Why does someone of the Habsburgs turn into an emperor of Mexico? The ambitious and successful Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, a younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph, received in 1863 this appealing offer from the French Emperor Napoleon III. Why did that happen?
In Mexico, there had been civil war against the legitimate republican government since 1859. Liberals and clericals fought each other. Benito Juarez, leader of the Liberals, conquered the capital and became the dictator in early 1861. Radical measures followed such as the separation of church and state, confiscation of church property and the abolition of all monasteries.
Juarez’ government became rich but he refused to pay the high government debts. That’s why the Emperor Napoleon III of France, one of the main creditors of Mexico, ordered a military intervention. Juarez and his followers had to flee to the north of the country.
The clerical party returned and, together with Napoleon III, decided to convert Mexico into a monarchy and offer the imperial crown to a European prince. The choice fell on Archduke Maximilian of Austria, because he was considered a good Catholic and had already traveled to South America.
Since the situation was difficult to assess, Maximilian accepted the offer only hesitantly. What he was unaware of was that this throne offer was sustained only by a small clerical-conservative minority supported by French-based troops in Mexico.
The imperial frigate "Novara" left the port of Trieste in April 1864 with the 31-year-old Maximilian and his 23-year-old consort Charlotte on board. The hoped for cheering crowds on arrival was not the case. He was proclaimed Emperor of Mexico against great opposition from the Mexican people.
Benito Juarez, however, was much more popular by the locals than the foreign emperor, who ruled in the palace of Chapultepec, largely isolated from the population. When Maximilian issued a decree that the followers of Juarez were outlawed as robbers and should be killed without a court order, he had pronounced his own death sentence.
Now the US intervened, delivering weapons to Juarez and sending troops to the Mexican border. The French became too threatened and they withdrew their troops. The withdrawal of the French in February 1867 meant the end for Maximilian in Mexico. He was sentenced to death on 19 June 1867 by a court-martial and shot in Querétaro.
Before that, his wife Charlotte travelled all over Europe to ask for help and military intervention, but without success.
The frigate Novara, which once brought Maximilian to Mexico, also returned his dead body to Austria, which rests today in the Capuchin crypt.