The nature and value of the Polish-Lithuanian union
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30


First edition: Vilnius, 1932.


Recently, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aristide Briand[1], put forward an initiative to group the European states into a vague, at least for the time being, community. This is not the first idea of this type; many a time it has been attempted to weaken national identities, to combine a larger number of states into one organization. The most recent of these attempts is the League of Nations[2]—actually implemented and intended to include all of the countries of the globe.

Minister Briand’s program is a statement that the League of Nations has failed to carry out its tasks, that the aims imposed upon it were too early, that things should have been done gradually; a strictly European League would have had more limited tasks and perhaps could have succeeded. But is such a European League not too early a concept, as well?


In Europe, since the Middle Ages, the development of statehood has been progressing towards creating larger state conglomerates. This line is traceable, although it often bends. Already in the early Middle Ages, larger entities were built on the basis of tribal organizations: the Frankish Kingdom ruled by the Merovingian and the Carolingian dynasties[3], comprising much of Western and Central Europe, in an example. However, this desire to build a larger state conglomerate was only temporary. State authority was defeated by the size of the territory it ruled over and the decentralist tendencies; the Frankish Kingdom disintegrated into smaller states. Afterwards, the idea of building a great state was resurrected as the concept of a new Roman Empire; however, the result was a relatively loose union of German and Italian territories that managed to subjugate Bohemia and, temporarily, Poland. Poland quickly freed itself, the Italian states also left, and the emperor’s power became but a shadow of itself. What is more, feudalism—which spread over the entire state organization in Western Europe—contributed, together with family feuds, to the crumbling of Western states—England, France, Spain, Germany—into a number of small states.

The attempts to create larger state organisms were decisively defeated for a long time.

But the idea of a union resurged. However, the concept was less extensive than the Frankish Kingdom or the Roman Empire. The new large states were most often based on ethnic bonds. In the West, France was in the avant-garde, presenting itself already at the beginning of the 16th century as a uniform state—and this uniformity evoked admiration. Some time later, France was followed by Spain and then England. Germany and Italy did less well.

Before the Great War, most of Europe was divided between several great powers and large states: England, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Austria, Russia, Turkey. Other, smaller states, were only able to linger in the borderlands of the greater ones.

In the modern age, Europe saw the consolidation of smaller territories into larger entities; this progressed slowly, but steadily. These states developed stronger and stronger bonds, they guaranteed free movement of persons (except for Russia and Turkey, which required the use of passports), the economic and cultural links between them grew stronger; people spoke of a European concert ruled by great powers.

And then the Great War came. It brought, or rather emphasized with great power, the principle of ethnic nationality and self-determination of nations as the basis of state organizations. As a result, in addition to changes of borders, three large conglomerates were broken down: Austria, Russia, and Turkey crumbled into a number of states. The number of European states grew from 21 to 28 (excluding pseudo-states, such as Monaco). In terms of development, this was regress.



The European attempts to create larger state conglomerates include the formation of the vast state of the Republic of Poland. It took two centuries, from the end of the 14th century until the end of the 16th century. The way in which this concept was implemented—slowly—shows a very interesting feature of such attempts, obviously with the reservation that this concept was not born in the head of one person, that it was not formulated right away, that it evolved from a number of ideas and attempts that not always produced the expected results and required overcoming difficulties and resistance caused by the existing conditions or opposition from people, compromising, withdrawing temporarily, and postponing the actions intended to achieve the planned goal.

The conglomerate that ultimately became the Republic of Poland covered not only the areas that were ethnically strictly Polish, but also the lands of other peoples: Ruthenians, Lithuanians, Latvians. At the same time, some ethnically Polish territories were left outside of it and could not be incorporated into the state (most of Silesia).



Among these relationships, the one most important both for Poland and the other party was the relationship with Lithuania, usually known as the Polish-Lithuanian union. The history of the union was very characteristic, taking various legal forms, depending on the circumstances in which it was formed and modified over several centuries.

Usually, relationships go from weak to stronger, ultimately ending in merger into one organism, or from strong to weaker, ending in the termination of the relationship. The Polish-Lithuanian union started with incorporation on unequal rights (1386–1401)[4], then was transformed into a relationship that was closest to a personal union (1401–1440)[5], although initially (1401–1413)[6] with plans of returning to incorporation, subsequently being terminated (1440–1447), changing into a pure personal union for a long time (1447–1492, 1501–1569)[7] with a short period when it was terminated again (1492–1501)[8], and finally becoming a real union, again for a long time (1569–1791)[9], and this union became tighter and tighter, ultimately resulting in the two states becoming one.



What were the consequences of this union for Poland and Lithuania?

As it has been pointed out, there were advantages and disadvantages. This would have looked different for the people or political and social groups back in the day and it looks different from the perspective of history, which evaluates consequences in view of state or national benefits. These points of view do not always overlap. There were also consequences that the contemporaries did not realize, but which the history sees as being of great importance. The historical perspective has also been changing and will continue to do so, just like historical judgment, which can never be completely objective. On some occasions, certain consequences were brought up, while other were omitted; on other occasions, it was vice versa. The general judgment also varied, from very positive to very negative.

I will attempt to list and evaluate these consequences. History cannot stop evaluating past facts, as it would become a chronicle, and not the knowledge of life. One may be wrong in their judgment—it happens. Others will come and criticize this judgment—and will be wrong, too. This is how the human spirit works, it errs; if humans did not not err, they would not be human. But by correcting the judgments of others, we have the feeling of superiority and progress. And this, in turn, is the power of human spirit.

I will carry out my evaluation in view of the advantages and disadvantages for Poland and Lithuania, separately, as states and nations.

I will start with Poland.

When the lords of the Małopolska region, who were the initiators of the union, undertook the campaign to join Lithuania and Poland, they acted in proper understanding of the Polish raison d’état. Poland benefited greatly from having the Grand Duke of Lithuania on its throne. First of all, this prevented any conflicts with Lithuania. A state that had often been an enemy, whose invasions often hurt Poland badly, now changed its position; when it became an element of Poland, not only did the clashes stop, but the strength of Lithuania increased the strength of Poland. Furthermore, a specific reason for Polish-Lithuanian conflicts in this age disappeared—the emulation[10] for western Ruthenia: Red Ruthenia, Podolia, Volhynia. As the Grand Duke became the King of Poland and Lithuania was incorporated to Poland, the dispute over Ruthenia was rendered irrelevant. The incorporation of Lithuania into Poland resulted in a uniform foreign policy, especially towards the Teutonic Order that was a threat to Poland: there were no more fears that Lithuania may join forces with the Order against Poland. Quite the contrary, it was now an option to combine Polish and Lithuanian armies against the Order. And even if Poland was to fight alone, there was no fear of a stab in the back. Finally, the prestige of the state grew enormously; the population increased (by approximately 50%) and so did the territory.

Historically, this has to be recognized from the point of view of the state and the nation. It is true that not all of these benefits were achieved due to the fall of the idea of incorporation and Lithuania’s separatist tendencies. The fight for Ruthenia did not cease and was still quite severe in mid-15th century; ultimately, this issue was regulated only through incorporation of Ruthenian lands in 1569[11]. Also, for several dozen years, there were cases of Lithuania or parts of it cooperating with the Teutonic Order (during the reigns of Vytautas[12] and Švitrigaila[13]). However, Poland often enjoyed assistance from Lithuania in its wars against the Order (the First Battle of Tannenberg). From mid-15th century, Lithuania stopped working with the Order against Poland, the fight for the Ruthenian lands ceased, and the benefits of the union manifested themselves in full. Poland became a power, one of the greatest in Europe.

This was a priceless benefit for the state. With time, there were also ethnic benefits. These included primarily an increase of Polish population through assimilation, with no pressure, of all Lithuanian nobility and most of Ruthenian nobility and the acquisition of land for a peaceful expansion to the east, with the Vilnius region becoming ethnically Polish. This penetration of the entire Grand Duchy of Lithuania by Polish culture and Polish people created a strong bond between it and Poland; it was only the 19th century that brought a change in this respect, with the anti-Polish campaign by Russia, the granting of freehold to Lithuanian and Belorussian peasants as an unavoidable consequence of the development of the social issues, and the rise of Lithuanian and Russian national awareness. Russification limited Polish penetration towards the east, destroying much of the results of this process. The two other factors in fact only revealed the extent of this penetration—it was not deep, as, in line with the contemporary social relations, attention was paid only to the dominating class, the nobility.

The fact of Poland feeding Lithuania with Western culture not only flattered Poland as a center of emanation of Western values that it has processed; this culture, especially in its social and economic dimensions, strengthened Lithuania, and thus also Poland—after the union; the combined power of both countries increased and this was to the advantage of Poland.

But there were also negative aspects. They have been pointed out many a time; however, one cannot agree with all of them. Allegedly, the most negative consequence of the union was as follows: through the union with Lithuania, Poland put itself in opposition to Muscovia and then Russia. As a result, it had to fight it on numerous occasions, losing strength and neglecting, as it is claimed, its western borders. Expansion to the East allegedly resulted in abandoning expansion to the West that would have brought Silesia back to Poland. There is no doubt that the wars with Muscovia were a burden for Poland. But if Poland had not been in a union with Lithuania, would its position have been better? If Lithuania had not been able to withstand the pressure from Muscovia, ever so strong from the end of the 15th century, if it had succumbed, which seems probable, would Poland not have had to defend its borders at the Bug and the Vistula rather than at the Dnieper and the Daugava? All of this while being a weaker state, with no support from Lithuanian armies. Lithuania was a buffer zone, the approaches for Poland in these wars. The western borders of Poland had not changed since the 14th century, except for incorporating several small areas in Silesia; could one claim that Poland, with its peaceful intentions, would have attempted a war for Silesia? All the time being weaker, composed only of the Crown, without the Grand Duchy? I believe that this hypothesis is rather weak.

In any way, this was lucrum cessans[14] and not damnum emergens[15].

The theory that Poland failed to develop a strong bourgeoisie because of the expansion to the East cannot be really taken seriously. Poland had enough nobility—it did not send it in any greater numbers to Lithuania and those who moved there never tried to take control of the cities; this would have required a spirit different from that of the nobles.

On the other hand, it is clear that the union with Lithuania negatively affected Poland in terms of its social structure. After 1569, Polish nobility mixed with Lithuanian nobility, the Lithuanian aristocratic families moved to Poland, and on the incorporated Ruthenian lands, the great estates of the Potocki, Kalinowski, Jabłonowski, Wiśniowiecki, and other magnate families were created. These families started to play a primary role in the life of the Crown: the political system based on democracy and the nobility started to degenerate; the all-powerful magnates wrote a sad chapter in Polish history. This was definitely a negative consequence of the union. It is difficult to weigh factors that do not belong on the same scale and even more difficult to add or subtract their importance in order to arrive at a positive or negative balance. However, it seems to me that Poland, through its union with Lithuania, became a European power and strengthened itself. If one feels proud of our state and nation, then they surely have to see that the union was beneficial for Poland.

And for Lithuania?

Today, the Lithuanians condemn the union, evaluating it through what it brought to the elements that were purely Lithuanian in ethnic terms. Lithuania lost its independence to Poland, did not develop as a nation in full, and submitted to Polish culture without creating its own state—this is what they regret.

There is no doubt that because of the union with Poland, Lithuania lost its nobility. But would they not have lost it to another element—the Ruthenian element? Would they not have ceased to exist as a nation?

As a state, surely yes. After all, it was the Teutonic Order to which Lithuania lost its ethnic heart, Samogitia, which today comprises almost all of what is ethnically Lithuanian.

Would they have stood a chance against the Order without Polish help? It was only thanks to the union with Poland and the First Battle of Tanneberg won by Polish armies with only minor assistance from the Lithuanians that Samogitia went back to Lithuania. Would Lithuania have resisted Russia’s march towards the West? After all, before 1569, Poland only occasionally requested the assistance of Lithuania, and it would seem that only in wars against the Teutonic Order. In turn, Lithuania enjoyed the help of the better equipped and trained Polish knights, often to a great extent, on its eastern borders in the fights against Russia or the Tatars (how many Poles perished in the Battle of the Vorskla River?[16]). In fact, Lithuania constantly asked for such help—and this was referred to as tightening the bond within the union. Vytautas, initially attempting to break the union with Poland, changed his approach after the defeat in the Battle of the Vorskla River. This resulted in the union of 1401. The war with Muscovia affected the negotiations of the union of 1564, broken off by Lithuania after the victory at the Ula river[17]. The burden of the wars with Turkey also rested on Poland.

But it was not only Lithuania as a state that owed its continued existence to Poland. In ethnic terms, through voluntary Polonization, Lithuania lost its nobility. But it was only thanks to accepting Christianity from Poland in the Roman rite that it was able to save everything else. Lithuanian elements constantly succumbed to the Ruthenian elements. According to linguistic studies, even in the recent decades, many Lithuanian villages became Belorussian. If Lithuania, populated mostly by Ruthenians and not Lithuanians, had accepted Christianity from Russia, with the orthodox liturgy, would it have survived at all in view of the numerical superiority of Ruthenians? The Church protected the Lithuanian language within the borders of worship, there was no Polonization there.

Lithuania was too weak in ethnic terms to control all of the population, predominantly Ruthenian, of the Grand Duchy. It did not have its own culture that it could stand against Ruthenian culture. The union with Poland permitted the survival of the Grand Duchy, while Christianization and adoption of Western culture from Poland allowed Lithuania to remain ethnically independent, although with some losses, and, ultimately, to re-create, with time, its own, yet small, state.

[1] Aristide Briand (1862–1932) – a socialist, ten times the Prime Minister of France, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs between 1925 and 1932. He attempted to improve the French relations with Germany and co-authored the Locarno Treaties and the pacifist Kellogg–Briand Pact. In 1929, on the forum of the League of Nations, he first presented the idea of a union of the European states. The union was supposed not to violate the sovereignty of the particular states and to focus on economic issues. In 1930, he published a memorandum in which he advocated a closer union, this time of a clearly political nature. Due to the deepening economic and political crisis in Europe, his proposals did not evoke much of a response.

[2] League of Nations – an international organization established in 1918 under the Treaty of Versailles. Its purpose was to ensure that all its members enjoyed sovereignty and territorial integrity. Even though President Wilson was one of the originators of the organization, the USA never became a member of the League of Nations. The League also lacked executive tools for its tasks. As a result, it could not prevent the final collapse of the Versailles arrangements, new partitions in Europe, and ultimately, the outbreak of World War II.

[3] The Merovingian dynasty – rulers of the Frankish Kingdom between 481 and 753, tracing its history back to Merovech, a leader of the western Franks. The Carolingian dynasty, originating from Charles Martel, ruled from 753–987.

[4] In 1386, Jogaila was crowned King of Poland.

[5] In 1401, treaties between Poland and Lithuania were signed in Radom and Vilnius. Prince Vytautas recognized the authority of Jogaila and the Polish Crown and the incorporation of Lithuanian lands to Poland.

[6] Until the Union of Horodło, which equaled Lithuanian nobles to Polish nobles and introduced a uniform administrative division of the state.

[7] I.e. during the reign of Casimir Jagiellon (1447–1492), Alexander Jagiellon (1501–1506), Sigismund I the Old (1506–1548), and Sigismund II August (1548–1572). On 1 July 1569, the Polish-Lithuanian Union (the Union of Lublin), a real union (although with separate armies and treasuries) and not a personal one, was formed. The result was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with a single Parliament.

[8] I.e. during the reign of John Albert.

[9] The Constitution of 3 May, adopted in 1791, finally merged both states into one organism.

[10] Emulation – (archaic) rivalry; from Latin aemulatio – competition.

[11] Under the Union of Lublin, the voivodeships (provinces) of Bracław, Kiev, Podolia, and Volynhia were incorporated into Poland.

[12] Vytautas (c. 1352–1430) – the Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1401, a cousin of Władysław Jagiełło (Jogaila).

[13] Švitrigaila (c. 1370–1452) – the Grand Duke of Lithuania between 1430 and 1432, the youngest brother of Władysław Jagiełło (Jogaila).

[14] Latin for the legal term “lost profit” that could have been gained had the other party carried out the agreement.

[15] Latin for “actual loss”; in legal Latin, a concept contrary to lucrum cessans.

[16] In the Battle of the Vorskla River (1392), the Lithuanian and Ruthenian armies, with support from the Teutonic Order and Poland, defeated the Tatar forces.

[17] The Battle of Ula (properly: the Battle of Chashniki) was a military clash during the Livonian War. Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Red, the Grand Chancellor of Lithuania, and Grzegorz Chodkiewicz, the Grand Hetman of Lithuania, destroyed Russian cavalry under prince Shuisky.

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