Actually, he was only half a Wittelsbach. The other half was a Habsburg. His father was Archduke Franz Karl of Austria and his mother was Princess Sophie of Bavaria, so he was a brother of Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria. Born on 6th July 1832 at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, he was an intelligent lad who learned six languages in the schoolroom and later a seventh – Spanish. Even then there might have been a spirit of competitiveness between him and his elder brother, only two years older, as he tried to demonstrate that he was the better man. He was his mother’s favourite. Not unnaturally, this opened a gulf between the brothers which only grew wider as the years passed.
In 1848 revolution swept across Europe. Maximilian accompanied his brother on campaigns to put down the rebellions throughout the empire and was horrified by the brutality of the reprisals as hundreds of rebels were executed and thousands imprisoned for the crime of wanting a different form of government. He was a progressive thinker, which did not accord well with Franz Josef’s deep conservatism.
Perhaps to get rid of his more popular younger brother, and also to satisfy his ambition, Franz Josef gave him command of the Austrian Navy.
In July 1867, Maximilian married Princess Charlotte, daughter of the King and Queen of Belgium. Although they remained childless, it appears to have been a happy marriage.
After a visit to Italy, where radical nationalist feelings were heating up, Franz Josef appointed his brother Governor-General of Venetia-Lombardy. Maximilian was an odd choice. While he was not without ambition, he had the soul of an idealist and the mind of a liberal reformer. He and his pretty wife were liked by the Italians, on a personal level, but deeply resented as representatives of a despotic government. In fact, he was far more sympathetic to the Italian desire for freedom than to the determination of the empire to keep under its aegis a province whose sole purpose was to increase Austrian revenues.
Franz Josef was not happy. His brother was not supposed to interfere in politics and advise on foreign policy. He was meant to be a figurehead.
While nationalists and radicals were fomenting rebellion around him, the archduke remained at his post to the end. ‘I am not one to turn away in time of danger,’ he wrote. ‘Where there is a fire I shall help to the last moment, even though I have to stand in the midst of flames.’ Prophetic words, as it turned out. The end came when he was relieved of his post. Shortly after, Italy was engulfed in revolution with the result that Austria lost all her Italian provinces and unified Italy was born. After the disastrous battle of Solferino, the emperor became so unpopular that there were calls for him to abdicate in favour of his younger brother. Another bone of contention between them.
In 1859 a group of Mexican monarchists visited Maximilian and offered him the throne of Mexico as emperor. Perhaps he was chosen because the Habsburgs had once ruled New Spain. In any case, he was reluctant at first for reasons his doting mother was not slow to point out. It was a backward country, barely civilized, halfway around the world and torn by civil strife. For years the conservative church party had fought the progressive anti-clerical party led by President Benito Juarez.
But then the French got involved. Louis Napoleon had sent an expedition to gold- and silver-rich Mexico, and liked what they reported. Capitalists and industrialists moved in, with soldiers to guard them. The French were afraid that the United States, still recovering from their civil war, would object to European interference on their continent, and also that Spain might want to recover lost territory. What was needed to legitimize their occupation, they decided, was a monarchy. Louis Napoleon urged Maximilian to accept. To the astonishment of his family and friends, he agreed, with the provisos that the crown was offered by the Mexican people and guaranteed by France.
There were a number of reasons for his acceptance beyond ambition, the desire for glory and the cache of being an emperor. Since the Italian War he and Franz Josef had not been on good terms. He had come to the conclusion that there was no place for him in his brother’s empire. There was also something he shared with his sister-in-law, Sisi: wanderlust, a longing for adventure, to visit exotic places and experience different cultures. Finally, there was his idealism. His first effort would be to reconcile the warring parties.
Franz Josef was quite happy to see him go, being jealous of his more intellectual, charismatic and artistic brother. He remembered, too, how after the Italian War the people of Vienna – his beloved city – had called for him to abdicate in favour of Maximilian. On the eve of Max’s departure, Franz informed him that the Reichsrat insisted he must resign all rights to the imperial throne (he was second in line after Archduke Rudolf) and warned him that if he should encounter difficulties the empire could not become involved. He would no longer be an Austrian citizen. It was a lot to give up.
He set sail with Charlotte, now renamed Empress Carlotta, and landed at Vera Cruz on 21st. May 1864 to a very cold reception by the liberal city. His situation was very nearly a replay of his role in Italy. Although he sympathized with Juarez and his aim to free the exploited country, he was naturally viewed by both sides as being a tool of the conservatives, and of France. Juarez wanted nothing to do with a monarchy.
Maximilian and Carlotta set up residence in Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City and entertained as monarchs were expected to do. They were never crowned, however, due to constant fighting between the French soldiers and the republicans. Nevertheless, he managed to do some good during his short time in Mexico. He restricted working hours and abolished child labour. He cancelled all debts for peasants over 10 pesos and decreed that no longer could they be bought and sold for the price of their debt. He also broke the monopoly of the hacienda stores and restored communal property. Shocked by the living conditions of poor Mexicans, Carlotta held parties for rich Mexicans to raise money for the poor.
Max was not popular among his own allies, the conservatives and fanatical clerics, who disliked him for his tolerance and liberalism. He had even upheld some of Juarez’s decrees: land reforms, religious freedom, and extending voting rights. He went so far as to offer Juarez amnesty and the post of prime minister, but Juarez refused.
Max’s first mistake was to order the shooting of any captured followers of Juarez in retaliation for the execution by the Juaristas of those who supported the empire. His second was the ‘Black Decree’ which stated that anyone belonging to armed bands existing without authority would be tried by courts-martial and subject to execution if found guilty. It is estimated that more than 11,000 of Juarez’s supporters were executed in accordance with this decree, which only served to intensify resistance.
The curtain was about to fall on the embryonic empire. With its civil war over, the United States began secretly feeding arms and supplies to the republicans while at the same time putting pressure on France to withdraw. Although he had been instrumental in persuading Max to accept the imperial throne, painting a rosy picture, in 1866, Louis Napoleon yielded and removed his troops from Mexico, leaving Maximilian without financial resources or military protection. Carlotta left in order to seek help for her husband from among the crowned heads of Europe. The trouble was, Maximilian had lost his status as a Habsburg prince and Austrian archduke.
Though he was advised to abdicate, once again Maximilian refused to ‘turn away in time of danger’, which was his third and last mistake. He fought on with the aid of about 8,000 loyalists. February 1867 found him in Queretaro, besieged by the republicans. In May the city fell and Max was captured.
Following a court-martial, he was sentenced to death. Now Franz Josef scrambled to have his brother reinstated as an Austrian archduke. Many notable liberals sent telegrams to Mexico pleading that the emperor be spared. The U.S. was moved to send a plea for clemency. Juarez actually liked Maximilian, but he put his personal feelings aside. Max’s death was necessary both because of those who had been killed fighting imperialist forces and also to send a message that Mexico would not tolerate a foreign-imposed government.
One of Max’s followers hatched an escape plan that called for him a assume a disguise. In a final act of Habsburg hubris, he refused because he felt shaving his beard off to avoid recognition would cause him a loss of dignity if he were recaptured.
So, on 19th June 1867, in front of a firing squad, the life of another Wittelsbach ended. It was such a shame because Maximilian and Benito Juarez, although from very different worlds, were both liberal reformers.
Maximilian’s embalmed body was eventually retrieved from Mexico and placed in the imperial crypt in Vienna among his ancestors.
When she learned of her husband’s death, Carlotta had a complete mental collapse. She spent the rest of her life under medical supervision in padded rooms in a Belgian castle. She died in 1927.