Austria's Archduke Maximilian jumped at the chance to run Mexico

Folly of the emperor who faced a firing squad: Austria’s Archduke Maximilian jumped at the chance to run Mexico. But his shambolic rule — and an army of ferocious rebels — led to a sticky end

  • Edward Shawcross penned a gripping account of Austrian Archduke Maximilian
  • Maximilian and Carlota were influenced by Napoleon III to sail to Mexico in 1864
  • The Mexican venture was a ‘cataclysmic failure’ ending in Maximilian’s execution



by Edward Shawcross (Faber £20, 336 pp)

How often, when reading a book, one longs to shout at the protagonist: ‘Abandon your hare-brained scheme this instant! Don’t invade that country, marry that person, accept that job, buy that tract of land . . .’

Devouring Edward Shawcross’s gripping book set in the 1860s, I was screaming at the hapless Austrian Archduke Maximilian: ‘Don’t do it! Don’t plonk yourself on the Mexican throne, hoping to pacify and unite that arid, mountainous country crawling with republican guerrillas lurking behind the cacti. It’ll end in disaster and we know you’ll be shot by firing squad in the end, because Manet painted a famous picture of it.’

But Maximilian was enchanted, enraptured by his beautiful dream of sailing to Mexico to be its reforming emperor, and so was his wife, Carlota.

Edward Shawcross has penned a gripping account of Austrian Archduke Maximilian’s attempt to be Mexico’s reforming emperor. Pictured: Manet’s painting of Maximilian’s execution

It was Napoleon III who put the idea into Maximilian and Carlota’s far too-impressionable heads; with the U.S. threatening expansion, it was felt there needed to be an emperor on the throne of Mexico ‘to save from irreparable ruin not only Mexico, but the whole Spanish branch of Latin civilisation in the New World’.

So the momentous decision was made: a monarchy would be established in Mexico, and France would benefit from its mineral wealth. A beguiling prospect!

What made Napoleon III choose Maximilian as the ideal candidate? Three things: he was a Habsburg, a Catholic, and available.

Childless Maximilian and Carlota were at a loose end in Europe, humiliated by Maximilian’s domineering older brother, Emperor Franz Josef of Austria. Deeply flattered by the offer of the Mexican throne, the couple accepted it eagerly.

Off the first French troops sailed to Mexico to pave the way for the triumphal entry of the new monarch. It was clear from the moment the French disembarked that few people in Mexico actually supported the idea of a monarchy.

Two bloody battles against the Juaristas (republicans under the command of Benito Juarez) had to be fought to get hold of the central city of Puebla. This was clearly not going to be a walk in the park.

But, says Shawcross, Maximilian and Carlota felt it was their ‘spiritual destiny’ to be emperor and empress. It just shows the power of the human imagination to dream and persuade.

The couple sailed to Mexico in April 1864, arriving at an eerily quiet Veracruz, the population cowering behind closed doors, suffering from yellow fever.

By now I found myself desperately rooting for this deluded couple and was relieved to read that their entry into Mexico City was happier: triumphal arches, crowds lining the streets, balls and banquets. But if you read the small print, you see that ‘Juarez still held much of the north, west and south of the country’.

Maximilian set about his new role with gusto. Longing to make friends with the population, he rode around the country in Mexican clothing on a horse. But he was useless at doing the main things on his to-do list: getting the country’s finances into order and ridding it of those annoying Juaristas who went around ambushing and torturing.

His and Carlota’s expenditure on their domestic decor ran away with itself, especially when they built a second residence — complete with lush tropical gardens. They ate schnitzel and goulash for breakfast, served by the imperial cooks.

THE LAST EMPEROR OF MEXICO by Edward Shawcross (Faber £20, 336 pp)

The country’s treasury was soon empty, and Maximilian wrote to ask Napoleon III for more money and more soldiers to help them win the war with the Juaristas.

‘No,’ came the answer. Two years in, Napoleon III had gone cold on the project. Seeing the financial and military chaos, he said he would withdraw his French troops from Mexico, and advised Maximilian to abdicate.

Carlota was furious and travelled to Rome to plead with the Pope, who was evasive, reducing her to a screaming, paranoid nervous breakdown.

‘Get out while you can!’ I shouted to Maximilian, but his advisers pointed out that abdication would be ‘ignominious flight’, not worthy of a Habsburg.

‘And suddenly,’ Shawcross writes (he’s an eloquent writer, good at showing both sides of an argument), ‘life in Mexico seemed preferable to that of an exiled, failed, humiliated emperor living as a dilettante in Europe.’

So Maximilian stayed, vowing to continue his reign without the French support. All too soon he found himself under siege from the Juaristas, and his small army surrendered after a few weeks.

His room in a convent became a prison cell, flanked by his supporters, Miramon and Mejia.

After a short trial in June 1867, at which Maximilian did not appear as he was suffering from dysentery, the three were sentenced to death by firing squad.

Maximilian wrote his final letter to Carlota. The last act of his life, on a cloudless morning, was to pay the executioners to aim straight at his heart.

The Mexican venture had been a ‘cataclysmic failure’, Shawcross writes in his epilogue to this fascinating story. It merely unleashed more violence and further impoverished Mexico.

Carlota lived on in Belgium for a further 60 years, veering from lucidity to moments when she lost all reason. One day, she was seen at the piano softly playing the Mexican national anthem.

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