A vital look at the Mexican reign of Maximilian and Carlota

It was a bloody, strange, turbulent time with a cast of thousands from 22 nations, a five-foot populist Indian president, a six-foot, golden-haired Austrian archduke and a pretty, gifted Belgian princess with dark, flashing eyes.

The Second Empire of Mexico’s collapse forever changed history, and yet, as author M.M. McAllen says in “Maximilian and Carlota,” her enthralling, exhaustively researched and fresh re-telling of the epoch: “In the United States, the story is largely forgotten.”

Published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the installation of Maximilian von Habsburg and his wife Carlota as emperor and empress of Mexico in 1864, this 544-page narrative history should rekindle the era.

From 1861 to 1865, Americans were too busy shooting each other to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. Greedy to gain a foothold in Mexico with its rich resources, French Emperor Napoleon III took advantage of the Civil War.

In December 1861, claiming broken treaties, the Spanish fleet, followed in January by French ships and the British Royal Navy, steamed into Veracruz and landed troops.

By April, England and Spain, angered by French efforts to replace the Liberal government with an imperial one, had begun pulling out as France announced its occupation of Mexico.

On May 28, 1864, Maximilian, 31, and Charlotte (known as Carlota in Mexico), 23, stepped off the Austrian flagship Novara. Told they had a mandate to govern a pacified nation, the ambitious pair arrived to rule a country three times the size of France.

Actually the French army controlled only one-seventh of the vast, rugged land, the plebiscite requesting their presence was a sham and it was the conservative elite, not the Mexican people, who wanted to oust President Benito Juárez and install them as rulers.

While Maximilian and Carlota imported their lavish court lifestyle — extravagant dinners with gold candelabra, French chefs and gilded cigars — they recognized, McAllen says, “the great disparity in wealth and privilege that plagued Mexico.”

Progressive Maximilian proved a different kind of royal, though the political deck, including the Catholic Church, whose property confiscated by Juárez he refused to return, was stacked against him.

An idealist, he cultivated the good will of native tribes, appointed a Liberal lawyer as minister of foreign affairs, declared religious tolerance (which irked the archbishop), abolished child labor and outlawed corporal punishment.

Ironically, Maximilian, an explorer, anthropologist and amateur botanist who spoke 10 languages including Spanish, embraced the same liberalism as Juárez, who declined his offer to meet and the post of prime minister.

He had such empathy it’s a shock when he signs the draconian Black Decree, ordering captured Juárez followers court-martialed and shot within 24 hours. And, ignoring the mother’s sorrow, the childless monarch adopts the former Mexican emperor’s little grandson (and his cousin) as heir to the throne.

Advised by unqualified toadies and unaware that the secretive officer charged with organizing his army to combat the Juaristas was Napoleon III’s man, Maximilian was, as Leopold I warned, “a cat’s paw” for the French emperor.

When Napoleon withdrew the French army from Mexico, the embattled emperor was doomed. Carlota sailed for Europe to plead their case in Paris, Vienna and Rome, where the empress fell mentally ill and, though she lived until 1927, never recovered.

This is a big multi-layered story — cinematic, nightmarish and poignant — with lots of players, especially after Appomattox when defeated Confederates began streaming into Mexico and America came to the aid of Juárez.

Begun in 1997, “Maximilian and Carlota” led the author to research and interview on three continents. In the acknowledgments, she thanks the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History and the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection in Austin.

At the Ransom Center, she consulted (but didn’t use) the approximately 400 letters exchanged by Maximilian and Carlota from the time of their engagement to shortly before his execution in Queretaro in 1867.

Vintage photographs fascinate, but in a crowded chronicle with generals named Miramon, Marquez, Mejia and Mendez, a key to major players would be helpful. A small 1863 map of Mexico is among the many illustrations. A larger legible one would enable readers to follow the action.

On visits to her aunt and uncle, an aviation pioneer and diplomat, in Cuernavaca, Mary Margaret McAllen heard talk about the royals. She visited places where they lived and worked. “People spoke of them as though they had only just left,” she told the American-Statesman.

Intrigued by “the fantastic yet frequently unclear or inaccurate stories of Maximilian and Carlota,” she decided to tell their tale from an American point of view in “a succinct manner that can be appreciated by all readers.”

There’s no shortage of books on the curious couple and their catastrophic three-year reign. But McAllen says, “The last well-researched book with citations was Egon Corti’s ‘Maximilan and Charlotte’ in 1928.”

The sad, surreal Second Empire is also the subject of plays, songs and films like “Juarez” (1939) with Bette Davis as Carlota and Brian Ahern as Maximilian. But it’s time for a thorough, highly readable account complete with America’s role to help us try to understand today’s Mexico, and this is it.

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