The history of Poland in the modern era has been characterised by salient vicissitudes: outstanding victories and tragic defeats, soaring optimism and the deepest despair, heroic sacrifice and craven subservience. Underpinning all of these experiences and emotions, however, are the interrelated themes of national freedom, independence and sovereignty, which were sometimes lost, then regained, but never forgotten or abandoned. They, more than anything else, shaped Poland's destiny in the modern era. And if there is one single, fundamental point of reference, then it is unquestionably the Partitions of the eighteenth century which resulted in Poland's disappearance from the map of Europe for well over a century.
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, as the Polish State was constituted since the mid-sixteenth century, was for the next two hundred years one of the largest and most powerful in Europe, occupying a huge swathe of territory stretching from the area around Poznań in the west to far-off Muscovy in the east, and from Livonia in the north to the edge of the Ottoman Empire in the south. Famous kings, such as Stefan Batory (1575-86) and Jan Sobieski III (1674-96), and great landowning families, the Lubomirskis, Radziwiłłs, Zamoyskis, Czartoryskis and the like, played a leading role in moulding the economic, political and social life of the country and bringing it unprecedented international prestige. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, the first unmistakable signs of decline appeared, and were accentuated by the emergence of ambitious and expansionist neighbours in Russia, Prussia and Austria. The balance of power in Central Europe swung towards these increasingly powerful empires, while the Polish Republic grew progressively and conspicuously weaker, culminating in her partition in 1772, 1793 and 1795. Thereafter, the so-called 'Polish Question' became an important item of European diplomacy, at least in the first half of the nineteenth century, only to be resurrected during the course of the First World War.