On 8 April 1864 an Austrian archduke with a penchant for daydreaming agreed to be emperor of Mexico. As Edward Shawcross describes in his majestic history The Last Emperor of Mexico, the process to install Maximilian of Habsburg began two and half years earlier. The plan was proposed by a determined clique of Mexican Conservatives and developed by Napoleon III, the scheming emperor of France.
The Conservatives, who had just lost a four-year civil war, wanted to repeal the Liberal constitution that confiscated the assets and privileges of the Catholic church. They saw Maximilian as a symbol of the imperial family that had brought the faith to Mexico. Napoleon III, who wanted to expand French influence and trade, saw a potential puppet.
Maximilian was both those things, but also a sophisticated, enterprising and enlightened modern ruler. As governor of Lombardy-Venetia, he had earned a reputation as a patron of the arts and a social reformer. He was sacked by his older brother Franz Joseph after refusing to crack down on dissenters. Having been out of work since leaving Lombardy-Venetia in 1859, Maximilian and his Belgian consort Carlota saw the Mexican throne as the opportunity of a lifetime.
Aware of Mexico’s instability and the prospect of US intervention to eject a European monarchy, Maximilian imposed two conditions: a military alliance with Britain and a popular mandate in Mexico. Over the course of his two-and-a-half-year deliberations, he fudged on both. He was also wilfully misled. French officials in Mexico, sent to pacify the country before the emperor’s arrival, dispatched dodgy polling data, and Napoleon III assured Maximilian that although Britain would not sign a formal treaty, her approval was secure. With the US at war with itself, Maximilian decided his once-rigid terms could be met later.
The new emperor landed in May 1864, and soon discovered his authority was only recognised in central Mexico. Despite the French invasion, the hinterland remained loyal to the Liberal president Benito Juárez. What’s more, the state was weak and its coffers empty. But instead of consolidating his empire and strengthening the public purse, Maximilian prioritised importing silk tapestries and Venetian chandeliers.
When he finally got around to politics, he enraged the Conservatives by retaining most of the Liberal constitution. He championed indigenous culture, swapped Habsburg finery for a sombrero, and passed what Shawcross calls ‘some of the most progressive laws anywhere in the world’. Horrified that Maximilian was proving at least as liberal as Juárez, the Conservatives withdrew their support.
But Juárez still saw Maximilian as an invader. And when the American Civil War ended in April 1865, his beleaguered army was revived by Uncle Sam’s soldiers, money and state-of-the-art weaponry. Still worse news came for Maximilian in January the following year when Napoleon, squeezed by public opinion in France, revealed that he’d withdraw his troops. In July, armed with his beseeching letters to Maximilian from 1864, Carlota sailed to France in the hope of changing Napoleon’s mind. ‘What, indeed, would you think of me,’ Napoleon had written, ‘if, once Your Imperial Majesty had arrived in Mexico, I were to say that I can no longer fulfil the conditions to which I have set my signature.’ But Carlota was snubbed. She called Napoleon the Antichrist, and suffered a mental breakdown.
Maximilian considered abdication and flight. But just as he had dithered over going to Mexico in the first place, he dithered over leaving it. Facing the Liberal advance, he re-allied with the Conservatives, who promised him thousands of new troops. Few materialised.
With Juárez’s forces approaching from both the south and the north, the emperor who had only ever commanded toy soldiers was forced to lead a rump of the Conservative army. As a general, he proved calm, courageous and carefree under fire, refusing to take cover and stopping to admire ‘the most beautiful butterflies’.
Besieged in the city of Querétaro, Maximilian was betrayed by a Mexican colonel. The Liberals stormed the defences and took him captive, pending a court martial. Still he could have escaped. A Prussian aristocrat in his circle bribed guards and secured horses. The plan was set, when Maximilian — who refused to shave his meticulously parted beard — postponed the escape on grounds of good manners. Having learned that some bureaucrats were on their way to Querétaro, he exclaimed: ‘What would the ministers, whom I invited here, say if they arrived and did not find me!’ The following day, the guards were changed. Two weeks later, Juárez had Maximilian shot by firing squad.
Readers may be familiar with some aspects of Maximilian’s story, perhaps from Manet’s painting, but Shawcross’s vivid details turn the emperor into a character as ornate as the silk tapestries he imported. Such attention to the minutiae — including Maximilian’s hunt for rare larvae — makes his demise all the more heartrending.
Some of the book’s sentences are clumsily worded, but most are crafted with Habsburgian splendour. And so well-paced is the narrative that even the most pedantic reader will not be deterred by the occasional erratic spelling. Shawcross’s protagonist was a truly tragic character. As the author writes: ‘When confronted with a choice — to take the throne, to abdicate or to escape — the question for Maximilian was always whether it was honourable.’
It’s hard not to see Maximilian’s concern for honour — and his story as a whole — through the prism of his august family. Broad-minded though he was, like all Habsburgs he believed he was born to rule.
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