On October 3, 1863, a delegation of Mexican aristocrats arrived in Trieste on a secret mission. For the last few years, their country had been convulsed by violence between its Liberal and Conservative factions. The economy was in freefall, and foreign troops were occupying Mexican soil. But it wasn’t military help that the delegation had come to seek. They were looking for an emperor. A European willing to come to Mexico and rule their nation as an absolute dictator.
In Ferdinand Maximilian, they found their man.
The brother of Austrian emperor Franz Josef, Maximilian couldn’t have been a more unlikely candidate for the job. He was a natural liberal, unversed in Mexican affairs, more interested in art than nation-building. Yet this historical wet blanket somehow wound up ruling Mexico as head of an Empire. In today’s Biographics, we’re lifting the lid on one of the strangest stories in political history… and exploring the mind of the man who tried to make Mexico a monarchy.
A Brother’s Shadow
It’s the fate of many younger brothers to feel they’re spending their lives in the shadow of their older sibling. But few have ever felt that sense of inadequacy as keenly as Maximilian.
Born Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian in Vienna on July 6, 1832, Maximilian was a mere two years younger than this brother, Franz Josef. But while most older brothers might be show-offs at sport, say, Franz Josef had a much more annoying claim to superiority.
He was going to be the emperor of Austria.
That would be impressive enough if Austria was the small European nation it is now, but in the 19th century, this was serious business. Back then, Austria included not just Austria-proper, but modern-day Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Croatia, plus parts of Italy, Poland, Ukraine, Serbia, and Romania. It was a European superpower.
And Maximilian had missed out on being the big boss of it all by 23 months. Still, what Maximilian lost in future responsibilities, he made up for with freedom. While Franz Josef was firmly placed on a path marked “duty, God, army,” Maximilian was allowed to make his own choices.
That meant getting into art. Into the works of radical thinkers.
By the time he reached his teenage years, Maximilian was as liberal and conscientious as his older brother was staid and conservative. But any potential rift between the two was blocked by huge events that can be summed up in two little numbers: 1848.
If you’ve watched our other 19th century videos, you’ll know 1848 is the year we keep coming back to, again and again. If you haven’t, just imagine Europe as a rickety house of cards barely able to keep standing. Got that?
Now, see that gigantic wrecking ball swinging toward the house of cards? That’s 1848. That January, a revolution in France turned into a contagion of liberal revolution that swept Europe. In Austria, an uprising in Vienna got so violent that the royal family was forced to flee the city.
Despite his liberal beliefs, Maximilian fled with them and stayed fled until the army had pacified the city. Although the 1848 revolutions were quashed by the end of 1849, they did have some very important consequences. In Austria, the emperor abdicated and passed the throne to Maximilian’s older brother Franz Josef, then a mere 18 years old.
But there were also consequences in France, consequences that will have an impact on our narrative in the near future.
After a year of turmoil, a populist laughingstock dismissed by elites rose up to win a supposedly rubberstamp election and become president. His name was Louis-Napoleon Bonapate, nephew of the original Napoleon Bonaparte. But history would soon come to know him as Emperor Napoleon III.
It was thanks to him that Maximilian would go from “random Austrian archduke” to “dictator of Mexico.”
The Road to Empire
The next few years were spent with Franz Josef instituting a neo-absolutist regime in Austria, while his liberal brother did what most kids with too much money and too few responsibilities do: travel the world and sleep with lots of people.
At one point, Maximilian fell in love with a German countess, only to be told by his brother that she was beneath him and that he had to break off the relationship. At another, he fell in love with a Portuguese noblewoman, only for her to die before Franz Josef could even get around to shutting the relationship down.
Finally, in 1854, perhaps hoping to knock some responsibility into his sibling, Franz Josef made Maximilian rear admiral of the Austrian Navy.
This turned out to be a surprisingly good move.
While it’s certainly possible Maximilian could’ve immediately converted the flagship vessel into a floating brothel and disgraced the entire family, he instead took to his new job like a boat to water. He was inquisitive, energetic, willing to listen. A born reformer. In the two short years, Maximilian was in charge of it, the Austrian Navy completely modernized.
No doubt surprised by his brother’s success, Franz Josef then made Maximilian Governor-General of the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia – today part of Italy, but back then firmly within Austria. But if the emperor was hoping for a repeat of the Navy reforms, he was about to be sorely disappointed. There are many reasons Lombardy-Venetia is today in Italy, but one of them is that Maximilian ruled with a hopelessly light touch.
While this was pretty sweet from the perspective of the locals, it was less good from the perspective of Austria.
In 1859, furious at his brother’s liberal reforms, Franz Josef removed Maximilian from his post. Only a couple of months later, Lombardy-Venetia had been unified into what was by now well on its way to becoming modern Italy, and Austrian rule of the region was over.
By the way, one of the guys who helped facilitate this transfer of power? Napoleon III, who landed a massive French army in the region to stop Franz Josef winning it back. Landing massive armies in other people’s countries. We’re gonna be seeing Napoleon III doing that a lot in this video.
After the debacle of Lombardy-Venetia, Maximilian retreated to his palace near Trieste and spent the next few months trying to stay out his brother’s bad books. That meant concentrating on his new wife, 19-year old Charlotte of Belgium, and organizing occasional trips to Brazil.
But don’t go thinking that Maximilian was out the royal loop.
Throughout 1859, a number of European countries contacted him, asking if he’d like to take the throne as leader of their nations. This wasn’t unusual at the time. Back in 1832, for example, Greece had imported a random German prince to be their ruler. It was just how Europe rolled.
But not the Americas, which is what made what happened next so confusing. As the 1850s drew to a close, Maximilian got one royal offer it’s extremely unlikely he was expecting. A group of Mexican aristocrats contacted the archduke, sounding him out about becoming emperor of Mexico.
Although Maximilian turned them down, something about the strange offer must’ve stuck with him.
In just four years’ time, those Mexican aristocrats would try again. This time, Maximilian would say yes.
Death of a Republic
OK, at this point you may be wondering something like “wait, why did Mexico need an emperor? Did they just miss all the fancy pants ceremonies?”
It’s a fair question, especially since the role of emperor had been abolished in Mexico way back in 1824. To answer it, we’re going to take a quick detour through Mexican history, as seen through the eyes of the third key player in today’s show: Benito Juarez.
Born on March 21, 1806, Juarez came from rural, indigenous stock in the Oaxaca region. In the days of the Spanish empire – as today, actually – “rural” and “indigenous” were often interchangeable with “poor”, and Juarez grew up in biting poverty.
His parents died when he was three. At 12, he left home to make something of himself.
But first he had to survive a period of world-changing upheaval. Mexico in 1818 was 8 years into its War of Independence from the Spanish crown. In 1821, that war was won and Mexico became an actual Thing. But this didn’t mean stability. Oh no. It meant chaos, lots of chaos, with a side order of mayhem.
Between 1821 and 1861 Mexico would go through 75 governments – an average of nearly two a year. Still, even this chaos couldn’t keep Benito Juarez from rising to the top.
By 1829, he’d given up his priesthood training to become a lawyer.
This led, in 1831, to his election to a municipal council, where he became famous for being honest and unpretentious. Then it was onto a position as a judge in 1841, and then, in 1847, election as Oaxaca’s governor.
As governor, Juarez began to believe Mexican society was irreparably broken by the Catholic Church and the landowning classes. He was so vocal about this that when the Conservatives came to power in 1853, Juarez was forced to flee the country.
Still, Pre-Porfiriato Mexican politics never sat still for long and, in 1855 – around the time Maximilian was modernizing the Autrian army – the Liberals were back in power and asking for Juarez to return and be Justice Minister.
It was an appointment that would unleash a wave of reform. Juarez authored or was attached to, bills that broke up large estates. That abolished special courts for the clergy. That ended the practice of religious marriages in Mexico. By 1857, he was so well respected among the Liberals that they made him head of the Supreme Court, a posting that also technically made him Vice President.
This turned out to be a very important move.
OK, so skip ahead to 1858. Over in Europe, Maximilian is messing up ruling Lombardy-Venetia, while in Mexico the Conservatives are fed up with all this reform. In January, they rose up against the government, throwing the president out.
It was the beginning of a civil war known as Guerra de Reforma, or the Reform War. But it was also the beginning of Benito Juarez. As VP, Juarez now had a legitimate claim on the presidency. So he fled Mexico City for Veracruz, where he raised an army to fight the Conservatives.
And fight them, he did.
In January, 1861, Juarez forced the Conservatives out of the capital, and had himself declared president of Mexico. But the unrest was far from over. The Conservative forces were still out there, and the economy was in freefall.
It was against this background that Juarez made a fateful decision.
To save money, he decided to suspend Mexico’s debt repayments to its foreign creditors. Along with Spain and Britain, one of those foreign creditors just happened to France. And Napoleon III was like the mafia in one very important respect.
Forget to pay your debts to him, and he’d make sure you lost everything.
In the end, it was a simple conversation that decided Maximilian’s strange fate.
While in exile in Europe, staunch conservative José Manuel Hidalgo y Esnaurrízar just happened to fall talking to Napoleon III’s Spanish wife, Eugénie. Casual as you like, he mentioned that Benito Juarez could be driven from power – and France’s debts repaid – by a European-backed Mexican monarch.
Eugénie dutifully listened, then went back to her husband and told him of the idea.
It was like Louis-Napoleon had suddenly seen the light. Up till now, the emperor of France had been contemplating some sort of joint invasion with Spain and Britain to knock Juarez around and get their money back. But now he realized he could set up a puppet ruler in Mexico City, why stop with just lining his pockets?
So, it’s probably time we delved a little bit into Napoleon III, to try and figure out why he was so into this idea. Born in 1808, Napoleon III had spent his early childhood as royalty within the First French Empire. But he’d come of age in the aftermath of the empire’s collapse when his uncle Napoleon I was exiled, the French monarchy restored, and the Bonapartes all chased out of France.
Know how Maximilian grew up in his brother’s shadow? Well, Louis-Napoleon spent his life in the shadow of his uncle Napoleon – possibly the biggest shadow ever cast.
Unlike Maximilian, though, Louis-Napoleon was determined to eclipse his famous relative.
Throughout the 1830s, the future emperor launched aborted coup after aborted coup in France, all of them badly thought out, and all of them failures. In fact, they failed so badly that everyone thought he was a joke. So he was never executed for treason, just jailed or exiled.
The result was Louis-Napoleon was still alive when 1848 rolled around, and able to take advantage of the chaos unleashed to win France’s first-ever presidential election.
Not long after, he launched his final coup, ended French democracy, and made himself emperor.
But while he may have succeeded in netting his uncle’s title of emperor, he had none of his legendary military victories. Over the next few years, Napoleon III tried his best to change that. There was that intervention in Lombardy-Venetia just after Maximilian left the post. There was the Crimean War. But nothing that would fix his name in the history books. Nothing that would make future historians go “Napoleon… you mean the III, right? Y’know, the best Napoleon?”
That all changed in April 1861.
That month, the US Civil War erupted. And, suddenly, the superpower keeping Europeans out the New World was otherwise engaged. Almost immediately, Louis-Napoleon began putting diplomatic pressure on Texas to secede from the Confederacy and become a French-protected republic.
When that failed, he fixed his attention on Mexico.
We’ve seen some speculation that Napoleon III’s end goal was to get a foothold in the Americas while the US was in chaos. Some have even suggested he might have been hoping to reclaim French Louisiana, the territory his uncle sold to the Americans in 1803.
And what better way to achieve that than by installing some loyal idiot as a client emperor in Mexico?
On January 8, 1862, 10,000 French, Spanish, and British troops landed in Veracruz and attacked Mexico. Despite some initial bad defeats, and Britain and Spain pulling out the fight, by 31 May 1863, Benito Juarez had been forced to flee the capital, and Mexico was largely under French control.
Not long after, on October 3, a delegation of Mexican aristocrats arrived in Trieste to offer Maximilian the Mexican crown.
The newly reconstituted Mexican Empire had just found its emperor.
The Man Who Would be King
What’s remarkable today about Maximilian’s ascension to the Mexican throne isn’t just how unlikely it was – seriously, take out any one of these parts and the whole thing never happens – but what a clearly bad puppet ruler he was from the get-go.
The Mexican aristocrats were envisaging a medieval-style king to protect their land, the Church, and crush the liberals.
Napoleon III was envisaging a pliable idiot who’d allow him to project French power in the New World. Instead, Maximilian insisted he would only take the throne on the condition that the people of Mexico voted for him to do so. You can almost imagine the rich Mexicans all looking sidelong at one another like “err…”
Still, Maximilian refused to budge on this requirement. So, with enough eye-rolling to generate its own electricity, Napoleon III organized a sham referendum, rigged the results, then presented them to Maximilian as “proof” the peasants wanted him in charge.
Thus convinced, Maximilian set sail for his new empire on April 10, 1864.
There was just one problem. Napoleon III’s sham election hadn’t “convinced” Maximilian and his wife. It had really convinced them. Like, they really thought Mexico’s poor were crying out for their guiding hands. And that meant they desperately wanted to protect those Mexican peasants from exploitation.
Maximilian and Charlotte – her name now changed to Carlota – arrived in Mexico on May 27 to cheering crowds of conservative supporters. They moved into Chapultepec Castle, which had been redecorated to look like a royal European home. A pretend court had been set up for them, full of ladies in waiting. Everyone expected Maximilian to start ruling like his neo-absolutist brother.
Instead, the new Emperor of Mexico immediately turned around and not just bit the hand that was feeding him but tore it right off.
Rather than whip the country into solid, conservative shape, Maximilian’s first decrees were to preserve Benito Juarez’s liberal reforms. This included the breaking up of Church lands. The separation of church and state. The outlawing of serfdom.
You can just imagine the dawning realization on the faces of the Mexican aristocrats. They’d gone to all this trouble to replace Benito Juarez, and the new guy was basically Juarez in a crown!
Maximilian seems to have recognized this, too.
Early in his rule, he actually wrote to Juarez, whose forces were still holding out in the far north, and asked him to come back to Mexico City and be his prime minister. “We’re the same, aren’t we?” He basically said. “Why don’t you stop this silly war and come back to the capital so we can make Mexico into a liberal paradise together!”
As counterfactual history, it’s interesting to speculate what might have happened if Juarez had said “sure, why not?”. After all, his program and Maximilian’s really weren’t far apart. Had Juarez decided to throw in the towel and work with the new emperor, it’s entirely possible Mexico would still be an empire.
But Juarez didn’t need to throw in the towel.
By now, the Battle of Gettysburg had been over for nearly a year. Up north, the Union was on the verge of capturing Atlanta.
The US Civil War was nearly over.
And Uncle Sam was gonna be pissed when he discovered all these Frenchmen and pretend emperors playing in his backyard.
The Black Days
It’s arguable that there never really was a high point of Maximilian’s reign, just a series of endlessly decreasing lows. His first year in power was spent in metaphorical battles with his conservative backers over the direction of the empire.
His second was spent in actual battles with Benito Juraez’s rearmed Republican troops.
By now, the US Civil War was over. While a full-on American invasion hadn’t happened, Washington had started sending weapons and money over the border to Juarez’s guys. Suddenly, the Republican forces were better armed and better paid than even the French.
It was against this worrying background that Maximilian issued his most controversial decree.
Way back in 1861, when French troops had first landed in Veracruz, Juarez had decreed that any foreign fighters who invaded Mexico would be put to death. Now, in 1865, Maximilian tried to do something similar. On October 3, he promogulated the Black Decree, saying anyone caught fighting for Juarez’s army would be executed on the spot.
It was meant to be fighting fire with fire.
Instead, it self-immolated Maximilian’s entire reign. No matter Juarez had deployed similar tactics. Maximilian’s decree was a war crime, and everyone hated him for it. Mexicans hated him for murdering their countrymen. The French hated him for bringing their military into disrepute.
Nor was it just soldiers. Maximilian was now also hated by the man keeping him in power.
By January, 1866, Napoleon III was sick and tired with his whole Mexican venture, with his pliable puppet who refused to be pliable, with America suddenly demanding to know why he was garrisoning troops just below their border.
So, not long after he learned of the Black Decree, he decided to cut Maximilian loose.
On January 15, 1866, Napoleon III announced French troops would begin withdrawing from Mexico. Sixteen days later, the garrison at Chihuahua simply walked out, leaving the imperial Mexican forces to their fate.
And that was really that for the Second Mexican Empire.
Over the following months, more and more French garrisons packed up and left, leaving town after town wide open for Juraez’s forces. As the Republican army swept down from the north, a cold dread gripped everyone in Mexico City. On July 9, Carlota left for Europe, determined to throw herself on Napoleon III’s mercy. But Napoleon III was done with this crap. He refused to help.
Shortly after, Carlota had a mental breakdown and was isolated in a family castle. She would never see Mexico again.
Back in the Mexican Capital, 1867 dawned with Juarez’s forces practically knocking at the doors. In an emergency meeting, Maximilian was told he should abdicate and flee the country. But, still believing he was the voice of Mexico’s poorest, the deluded emperor refused to abandon his people. On February 5, 1867, the remaining forces of the Second Mexican Empire finally abandoned the capital.
They rode to the town of Queretaro, barricaded themselves in, and waited for Juarez’s army.
They wouldn’t have to wait long.
The Siege of Queretaro was as painful for everyone inside as it was pointless. Juarez’s forces surrounded the town on March 5. Then they simply waited for the inevitable. Inside the walls, provisions ran out. The remaining soldiers were forced to eat their horses. After that, everyone went hungry.
Throughout the siege, Maximilian is said to have remained upbeat, trying to raise everyone’s spirits.
It must’ve been an odd sight: this 34 year old Austrian, strolling through a besieged colonial city, telling bedraggled Mexican soldiers in his bad Spanish to “buck up, old sport, it’s not over yet.” It’s tempting to wonder if Maximilian ever reflected on his bizarre life. On how he, an Austrian royal, wound up starving in a besieged Mexican town some 10,000km from home.
Or maybe it simply never occurred to him that his life was bizarre at all.
The siege finally broke on May 15, when a conservative officer opened a gate to let Juarez’s army in. Maximilian was captured. Just under a month later, he was sentenced to death.
On June 19, 1867, Maximilian was led into a white-walled courtyard under the burning sun and made to face a firing squad.
At the last moment, he was heard shouting “Viva Mexico!”. Then there were several sharp cracks, some puffs of white smoke, and the second Emperor of Mexico was no more. News of Maximilian’s death reached France on July 1, just as Napoleon III was making a speech at the World’s Fair. It caused outrage but, well, what was Paris gonna do? Invade Mexico again?
For Franz Josef, the aftermath of his brother’s inglorious death was an embarrassing time, as it was for many in Europe.
As it was for many across the Atlantic, too.
In Mexico, Benito Juarez was reelected president but then spent so many years trying to amass near-dictatorial powers that he became as unpopular as Maximilian. He died in 1872, unloved, and with Mexico still unstable. It wasn’t until the 20th Century that he was reinvented as a national hero.
As for Napoleon III, well, he didn’t fare much better.
Captured during an ill-advised war against Prussia in 1870, he was deposed in a revolution a day later and sent to live in exile in Britain. He died in bitter obscurity in 1873, having never escaped his uncle’s outsize shadow.
The last person in our story to go was Carlota.
After her breakdown in 1866, the former empress of Mexico lived in seclusion in Belgium, forever haunted by paranoia. She finally passed away in January, 1927, nearly fifty years after her husband was executed in a dusty courtyard a whole ocean away. And so we finally come to the biggest question of all. Was Maximilian really a significant historical figure? Or was his entire life just a fluke of geopolitics, a pointless rule signifying nothing?
Well, maybe it’s a bit of both.
It’s doubtless that Maximilian was only ever really a bit player in several much larger stories: the story of his brother’s rise, of Napoleon III’s hubris, of Mexico’s chaotic 19th Century, and America’s Civil War. But even the most minor characters can still be fascinating, in their own way. Can still elicit sympathy from the audience.
And Maximilian’s short, pointless life has aspects we can all relate to.
Here was a man who lived in his brother’s shadow. But for just one tantalizing moment, he managed to step out into the sun. He may have abused his position with the Black Decree, he may have been a foreign dictator lording it over Mexico, but Maximilian was also – however briefly – his own man.
When the history books were written, they didn’t read “Maximilian: brother of Franz Josef,” but “Maximilian: the last emperor of Mexico.”
Maximilian’s Empire: https://www.historytoday.com/archive/emperor-maximilian-arrives-mexico-city
Maximilian in Mexico: https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/04/maximilian-in-mexico/
Benito Juarez: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Benito-Juarez