BOOK REVIEW / Elected king provides bones of contention: 'The Last King of Poland' - Adam Zamoyski: Cape, 25 pounds

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UNDER A DUSTSHEET in the back regions of the Royal Castle at Warsaw there is a coffin. It contains some buttons, a scrap of embroidered cloak and a few fragments of bone. This is all that remains of Stanislaw August Poniatowski (1732-1798), the last King of Poland. A duller nation would long ago have given these relics a respectful burial. The Poles, however, cannot agree what to do with them. Adam Zamoyski, the king's biographer, thinks this scandalous. I find it magnificent.

For some Polish historians, Stanislaw August was Poland's greatest king, ruined by the selfishness of nobles too stupid to understand that a country wedged between Germans and Russians must compromise to survive. For others, he was a cowardly weakling who sold his country to the enemy when he should have fought. Adam Zamoyski, as the London- based scion of one of the great families who dominated Polish history, has tried to stand back and give the evidence a chance to be heard. Intelligent, impressively researched, beautifully written, his biography comes down on the side of the king.

Stanislaw August was a thoroughly European young man, well known in Paris and London. Soon he was admired in St Petersburg as well; he was a secretary in the British Embassy when he started a vigorous and at first happy affair with the Grand Duchess Catherine, soon to become Empress Catherine II. It was Catherine's influence which got him elected King of Poland in 1763, ruler of the decayed old Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania.

Poland's kings were not hereditary but elected, by a vast assembly of the aristocracy (szlachta). Through the Sejm (parliament), this estate dominated the land in the name of its own conceptions of patriotism and liberty, which meant in practice an endless clash of factions scheming to preserve aristocratic privilege. Stanislaw August set out to modernise Poland. He wanted to open the country to Enlightenment culture and science, to create a rational constitution and to raise the Crown above politics into 'the embodiment of the State'.

He thought Catherine would understand. But she soon betrayed him. She preferred her Poland weak. Soon her ambassador, in the traditional Russian manner, was threatening to slaughter the population and arrest the Sejm's leaders. Stanislaw August compromised. This in turn outraged the szlachta, and rebellion broke out in 1768. The rebels declared Stanislaw August a tyrant; the Russians blamed him for not repressing them. In 1772 Prussia, Russia and Austria seized Polish territory in the First Partition.

Now began the second betrayal - that of the Western intellectuals who had given this enlightened prince a good press. Voltaire, sucking up to Frederick the Great, sneered at Poland's 'gothico-slavonico- romano-sarmatique' backwardness. But the king did not give up. Forced to accept the partition, he struggled ahead with reform. Warsaw was rebuilt, the middle class was encouraged, a sort of stable cabinet government instituted.

But this seemed dull stuff to some Poles. The third betrayal was at hand. The great faction known as the Familia, on which Stanislaw August had relied, caught the romantic Paris flu: down with classicism, up with republican ideas and the peasantry. The land boiled with anti-Russian fervour. Stanislaw August's reform ideas were embodied in the immortal Constitution of the Third of May (1791), but he had to watch the Sejm demand the removal of Russian troops and throw the Russian ambassador's chair into the street.

Doom followed. Russia, faced with the menace of democracy and progress on her doorstep, acted as she was to act in future centuries. A puppet committee of 'patriots' was set up, while 97,000 Russian soldiers surged over the frontier. The Poles fought alone, Prussia refusing to honour promises to help. Catherine offered to preserve Poland if the king would drop the Constitution and surrender. He did so, but she promptly partitioned Poland again. Insurrection burst out, with Stanislaw August helpless to stop it, and in 1795 the Third Partition wiped Poland off the map for 123 years.

I have never read a book which shows the irony of history more clearly. Zamoyski, with scrupulous humanity and fairness, reveals that the king's reform project fatally widened the weaknesses in Polish society. But the myth afterwards was that a vigorous, youthful new state was about to enter Europe when its monarch betrayed it. That was quite false. And yet the myth gave the Poles confidence to endure the next century and emerge - in 1989 - into promising liberty and independence. If the price was to dishonour the last king's bones, perhaps he would not have minded paying it.