrepresented through a very one-sided criticism, was of course badly affected by the general conditions. And the participation in the development of Western culture was greatly reduced in spite of close intellectual ties with the France of the “grand siècle.”

    Nevertheless, even in these comparatively dark years, Polish culture proved strong enough to assimilate, more than even before, the non-Polish elements of the commonwealth, at least as far as the upper classes were concerned. Just as before, that gradual and spontaneous process of Polonization contributed to making the eastern boundaries of the country the cultural frontier of Europe. That fact is, however, closely connected with a third point which must be stressed. The crisis toward the end of the seventeenth century has to be considered from the point of view not only of Poland, then the only fully independent state in that region of the Continent, but of all countries and peoples of East Central Europe.

    Particularly critical, indeed, was the situation of the Ruthenians, although their national consciousness developed in connection with the Cozack insurrections, not without the beginning of a differentiation between the White Ruthenians (now Byelorussians) in the north and the Ruthenians proper (sometimes misleadingly called Little Russians, now called Ukrainians) in the south.

    As to the former, part of their territory, particularly the Smolensk region, after being definitely conquered by Moscow, was absorbed by and amalgamated into Great Russia, or Russia proper, and thus completely cut off from East Central Europe as part of the new Russian Empire. Most of the White Ruthenians remained in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania where, however, their cultural influence was to such an, extent replaced by the Polish that the so-called coaequatio iurium of 1696 made Polish, instead of Ruthenian (in a form near to the White Ruthenian tongue) the official language of that grand duchy.

    As a body politic, Lithuania continued to enjoy that full equality with the kingdom of Poland which was guaranteed by the Union of Lublin. In 1673 it was even decided that every third Diet of the commonwealth should meet, not in Warsaw, but in Grodno, on the territory of the grand duchy, under a Lithuanian speaker. But the Lithuanian citizens, deeply attached to the tradition and the local autonomy of the grand duchy, included peoples of various racial origin. Among those who were Lithuanians racially, only the peasants continued to use their own Lithuanian language which had not yet produced any notable literature. A Lithuanian national consciousness in the modern sense was hardly more developed than that of their Latvian kinsmen, now predominantly, together with the Finns and Estonians, under Swedish rule and German cultural influence.

    Quite different was the situation of the Ruthenians who since the Union of Lublin had all been united within the limits of the kingdom of Poland, and since the Union of Brest, amidst the ardent discussions between its partisans and its opponents, went through a revival of their cultural life. The Cozack movement which started there as a social force and which soon became a political power also, was leading to the formation of a Ruthenian or Ukrainian nation which the Union of Hadziacz wanted to make another equal partner in the commonwealth, with all guaranties for the Orthodox faith. But the partition of the Ukraine between Poland and Russia, without even speaking of the temporary Turkish domination in a third part of the country, necessarily led to a progressive Polonization of the western section and to a gradual suppression of the promised autonomy, hence to Russification, in the eastern part, a situation which was to influence the Ukrainian national movement in the following centuries.

    As to Ottoman rule in South Eastern Europe, it was becoming even more oppressive and degrading with the decline of the empire. Of all the peoples of the Balkans, only the Rumanians continued to enjoy a certain amount of autonomy, both in Wallachia, where a series of princes of Greek origin (called Phanariots because coming from Phanar, the Greek quarter of Constantinople) succeeded in establishing a greater continuity of government, and even more so in Moldavia, where Prince Demetrius Cantemir, Sobieski’s opponent, also contributed to the cultural development of the country. Both Danubian principalities remained not only a battleground between the neighboring powers but also a gateway of conflicting cultural influences.

    The Turkish withdrawal from the Danubian Plain at last brought almost the whole of Hungary, along with Bohemia, under Habsburg rule. That German dynasty thus realized its agelong objective, attained only in part after the battle of Mohács in 1526, to establish its hereditary rule in both kingdoms. The important section of East Central Europe, which the Jagellonians had before associated with Poland, was now connected with Austria, and the common dynasty tried to make that connection as close as possible. The constitutional and cultural crisis which in Bohemia had already reached its climax after the battle of the White Mountain in 1620, now affected the whole of Hungary also, where the main part, liberated from the Ottoman yoke, had to face the same danger which the northwestern border region had opposed, not without difficulty, for a century and a half. This was the centralizing and Germanizing trend of the Habsburg regime.

    There was, however, a considerable difference between the situation in Bohemia and in Hungary. In the former country there was hardly any national resistance. The nobility, now largely of foreign origin, supported the policy of the court, showing little interest in the traditional autonomy of the kingdom within the empire and no interest at all in the preservation of the Czech language which in spite of its eloquent but isolated defense by the Jesuit Bohuslav Balbin was gradually replaced by German, particularly in the cities. The peasants suffered so much from the deteriorating conditions of serfdom that they revolted in 1680, only to be crushed and severely punished by the Patent of the same year. The country, whose state rights were no longer defended by the Prague Diet which was completely losing its importance, seemed ripe for the unifying policy of the Habsburgs in the next century.

    In Hungary, where the national nobility remained powerful and politically active in the Diet, with Latin as the official language, a prominent leader, Nicholas Zrinyi, a great-grandson of the hero of Szigetvár, had already realized the danger of unlimited Habsburg rule before the expulsion of the Turks, which he was one of the first to anticipate. But he died before that liberation, and the other Hungarian magnates, including his brother Peter, by conspiring with Louis XIV, only provoked the court’s violent reaction and a temporary suspension of the constitution. A similar policy by Emeric Thököly and the rebellion of the so-called Kurucok (Crusaders) amidst the Turkish war created a tense situation between Leopold I and the Hungarian estates after the unification of the country under the emperor’s rule. Here too, as in Bohemia, after the devastation of so many war years, many foreign colonists were settled, Austrian generals and dignitaries exercised an increasing influence, encouraging the non-Magyar elements, and although the Diet agreed to abolish the clause of the Golden Bull of 1222, which authorized resistance against any unconstitutional action of the king, an open rebellion broke out in 1697.

    Its leader, Francis Rákóczi II, was not only a nephew of Nicholas Zrinyi but also a descendant of former princes of Transylvania where he found strong support. After a manifesto addressed to all peoples of Hungary he was elected “ruling prince” by the estates and amidst the War of the Spanish Succession that anti-Habsburg movement was again welcomed by Louis XIV, while England and Holland tried to mediate. Emperor Joseph I, who succeeded Leopold I in 1705, found Hungary in a state of rebellion which was typical of the internal crisis in the various countries of East Central Europe at the turn of the century.

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