There are no streets in Mexico named for Maximilian, but there ought to be. Certainly no Mexican history would be complete without him.
Maximilian was an eminently likable, admirable, but hapless fellow. He was born second-in-line to the Austrian throne, and so believed he would never rule. He made the best of things, though, pursuing his wide interests in literature, history, poetry, painting, and science, especially botany. He learned to speak at least seven languages.
A prankster as a kid, Maximilian was (unlike his dour older brother) charismatic, popular, and grew up to become quite liberal politically. When he accompanied his brother on European military campaigns to suppress rebellions, he was appalled: “We call our age the Age of Enlightenment, but there are cities in Europe where, in the future, men will look back in horror and amazement at the injustice of tribunals, which in a spirit of vengeance condemned to death those whose only crime lay in wanting something different to the arbitrary rule of governments which placed themselves above the law.”
At the age of only 22, Maximilian assumed command of the entire Austrian imperial navy. With dreams of making it the equal to England’s, he worked diligently and quite effectively to modernize it, creating a battle fleet that his uncle would later deploy with great success.
But Maximilian was unlucky with women. His first love, Portuguese Princess Amalia, died of tuberculosis. Bereft, he wore her ring for the rest of his life. He finally married Belgian Princess Carlota, but she eventually descended into complete, hysterical madness.
Apparently, good luck finally found Maximilian. France’s Napoleon III had invaded Mexico, and both he and the Mexican conservatives offered Maximilian the throne. Even England’s Queen Victoria and the Pope endorsed the prospect of his coronation.
Nonetheless, Maximilian insisted that the Mexican people accept him, and he initially believed the sham plebiscite the conservatives had concocted to fool him. He knew something was wrong when, upon arriving in Mexico, the liberal city of Veracruz received him quite coldly.
Undaunted, Maximilian took up residence in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Castle (the tragic scene of Los Niños Heroes) and, with the slogan of “Equity and Justice,” he got to work.
First, he continued to implement the liberal policies of President-in-exile Benito Juárez, such as land reform and religious freedom for all. In addition, he reduced the work day from 10 to eight hours, prohibited corporal punishment, and annulled peasants’ debts. He even offered to make Juárez his prime minister. (The conservatives clearly had not done their homework about him!) Finally, to demonstrate that the hereditary throne would become truly Mexican, he adopted Iturbide’s grandchildren as his heirs.
All his well-meaning efforts spelled his doom. The conservatives, aghast, abandoned him, calling him a traitor. The liberals saw him only as an invader. When, at the end of its civil war, the United States was finally able to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, it marched an army to the Mexico border, threatening to invade in support of Juárez. Napoleon III blinked, and withdrew his troops.
Maximilian should have fled with the French; but, honorable to a fault (and perhaps more than a bit delusional), he refused to abandon the generals still loyal to him. He fought Juárez’s forces bravely with them, was captured, and finally executed at their side. (Juárez, fed up with the conservatives’ and Europeans’ machinations, refused to show him mercy.)
Maximilian’s noble, final words: “I forgive everyone, and I ask everyone to forgive me. May my blood, which is about to be shed, be for the good of the country. ¡Viva Mexico! ¡Viva la independencia!”
Yes, there ought to be a street named Maximilian.
This is a selection from David Ellison’s forthcoming book, Niños Héroes: The Fascinating Stories Behind Mexican Street Names.
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