On May 21, 1864, the Santa Fe Gazette carried a story from the Washington, D.C., National Intelligencer reporting on congressional deliberations on a resolution condemning the establishment of a monarchy in Mexico. Ohio congressman Samuel S. Cox commented that it was late for words and that Congress should be prepared to act, since it was known that Maximilian, “who is called the arch Dupe of Louis Napoléon,” is on his way to this continent.

Reading M.M. McAllen’s new account of the Second Mexican Empire of Maximilian of Habsburg and his wife, Carlota of Belgium, is a little like reading about the sinking of the Titanic: we know it ends badly. While there are no surprises on the last page, McAllen’s book offers a fascinating and meticulously researched glimpse at Maximilian’s doomed empire (1864-1867). Maximilian of Habsburg was convinced to take the throne of a newly formed Second Mexican Empire by the French emperor Napoléon III. But Mexico already had a president, Benito Juárez, whose Republican army fought Maximilian and the invading French for three years before defeating and executing him on June 19, 1867. Carlota became unhinged in the aftermath.

The tragedy of Maximilian and Carlota and the French intervention in Mexico has long been a subject of public fascination. If you like to drink margaritas on Cinco de Mayo, in a way you are celebrating the downfall of Maximilian, since the holiday commemorates Mexico’s defeat of the French at the Battle of Puebla, on May 5, 1862. Beginning just after Maximilian’s death, French painter Édouard Manet made a series of images of his execution, which he could not exhibit in Paris until after the fall of Napoléon III, since the subject matter could easily have been taken as a critique of the emperor. And we cannot forget William Dieterle’s film Juarez (1939), with Paul Muni as the embattled Mexican leader, Brian Aherne as Maximilian, and Bette Davis as Carlota. John Huston’s screenplay for the Dieterle film was based on Bertita Harding’s The Phantom Crown (1934) and on the play Juarez and Maximilian by Franz Werfel (1925). More recently, in 2006, the Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition of the Manet paintings and related works and photographs, and last year Rafa Lara directed a film about the Cinco de Mayo battle.

McAllen begins her story on May 28, 1864, when the Austrian imperial frigate Novara arrived at the port of Veracruz, bearing the 31-year-old Austrian archduke Maximilian of Habsburg and his 23-year-old wife, Princess Charlotte of Belgium, known forever after in Mexico as Carlota. A retinue of more than 80 courtiers and hundreds of cases of luggage accompanied the couple when they disembarked the next morning. In what was later interpreted as an ill omen, there was no large welcoming party, and one of Carlota’s ladies-in-waiting described the reception as “chilling.” Mexican and French soldiers escorted the entourage through the mostly empty streets of Veracruz to a narrow-gauge railway that would convey them up into the cooler and healthier highlands of Mexico. The main reason so few Mexicans turned out to welcome their new emperor was because there was much less support for the regime than Maximilian had been led to believe, and Juárez’s Republican forces still controlled large parts of the country.

Maximilian was the younger brother of Austrian emperor Franz Josef I, who ruled from 1848 to 1916. Carlota was the daughter of the Belgian king Leopold I and first cousin to Britain’s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Maximilian faced the dilemma common to younger siblings of kings and queens: What to do? He had a career in the Austrian navy and in 1857 was named viceroy of the kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, but he served in this post for only two years because his brother disapproved of his liberal policies. Relations between the men were often strained. Maximilian then settled near Trieste, Italy, and built a castle there called Miramar.

The idea for a Second Mexican Empire germinated from an unusual set of circumstances in both Europe and the Americas. Maximilian’s regime was preceded decades earlier by the First Mexican Empire, when Agustín de Iturbide ruled the country for just 10 months in 1822-1823. Fast-forward to 1861, when newly elected President Juárez decided that his administration could not be held responsible for the foreign debt his predecessors owed to France, Britain, and Spain. By December ships from all three creditor nations had appeared in the port of Veracruz, determined to make Mexico pay. But the Spanish and British forces left when they learned that Napoléon III had planned a full-scale invasion, with the intent of gaining access to Mexican resources, especially silver. Napoléon wagered, correctly at least at first, that the United States could not respond to a European army in the Western Hemisphere — a clear violation of the Monroe Doctrine — because of the Civil War. It was during the French invasion in 1862 that Juárez’s Mexican troops defeated the foreigners at Puebla on Cinco de Mayo. But the French simply regrouped. With reinforcements — eventually 50,000 troops fought for Napoléon III in Mexico — they had taken control of central Mexico and key ports by the beginning of 1864. As early as October 1861, Mexican conservatives, enemies of Juárez, had approached Maximilian to offer him the throne of Mexico. A deal was brokered with Napoléon: he would provide troops and loans to support the regime until Maximilian could reorganize the Mexican army. When Maximilian told Napoléon that he would accept the throne only if the people voted in his favor, the French generals conducted a fraudulent plebiscite. 

So when Maximilian and Carlota arrived in Veracruz in May 1864, not only were they not welcomed by everyone, but the country was only partly pacified by French troops. Juárez and his Republican forces waged a constant guerrilla war against the occupying army. In short, the young couple let themselves be taken by Napoléon III. In Mexico City, Maximilian and Carlota were not unpopular. They gave lavish balls, went to Mass, and played the part of benevolent monarchs. And they renovated Chapultepec Castle as their official residence. But the issues that faced Maximilian when he arrived in Mexico only grew more intractable. He never had control of the French army, whose generals reported to Napoléon. And even with thousands of foreign troops on Mexican soil, large sections of the country continued to be controlled by Juárez. Also, there was never enough money to run the empire properly, particularly since the French were taking significant percentages of customs duties at ports to repay loans made to Maximilian.

When the Civil War ended in April 1865, the U.S. government began to pressure Napoléon to withdraw his forces from Mexico. At the same time, the United States began to arm Juárez’s Republican armies. One of the key figures in funneling arms and cash to Juárez was General Lew Wallace, who would be New Mexico’s territorial governor a few years later (1878-1881). A flood of defeated Confederate soldiers crossed the border into Mexico to enlist as Republican mercenaries. In 1866 Napoléon reneged on his promises to keep French troops in Mexico, spelling doom for Maximilian. From that point forward, it was only a matter of time until the empire collapsed. Carlota left for Europe in late 1866 to plead their case before Napoléon. She never saw Maximilian again and never returned to Mexico. Napoléon refused to help them any further. The Mexican intervention was increasingly unpopular in Paris, and French troops were needed to meet the growing threat of war with Prussia. Neither would Pope Pius IX intervene on Maximilian’s behalf. In Rome Carlota became frantic and suffered a mental breakdown from which she never really recovered.

It is a historical irony that Maximilian and Juárez actually shared many beliefs about how modern countries should be governed. The Austrian considered himself a liberal and agreed with many of the principles of Mexico’s reform laws of the 1850s. He refused to restore the vast properties of the Catholic Church that had been nationalized before he arrived. Maximilian thus infuriated Mexican conservatives, who thought that he would immediately restore church property and influence. The last French troops left Mexico City on February 5, 1867, leaving Maximilian with a weak Mexican imperial army and only a few thousand Belgian and Austrian troops. Many prominent conservatives and former supporters of the empire also left for Europe. Maximilian considered abdicating during these months, and a ship was waiting for him in Veracruz. But he was convinced that he could not live with the failure. Nor would he be living up to the honor of his family. In mid-February Maximilian decided to meet the Republican troops at Querétaro, which was still under his control. Juárez’s Republican army besieged Querétaro for three months, outnumbering the Imperialistas three to one. Maximilian expected reinforcements, but they never arrived.

On May 15, 1867, Maximilian was betrayed by one of his officers, who opened the gates of their compound to Republican soldiers. Maximilian and his two chief generals were prosecuted based upon an 1862 law that prescribed death for anyone who took up arms against Mexico. The three men were quickly convicted and sentenced to die that afternoon. Juárez, who was 100 miles away in San Luis Potosí, allowed a stay of one day. The next morning the men were taken to the nearby Cerro de la Campana and shot by firing squad. Maximilian’s last words were “¡Viva México!” His remains were embalmed and returned to Europe on the same ship that had conveyed the imperial couple to Mexico three years earlier. He is buried in the Kaisergruft, or Imperial Crypt, in the Capuchin Church in Vienna, with about 150 of his family members. When I visited the crypt in 2012, Maximilian’s was one the few sarcophagi bearing flowers and memorials from visitors. Someone had left a Mexican flag and a note quoting the onetime ruler’s last, defiant exclamation.

An interview with M.M. McAllen

Pasatiempo: How did you first become interested in Maximilian and Carlota?

M.M. McAllen: My uncle was the Mexican minister of aviation. We had family in Cuernavaca, outside Mexico City. We traveled there frequently from when I was a child. People in Cuernavaca talked about Maximilian and Carlota all the time, as if they had just died. We visited the Borda Gardens, which Maximilian renovated as a retreat and where he spent more and more time. One day I was in a gallery in New York and bought a photograph of Maximilian in his coffin, taken by the French photographer [François] Aubert on the day of the emperor’s execution in 1867. I could not find a good recent book on Maximilian, in either English or Spanish, and I decided to write my own account of their lives in Mexico.

Pasa: Isn’t it in Cuernavaca where Maximilian famously caught butterflies instead of attending to his crumbling empire?

McAllen: Yes, Maximilian’s “botanizing” and collecting butterflies was recorded by many sources close to him, including Carlota herself.

Pasa: There are many Maximilian and Carlota fanatics, and as you say, every week someone offers to sell you artifacts associated with their court. But why do you think general readers should find their story compelling?

McAllen: The history of the French intervention and the Second Mexican Empire is the other side of the U.S. Civil War. After the Confederate surrender, the Union general Philip Sheridan commented that the Civil War would never be over until the French were out of Mexico. Sheridan missed the parade celebrating the end of the Civil War because President Andrew Johnson sent him and 50,000 U.S. troops to Mexico, where they waited off the port of Veracruz, ensuring that the French really were leaving.

Pasa: Juárez refused to spare Maximilian’s life, in spite of great international pressure, from the U.S., as well as from what seems like every royal head of state in Europe. Is Juárez the villain of this story?

McAllen: Maximilian was the victim of both Mexico and France. But Juárez knew that in order to regain his power base in Mexico, he needed the military, and the generals wanted Maximilian dead. In the long run, the Maximilian episode convinced Mexicans that their country was not a failed state. Between Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821 and Juárez’s election as president in 1858, the country had 54 governments. ◀

M.M. McAllen’s “Maximilian and Carlota: Europe’s Last Empire in Mexico” was published by Trinity University Press in 2014.