Decline and Partition

After the death of Sigismund, Poland began a steady decline. The nobility became increasingly corrupt. Many nobles were more concerned with accumulating private wealth than with the affairs of state.

The Polish throne passed to a Hungarian prince, Stephen Báthory (reigned 1575–86). He was a skillful general, defeating the Russians three times during 1579–86. Following Báthory's death, Polish unity began to crumble. Foreign powers bribed corrupt nobles in the government, creating internal chaos in an effort to destabilize Poland, a powerful rival. Sigismund Vasa, a Swedish prince related to the Jagiellon family, was elected king in 1587. In 1596 he made Warsaw the capital of Poland, replacing Kraków.

In the second half of the 17th century, Poland was invaded by the Swedes and by the Turks. The Swedes occupied much of northeastern Poland. John Sobieski, who repulsed the Turkish attack, was elected king by the nobles in 1674. After Sobieski's death, Polish nobles, under the influence of Peter the Great of Russia, selected as king a Saxon prince, who came to the throne as Augustus II (reigned 1697–1704; 1709–33). Augustus committed Poland to an alliance with Russia and Denmark against Sweden.

In 1700 the allies invaded Swedish provinces along the Baltic, starting the Great Northern War. Charles XII, king of Sweden, repulsed the attack and invaded Poland. He deposed Augustus and replaced him with Stanislaw Leszczynski (reigned 1704–09), a Polish noble. Charles invaded Russia, but was defeated at Poltava in 1709. Peter the Great restored Augustus to the Polish throne. The war ended in 1721, leaving Russia as the dominant power in the region.

After Augustus died in 1733 the Polish nobles elected Leszczynski king. Russia invaded Poland and put Augustus' son on the throne; he ruled 1733–63 as Augustus III. The invasion touched off a general European conflict known as the War of the Polish Succession (1733–35), which confirmed Augustus' accession.

Augustus permitted the magnates to usurp the power of lesser nobles, and Poland fell into anarchy. Rival factions of magnates were manipulated by foreign powers. After Augustus' death, Russia and Prussia agreed to cooperate with each other in Polish affairs. They placed Stanislaw Poniatowski (reigned 1764–95) on the throne. In 1768 patriotic nobles formed the Confederation of the Bar. The Confederation, led by Casimir Pulaski, revolted against Poniatowski and his supporters, hoping to end foreign interference in Polish affairs.

The revolt was crushed by Russian troops in 1772 and Russia, Prussia, and Austria partitioned sections of Poland among themselves. Poland lost one-third of its territory and nearly half of its population.

Poland in 1772.Poland in 1772. This map shows the first partition of Poland, in 1772. This partition resulted in Poland's losing about a third of its land to the neighboring countries of Austria, Prussia, and Russia.

In 1791 the Poles adopted a constitution that strengthened the Polish government. Russia invaded Poland in 1792 and forced the repeal of the constitution. In 1793 Prussia and Russia agreed to a second partition of Poland.

Poland in 1793.Poland in 1793. This map shows the second partition of Poland, in 1793. Russia took most of the regions of Lithuania and Ukraine in eastern Poland. Prussia took most of western Poland.

Thaddeus Kosciusko led an uprising in 1794 in reaction to the partition, but was defeated by Russian, Prussian, and Austrian troops in 1795. A third partition was carried out later that year and Poland ceased to exist as an independent nation.

Poland in 1795.Poland in 1795. This map shows the third partition of Poland, in 1795. Austria, Prussia, and Russia occupied what remained of Poland. After this partition, Poland ceased to exist as an independent nation.

In 1807 part of Poland was reconstituted by Napoleon Bonaparte as the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. The Congress of Vienna (1814–15) reestablished the Kingdom of Poland, but as part of the Russian Empire with the czar of Russia as king. After the failure of a Polish revolution against Russia during 1830–31, Poland was incorporated into Russia.