Notes on Life and Letters HTML version

2. The Crime Of Partition—1919
At the end of the eighteenth century, when the partition of Poland had become an
accomplished fact, the world qualified it at once as a crime. This strong
condemnation proceeded, of course, from the West of Europe; the Powers of the
Centre, Prussia and Austria, were not likely to admit that this spoliation fell into
the category of acts morally reprehensible and carrying the taint of anti-social
guilt. As to Russia, the third party to the crime, and the originator of the scheme,
she had no national conscience at the time. The will of its rulers was always
accepted by the people as the expression of an omnipotence derived directly
from God. As an act of mere conquest the best excuse for the partition lay simply
in the fact that it happened to be possible; there was the plunder and there was
the opportunity to get hold of it. Catherine the Great looked upon this extension
of her dominions with a cynical satisfaction. Her political argument that the
destruction of Poland meant the repression of revolutionary ideas and the
checking of the spread of Jacobinism in Europe was a characteristically impudent
pretence. There may have been minds here and there amongst the Russians
that perceived, or perhaps only felt, that by the annexation of the greater part of
the Polish Republic, Russia approached nearer to the comity of civilised nations
and ceased, at least territorially, to be an Asiatic Power.
It was only after the partition of Poland that Russia began to play a great part in
Europe. To such statesmen as she had then that act of brigandage must have
appeared inspired by great political wisdom. The King of Prussia, faithful to the
ruling principle of his life, wished simply to aggrandise his dominions at a much
smaller cost and at much less risk than he could have done in any other
direction; for at that time Poland was perfectly defenceless from a material point
of view, and more than ever, perhaps, inclined to put its faith in humanitarian
illusions. Morally, the Republic was in a state of ferment and consequent
weakness, which so often accompanies the period of social reform. The strength
arrayed against her was just then overwhelming; I mean the comparatively
honest (because open) strength of armed forces. But, probably from innate
inclination towards treachery, Frederick of Prussia selected for himself the part of
falsehood and deception. Appearing on the scene in the character of a friend he
entered deliberately into a treaty of alliance with the Republic, and then, before
the ink was dry, tore it up in brazen defiance of the commonest decency, which
must have been extremely gratifying to his natural tastes.
As to Austria, it shed diplomatic tears over the transaction. They cannot be called
crocodile tears, insomuch that they were in a measure sincere. They arose from
a vivid perception that Austria's allotted share of the spoil could never
compensate her for the accession of strength and territory to the other two
Powers. Austria did not really want an extension of territory at the cost of Poland.
She could not hope to improve her frontier in that way, and economically she had
no need of Galicia, a province whose natural resources were undeveloped and
whose salt mines did not arouse her cupidity because she had salt mines of her
own. No doubt the democratic complexion of Polish institutions was very