Maximilian of Hapsburg

Maximilian of Hapsburg (1832-1867) was an Austrian archduke and emperor of Mexico. His short rule was characterized by financial disaster, political weakness, and betrayal. His final defeat and execution clearly showed that Mexico would not accept a foreign prince.

In 1860 the Mexican Liberal party emerged victorious over the Conservative party after a bloody 3-year war. Benito Juárez, the Liberal leader whose aim was the end of chaos and the beginning of constructive reforms, faced an empty treasury and a stagnant economy. He placed a 2-year moratorium on the national external debt, which his government could not hope to pay.

Simultaneously, the remnants of the defeated forces of the large landowners and great merchants, as well as clerical and professional military interests toured Europe trying to gain converts and support for a restoration of the old order. They claimed that Mexico, a potentially wealthy nation, was being desiccated by corrupt Liberal politicians. They painted a picture of a restive Indian proletariat waiting for the opportunity to strike a blow at the hated anticlerical Liberals.

The Mexican debt cancellation of 1862 played into their hands; Louis Napoleon seized upon the opportunity to found a Latin empire based upon Mexico's proverbial wealth and a religiously fanatic indigenous army. The results showed that Mexico was neither prodigiously wealthy nor fanatically Catholic.


Early Career

Maximilian of Hapsburg was born at the castle of Schoenbrun outside Vienna on July 6, 1832. He was the second son of Archduke Francis Charles, the brother of the Austrian emperor, Franz Joseph. Maximilian was reared in splendor and wealth, but he received a liberal cosmopolitan education. By an early age he traveled widely and spoke German, English, Hungarian, Slavic, and Spanish fluently. The young archduke capably served his uncle, the Emperor, as commander of the imperial fleet and as the imperial envoy in Paris. While in the latter post he visited Belgium, where he met and married the attractive Princess Carlotta, the daughter of King Leopold I, in 1857.

That same year the Austrian court sent Maximilian as viceroy to the Italian province of Lombardy-Venetia. In Italy he attempted to promulgate liberal reforms and soften the harsh policy followed by Austria after the Italian 1848 Revolution. Displeased by his liberality, the court assigned him back to the Adriatic fleet. In 1854 he retired to private life. He then visited Brazil and returned home to build the idyllic castle of Miramar on his Austrian estates.

Maximilian was described at the time as being 6 feet 2 inches in height, handsome, diplomatic, and gracious, or the ideal monarch for the age of enlightened despotism. Unaware of approaching storms, Maximilian and Carlotta lived happily in their beautiful home, seemingly content to escape the difficulties of public life. Their respite was to be short.


French Intervention in Mexico

The French court of Louis Napoleon had become the mecca of conservative Mexican exiles. A faction composed of Empress Eugénie, the Emperor's brother, the Duc de Morny, and unscrupulous bankers hoping to milk Mexico's wealth pressed the cause of intervention on the far from unwilling French emperor. French agents in Mexico reinforced the exiles' pleas by describing widespread dissatisfaction and hope for a strong government. The Mexican debt cancellation gave Napoleon the excuse to intervene in 1862. He sent a large French contingent to Mexico to cooperate with the English and Spanish to force Juárez to retract.

Both England and Spain, realizing Napoleon's intent to remain in Mexico, soon withdrew, leaving the French alone. Having first secured Veracruz, the French sent a 6,000-man army toward Mexico City. On May 5, 1862, the Mexicans defeated this French force at Puebla with the loss of over a thousand French troops. Too far extended to withdraw, Napoleon next sent a larger force of 40,000 under Gen. Forey. The new French commander reorganized his forces and took Puebla in May 1863. On June 10 he entered Mexico City, applauded by the clergy and Conservative survivors.

After a thorough search through Europe the clerical Conservatives and their French allies focused upon Maximilian as the perfect foil to institutionalize their victory. A Conservative junta in Mexico City adopted a monarchy and offered him the crown. Maximilian's natural prudence made him hesitate, but the politically ambitious Carlotta urged him to accept. The Mexicans assured them that their nation impatiently awaited their arrival; the French occupation forces held a plebiscite and announced that the people had voted in his favor. On April 10, 1864, Maximilian accepted the crown and declared the Conservative general Juan Almonte his regent until he arrived.

Before leaving for Mexico, Maximilian renounced all claims on the Austrian crown and made a fatal deal with the French by the Treaty of Miramar. In this treaty Napoleon promised to keep French troops in Mexico until the end of 1867. Maximilian, in turn, promised to pay the entire cost of intervention, the costs of French supporting troops, and all prior debts due England, France, and Spain, including the exorbitant Jecker loan (bonds extorted by a greedy Swiss banker from the Mexican Conservatives in the 1850s).

A proponent of intervention, Jecker had a partnership with the Duc de Morny. French bankers then floated Mexican government bonds, most of whose proceeds were discounted in advance. By this very first act Maximilian had tripled Mexico's already exorbitant external debt. He then visited the Pope but did not promise to return expropriated Church lands. In May 1864 the royal couple set sail for their tropical kingdom expecting to be greeted joyously by the Mexican people. On the voyage Maximilian passed his time by composing a 600-page book on court etiquette.


Emperor of Mexico

Maximilian reached Veracruz on May 28. The city, a Liberal stronghold, greeted the royal couple with coldness. They had to dine on board ship as there was no reception committee. Juárez and Juan Álvarez, the old Liberal general, immediately declared their intention to do battle. The journey to Mexico City was also largely a disappointment, until they arrived at the capital, where Conservatives and clergy displayed a convincing show of enthusiasm. Most foreign governments immediately recognized Maximilian's government with the notable exception of the United States. Maximilian and Carlotta, enamored of their adopted country, had great hopes of success. In reality they had no chance.

From June 1864 to February 1866 the French army dominated the new Mexican Empire. Napoleon's proconsul, Gen. Bazaine, took orders directly from Paris and recklessly spent imperial funds. French officials took over the treasury and customs revenues. Mexican dignitaries were treated with contempt, and to make matters worse, Maximilian immediately angered his clerical allies by refusing to restore Church lands and the clerical courts. The Emperor tried to win over Liberals and even talked of establishing religious freedom. Clerical support fell away, and the new Mexican archbishop, Labastida (formerly exiled by Juárez and later made archbishop by Maximilian), openly denounced the imperial government.

Despite their obstacles, the royal couple did their best. They set up a lavish court and gave banquets and large receptions. Enormous sums went into refurbishing the ancient castle of Chapultepec, all of which increased the monarchy's indebtedness. Many excellent new laws were legislated, but unfortunately few were ever enacted. Maximilian often worked from early morning to late night, trying to make his policies work. He and Carlotta praised everything Mexican, ate local food, and affected Mexican dress. He decreed freedom of the press and showed great courage in going freely and unarmed among the Mexican people. He even attempted unsuccessfully to win over leading Liberals. A rumored 100,000 Mexicans applied for jobs under his empire but Juárez, Profirio Diaz, Mariano Escobedo, and other leading Liberals resisted his conciliatory overtures.


French Desertion

French guns and loans kept the empire working. In 1865 French aid began to wane. The American Civil War ended, and the U.S government began to mobilize troops on the Rio Grande. French opposition to the war's cost in men and materials mounted in France. These protests coupled with Prussia's victory over Austria caused Louis Napoleon to reconsider. The French government assured the United States that it would leave Mexico. Still hoping for a speedy victory, Bazaine convinced Maximilian to decree that as of October 1865 all Liberal officers would be executed. Aided by United States funds, the Liberal armies began to grow larger and bolder. By March 1866 Bazaine was in full retreat with the Mexican armies taking over areas abandoned by the French.

At last convinced that the French would pull out in 1867, Maximilian tried to keep his government in power with the aid of Mexican Conservative forces and some European volunteers. In July 1866 the worried Carlotta set sail for Europe to request help from the Pope and the French. Rebuffed everywhere, she lost her sanity. Preparing to withdraw from Mexico, the French urged Maximilian to depart with them and fully expected that he would heed their advice. Once again Maximilian hesitated but yielded finally to the advice of his ambitious clerical adviser, Father Fischer, who urged him to remain. On Feb. 5, 1867, Bazaine led the French troops out of Mexico despite his royal protégé's decision to remain. Maximilian had hoped that the French withdrawal would lessen the opposition to him as a foreign puppet.


Defeat and Execution

Maximilian and his Conservative followers held out only until May 1867. He tried bravely to rally his followers under capable generals like Mejía, Miramón, and Márquez, but the Liberal tide was overwhelming. The Emperor led his imperial army of 9,000 men to Querétaro, hoping for a decisive victory. He was soon confronted by 40,000 Liberals under Escobedo; the Emperor behaved courageously, taking the role of a common soldier, but the situation was hopeless. Querétaro fell on May 15, 1867, and Maximilian was taken prisoner. In June a military court-martial condemned him to death by a vote of 4 to 3. Juárez refused clemency. Maximilian retained his dignity to the end. On July 19 a firing squad executed him with his generals Mejia and Miramón. He died as bravely as he had lived.

Further Reading on Maximilian of Hapsburg

Maximilian's own account is Recollections of My Life (1865; trans. 1868). A contemporary view of Maximilian is in José Luis Blasio, Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico: Memoirs of His Private Secretary, José Luis Blasio, translated and edited by R. H. Murray (1934). No period of Mexican history has been as fully examined in English as the short reign of Maximilian and Carlotta. The most thorough studies are E. C. Corti, Maximilian and Charlotte of Mexico (1924; trans., 2 vols., 1928), and Ralph Roeder, Juarez and His Mexico: A Biographical History (2 vols., 1947). Other full accounts are Percy F. Martin, Maximilian in Mexico: The Story of the French Intervention (1914); Daniel Dawson, The Mexican Adventure (1935); and H. Montgomery Hyde, Mexican Empire (1946). See also John Musser, The Establishment of Maximilian's Empire in Mexico (1918).