Adam Zomoyski starts his book by noting that there’s no truly adequate biography of King Stanisław II Poniatowski in any language, and his doesn’t measure up either. He figures Stanisław deserves two fairly large volumes to trace down every tangent related to his life. It would be a thoroughly scholarly work, and I doubt I’d read it, but after reading the book he did write, I can understand the desire.

Zamoyski paints a very positive picture of Stanisław, and while he not hide his problems he does not dwell on them either. As Poland pre-deceased him, it should be obvious that Stanisław has come in for a lot criticism and finger-pointing over the centuries. Unlike a lot of assessments of Stanisław (mostly starting right after the fact), Zamoyski generally celebrates his life and accomplishments. And there’s a lot to admire; he was obviously a very intelligent man, who on several occasions took effective control of councils or parties designed to limit his power. An Enlightenment idealist, he managed to get elected King of Poland and start reforms while being pragmatic about what could actually be accomplished inside of Poland’s delicate situation in the 18th Century.

And as in any good tragedy, these positive qualities are at the center of his problems. Zamoyski shows how he constantly wavered between his pragmatic and idealist impulses, eventually getting swept up in the Great Sejm and drafting up the constitution which led to the final partitions of Poland. He does not discuss the fact his ability to change position, and re-align with which way the wind was blowing also probably caused a fair amount of trouble, as it would be harder to trust him; and yet there was often little choice, as his actual authority was low. Similarly, he showed an interest in all sorts of pursuits (very much a Renaissance Man), and spent a great deal of energy diverting himself between all of them, and I wonder if more may have been accomplished with better focus.

Stanisław was not a military leader, and the couple of wars that occurred in his reign are not covered in any major detail. Poland’s military had been kept purposefully weak, and had to build up the army in a hurry after the new constitution. Given the challenges, it seems have performed well in the Polish–Russian War of 1792, and I’d like to see more about that.

An unfortunate final note is that my copy is a scan-and-OCR Kindle edition of an early 90’s work, and it shows. The early part of the book is in very good shape, but as often happens, the cleanup of the text slowly degrades through the course of the book. Mostly, the problems are more minor than usual (a number of extraneous periods), but a number of ‘e’s have become ‘c’s, and very late in errors like “l)evichy” (Devichy) occur. This is a shame, as the text deserves better.