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Was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth a failed state?

02.11.2021

A lecture by Prof. Richard Butterwick-Pawlikowski

09.11.2021, 17.00 | Hybrid event - FB + offline | Pariser Platz 4A, 10117 Berlin

Was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth a failed state?
Prof. Richard Butterwick-Pawlikowski (School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London)

Prof. Richard Butterwick's lecture serves both as an introduction to the newly released German translation of his book "The Constitution of 3 May 1791. Testament of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth" and as the opening lecture in the series "Early Modern Poland-Lithuania as a Commonwealth of Many Nations - its legacy and presence." which is co-organized by the Pilecki Institute in Berlin, the Polish Institute in Berlin and the Centre for Historical Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Berlin. This series features renowned historians from Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine who will present their reflections on the common heritage of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, one of the most multi-ethnic and multi-cultural states of early modern Europe.

The three partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth - in 1772, 1793 and 1795 - seem to support the narrative that this ‘failed state’ was put out of its misery by its better governed neighbours – the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Habsburg Monarchy. Not only was this story spread by the official historians of the three absolute monarchies, but many Polish politicians and historians have long accused the szlachta (nobility) of culpable anarchy, oppression and irresponsibility. More recently the original and underlying values of the Commonwealth – including liberty, citizenship, consensus, pluralism and toleration – have been far more favourably assessed by historians from various countries, including Germany.

Undoubtedly, however, the Commonwealth did experience a severe crisis between the mid-seventeenth century and the mid-eighteenth century. This lecture will focus on the broadly based economic, cultural and intellectual revival of the Commonwealth in the later eighteenth century, in exceptionally difficult international circumstances. It will focus in particular on the reforms of the Great Sejm (Parliament) of 1788-1792, especially the Constitution of 3 May 1791 and its implementation. The Commonwealth, it transpires, was then dismembered by its absolutist neighbours, because its rapid revival and attractive vitality threatened their own external and internal interests.

Richard Butterwick-Pawlikowski is Professor of Polish-Lithuanian History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. He formerly held the Chair of European Civilization, founded by the European Parliament in memory of Bronisław Geremek, at the College of Europe, Natolin, Warsaw, where he is now a visiting professor. He studied at Cambridge and Kraków, obtained his doctorate from Oxford, and taught in Łódź, Oxford and Belfast, before moving to London in 2005. Among his publications are the books Poland’s Last King and English Culture: Stanisław August Poniatowski 1732-1798 (Oxford UP, 1998), The Polish Revolution and the Catholic Church 1788-1792 (Oxford UP, 2012), The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth 1733-1795: Light and Flame (Yale UP, 2020) and The Constitution of 3 May 1791: Testament of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth(Polish History Museum, 2021, which has also been published in Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and now, this evening, in German).

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