2007 | 5 | 75-89
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The Polish Question at Tilsit (1807)

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The defeat of Prussia by Napoleon in 1806 and the resulting insurrection in Prussian Poland re-opened the complex problem of Poland. The former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been wiped off the map only eleven years earlier. The large size and the civic traditions of the Polish 'political nation' meant that the three partitioning powers (Austria, Prussia, Russia) were bound to be alarmed by the developments in Prussian Poland. Napoleon's attitude to the Poles was cautious, but as the campaign against Russia (Prussia's new ally) continued into 1807, he authorized the creation of a quasi-government in Warsaw in January 1807. On the other hand, both the Russians and the Prussians had failed to agree on any effective policy that would lure the Poles from Napoleon's side; Austria remained vigilant but neutral. Napoleon's victory at Friedland led to the peace talks at Tilsit where the problem of Poland and that of the future of the Prussian state were intertwined. Tsar Alexander was determined to see Prussia preserved as a sovereign state, while Napoleon was keen to gain Russia as an ally in the conflict with Great Britain. The negotiations at Tilsit, directed personally by the two emperors, showed both sides gradually arrive at a compromise on the Polish issue. Napoleon at first offered Russia a border on the Vistula; then the transfer of Prussian Poland to the Tsar who would assume the title of King of Poland. Alexander declined these offers, while his counter-proposal that Jerome Bonaparte should become ruler of a state created out of Prussian Poland was in turn rejected by Napoleon. Hard geopolitical considerations influenced the decisions of both sides. The final compromise was the creation of the 'Duchy of Warsaw' under the King of Saxony; Alexander was also able to reduce the duchy's size in the east and the north. Although the Poles had no direct influence on the negotiations, the Governing Commission in Warsaw and the Polish military effort on the side of France proved to be important factors in the outcome of the settlement.
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  • W. H. Zawadzki, no address given, contact the journal editor
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