The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

The Partitions of Poland and on Hypocrisy in Politics

In 1683 Poland saved Austria. In 1772 Austria betrayed Poland.

1683 is the year of the second siege of Vienna by the Ottomans (the first had been in 1529), the Austrian Emperor’s flight from the city, and the saving of the city by the King of Poland – in this succession. So, Leopold I (1604-1705) left his capital at the mercy of the Turks, and was watching, from a safe distance, the Battle of Vienna, which was fought by the Polish king Jan Sobieski (1629-1696).

A portrait of the Emperor Leopold I of Austria, who never fought in battle, posing in military outfit

To the great relief of the rest of Europe, Sobieski, at the head of an army, drove the invaders away. In a staggering example of shamelessness, Leopold I, far from feeling uncomfortable about deserting his capital and his subjects, had the audacity to express his imperial displeasure at Sobieski for entering Vienna after the battle before himself, as protocol demanded. The delay of Leopold was, of course, the result of the fact that he was still on his way back from his cowardly flight. One would think that this would not be the kind of thing that Leopold would want to attract attention to even if, in the process, he could demonstrate his superior knowledge of matters of etiquette.


Jan Sobieski, the hero-king of Poland after his victory at the Battle of Vienna


Almost a hundred years later the Austrian Empire,   together with Prussia and Russia   undertook the partitions of    Poland, which took place, in stages, between 1772 and 1795. In the process, an 800-year old kingdom was extinguished. Unlike her predecessor Leopold I, the Empress Maria Theresa (1717-1780) had the good grace to demonstrate some painful soul-searching.    Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-1786) was rather amused and perceptively remarked: “The Empress cries for Poland. The more she cries, the more she takes.”  Frederick, on the other hand, had no such inhibitions and was quite ready to acknowledge that he and the other two monarchs were nothing short of “robbers.” It is up to everyone to decide for himself/herself whether he/she prefers a hypocrisy that fails to cover an outrage or the open and quite shameless statement of an outrage committed.

While we are on the topic of hypocrisy, it seems relevant to consider the much talked about loss of Poland’s “golden freedoms.” The idea, popularized by nineteenth-century romantic writers, seems to be that the absolutist and autocratic regimes of Austria, Prussia, and Russia had tragically suppressed a Poland that had granted much greater freedom to its people. Then, as now, the question largely came down to who constituted the people. The “golden freedoms” referred to the rights and privileges of the male Polish aristocracy (so, about 10% of the entire population) and chief among them was the jealously guarded privilege of not paying taxes. With all its positive features (and there were, undoubtedly, such), one of the practical outcomes of the Polish system was that the peasants were left with no protection against the excesses of the nobility. All in all, it is debatable whether the Polish peasantry was better or worse off after the Partitions. One vaguely suspects that the ones, who ended up in Russia, got the worse part of the bargain.


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