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Metternich, Tsar Alexander and the Polish Question

Posted January 21st, 2017 at 03:41 PM by Lord Oda Nobunaga
Updated February 22nd, 2017 at 03:36 PM by Lord Oda Nobunaga

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Napoleon and Alexander in Tilsit after the former's victory against the latter in 1807, leading to the Tilsit Treaties

In 1812 Metternich was not eager to displease Napoleon. He believed that France and Poland would be more than enough to crush the Russians. However as Metternich shifted to a soft rivalry with Russia he offered Napoleon the terms where the French would keep everything to the west of the Rhine (as well as giving Italy to the French and possibly also the Netherlands) with the Austrians getting everything east of the Rhine as well as Illyria. Poland by 1813 had been taken by the Russians and Tsar Alexander wanted to annex all of Poland. In 1812 Alexander tried to offer the Poles a kingdom if they would come to his side. The Poles ignored him because they realized that any such kingdom would be nothing more than a puppet state and they were clearly better off with the French where at least Napoleon had guarded their interests even if they were basically just his puppet state. In fact this had been preceded by the Tsar's refusal to support the Poles and French in 1809 against Austria, as per the Tilsit Treaty. But rather than refuse them outright he took his time in mobilizing his forces and claiming that he was unable to give them military support for any reason that the Russian officers could come up with. Clearly Alexander was being a reactionary opportunist and his intentions were obvious.

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Klemens von Metternich

Starting in 1807 the Austrians were deadly afraid of a Russian invasion of Galicia. The Austrians were either for a prewar status quo in Poland or giving a stronger border in the east to the Prussians since Metternich believed that Prussia could balance the power in that area. Austria seems to have been buying time in order to try and influence the on goings of Europe to get their balance of power. After 1805 it seemed as if the Austrians had unilaterally withdrawn from the coalition but after another defeat in 1809 even more so. This incensed the British even during the Congress of Vienna for not committing to their mutual cause. It seems the British didn't care if the Russians annexed Poland and that the Austrians should just be compensated in some other way in exchange. So I don't think that the Austrians necessarily wanted a Polish state but they desperately wanted to keep the Russians out.

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Grand Duchy of Warsaw 1807-1815

The Poles had no reason whatsoever to accept because they knew that if the Russians invaded them Napoleon would easily defeat them with his vast resources. The Poles also wanted their former territory of Lithuania and Volhynia back so they had a reason to try and get Napoleon to fight. Even Metternich thought that this combination of France and Poland, as well as the underlying politics of former Polish lands, was enough to seriously cripple the Russian Empire. Metternich correctly predicted that at the start of the war many of the Lithuanian territories would rise up in open revolt. As the Grand Armee began to flood into Russia these areas outright revolted in most cases and declared themselves independent from Russian rule. The Russians were helpless to stop them because if they tried they would give the French a chance to catch them in the open. Somehow Alexander did not predict that poking the hornet's nest would lead to this.

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Prince Jozef Antoni Poniatowski

It was said that if Napoleon reformed the Polish state after 1812 the Prussian King would be dethroned and his kingdom would be annexed and partitioned so as to appease the German princes, especially the Saxons who were already cozied up to the fact that they ruled over Poland. A Polish state would significantly weaken the power of the Saxon King who would likely have to give most of it up to a parliament of some sort likely headed by Prince Poniatowski. It was long claimed that Napoleon would crown Jozef Antoni Poniatowski King of Poland and advance the status of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw into that of a kingdom. This would be possible if Poland could vie for their national integrity against Russia. A marriage between Poniatowski and the daughter of the Saxon King Frederick Augustus, who was also Grand Duke of Warsaw, would have established a legal claim and a clear line of succession. Keep in mind that at the time of the Tilsit Treaty in 1812 an independent Poland was something that the Tsar could not agree with. It was due to what it would mean for Russia's power and even their territorial integrity in so far as the Lithuanian and Polish lands were concerned. For Metternich this was a nightmarish situation as Napoleon's power would continue to increase while Austrian power would continue to decline as a result. But Metternich was fearful of instigating a revolt in Europe lest Napoleon trace it back to these Austrians. He believed probably correctly that the French had a way of dominating the masses with subversion and stronger rhetoric and not only that but their army would easily quell a revolt instigated by members of the populace. Germany and Italy still being very much within the French sphere of influence and area of operations, unlike Iberia which was so far away and topographically incompatible with French strategy and operational capabilities.

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Frederick Augustus III, King of Saxony and Grand Duke of Warsaw

Early on in the negotiations of 1807 Napoleon had given the initiative to the Tsar so that he might decide what should become of Poland and the Tsar refused to make anything of it. It is clear therefore that he saw Poland as solely his own territory but could not outright say it as Napoleon did not give him that option. Metternich on the other hand when asked by a French diplomat what he thought of Galicia responded that he did not mind a Polish kingdom as it might help to contain the Russians. Though this was never a serious option on the table if pressed on the issue Metternich might concede to accepting such a demand. Metternich was likely playing a double game as he knew that siding against the French after 1809 would have themselves crushed outright and perhaps dismantled. Though he also promised the Tsar that Austria was not likely to and could not do much to seriously damage the Russians if Napoleon called them to war in 1812. He encouraged Napoleon to punish the Russians but also encouraged the Tsar to wage a defensive war. Curiously enough in 1813, during the armistice and the negotiations in Prague, Metternich demanded that Napoleon allow for the destruction of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and a re-partition in order to make a final peace with the French. A powerful Polish state was apparently also against Austrian interests.

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Prince Adam Czartoryski

Metternich had also seen how Tsar Alexander approached the Poles with his proposal of a Polish Kingdom should the Poles join his side. The Tsar would have Prince Adam Czartoryski crowned as king, Czartoryski was a Polish nationalist who also had strong ties with the aristocracy of St. Petersburg. However the offer was easily rejected as another noble, Prince Jozef Antoni Poniatowski responded by declaring his loyalty to Napoleon along with the assembly of Polish nobles. In a hilarious twist they demanded that Prince Czartoryski break his ties with the Russians and the nobility began to push for the reclamation of their former eastern lands. Napoleon considered this seriously as did the German princes and ultimately they agreed, perhaps more so because Napoleon himself saw it as a likelihood given the circumstances and the German monarchs simply bent to his will. Seeing this Metternich realized that Tsar Alexander was in an extremely precarious situation but still tried to make some kind of gain by it.

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Tsar Alexander I

This being the case it is interesting to note that during the negotiations in Prague, during the armistice of 1813, Napoleon went so far as to offer the Austrians control of Poland in exchange for peace. Metternich rejected the offer accepting nothing short of a return to France's "natural boundaries" with only minimal room for concessions. At this point in time it appears that Metternich was resolved to bring about his diplomatic goals at the expense of Poland and checking Russian expansion into that area. After all the subsequent power vacuum left by the defeat of Napoleon led to a scramble by every power to grab what they could and to diplomatically outmaneuver each other despite forming part of the same alliance. But in truth nothing was certain, not even the succession of Napoleon II who was the Kaiser's own grandson. The fate of the Polish state and of the Bonaparte Dynasty was one in the same and they were both discarded.

After Napoleon's defeat in 1814, Metternich was still interested in keeping a balance of power using Poland in some way as late as the Congress of Vienna. In that regard he was willing to compromise and even considered that Prussia should be allowed to annex Saxony in exchange for securing Poland to check the Russians. But to Metternich Poland was a bargaining chip, a very important bargaining chip but still something which could just be traded when necessary. The overtures on this matter were not acceptable to the overly influential and successful Tsar Alexander and a compromise was found. Austria would control Galicia and the environs of Krakow in order to defend the Hungarian passes that led beyond the Carpathian mountains. After 1809 however the dynastic ties of monarchs were ignored by Austria's new political strategy. Their new concern was to be "national" interests, however poorly that term seems to apply when it comes to the multi-ethnic Austrian Empire. The old almost feudal order from the age of monarchs and dynasties was ending and an era of nation and state was taking its place. As can be seen opportunism was a trade mark of this diplomatic game especially given the rather awkward circumstances but it was being used for the state entity itself rather than the state in the form of the monarch. As such pushing westwards into Poland represented such a goal since the time of Catherine the Great. It was accomplished ultimately but much good it did for them. The Russians would never be able to exploit this as anything more than the elimination of a threat but hardly became the end goal which they expected.

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Partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793 and 1795

For Alexander the conquest of Poland in 1814 ought to have included the entirety of that nation. In this way he could control Poland but still appeal to Polish sensitivities rather than repeat the reviled partitions of the last century.
This did not come to be at all. Originally the Prussians had received the areas known as 'Greater Poland' and 'Mazovia' after the Third Partition in 1795. While it was under Prussian rule that the Poles rebelled in support of Napoleon the Prussians barely had a say this time around in 1814. The Prussians were in dire straights during 1813 and it was the intervention of the Tsar which allowed them to proclaim victory in the 'War of Liberation' from the French. Not surprisingly they wanted to appease their powerful ally Russia and be rid of the troublesome Polish. In exchange for some gains in Germany and the territory in Poland as far as Posen (Poznan) and Thorn (Thorun), as well as the annexation of the Free-City of Danzig, the Prussians were willing to give up their former Polish conquests. What they did keep they administered almost as a German colony and repressive measures were taken to keep the Poles in line. Austria for their part took only the region of Galicia and the city of Krakow (technically a Free-City but in reality an Austrian puppet). Since the Austrian monarchs were Catholic and were already overstretched as it was they had an easier time controlling the area. Russia was able to have the rest, the majority rather, as a kingdom under the control of Tsar Alexander.

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Re-partition during the Congress of Vienna

Still the idea that a compromise could be made between the Polish Congress and the Russian Tsar and his empire itself, was mindless. The Russians were seen as foreign oppressors, their administration was backwards and the Tsar was despised no doubt for his foreignness but also because in actuality the Kingdom of Poland was nothing more than his puppet state and the pretenses of this were very few. Though this Russian ruled kingdom had autonomy, a constitution and a congress the Tsars gradually began to grab more and more control until they removed its autonomy altogether. These negative feelings would reach their boiling point against the Russians, Austrians and Prussians during the uprisings of 1830 (the November Uprising), 1846 (the Greater Poland Uprising and the Krakow Uprising), 1848 (the Poznan Uprising) and 1863 (the January Uprising).
All of these were won by the partitioning powers but it was clear that controlling Poland would be no easy task and extremely thankless. Perhaps one might conclude based on this that Tsar Alexander's belief that he could control Poland was one based on naivety and ambition, seeing as he had been rebuffed so strongly in 1812. After all Poland was conquered, they had no say in the matter.
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Total Comments 2


  1. Old Comment
    Junius's Avatar
    Great post, given me a few ideas in terms of layout and presentation!
    Posted February 13th, 2017 at 09:50 AM by Junius Junius is offline
  2. Old Comment
    nuclearguy165's Avatar
    Very good article here as well, and I mostly agree. The Tsar's position with Poland, balancing Polish autonomy and Russian rule, was indeed a bit confused and unworkable, especially considering the ancient enmity between Russians and Poles, though I can understand his intentions and don't believe they were all bad. During the French invasion of Russia in 1812 too though, Napoleon didn't court Polish wishes or utilize them as effectively as he perhaps could have as he sought only limited objectives against the Russian Empire and wasn't really interested in seriously dis-mantling it in any way, though there certainly would have been a small degree of territorial and larger financial concessions the Russians would have had to make if they had been defeated.

    The advantages that the French have over the Russians when trying to reach solutions as regards Poland are that the Poles and French don't have ancient enmities and their lack of geographic proximity would have the Poles convinced that being under French puppet status would be less threatening to their autonomy than would be the case with the Russians.
    Posted August 27th, 2017 at 05:15 PM by nuclearguy165 nuclearguy165 is offline

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