The Last Emperor of Mexico (Review)

Historians in the News
tags: colonialism, Habsburgs, Mexican history, Maximilian I

The saga of Maximilian I, Emperor of Mexico, has all the elements of grand opera: international intrigue, ill-starred romance, abject betrayal and a well-meaning hero with the tragic flaws of hubris and self-delusion. In his nonfiction account “The Last Emperor of Mexico,” Edward Shawcross relates this sweeping, multilayered story with a drive and panache worthy of the subject.

Mr. Shawcross, a British historian, creates a balanced and deeply human portrait of the emperor. Born in Vienna in 1832, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian was the younger brother of Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I. A daydreamer, a talented linguist and a lover of poetry and plays, the young Maximilian was torn between his bone-deep reverence for the House of Habsburg and his genuine sympathy for the liberal political reforms that were sweeping Europe. This second son was prone to restlessness and melancholy, haunted by a conviction that he was destined for a greatness he could never fulfill.

As Mr. Shawcross relates in his deeply researched narrative, Maximilian would ultimately find his fate in the political machinations of two continents. In Paris during the 1850s and 1860s, Napoleon III was plotting to expand French influence in the Americas and working to discourage another U.S. invasion of Mexico. Through a series of diplomatic maneuverings, this became an attempt to declare a monarchy there and install a puppet “emperor.” The designation was a bit hyperbolic, since the sovereign-to-be would rule only Mexico, but the title was intended to elevate him to the same exalted plane as the emperors of Austria, France and Russia. And there was a precedent, since Agustín de Iturbide contrived to have himself declared the first emperor of Mexico in 1822, in the chaos following the war of independence from Spain.

In the charming, underemployed Archduke Maximilian, Napoleon III believed he had found the ideal candidate: a member of one of Europe’s most illustrious royal families, which had deep ties to Mexico and Spain. Maximilian’s forebear, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, had been king of Spain when conquistador Hernán Cortés landed in Mexico in 1519.

When Napoleon’s go-betweens approached Maximilian in 1861, Mexican Conservatives had just lost a three-year civil war to the Liberals, who were led by Benito Juárez and supported by the United States. The Mexican government was struggling under crushing foreign debts, and in January 1862, after President Juárez announced a two-year moratorium on payments, the country’s creditors—France, Great Britain and Spain—landed troops at Veracruz to force reimbursement. When it became clear that France was more intent on regime change than on debt collection, the other powers hastily withdrew.

Read entire article at Wall Street Journal

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