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Antonio De Loera-BrustDecember 15, 2022
"Maximilian of Mexico before the Execution," by Jean-Paul Laurens  (Wikimedia Commons)

It was the greatest challenge to the Monroe Doctrine until the Cuban missile crisis exactly 100 years later. In 1862, taking advantage of the United States’ preoccupation with its own civil war, France invaded Mexico and sought to impose on it a Catholic monarchy. And to rule this new Mexican monarchy, the French placed a Hapsburg prince on the throne. It sounds bizarre. But it’s a true story, recounted brilliantly by the British historian Edward Shawcross in The Last Emperor of Mexico.

The Last Emperor of Mexicoby Edward Shawcross

Basic Books
336p $30

The titular character is Maximilian I. Born in Vienna, at the invitation of Napoleon III and exiled Mexican conservatives he chose to become emperor of Mexico, a country he had never seen. His only serious claim to the throne was that his Hapsburg ancestor was the king of Spain when Cortez conquered the Aztecs. Even more problematic, Mexico had long since embraced a republican system of government. Independent Mexico’s only previous monarch had been executed shortly after Mexico gained its independence from Spain.

Spoiler alert: Maximilian will also be executed. What happens in between Maximilian’s arrival and his execution would almost inevitably make for exciting reading, but Shawcross tells the story in a particularly readable way.

This whole Mexican Hapsburg affair marks not only the passing of an old world, but the start of ours.

Much of my enjoyment of the book stems from its fantastical juxtaposition of places and cultures. Hungarian hussars are ambushed by Mexican peasants. Belgian and Austrian royalty dine with Indigenous chiefs, trying pulque and mole. And there can be no greater juxtaposition than the titular character, an Austrian prince born into luxury, with his rival Benito Juárez, Mexico’s legitimate president and a Oaxacan man born into poverty.

If 19th-century geopolitics and Latin American literature were put in a blender together, something like this book would emerge. It all feels like a novel from a time gone by. And this is a tale of another world—of violent Wild West frontier towns like Brownsville in Texas and Matamoros across the river in Mexico, of European empires trying to paint more of the map their color and of a monarch more concerned with remodeling his castle than governing, even as his empire begins to collapse around him.

But the truth is, this whole Mexican Hapsburg affair marks not only the passing of an old world, but the start of ours. Beyond the farce and the violence, the deeper significance of Maximilian’s execution in Mexico is that it marks the victory of democracy over monarchy, modernity over tradition, state over church and the Americas over Europe.

After the industrialized North’s victory over the feudal, slaveholding South in the U.S. Civil War, the battle-hardened Union armies needed only threaten war for France to withdraw and abandon Maximilian to his fate. Threats by the United States also forced Maximilian’s own brother-in-law, the King of Belgium, and his brother, the Emperor of Austria, to withdraw their support for Maximilian. If ever there was a single moment that marked the arrival of the United States as a truly global power, capable of intimidating the European empires into submission, it was this one. Rather than re-establish European dominance in the Americas, France’s misadventure in Mexico served as an overture to the American century.

Maximilian’s defeat also represented the final breaking of the earthly power of the Catholic Church in Mexico.

Maximilian’s defeat also represented the final breaking of the earthly power of the Catholic Church in Mexico. A civil war had been provoked by Juárez’s decision to seize church property (which was a good chunk of Mexico’s land at the time). The church and conservative elites fought back, and only when Juárez defeated them did they go abroad to seek the aid of the French.

The tragedy of Maximilian’s life might be that he was simply too liberal for the fundamentally reactionary project he was asked to lead. Strategically, one of Maximilian’s greatest mistakes was deciding that his empire would uphold Juárez’s signature law redistributing church property. This was a noble decision, attesting to Maximilian’s genuine concern for Mexico’s poor. Yet he acted against the express wishes of the Vatican and the conservative Mexican elites on whose support Maximilian relied. Maximilian even toyed with the idea of asking Juárez to be his prime minister in a constitutional monarchy (Juárez, for his part, rejected any notion that he would participate in a government imposed by a foreign force).

Maximilian was clearly not a man suited to be the figurehead of a reactionary effort, and he ultimately alienated many of his own supporters. Meanwhile, his reliance on a foreign occupation and pretensions to title and privilege ensured he would never win over Juárez’s liberal and nationalist supporters. Ultimately, Europe’s last explicitly colonial and monarchical project in the Americas was just too reactionary for an age of revolution, too weak to counteract the growing power of the United States and too foreign to extinguish heroic Mexican resistance. The greatest of statesmen could not have overcome these obstacles and would probably have seen that from the get-go. Sadly for him, Maximilian was decidedly not a great statesman.

Abandoned by his French allies, Maximilian still chose to stay with a dwindling number of Austrian volunteers, ex-Confederate mercenaries and Mexican supporters to face off against Juárez’s growing armies of U.S.-armed and funded troops. While clearly a bad call for his personal survival, Maximilian’s decision to stay is romantic in an antiquated way—and so dumb as to be almost heroic. He bet it all on glory and power in Mexico. He at least had the decency not to sulk off to European palaces after losing. He stayed and fought in what he called “his country.” Maximilian’s last words before the firing squad were “Viva Mexico.”

Shawcross has convinced me to concede to Maximilian a better, more honorable and dignified title than “Emperor.” I am convinced now to grant Maximilian the title of Mexican.

As the son of Mexican immigrants, I am well schooled in the myths of Mexican nationalism. As a child, my grandmother (like Benito Juárez, a Oaxacan) taught me to see Maximilian as a foreign invader and his execution as a happy ending. Maximilian learned a lesson that would be learned by the United States in Vietnam and Afghanistan—you cannot impose even the most progressive governance by the force of foreign arms.

There is a lesson in Maximilian’s story for the church too: Refusing any compromise with the modern world, especially to defend the clergy’s privilege and power, more likely leads to a total defeat than to even a partial victory.

On the big questions of the age, still relevant today—the sovereignty of independent states, democracy in Latin America, the separation of church and state—Maximilian was ultimately on the wrong side. But after reading this book, I have a newfound, grudging respect for the man. There is something gallant about him: a Don Quixote tilting at the windmills of modernity. His contribution to promoting indigenous rights in Mexico and recognizing the achievements of Mexico’s pre-Columbian civilizations, which the Catholic Church and Maximilian’s own Hapsburg ancestors did so much to destroy, are genuine accomplishments. Despite preferring goulash to mole, Maximilian considered himself a Mexican. Though no Mexican should ever recognize him (or anyone else) as a monarch, Mr. Shawcross has convinced me to concede to Maximilian a better, more honorable and dignified title than “Emperor.” I am convinced now to grant Maximilian the title of Mexican. There could be no higher honor.

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