At several points in Poland's history, various Powers of Europe got together and appropriated large chunks of Polish territory for themselves.

The medieval Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania was a full-fledged power in its own right; the largest country in Europe besides Russia.  During the 15th century, Poland decided to change itself into a limited elective monarchy on the same model as the Holy Roman Empire.  An extremely bad choice, as the Holy Roman Empire was a patchwork of petty nobles, princes, and priests bent on maintaining their tiny scraps of power.

Towards the end of the 17th Century, this antiquated structure guaranteed that every time a Polish king died, the various factions would get together and start a cycle of bribery, thuggery, and positioning various candidates for the election.

The last chance for meaningful change came during the 1675-1696 reign of Jan Sobieski, the last effective Polish king. Unfortunately for Poland, Sobieski was effective mostly in fighting and defeating invading Ottoman Turkish armies.  His colossal 1683 victory before the gates of Vienna only made him want in on the dividing-up of Turkey-in-Europe.   Instead of securing the succession for his heir, he spent the rest of his reign leading battles in the Ukraine and Hungary.

On Sobieski's death, Polish nobles elected August the Strong, elector of Saxony.  Frederick, Elector of Brandenburg, was also duke of the Polish province of Prussia, and figured out a way to style himself a king despite the Holy Roman Empire's prohibition against such things.  This loophole involved elevating his Polish duchy to a kingdom and crowning himself king of it.   Historians never number this one.

Not only did German overlords tend to make the Polish populace fractious, August promptly allied himself with Russia against Sweden in the Great Northern War.  This was a disaster for Poland, as Swedish king Karl XII invaded Poland, eventually capturing Warsaw and installing the puppet Stanislaus Leszczynski in August's place.  This might have stood if only Karl hadn't decided to add Russia to his list of conquests.   The 1709 Battle of Poltava crushed Karl's dreams of conquest, and Russia began to add up the number of times an invading army had come out of Poland.  The war helped Peter the Great make Russia into the unified state Poland had failed to become.

So instead of Polish nobles duking it out (cough) over every royal succession, there were foreign powers advancing their various candidates, guaranteeing a civil war with each royal succession.   The death of August the Strong in 1733 led to a general European conflict, the War of the Polish Succession.  Leszczynski married the daughter of Louis XV and the Polish people rose in support of him, but France wasn't yet ready to drag an army halfway across Europe to support him. Instead, a Russian army barricaded the Sejm in its chamber until it decided on a pro-Russian candidate (the new Elector of Saxony).

Anyway, Poland's three strongest neighbors received their own new rulers:

Frederick was an unrepentant opportunist, seeking to aggrandize Prussia.  Catherine was a protege and rival of Frederick's.  And Maria Theresa was Frederick's bitter enemy after his 1740 seizure of Silesia, leading to the War of the Austrian Succession.   To all three, Poland was a power vacuum, a temptation, a place that could get one of the countries involved in a war against the other two.

In 1764, Catherine decided to put one of her former lovers, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, on the throne.   Poniatowski was a puppet of Russia.  In 1768, Polish nobles joined together in the Confederation of Bar, an attempt to kick the Russians out.  Poniatowski discovered Polish patriotism, and a general anti-Russian uprising resulted.   They appealed for help to -- get this -- the Ottoman Empire!  Granted, the Turks tried to help, but the Russians defeated them at every turn.  By 1772, the Russians had crushed this rebellion (among the thousands of exiles was Kazimierz Pulaski), and Frederick and Catherine saw their chance, with Maria Theresa taking her own slice so as not to be left out.

And thus happened the First Partition of Poland:

The Poles, of course, weren't too happy about this but couldn't do much about it, and called a Four Year Sejm which tried to make up for lost time  with sweeping constitutional reforms.  The document this Sejm produced in 1792 was truly remarkable, advancing religious toleration, universal education, abolishing slavery, and giving rights similar to those granted in the new United States (but to everyone).   This appealed to neither Catherine, nor Frederick's successor Frederick William II, and in 1793, they concluded the Second Partition of Poland: The second partition led to another rebellion, this time led by Tadeusz Kosciuszko, all the pretext Catherine needed to wipe Poland off the map in 1795, with the Third Partition of Poland: Warsaw wound up in Prussia, just southwest of the point where the three engorged countries met.
Kosciuszko was exiled to Switzerland and Poniatowski was imprisoned until his death in 1817.

Of course, the story doesn't end there.

In the wake of World War I, a new Polish state was established.  Its territory was only the core of Poland, plus West Prussia.  But a civil war was going on in Russia, and Polish troops rushed in to take large sections of territory that had been part of pre-1772 Poland.  The Soviet Union licked its wounds but remembered.   And of course, the cession of West Prussia angered German nationalists.

This led in 1939 to the Fourth Partition of Poland, accompanying the nonagression pact concluded between Stalin and Hitler.

  • the Nazis agreed that the Soviets could take the territory Poland captured during the Russian Civil War,
  • the Soviets agreed that the Nazis could take the remainder of the Polish state.

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