The improbable, disastrous reign of a young archduke — and how it ended in madness and death

Maximilian in 1853, before he became emperor, in his Austrian uniform (Wikimedia Commons)

The nineteenth century was full of ridiculous European imperial schemes, but there may not be any quite as weird as the three years when a 30-year-old Austrian archduke ruled as the emperor of French Mexico between 1864 and 1867.

Like much of Latin America, Mexico had achieved independence from Spain in the 1820s. Also like many of its neighbors, after independence, it had not become quite as, well, independent as many Mexicans had hoped. The country found itself the target of various forms of imperialism. Some were direct — the United States seized California, Arizona, Texas, and other southwestern states in the 1840s — and others were more subtle, as foreigners gained control over many of the country’s economic assets.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Mexico found itself riven by political conflict, diminished in size, and deeply in debt to European creditors. A civil war, the War of Reform of 1857–1860 (largely over the role of the Catholic Church in Mexican society), exposed the political fault lines in the country and weakened it against outside intervention.

The scheme

European countries, who in those years were constantly on the lookout for vulnerable parts of the globe that they could exploit, quickly pounced on Mexico’s vulnerability. Their pretext was that Mexico’s liberal government had failed (or simply refused) to pay back its debts to European creditors.

So, in 1861, France, Britain, and Spain landed troops in Veracruz to punish the Mexican government and demand repayment. It soon became clear that there was a more complex and harebrained scheme afoot. Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon and the current emperor of France, was not just planning to launch a little expedition to punish Mexico. He meant to conquer it — he envisioned this as part of a resurgence of French power around the globe. When they figured this out, the British and Spanish abandoned the war, but Napoleon pressed on. The French allied themselves with conservative Mexican aristocrats, waged a three-year war of conquest — killing 50,000 people — and, in the end, defeated the liberal government of Benito Juarez, which fled to the state of Chihuahua.

Now that France had conquered most of Mexico, the question was: who should rule it? It seems that Napoleon didn’t have much faith in his own family members, so he looked for the next best thing — a super-Catholic, conservative European politician. Somebody from an important family who didn’t have a path to power in his own country. A person who had a sense of adventure, who might roll the dice on this Mexican adventure.

Napoleon found his man in a young Austrian archduke. He was the 31-year-old younger brother of Holy Roman Emperor Franz Joseph I. As the sixth-oldest sibling in his family, he had no real chance of ascending to the throne at home. His new, young (23 years old), ambitious wife Charlotte, a Belgian princess, didn’t get along with their Habsburg relatives. She talked Maximilian into accepting Napoleon’s offer and becoming emperor of Mexico.

In April of 1864, Maximilian signed the paperwork that officially made him the Mexican emperor. Napoleon presented him with the results of a “plebiscite” that the French had supposedly taken in Mexico. The results, which had likely been rigged, showed that the Mexican people eagerly supported their new Austro-French rulers. Most European observers seem to have thought that Maximilian’s enterprise was doomed. They were right.

When Maximilian and Charlotte (who insisted that her new subjects call her Carlota) arrived in Mexico at the port of Veracruz, they were not met with the grand tribute they had imagined. Veracruz was a liberal city whose resistance had been crushed by French forces; in fact, the civil war was still in progress as the liberal armies had never surrendered. The tepid response to the new emperor’s arrival set the tone for his short time in power.

The downfall of Maximilian and Carlota

The new emperor and empress never even managed to hold a proper coronation amidst all the chaos. Instead, they proceeded to disappoint pretty much everyone. It turned out that Maximilian understood very little about Mexican politics. In an apparent attempt to win over the liberals — who were likely never going to accept him — Maximilian kept many of the Juarez administration’s policies. While keeping the liberal policies in place, Maximilian carried out a brutal purge of his liberal opponents. The “Black Decree” condemned anyone who had belonged to an illegal “armed band” to death. More than 10,000 rebels were shot after only a cursory trial. The cruelty of these executions finished off any chance that Maximilian had of winning broad support.

Meanwhile, Maximilian also alienated his conservative supporters. Most significantly, he refused to return the Catholic Church to its favored status as the only permitted religion in Mexico or give back lands that had been confiscated from the church. This infuriated the conservative French and Mexican aristocrats who had put him in power in the first place; they began to rethink their support of this unpredictable Austrian.

Then Mexico’s neighbors next door noticed what was going
on. After the American Civil War ended, about a year after Maximilian had taken power, the American government finally registered its discomfort with a French takeover of its closest neighbor. This was, after all, a violation of the decades-old Monroe Doctrine, in which the U.S. had forbidden European powers from imperial meddling in the Western Hemisphere.

The other problem was that Maximilian had invited many Confederates, fleeing at the end of the Civil War, to enter Mexico and set up the “New Virginia Colony.” Ulysses S. Grant, the top American general, began to provide secret support to Juarez’ forces in northern Mexico — after all, the United States had a lot of spare military supplies on its hands.

Napoleon caved to American pressure pretty much immediately. It was, after all, pretty hard to justify what France had done as anything other than self-interested imperialism. France was unwilling to risk war with America over Napoleon’s Mexican adventure. When the Americans demanded that the French withdraw their troops, Napoleon complied. Maximilian was left without the army he would need to have any chance at actually ruling Mexico. He tried to persuade his brother to send him some Austrian troops, but the Americans threatened war against Austria.

Napoleon urged Maximilian to abdicate and save himself, but the emperor refused. He stayed and fought a losing war against the resurgent rebels. After a weeks-long siege of his final stronghold, one of Maximilian’s officers let the rebel forces through the walls of the fortress. Maximilian tried to escape, but he was easily captured. Juarez’ forces put Maximilian on trial; the former emperor was sentenced to death.

It seems that Maximilian didn’t have to die. Many European liberals beseeched Juarez to spare him. Some of Maximilian’s supporters tried to arrange an opportunity for him to escape, but Maximilian refused to disguise himself. He was shot by a firing squad on June 19, 1867. Juarez took power and continued to push Mexico in a more liberal, secular direction.

And Charlotte, the young empress who had pressed Maximilian into accepting the job? She had fled to Europe the year before in a failed attempt to rally support for her husband among the royal families of Europe. After her entreaties for help were rejected out of hand by Napoleon, the Pope, and her brother, she lost her mind. Charlotte became convinced that assassins were trying to kill her. After her behavior became unpredictable, the Austrian royal family basically imprisoned her. They refused to tell her that her husband had died.

Charlotte’s own family, after months of negotiation, persuaded the Austrians to hand her over. To convince her to leave, she was presented with a forged note from the now-dead Maximilian telling her to go to Brussels. When she arrived in Belgium, Charlotte was once again secluded from public view. She descended into madness for the next six decades. Charlotte wrote hundreds of long, unhinged letters, destroyed her possessions, and had long conversations with people who weren’t there.

The foolish French invasion of Mexico turned out to be as bad an idea as it had seemed at the time. Maximilian never had a real chance of successfully ruling over Mexico. Worse, the French invasion and his disastrous time in power killed tens of thousands of Mexicans and made the country less stable. In a century full of bad imperialist ideas that gained European powers little and hurt the people they tried to conquer, this was one of the worst.