Have you ever been lost before? It’s certainly terrifying to have no clue where you are — and even scarier not knowing how to get back to a place you’re familiar with. Luckily, humans have learned various ways to prevent this natural state of confusion; we have paved paths, crafted signs and most importantly: drawn maps.
After all, isn’t the Earth just a 1:1 scale map? Humanity has, for centuries, sought to produce an accurate and exact map of the entire world. By the 15th century, this goal was starting to take shape — the earliest in-tact globe is from 1492 — but it wasn’t until the last two centuries that globes and more accurate maps entered widespread use.
In some respects, it’s a bummer that humans became so advanced in understanding the Earth’s layout. Soon maps and globes evolved from being tools to guide the lost to the “Etch A Sketches” of world conquerors. Soon, dots were added as cities, stars as capitals and of course lines which act as borders that divide up the Earth. Yet, if you look at any photo from space, you’ll notice all of these lines are non-existent; so, this week we’ll be looking at one series of events which show just how fragile our understanding of maps truly is.
When looking at a map you’ll notice that more often than not — unless roads are shown — there is an empty space between the dots that signify cities. Only through underlying socio-cultural ties do these dots come to be absorbed into larger national entities, as was the case in the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth was unified in the late 14th century by the unification of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland. Reaching a political peak during the 17th century, the union was a dominant realm in Eastern Europe, absorbing much of the map in the regions encompassing modern day Poland, Lithuania, western Belarus and much of Ukraine. The nation was vast on a map, but by the late 18th century it was by no means unified.
The main issue plaguing the state was the influence of the powers which surrounded it on all sides. The Russians in the east constantly sought to interfere with the politics of the country to destabilize its hold over regions the Russians had long sought; not to mention the fact that Moscow itself was occupied by the Poles in 1610 for a two year period. Likewise, the conservative Prussians in the west sought to confine Polish power in trade and commerce in the Baltic Sea and expand their interests east of their borders. Finally, the reactionary Austrians patiently waited to occupy the southern region of Galicia whenever Polish rule should show the slightest inclination of failing.
On August 5, 1772, the influence of these outside powers climaxed in the First Partition of Poland, cutting away nearly half of its population which was to be shared between Austria, Prussia and Russia. Soon after the Russians grew increasingly interwoven with Polish affairs. They installed the monarch Stanisław II August Poniatowski to the throne and backed his governance — so long as he acted in their interest.
However, known as the “years of hope,” Poniatowski desperately attempted to bring the country together, doing the best he could to reform using the ideals of the enlightenment. The power of the elite classes waned as a large education reform brought out an increase in political activism from the population. But it didn’t stop there: Poniatowski also imposed a constitutional government which imposed limits on members of government. These reforms should have rebounded the country, but instead the elite class grew frustrated with their declining influence, while the common people had no substantial loyalty to the Russian-picked king. Slowly Poland-Lithuania’s enemies pounced upon the instability within the nation and the War in Defence of the Constitution began in 1792.
Nearly 100,000 Russians advanced into southern Ukraine — then the southeast corner of Poland-Lithuania. To meet them, Poniatowski and his nephew, Prince Józef, led a poorly organized yet patriotic force of some 50,000. But years of reforms had curbed the ability to assemble a large force, and to no surprise the war was settled rather quickly with Polish defeats at the hands of the Russians. Soon after, the Second Partition of Poland was settled upon on January 23, 1793. The map was redrawn once again.
Losing even more of their population and land to foreign powers, Poland-Lithuania seemed all but erased from the map; nevertheless, after rallying behind several military figures Polish resistance began across several territories once claimed by Poland-Lithuania. While initial success rallied many to the cause of resistance, it never materialized as German and Russian soldiers once again subdued the Poles.
This week in history, on Oct. 24, 1795, the map of what remained of Poland-Lithuania was once again in the hands of the nation’s enemies, who — having crushed the last of the rebellion — sat at a conference to determine how best to erase the lines and dots that stood between their homelands. This was the Third and final Partition of Poland.
If we take a step back in time, can you imagine being one of the diplomats who met at the table, looking down at a map of Poland you were able to draw lines that carved up the nation of millions between three dominant powers. The lines and dots drawn to reflect the boundaries of power were so malleable that, in that situation, how could one possibly understand the consequences of their actions?
As sad as it is, history shows that it takes a fearsome struggle to stay on a map, and as Polish Patriot Tadeusz Kościuszko is rumored to have said after falling off his horse amidst the final Polish uprising: “Finis Poloniae” — “This is the end of Poland.”
For 123 years following the Third Partition, Poland did not exist on the map.
And that concludes This Week in History! I hope you enjoyed this look at the history of maps and Polish history. If you want more interesting history I highly recommend checking out a YouTube documentary made by The Great War Channel which covers an entirely different period of history focusing on the same region, the Polish Lithuanian War of 1919. The struggle for Polish independence would of course continue well into the 20th century. Alrighty, see you next week!