GHDI logo

Prussian King Frederick II ("the Great"), Correspondence preceding the First Partition of Poland (1770-71)

These exchanges display Frederick’s caution in the face of an international situation in Eastern Europe in which a Russian war with the Ottoman Empire, accompanied by civil war in Poland, threatened to bring Austria onto the battlefield, so as to contest Russian gains at the Turks’ expense and to pursue its own expansive ambitions. As it stood, Austria had already started advancing these ambitions in 1769 by seizing lands under Polish overlordship on the Hungarian border. Frederick had long regarded the annexation of Polish Royal Prussia, which lay between Prussia’s East Prussian and Pomeranian provinces, as highly desirable, but also difficult to attain. But in the dangerous constellation of 1770-71, it was also likely that, should a Russo-Austrian war explode, Prussia would find itself caught between the warring parties and thus obliged to return to the battlefield, despite the wounds that Frederick’s earlier wars had inflicted on Prussia. Better, then, as these letters suggest, to settle the Austro-Russian conflict at Poland’s expense. And so it was that the first partition of Poland came about: Austria took Galicia, Russia took parts of the Russo-Polish borderlands, and Frederick won the real prize, Polish Royal Prussia, rebaptized and subsequently known in Germany as “West Prussia.”

print version     return to document list previous document      next document

page 1 of 3

Prince Henry to Frederick (Saint Petersburg, June 14, 1770)

I admit that my imagination was struck by this idea, the first time that you have done me the honor of speaking of proposals made to you, however vague. But if it is a chimera, it is such an agreeable one that I find it difficult to renounce. I should like to see you master of the coasts of the Baltic, sharing with the most formidable German Prince the influence that those Powers, united, might exercise in Europe. If it is a dream, it is a very gracious one, and you may imagine that the interest that I take in your glory makes me wish to see it realized.

Frederick to Prince Henry (Potsdam, June 25, 1770)

I see, my dear brother, that you are blessed with a hearty appetite in political affairs. But I, who am old, have lost that which I possessed in my youth. Not that your ideas are not excellent, but one must have the wind of fortune in one’s sails for such enterprises to succeed, and I no longer dare, or am able, to flatter myself of this. It is, however, always good to keep these plans in reserve, to realize them if the occasion presents itself. We are placed between two Great Powers, Austria and Russia; it is certain that, to keep the balance between them without risk, we are too weak at present to acquit ourselves well; but the biggest evil is that neither Austria nor Russia is very anxious to contribute to our aggrandizement.

first page < previous   |   next > last page