The Polish Question

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The Polish Question  (1848) 
by Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston

A speech given as British Foreign Secretary, defending the British actions during the 1832 incorporation of Poland into the Russian Empire. Given to the House of Lords on 1 March 1848.

Let us take the whole Polish question at once, for that is really what the hon. member means by this part of the motion. I am not aware of any commercial rights enjoyed by Great Britain which have been much affected in Poland by any changes that have taken place. Nor do I recollect any commercial rights which have been affected, except those of individuals, which might in some degree have been so by changes in the tariff. The charge made by the hon. member is in effect this—that when the Polish revolution broke out in 1835, England, in conjunction with France, should have taken up arms in favour of the Poles, but she did not do so; that she abandoned France in her attempt, and thus deprived the Poles of their independence; and finally—and here the hon. member made an assertion I was astonished to hear—that we prevented Austria uniting with France and England for the same object.

Mr. Anstey: I said, Austria was ready to have joined with us if we had acted differently.

Palmerston:Well, then, the hon. member says we balked the readiness of Austria to interpose in favour of the Poles, when we had many reasons to adopt a different course. This question has been so often discussed that I can only repeat what I have said in former Parliaments. It is well known that when we came into office in 1830, Europe was in a state which, in the opinion of any impartial man, and of the best political judges, threatened to break out into a general war. I remember being told by a right hon. gentleman, in the course of a private conversation in the House, that 'if an angel came down from heaven to write my dispatches, I could not prevent Europe from a war in six months'. Well, Sir, not months, but years, rolled by, and no war took place. It was the anxious desire of the Government of Earl Grey to prevent war; and the maintenance of peace was one of the objects at which they expressly aimed, and succeeded. What were the dangers which threatened the peace of Europe?

There had just been a great revolution in France, there had been another in Belgium, and these had been followed by a great rising of the Poles against the sway of Russia. In these struggles there was a conflict of principle as well as one of political relations. There was the popular principle in France, in Belgium, and in Poland, to be resisted by the monarchical principle of Austria, of Russia, and of Prussia. The danger apprehended in 1831 was, that these three Powers should attempt by a hostile attack to control France in the exercise of her judgement with respect to who should be her sovereign, or what should be her constitution. The British Government, under the Duke of Wellington, with the most laudable regard for the public interests, not only of England but of Europe, hastened to acknowledge the new Sovereign of France, and to withdraw their country from the ranks of any confederacy against her; and this conduct laid the foundation of that peace which it was our duty to maintain and cultivate. The great anxiety of England was that peace should be maintained.

There was no doubt great sympathy with the Poles in their contest against Russia; and it was thought there was a chance of their succeeding in their attempt. The result, however, was different; but then it was said by the hon. member, 'Oh, it is the fault of England that she did not establish the independence of Poland. If she had joined with France and Austria (which now for the first time I am told was anxious to favour the cause of Poland), the Poles would have been in full enjoyment of their constitutional freedom.' The hon. gentleman actually said that Austria, in 1831, was in favour of the Poles, who were closely pressed by the Russians and Prussians, who had already got possession of Militsch, and felt, if the kingdom of Poland were independent, the chances were that she [Militsch] would rise also to assert her liberties. This statement is excessively extraordinary. I am quite surprised even that the hon. member for Youghal should have made it. I will tell him what was passing in his mind when, he said so, and what led him to make this statement; for I am at least desirous of giving a rational solution to it as far as I can, under his correction. The fact of which he was probably thinking was this: In 1814, when the issue of the war between Napoleon and the other Powers of Europe was doubtful, a treaty, of which part has been made public, was signed at Reichenbach between Austria, Russia, and Prussia, for the entire partition of Poland between them, in the event of their success against France. The effect of this treaty would have been to extinguish the name of Poland as a separate and independent element of European geography. In 1813, after Napoleon had been repulsed from Russia, and the war had retired to the westward of Germany and of Europe, where shortly after it was brought to a close, discussions took place at Vienna as to what should be done with Poland. Austria called for the execution of the compact, and, with England, demanded that either the Treaty of Reichenbach should be completely carried out, and Poland divided equally into three parts for each of the contracting parties, or that she should be reconstructed and made anew into a substantive state between the three Powers. Russia was of a different opinion, and contended not for the execution of the Treaty of Reichenbach, but for the arrangement which was subsequently carried into effect, namely, that the greater part of Poland was to be made into a kingdom and annexed to her Crown, and that the remaining parts should be divided between the two other states. After a great deal of discussion the Treaty of Reichenbach was set aside, and the arrangements of the Treaty of Vienna were made. I suppose this is what led the hon. member to his statement that Austria would join with us, because in 1814 she was favourable to the re-establishment of Poland as a separate kingdom, as one alternative in contradiction to her partition; for any other ground than this I cannot conceive for his assertion.

If Austria were favourable to the Polish insurrection subsequently, I can only say that it is a fact as unknown to me as was the existence of the four days of danger, and I am inclined to place both assertions on the same foundation. The interest of Austria was in fact quite different; and it was owing to her feeling respecting Poland, that the Russians ultimately succeeded in crushing the insurrection. But then, says the hon. and learned member, you should have accepted the offers of France. I have often argued the question before, and what, I said before I say again. If France had gone to the extent, of proposing to England to join, with her against Russia, this would have been nothing more nor less than the offer of a war in Europe, which, as our great object was to keep down such a war, we should never have thought of accepting. It would have been a war without the chance of anything but a war, for let us look to the position of the kingdom of Poland—let us consider that it was surrounded by Austria, by Russia, and by Prussia, that there was a large Russian army actually in Poland, and that there was a Prussian army on her frontiers—and we shall at once see that at the very first intimation that England was about to take up arms with France for the independence of Poland, the three armies would have fallen on the Poles, the insurrection would have been crushed, the spark of Polish independence extinguished; and all this having been done, the three Powers would have marched their armies to the Rhine, and said: 'We shall now make France and England answer for their conduct.' This course would have been sure to involve the country in a Continental war, for a purpose which would be defeated before the war could be terminated. But, says the hon. member, you have very powerful allies, who would have assisted you. France is a large military power, capable of great efforts. Then you have Sweden, too, burning with desire to break a lance with Russia, on the question of Polish independence. What man in his sober senses, even if Sweden made such a proposition, and were ready to join us against Russia, would not have said, 'For God's sake, remain quiet and do nothing?'

Mr. Anstey: I said, that Sweden was arming her fleet, with the intention of making a demonstration against the Russian provinces in the Baltic; but the noble Lord remonstrated with Sweden for doing so, and induced her to disarm.

Palmerston:Well, there is not much difference between us. I do not think a demonstration by a Swedish fleet on the shores of the Baltic would have been long maintained without a corresponding demonstration of the Russian fleet in Cronstadt, and it is pretty clear which of them would go to the wall; and then we should have had to defend Sweden against Russian attack; and unless we had been prepared to send a large army to her aid, we should have sacrificed her to no purpose. I say, Sir, the man with the interests of Russia most dearly at his heart, could have done nothing better for Russia than stimulate Sweden into a dispute with Russia, by inducing her to make an armed demonstration on her shores, and thus to draw down upon her the vengeance and overwhelming power of that empire. If Sweden had been ready to make such a demonstration with her gunboats on the coast of Russia, and had asked us for our advice, the best thing we could have said would have been, 'Don't do anything half so foolish; we are not prepared to send an army and a fleet to defend you, and don't give Russia a cause to attack you.' But there was another empire burning with desire to join us against Russia.

Turkey, we were told by the hon. and learned member, with 200,000 cavalry, was ready to carry demonstration to the very walls of St. Petersburg—perhaps to carry off the Emperor himself from his throne. What was the state of Turkey then? In 1831 she had engaged in a war with Russia, in which, after two campaigns, her arms were repulsed and driven back into their own empire, so that she was compelled at Adrianople to accept conditions of peace, hard in their nature, and demanding a sacrifice of an important part of her territory, but to which she was advised in friendly counsel by the British Ambassador to submit, for fear of having to endure still worse. We are told that, two or three years after this great disaster, Turkey was of such amazing enterprise and courage, and was furnished with such a wonderful quantity of cavalry, that she was prepared to send 200,000 horse (which she never had in all her life) over the frontiers of Russia, and sweep her territory. Now this is, of all the wild dreams that ever crossed the mind of man, one of the most unlikely and extraordinary. But supposing all this had been true, and that Turkey really was prepared to do all the hon. and learned gentleman said she was, I should have given her just the same advice that I should have offered Sweden under the same circumstances, and should have said, 'Have you not been beaten enough? Are you mad? Do you want the Russians to get Constantinople instead of Adrianople? Will nothing satisfy you? We cannot come and defend you against your powerful neighbour. She is on your frontiers, and do not give her any just cause for attacking you.'

Then the hon. and learned gentleman told us of the Shah of Persia, how the gunboats of Sweden, the troops of Austria, the fine cavalry of Turkey, the magnificent legions of Persia, were ready all to pour in upon Russia in revenge for the injuries which the inhabitants of the Baltic coasts inflicted upon Europe in former centuries, and would have stripped Russia of her finest provinces. Now, what had happened to Persia? In 1827, she had very foolishly and thoughtlessly, against advice, rushed into a conflict with Russia, and had seen herself reduced to make a treaty, not only surrendering important provinces, but giving Russia the advantage of hoisting her flag in the Caspian. She had gone to war with a powerful antagonist, and been compelled to submit to humiliating concessions. Can you suppose that Persia, in that state of things, would have been ready to march against Russia for the sake of assisting Poland? In the disastrous struggle which ensued, Poland was overthrown; the suspension of its constitution followed, and the substitution of what was called the 'organic statute'. The Russian Government pronounced that civil war had abrogated it, and they re-entered Poland as conquerors. I am not asserting the justice of that, but the contrary; we always maintained a different view. I need not remind the House how deep a sympathy the sufferings of Poland excited in this country. Many things have passed in Poland since that time which the British Government greatly regrets, and in respect to which the rights laid down by treaty have been violated. But when we are asked why the British Government have not enforced treaty rights in every case, my answer is, that the only method of enforcing them would have been by methods of hostility; and that I do not think those questions were questions of sufficient magnitude in their bearing on the interests of England, to justify any Government in calling on the people of this country to encounter the burdens and hazards of war for the purpose of maintaining those opinions.

Then comes the question of Cracow. I deny the justice of the reproach which the hon. member has directed against me on that head, of an infraction of the just requirements of good faith. It is perfectly true, that in a discussion in this House we stated our intention of sending a Consul to Cracow; but we were not at that time aware of all the objections entertained to that step by other Powers who had an interest in the question, and who possessed great influence in Cracow. Communications and correspondence took place, not only with them, but with the Cracovian authorities, and we were plainly told, that if our Consul went to Cracow he would not be received. What were we to do under those circumstances? The Government of Cracow, though nominally independent, was practically under the control and protection of the three protecting Powers; and whatever they ordered that Government to do, it was plain they would do. It therefore became the Government to consider whether there really was any cause for the presence of a British Consul at Cracow, which was of sufficient importance to make it worth while to insist on his presence, at the risk of not obtaining the end. We should then have been exposed to an affront from the miserable little Government at Cracow, not acting on its own responsibility, towards whom nothing could have been directed in vindication of the honour of the British Crown; and our only course would have been a rupture with the three Powers, after we had been warned of the rejection of our Consul. Well, then, considering the importance attached in this country, not merely to peace, but to a really good understanding with foreign Powers, wherever there are great interests and powerful motives to amity which would be violated by hostilities, I thought the best course would be to abandon the intention we had entertained, and which we had announced in the discussion in this House. It does not follow, when a Minister announces in Parliament an intention to perform a public act, that it is to be considered like a promise made to an individual, or by one private man to another, and that it is to be made a reproach to him if the intention be not carried out. We are here responsible to the country for the advice we give the Crown. We are responsible for all the consequences which that advice may bring on the country. We are not dealing with our own affairs; it is not a question of what we may do with our private property; but when a Minister finds he cannot do a particular act without compromising the interests of the country, and that these will suffer from his executing his intention, it is his duty to give up that intention, and to consult the interests of the country in preference to every other consideration. That is the history of the Consul who was to have been at Cracow. We have been asked to produce the correspondence relating to the transaction; and I do not know that there would be any particular objection to doing so. It consists of angry notes on one side and the other, and I cannot think we should be promoting a good understanding with, the three Powers by producing it; but as far as concerns its being a record of anything I have done, or have not done, I have no objection.

The hon. member asks for all the correspondence which may have passed from the year 1835 downwards on the subject of the Russian fleet in commission in the Baltic. I do not recollect that any particular communications took place on this subject between the British Government on the one hand, and those of Russia or France on the other. Of course, it is utterly impossible for a Power which, like England, depends mainly for its security on its naval defence, not to watch with attentive anxiety the armaments or the state of naval preparation which from time to time may exist in other great countries. Therefore our attention may, no doubt, have been more or less directed, especially when questions of great difficulty and delicacy have been pending between Russia and England, and a state of mutual distrust to some extent existed, towards the naval footing of Russia both in the Baltic and Black Sea. Of course, also, though I do not particularly recollect the circumstance as having happened in 1835 or 1836, the immense amount of naval preparation in France must always form an element in the consideration of the Government of this country, in taking into account the means which England must possess to maintain its station amongst the empires of the world.

I have now gone through, as far as memory and time permitted, the principal topics on which he touched. It was only last night I was able to put together the observations I have ventured to offer to the House. I have taken them in the order he stated them in the motion of which he gave notice. Upon the general character of my public conduct I can only repeat what I said when last I had the honour to address this House. I can only say, if any one in this House should think fit to make an inquiry into the whole of my political conduct, both as recorded in official documents, or in private letters and correspondence, there is nothing which I would not most willingly submit to the inspection of any reasonable man in this House. I will add, that I am conscious of some of those offences which have been charged against me by the hon. and learned member. I am conscious that, during the time for which I have had the honour to direct the foreign relations of this country I have devoted to them all the energies which I possess. Other men might have acted, no doubt, with more ability—none could have acted with a more entire devotion both of their time and faculties. The principle on which I have thought the foreign affairs of this country ought to be conducted is, the principle of maintaining peace and friendly understanding with all nations, so long as it was possible to do so consistently with a due regard to the interests, the honour, and the dignity of this country. My endeavours have been to preserve peace. All the Governments of which I have had the honour to be a member have succeeded in accomplishing that object. The main charges brought against me are, that I did not involve this country in perpetual quarrels from one end of the globe to the other. There is no country that has been named, from the United States to the empire of China, with respect to which part of the hon. member's charge has not been, that we have refrained from taking steps that might have plunged us into conflict with one or more of these Powers. On these occasions we have been supported by the opinion and approbation of Parliament and the public. We have endeavoured to extend the commercial relations of the country, or to place them where extension was not required, on a firmer basis, and upon a footing of greater security. Surely in that respect we have not judged amiss, nor deserved the censure of the country; on the contrary, I think we have done good service. I hold with respect to alliances, that England is a Power sufficiently strong, sufficiently powerful, to steer her own course, and not to tie herself as an unnecessary appendage to the policy of any other Government. I hold that the real policy of England—apart from questions which involve her own particular interests, political or commercial—is to be the champion of justice and right; pursuing that course with moderation and prudence, not becoming the Quixote of the world, but giving the weight of her moral sanction and support wherever she thinks that justice is, and wherever she thinks that wrong has been done. Sir, in pursuing that course, and in pursuing the more limited direction of our own particular interests, my conviction is, that as long as England keeps herself in the right, as long as she wishes to permit no injustice, as long as she wishes to countenance no wrong, as long as she labours at legislative interests of her own, and as long as she sympathizes with right and justice, she never will find herself altogether alone. She is sure to find some other state, of sufficient power, influence, and weight, to support and aid her in the course she may think fit to pursue. Therefore I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow. When we find other countries marching in the same course, and pursuing the same objects as ourselves, we consider them as our friends, and we think for the moment that we are on the most cordial footing; when we find other countries that take a different view, and thwart us in the object we pursue, it is our duty to make allowance for the different manner in which they may follow out the same objects. It is our duty not to pass too harsh a judgement upon others, because they do not exactly see things in the same light as we see; and it is our duty not lightly to engage this country in the frightful responsibilities of war, because from time to time we may find this or that Power disinclined to concur with us in matters where their opinion and ours may fairly differ. That has been, so far as my faculties have allowed me to act upon it, the guiding principle of my conduct. And if I might be allowed to express in one sentence the principle which I think ought to guide an English Minister, I would adopt the expression of Canning, and say that with every British Minister the interests of England ought to be the shibboleth of his policy.