Empire of Liberty: The Pole Dance

“The history of Eastern Europe is basically a record of the various rises and falls of Poland. Decade after decade the instigator might change but the pattern remains the same. Doctor Gonzalez, rather unfortunately, termed this historic pattern “the Pole Dance” but we must always remember he did so decades before that term took on another meaning, even if we may be allowed to snicker at the entendre.” ~ Dr. Ernesto Guevara


Excerpt from Dr. Mustafa Demirel’s “Neither Holy, Nor Roman, Nor an Empire: A History of the Holy Roman Empire”, Levant State University Press, 1994

“Once the power of Europe, the Holy Roman Empire found itself in decline throughout the 18th century. Hobbled by the Thirty Years War, and the subsequent Peace of Westphalia, the Empire, and its ruling Hapsburg dynasty, suffered numerous blows at the hands of other continental powers. France’s constant clashes with the Empire weakened the emperor’s standing amongst the various German princes and created a dualism for control of the empire. On one side lie the ancient Hapsburgs who held the crown and tradition and operated out of their power base in Austria. On the other side lie Prussia and its upstart kings who progressed rapidly from dukes to “kings in Prussia” to finally the “kings of Prussia”. While the Hapsburgs had power, land and tradition the Prussians has innovation, energy and superior military capability.

The Empire found itself in crisis when the French Revolution boiled over and the revolutionaries began to export the bloodshed and ideology. Combined attempts by Prussia and Austria to invade France and restore the Bourbon monarchy failed, and in turn, the French invaded the Austrian Netherlands, the Dutch Republic and the German principalities located along the Rhine [1].

A slew of treaties, some public, most secret, began the reordering of Europe. Principalities and bishoprics within the Prussian sphere, and located on the west bank of the Rhine, were ceded to France. The treaties compensated the ruling families of those ceded territories and relocated them deeper into the empire. As an example, the Prince of Orange-Nassau, the hereditary stadholder of the Dutch Republic, obtained Würzburg and Bamberg from the Prussians for the loss of the Dutch Republic to the French backed Batavian Republic. Despite the revolutionary nature of the French government, French diplomats were more than happy to achieve French territorial goals by playing the monarchical game within the Empire. France guaranteed to Württemberg and Baden to intercede to obtain the cession of specific ecclesiastical territories as their compensation for the loss of their previous territory. Even with the Hapsburgs, not be so easily bullied, France was happy to partition the ancient Republic of Venice to guarantee newly conquered territories in the Hollands and Lombardy. In this way France, despite being the victor who dictated terms, was able to work with Austria and Prussia to erode the long standing nuisances in and around the Empire (such as ecclesiastical bishoprics and Venice). France gained the territories they conquered and Austria and Prussia consolidated their power in Central Europe.

The 1798 Congress of Rastatt approved the cessation of the west bank and the secularization of the ecclesiastical territories to compensate the displaced royals. Exempted from this secularization were the ancient electorates of Mainz, Cologne and Trier, which Emperor Francis II would not sacrifice, as they constituted the Hapsburg’s electoral powerbase. Other goals of the Congress remained unfulfilled as the peace gave way to the War of the Second Coalition.

However, just because the Congress accepted the terms of the French, and was willing to work with the secular princes to compensate for the lost territories, this did not mean the moves were lightly accepted. The concepts of secularization and compensation became hotbed political topics and debates within the Empire.

The ecclesiastical states had their advocates and the tremendous power of the church backed their cause. Those advocates argued that the dissolution of any imperial estate and the concept of compensation for lost territory violated the unwritten constitution of the empire. It was also in violation of precedent within the empire where before each Royal House “had to bear his own fate.” They also argued that it violated the spirit of the empire and its history to force the ecclesiastical states to bear the burden of compensation. Many believed that complete secularization would undermine, perhaps even destroy, the underlying quasi-secular/quasi-religious ethos of the empire. After all, at this point, about the only qualifier in the name “Holy Roman Empire” that remained true was that it had some elements of the church incorporated into the framework of the state.

To the proponents of secularization, they argued that the French had won and not accepting peace terms risked a French invasion beyond the Rhine that would definitely destroy the empire in practice, not in a hypothetical.

To his credit, Francis II pursued secularization very reluctantly. The Hapsburgs knew that their imperial strength lie in the continuation of the empire and their longstanding hold on the emperorship via their power base amongst the catholic ecclesiastical electors. The Prussians, who had a secular and anti-establishment streak, favored the policy as a way to increase their power in northern and western Germany. The Elector of Saxony feared secularization because it would truly make the empire a dualist entity and the Saxons were most likely to be caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of Austria and Prussia [2]. George III, the King of Great Britain but still the Elector of Hanover, remained keen to preserve the status quo to defend Hanover but also prevent a potentially devastating civil war within the germanies.

Of course the delicate balance of electors that favored the Hapsburgs over the Hohenzollerns, and the Hapsburg Emperor’s popularity itself, was about to change dramatically during the Napoleonic Wars which would lead to the Holy Roman Revolution, but that is putting the cart before the horse…


Excerpt from Dr. Vitaly Nikitin’s “Between Moscow and Munich: A History of Eastern Europe”, University of Tsaritsyn Press, 2018.

“It’s important to note that by the time of the French Revolution, Prussia remained the great European upstart. That revolutionary France could check the Prussian military was a shock to Europe that had spent a century watching Prussia hold its own against the combined might of Austria, Russia, France and Hapsburg Germanic allies.

Yet, just because the French beat back the Prussians didn’t mean that France had beaten the Prussians. In reality, Prussia was less concerned with the rebellions in central France than it was about maintaining the integrity of its borders in central-eastern Europe. Since 1772, Prussia had been involved in a three-way chess match against Austria and Russia for primacy. Not only did this game lead to an ever changing system of alliances but it also contributed to religious consternation (Catholics versus Protestants versus Orthodox) and the complete dissolution of medium sized neighboring states that often acted as proxies. Three partitions of the Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth evaporated that once powerful state from the map by 1795. The frontier between Russia and the Ottoman Empire remained in flux. Silesia was the main point of conflict between Prussia and Austria throughout the 18th century. One may also view the consolidation of the principalities of the Holy Roman Empire as an extension of this imperialism. Many historians contend that the long years of Austro-Prussian rivalry laid the foundations of the Holy Roman Revolution long before Napoléon was even born. We must not forget that the Electorate of Saxony had deep ties to Poland and the politics of Eastern Europe stemming from the election of Fredrick Augustus I as the King of Poland as far back as 1697 [3].

While the region’s empires partitioned and carved up these territories, the populations and histories remained. The partitions of Poland-Lithuania created significant Polish and Lithuanian minorities within Austria, Prussia and Russia. Even before its partition, the Commonwealth had been an incredibly diverse place and the great powers inherited populations of Germans, Russians, Czechs, Hungarians, Slovaks, Ruthenians, Romanians, Latvians, Jews and Romas. Just before the first partition, the Commonwealth’s population stood at approximately 14 million. Nearly half of that population was Poles, while the remaining half were a diverse mix of different peoples.

There was an underlying thought process to the partitions and the nationalisms at play. St. Petersburg, Berlin and Vienna all believed that a successful partition would dilute the many different small populations, and any potential resistance, amongst the majority German or Russian populations. By splitting Poland proper, the large Polish population could be broken into three manageable pieces to be absorbed and controlled by the dominant nations. What the powers that be did not understand is that they were destroying a balanced system of nationalities within the existing Commonwealth. While Poles should have dominated the Commonwealth (and in many ways they did), politically, the 50-50 ethic split between Poles and everyone else ensured a type of nationalistic balance. This coupled with the vast noble population (sometimes approaching 10-15 percent of the total population) and a number of ill-conceived political reforms by later Sejms to create an ineffective, but balanced, commonwealth [4]. On one hand, this prevented national tensions from boiling over in a diverse country. On the other hand, it crippled the government’s ability to react and contributed to the relative “ease” of the partitions. Austria, Prussia and Russia all learned the hard way that they had not absorbed a number of small, passive, foreign races but rather that they upset the balance and stoked nationalist fires amongst the many nations. Some more nationalistic historians, notably Gonzalez, point out the partitions are the moment Eastern Europe became destined to be a place of numerous, smaller, states, centered on a dominant nation but yet working together within a common overarching framework. His logic is that the spirit of the Commonwealth, but also the unruly fringes of the Hapsburg domains, and the historical hands off approach of the Ottomans in the Balkans, created a location ripe to develop “nation-states” but still work well within a larger framework, in his example the United States.

To support his, now famous, concept of the nation-state, Gonzales laid out some of his more notable nationalist theories including the concept of the “imperial nation”, the “stubborn nation” and evidence that supports the construction of stubborn nationalisms that would eventually coalesce into later revolts and nation-states.


Excerpt from Dr. Mark Gonzalez’ “The Great Transition of Europe”, University of Chicago Press, 1921

To this point, we have established how Austria, Prussia and Russia divided the Poland-Lithuania Commonwealth. Now we must discuss this region during the Napoleonic Wars to gain an understanding of the immense changes to come in the subsequent decades of the 19th century. To understand the politics, we should examine the people.

Prior to the first partition, many historians note a period of “Polonization” where Polish customs and even the Polish language began to imprint itself on the cultures of the Commonwealth’s various minorities.

For example, to status conscious nobles living in the Commonwealth’s distant hinterland of the Ukraine, adoption of Polish and even Roman Catholicism seemed preferable to gain entry to the comforts and power of Warsaw society than continuing to live out in the margins. This cultural assimilation is on record as far back as the early 17th century when the Orthodox Priest, Meletii Smortrytsky, wrote in the 1612 work “Trenos or the Lament of the Holy Eastern Church”:

“Where are the priceless jewels of [Orthodoxy’s] crown, such famous families of Ruthenian princes as the Slutsky, Zaslavsky, Zbarazky, Vyshnevetsky, Sangushsky, Chartorysky, Pronsky, Ruzhynsky, Solomyretsky, Holovchynsky, Koropynsky, Masalsky, Horsky, Sokolynsky, Lukomsky, Ruzyna, and others without number? Where are those who surrounded them… the wellborn, glorious, brave, strong, and ancient houses of the Ruthenian nation who were renowned throughout the world for their high repute, power, and bravery?”

Smortrytsky’s question was rhetorical; everyone knew the great families of the Ukraine were moving to Poland.

Why did these families assimilate to the point that they were willing to shed even their faiths to join a completely different culture and society?

That answer lies in human nature. As social creatures we seek acceptance and even influence amongst our peers. To the common man, one’s “peers” generally equate to ones neighbors in similar social and economic standing. To a “nobleman”, whether they be a 17th century Ruthenian count or a 20th century politician, one’s “peers” are typically other members of the elite. In their quest for social acceptance amongst their peers, these noble families proved willing to shed their very cultural identities to gain acceptance into their dominant political culture.

This shouldn’t be a surprise for history is littered with such examples of minority nations seeking acceptance and assimilation into a dominant imperial nation. There is little difference between a Ruthenian noble seeking acceptance in Warsaw from that of a Judean noble seeking acceptance in first century Rome. As the elite of a nation seek absorption into an imperial nation, that elite morphs its culture over time. This in turn causes minor elites to seek acceptance down the chain of social hierarchy by morphing themselves. Slowly, over decades and sometimes centuries, the cultural fabric changes as the subordinate nation is slowly absorbed into the imperial nation until the differences are negligible. In this way, crudely, Gauls become Romans who become Franks who become French.

Of course, political events can hasten or halt this process. History has just as many examples of subordinate nations revolting and being decimated by the imperial nation as it has examples of gradual absorption. The culture of Judea fundamentally changed when gradual absorption was replaced by the utter destruction of the Hebrew people over the three Jewish-Roman Wars. The Hebrews, taking the role of a stubborn nation that refused assimilation for a variety of reasons, hastened their own national decline in Judea. Of course, as arguably the most stubborn nation we have on record, Jewish culture, obviously, endured.

In the case of Poland, after the partitions, this gradual assimilation of minorities within the Commonwealth into the “imperial” Polish culture abruptly halted and resulted in slow, but steady, revivals of various cultural customs, and especially languages, across the region. Lithuanian, Samogitian, and Latvian all saw gradual increases in publications [5]. “Polish Statelessness” became a rallying cry for many and a large expatriate population of Poles left the region to pursue their own interests and lobby other countries to support their compatriots. Several Poles played significant roles in early American history, finding an audience that sympathized with their romantic plight and egalitarian tendencies [6]. This virulent reaction by the Poles to the loss of their country is one of the best examples of a nation rallying around a shared trauma to become a stubborn nation and thus collectively cope with their crisis. Like the religiously called Hebrews centuries before, the Poles rallied around their culture given the new reality that nation faced having gone from an imperial nation to a subordinate one in a generation.

Certainly, in the perfect world of German and Russian administrators, over a period of years, Polishness would have gradually absorbed into Germanness. Obviously, this proved not to be the case. The various nations, suddenly thrown into a new hierarchy by outside political events, opted to double down and become stubborn nations. Instead of slowly absorbing into the Austrian, Prussian and Russian systems resulting in a clean map of Eastern Europe today, these stubborn nations held out. They expressed their culture even when the imperial nations worked to suppress their efforts. National leaders appeared and the passions of young students harnessed in a type of cultural siege warfare. Over time, these nations, and their failure to assimilate, resulted in trouble spots within their imperial nation’s structures. Like their Hebrew predecessors who also refused to assimilate into the Roman system, conflict and revolution were assured.

Luckily for these stubborn Poles, Ruthenians and other peoples, unlike the Hebrews, they had allies.


Excerpt from Dr. Vitaly Nikitin’s “Between Moscow and Munich: A History of Eastern Europe”, University of Tsaritsyn Press, 2018.

Gonzalez’ theories mesh well with the history of the region. Yet, while some take them as law no different than gravity, we should remember his national theories are just that, theories.

For instance, a quixotic blow to the Chicago School of thought occurred in the corner of the Austrian Empire that Vienna obtained from the partitions [7]. Across the early 19th century, the Slavic peoples of the former Commonwealth territories annexed into the Austrian Empire coalesced from several independent ethnicities (Rusyns, Ukrainians, etc.) into a new “Ruthenian” nationality as opposed to doubling down into their own small exclaves or absorbing into the dominant German culture [8]. A typical Gonzalist retort would be that the Austrian Empire never had an “imperial nation”. Instead, they argue, the German citizenry were far more concerned with Holy Roman affairs outside of Austrian borders while Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Bosnians and Italians all counterbalanced the Germans until the whole medieval apparatus fell apart during the First World War.


Excerpt from Adam Mickiewicz’s “Pan Tadeusz”, 1834 [9]

O Lithuania, my country, thou

Art like good health; I never knew till now

How precious, till I lost thee. Now I see

Thy beauty whole, because I yearn for thee.”


Excerpt from Dr. Mark Gonzalez’ “The Great Transition of Europe”, University of Chicago Press, 1921

Chapter XII: The Prussian Disaster

To understand Prussia in the Napoléonic Wars, one must go back before the French Revolution to Prussia’s rapid rise throughout the 18th Century. Prussia’s origins lie in the 15th Century when a Hohenzollern royal came to dominate the March of Brandenburg and became an elector within the Holy Roman Empire. The Hohenzollerns, since the beginning of Prussia, found themselves besieged on all sides in the cutthroat world of north-central Europe. In this kill or be killed geopolitical environment the Hohenzollerns quickly became the killers. Brandenburg prospered, absorbed Pomerania and Prussia and they consistently defeated German, Scandinavian and Polish armies in their quest for survival. By the time of the War of the Spanish Succession, the goals of the electors became less about survival and more about prestige. Prussia was ready to move from mid-tier entity to a great power of Europe.

Fredrick III crowned himself Fredrick I, King in Prussia, in 1701 to get around the legal issue that no kingdom (except Bohemia) could exist within the Holy Roman Empire. Frederick argued that since Prussia had never been part of the empire, and the Hohenzollerns were fully sovereign over it, he had the authority to elevate Prussia to a full kingdom. Therefore the Hohenzollerns were technically only kings when in Prussia or handling Prussian affairs but they were still electors under the Holy Roman Emperor within the boundaries of the Empire. These legal technicalities flew in the face of the Hapsburgs Emperors and began the century long rivalry between Prussia and Austria for control of the Empire. Constant wars and diplomatic movements over Poland, Bohemia and Silesia occurred until the French Revolution broke out.

At first, Prussia stood with the other monarchies against the revolutionaries but the rise of Napoléon flipped the wars from monarchies versus revolutionaries to new imperialism versus traditionalism. Prussia, a historic upstart and foil to ultra-traditional Austria, initially sided with Napoléon even if their official policy was one of neutrality. Prussian ministers and officials from the British Portlandite government got along well and for some years, the two countries anchored the Second League of Armed Neutrality.

In this age of absolute kings and monarchs, it is important to remember that the personalities of the elite circles of the various European courts mattered just as much as sentiment and movements among the people. In a way, the opinions and decisions of the Prussian kings of this era provide a window into the soul and debates of the people of Berlin, Königsberg and Danzig.

While the people of France experienced a revolution in the streets of Paris, the courts of Prussia saw a royal revolution of their own. The two Fredericks of this time couldn’t be more different.

Pleasure loving and carefree, Frederick William II is the antithesis of the stereotypical straight laced and martial Prussian ruler. He became a great patron of the arts, sponsored Beethoven and Mozart and was a talented cellist in his own right. Even Frederick the Great had misgivings about the young prince’s capability to rule.

When Frederick took the throne in 1786, many viewed him as a reformer. He invested in infrastructure, reformed taxes, and encouraged the use of German as the language of the court and academia. Perhaps most important were his decrees about religion. Christian mysticism enthralled Frederick and his Rosicrucian pastors, Johann Christoph Von Wöllner and Johann Rudolf von Bischoffwerder, soon became powerful influences at the court. Frederick forbid evangelical ministers from preaching anything beyond the letter of their official books and a number of regulations were put in place to prevent enlightenment influences from seeping into sermons. Wöllner’s goal was to protect the multi-confessional rights enshrined in the Peace of Westphalia and numerous edicts intended to prevent religious upheaval through state imposed limitations and censorship. In addition, Jews, Mennonites and other minorities received state protection. In this way neither minorities, Catholics, Lutherans or Calvinists could claim to be the dominant religion.

Frederick’s great failure was his oversight of the army. Voltaire famously quipped, “Where some states have an army, the Prussian Army has a state” and this fact was lost of Frederick. The quality of the military declined and the army suffered in unnecessary military adventures in the Dutch Republic and Eastern Europe. A lack of enthusiasm hampered Prussian efforts against revolutionary France as well as broken Prussian finances. Only when Britain (and for a time the Dutch) provided subsidies that filled Prussian coffers did Frederick agree to continue the war effort. Even then, the resource strain of the partitions and situation in Poland resulted in the 1795 Treaty of Basel, which many monarchical powers saw as betrayal. Once Britain left the Second Coalition, subsidies and resources would dry up for years, greatly frustrating coalition efforts on the continent [10].

Frederick William II died in 1797. His son, Frederick William III succeeded him. The younger Frederick morally opposed his father’s excesses and immediately began restoring a general air of dignity to the court. A better soldier than his father, but also an inconsistent statesman, he successfully kept Prussia neutral for the first few years of his reign, failing to partake in the wars of the second and third coalitions (much to the chagrin of the Russian and Austrians). Only when Napoléonic meddling and Bavarian scheming instigated the Holy Roman Revolution did Frederick finally feel the need to give into his hawkish courtiers and plunge Prussian into war with France.


————– Author’s Notes ————-

[1]: Remember, back in the 1790’s, the area we basically associate with “Belgium” in our timeline was owned by the Austrians.

[2]: “Between Scylla and Charybdis” being the Greek idiom from high school lit that basically means “between a rock and a hard place”. Odysseus had to steer his ship between these two monster that represent a whirlpool and a rocky shoal.

[3]: His election sparked a number of wars over the Polish throne that eventually weakened the state to much that the three partitions of Poland were allowed to occur at all. By the second half of the 18th century, the Saxon ruling family had lost its grip on the Polish nobles thus preventing election to the throne, mostly thanks to constant Russian, Prussian and Austrian interference.

[4]: Sejm basically equates to a Polish Parliament. And yes this is true, Poland had a very loose definition of “noble” which basically meant they had a huge population of nobles including many poor and uneducated nobles. This was vastly different from other European powers. In addition, Poland had a weak, elected, monarch which meant these many nobles wielded tremendous power. The second half of the 18th century is basically an unworkable political system being picked apart by outside interference, especially over the Polish king.

[5]: This happened in our timeline and by the 1830’s, 40’s and 50’s the Russians and Prussians were forced to crackdown on publications in an attempt to stop nationalistic inspired revolts.

[6]: This is also from our timeline.

[7]: If you’ve paid attention to the “excerpt” bylines you’ll note Dr. Gonzalez works at the University of Chicago. Like economics in our timeline, history and political interpretation often is associated with different “schools” in this timeline.

[8]: Also our timeline

[9]: This poem is from our timeline as well.

[10]: In our timeline the primary way Britain fought Napoleonic France was through its navy and by paying continental powers to do the fighting for them. The lack of subsidies is a major issue for Austria, Prussia and Russia.


Source Materials

Auer, Stefan. Liberal Nationalism in Central Europe. Routledge. 2004.

Davies, Norman. God’s Playground A History of Poland: Volume II: 1795 to the Present. Oxford University Press, 2005.

Petras Jomikas. “The Lithuanian language and nation through the ages”. Accessed January 10, 2018. http://www.lituanus.org/1989/89_4_06.htm.

Ruthenians. Accessed January 10, 2018. http://www.encyclopediaofukraine.com/display.asp?linkpath=pages%5CR%5CU%5CRuthenians.htm.

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – New World Encyclopedia. Accessed January 10, 2018. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Polish-Lithuanian_Commonwealth.

Riga Latvian society`s history.” Rīgas Latviešu biedrība. Accessed January 10, 2018. http://rlb.lv/rls-history.

Subtelny, Orest. “The Polonization of the Ukrainian Nobility.” Ukraine. A History. Accessed January 10, 2018. https://web.archive.org/web/20020602145938/http://mywebpages.comcast.net/mdemkowicz1/dobra/poloniz.html.

Szyndler, Bartłomiej. Racławice 1794. Bellona Publishing. 2009.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Augustus III.” Encyclopædia Britannica. July 20, 1998. Accessed January 10, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Augustus-III.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Frederick Augustus I.” Encyclopædia Britannica. July 20, 1998. Accessed January 10, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Frederick-Augustus-I.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Stanislaw I.” Encyclopædia Britannica. July 20, 1998. Accessed January 10, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Stanislaw-I

Who are Samogitians? Accessed January 10, 2018. http://samogitia.mch.mii.lt/ISTORIJA/samogit.en.htm.

Next Chapter: The XYZ Affair

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