Edmund Burke, Poland, and the Commonwealth of Europe

Plassart, Anna (2020). Edmund Burke, Poland, and the Commonwealth of Europe. The Historical Journal, 63(4) pp. 885–910.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0018246X2000014X


This article re-examines Burke's doctrine of intervention by analysing his decades-long interest in the ‘Polish question’. Contrary to the main thrust of existing scholarship, it argues that the French Revolution did not fundamentally transform Burke's assessment of the European state system. Rather, Burke's most famous and controversial 1790s positions on the topic were rehearsed in the previous decades through his practical engagement in long-running eighteenth-century discussions about the Polish state, which acted as a lightning rod for disagreements surrounding the nature and future of European politics. Burke was interested in the Polish state because it raised fundamental questions about the nature of European civilization, the rules of progress, and the conditions for long-lasting peace. The Polish crisis of 1772 led him to reflect on the relationship between internal and external politics, and crystallized his analysis of the Balance of Power as not only the guarantor of continental peace, but also as the very source of the unique ‘spirit’ of European civil society. It was this same framework of analysis that he applied to France in the 1790s, to argue that the expansionist ambitions inherent to democratic republicanism warranted intervention because they threatened the unique nature of European civilization.

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