Ferdinand Maximilian

Ferdinand Maximilian, would-be emperor of Mexico

Would-be emperor of Mexico

Doomed Hapsburg emperor of Mexico

Edward Shawcross

The Austrian emperor Franz Joseph didn’t have much luck with family. His nephew, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in 1914, triggering a catastrophic world war that led to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In 1898, Franz Joseph’s wife, Elisabeth, was also assassinated, while the couple’s son, Rudolf, died in a mysterious suicide pact in 1889, along with his 17-year-old mistress. It was, however, the death of Franz Joseph’s younger brother, Ferdinand Maximilian, which was the most bizarre.

On 19 June 1867, Maximilian was executed by firing squad on a dusty hilltop overlooking the provincial Mexican city of Querétaro. His final days had been spent imprisoned in a convent – sick, emaciated, and separated from friends and family – as he awaited trial for treason. 

How he ended up there is a remarkable story, which a leading French politician at the time called “a madness without parallel since Don Quixote”. In 1861, a group of Mexicans – exiled in Paris after their side’s defeat in a civil war – managed to convince the French emperor Napoleon III, one of the most powerful men in the world, to back an outrageous scheme: regime change in Mexico. With the military might of France behind them, the exiles claimed, they could overthrow the Mexican republic and replace it with a monarchy sympathetic to European interests. 

Maximilian was the ideal candidate to sit on this imaginary throne. Catholic, aristocratic, and deeply frustrated at playing a subordinate role to his older brother, he was convinced that he was born to rule.

So was his wife. Belgian Princess Charlotte – better known to history as Carlota – was intelligent, determined and fiercely ambitious. But as a woman in the nineteenth century she needed a husband to play a political role; when the tall, striking and charismatic Maximilian swept into the Belgian court she was instantly charmed. The two married a few months later. 

Jealous of his younger brother’s popularity, Franz Joseph ensured Maximilian had no meaningful role in the Austrian empire. Instead, Maximilian channelled his energies into constructing a fairy-tale castle looking out over the Adriatic.

But it was not enough for Carlota, who saw endless boredom stretching ahead of them, staring out to sea until they died of old age. So, when the Mexican exiles offered Maximilian the crown in 1861, power and glory across the Atlantic seemed like the perfect solution.

It wasn’t. The exiles painted their opponents as a radical atheist minority who oppressed the Catholic people of Mexico. In reality, the leaders of the Mexican republic were national heroes, especially President Benito Juárez. A lawyer by training, this popular politician had led his supporters to victory in civil war, and now stood ready to resist the French invasion. 

When the French arrived in Mexico, few rallied to the monarchist cause. Juárez’s Republican forces defeated the French army on 5 May 1862, a victory today celebrated as “Cinco de Mayo”. The French emperor sent reinforcements.

Yet it was not until June 1863 that these soldiers occupied Mexico City, installing a puppet government that called Maximilian to rule as emperor – supposedly in the name of the Mexican people. Juárez was still undefeated, merely retreating into the vastness of Mexico.

When Maximilian and Carlota arrived in May 1864, therefore, they found their kingdom in the midst of guerrilla conflict. Worse, as the United States emerged from its own civil war in April 1865, it offered help to its sister republic.

By the end of the year, US diplomats made it clear to Napoleon III that, unless he withdrew, it would be war with the United States. Faced with the choice between a catastrophic conflict or a humiliating climbdown, Napoleon III chose the latter. 

When Maximilian learned that French troops were leaving Mexico, he decided to abdicate. Carlota was furious, telling her husband that to run away was cowardice. She would go to Paris and change the French emperor’s mind. 

She failed. Her last hope was to convince the Pope to back Maximilian, but the pressure of the mission was too much. She suffered a mental breakdown, sobbing uncontrollably in the corridors of the Vatican. She never recovered. 

In October 1866 when Maximilian heard of his wife’s condition, he resolved once again to abdicate. “I came here more on her account than on my own, and I have no ambition to continue alone,” he told a confidant. But he was once more talked out of leaving, this time by his Mexican supporters, who were determined to continue their struggle against Juárez.

So it was that Maximilian set out from Mexico City on 13 February 1867 with only 1,500 men to defend what was left of his empire. Taking personal command of the army, and under constant guerrilla attack, he fought his way through to the city of Querétaro some 130 miles north-west of the capital. After a two-month siege, the emperor was betrayed by one of his officers. Maximilian was captured, court-martialled and executed.

In his final weeks Maximilian had become obsessed with his reputation, adding a clause to his will stating who should write the history of his reign. 

It would have surprised him to learn, therefore, that outside Mexico he is barely remembered at all. Indeed, were it not for The Execution of Maximilian, Édouard Manet’s famous painting, the Habsburg archduke who once governed an empire across the Atlantic would be little more than a footnote, his ephemeral kingdom all but forgotten.

Perhaps this would be preferable to how he’s remembered today in Mexico, where he’s frequently portrayed as an incompetent ruler, a man who preferred butterfly-hunting to making tough decisions, and who frittered away his small treasury on outrageous luxuries.

While Mexico burned, so this version of events goes, Maximilian and Carlota organised lavish balls, well-lubricated with champagne (one advantage of heading a French-backed regime), where orchestras played Strauss as the commanders of the French army danced the night away with conservative members of Mexican high society. 

But this reputation is unfair. For one thing, Maximilian hated balls – a standard of nineteenth-century life in monarchies or republics – but more importantly he was far from incompetent.

In Austria he had been a successful commander-in-chief of the navy, modernising a ramshackle fleet into an effective fighting force, and had championed science, commissioning the first Austrian ship to circumnavigate the globe. In Mexico, he attracted a cadre of fiercely loyal Mexican supporters, impressed with his vision for the nation’s future. 

Moreover, while it’s true that the Mexicans who offered him the crown were conservatives, Maximilian himself was a liberal. His supporters expected him to overturn Juárez’ progressive reforms, but Maximilian confirmed them. Charismatic in person, he won over many of Juárez’s supporters, who served him in the highest positions. 

But for many Maximilian would be detested no matter how liberal or well-meaning, because his regime was the product of foreign intervention. To keep him in power, the French troops resorted to vicious counter-insurgency tactics.

Maximilian frequently intervened to prevent the worst abuses of the French military, but his clemency did little to make up for violent acts committed in his name. As one French officer wrote (to his niece, no less): “I have waged an atrocious war.” He continued, “If I were Mexican, what hatred I would have for these French, and how much I would make them suffer.” Much of the blame for what happened in Mexico lies with the man who launched this intervention, Napoleon III.

Maximilian was obsessed with honour as well as his place in history. This is what kept him in Mexico when he could have abdicated and returned to Europe. It was, he argued, dishonourable to abandon his post.

Today, this seems hard to justify, but Maximilian did not have a twenty-first century understanding of honour. In fact, he had the same conception of it as his brother, Franz Joseph. In 1914 when the octogenarian emperor plunged his people into what became the First World War, his words were reminiscent of his younger brother: “If we must perish, we should do so with honour.”

Edward Shawcross is the author of  “The Last Emperor of Mexico: A Disaster in the New World” published by Faber & Faber

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