The entire territory of the Polish Commonwealth was divided up by its neighbors in a series of partitions that occurred in 1772, 1793, and 1795. As a result of the first partition, the southern area of Poland that is commonly designated as Galicia came under Austrian rule, and it was in the eastern part of this region that Aleksander Fredro was born on June 20, 1793. His birth took place in a manor house of a country estate belonging to his family that was located at Surochów, near Jarosaw. His parents, Jacek and Maria Fredro, had a total of nine offspring, six of whom were boys. Among these were two older brothers, Maksymilian and Seweryn, who were to exert a strong influence on their younger sibling. Aleksander’s father, for his part, was a prosperous member of the landowning gentry, who managed to obtain the hereditary title of count from the Austrian regime, chiefly by virtue of a talent for business that enabled him to accumulate a vast personal fortune through the purchase of other estates. Aleksander received the conventional education befitting the son of a country squire on the family estate of Bekowa Wisznia near Lwów, a city of forty thousand inhabitants that served as the capital of Galicia. On the death of his mother in 1806, Aleksander’s family took up residence in Lwów proper. The fourteen-year-old boy was also concurrently deprived of the company of both older brothers, for it was decided to enhance their education by having them serve at the court of a powerful Galician magnate named Adam Czartoryski.
When Fredro was coming of age, the greater part of the Polish gentry came to believe that Napoleon Bonaparte represented the best hope for the restoration of Poland’s independence. All three occupying powers—Russia, Prussia, and Austria—were united in a continental coalition whose aim it was to thwart the political ambitions of the French emperor. In order to exploit Polish money and manpower on behalf of his military ventures, Napoleon held out the prospect of national restoration as a reward for services rendered to his cause. Shortly after inflicting a crushing defeat on the Prussians at Jena in 1806, Napoleon set up a modest political entity known as the Duchy of Warsaw, consisting of those areas that Prussia had annexed during the partitions of 1793 and 1795. The Polish army itself was then reconstituted under the command of Prince Józef Poniatowski, a nephew of the last king of Poland. Owing to another overwhelming French victory over Austrian forces at Wagram in 1809, the territory of the Duchy was subsequently expanded to include the area that was occupied by Austria in 1795. As soon as Poniatowski’s men marched into Galicia in support of the French, both Maksymilian and Seweryn decided to enlist. Fredro, though only a teenager, was quick to follow the example set by his older brothers and he, too, became a member of Poniatowski’s army. Within a few months, Fredro was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in an elite cavalry unit. After two further years of service, moreover, he rose to the rank of captain. During this same period, he also led an active social life and cut a gallant figure in many a fashionable salon in the district of Lublin, where he was stationed.
The course of Fredro’s life altered abruptly when, in the spring of 1812, Napoleon launched a grandiose military operation against Russia for the purpose of coercing Czar Alexander to join a continental alliance in opposition to England. The move to attack the czar met with enthusiastic approbation from a majority of the Polish gentry, for they envisioned the recovery of the Russian-occupied eastern provinces in the aftermath of a French victory. Poland contributed 100,000 men to the multinational army of 500,000 men that crossed the Russian frontier: All but 20,000 of the Poles were destined to perish during the ill-fated campaign against the forces of the czar. Although most Polish soldiers were assigned to multinational units of the invasion force, Prince Poniatowski was given command of an exclusively national contingent of 35,000 men that was designated as the Fifth...
(The entire section is 1673 words.)