Book of the week: The Last Emperor of Mexico by Edward Shawcross

Although Maximilian’s reign proved short-lived, it makes for a ‘jaw-dropping story’

Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico from 1832-1867
Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico from 1832-1867
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In the early 1860s, the “puffed-up” French emperor Napoleon III conceived what he believed to be “a brilliant wheeze”, said Justin Marozzi in The Sunday Times. He would command his troops to invade Mexico, and install a puppet emperor on the throne. France would thereby gain a “Latin American empire on the cheap”, providing “untold opportunities for French business”.

The man Napoleon chose to be ruler of Mexico was the “hapless Habsburg archduke” Maximilian, younger brother of Franz Joseph I of Austria. Maximilian thought it an excellent idea – he was a “classic younger brother in search of something to do” – and accordingly, once France had gained control of Mexico, he grandly entered the country in May 1864, accompanied by his wife Carlota. Although his reign proved short-lived, it makes for a “jaw-dropping story” – one that Edward Shawcross relates with “real brio and narrative punch” in his superb first book.

Predictably, Maximilian’s time in Mexico proved disastrous from the start, said Gerard Helferich in The Wall Street Journal. A daydreamer with a passion for poetry and plays, the young man was unsuited to the task of ruling a country “still deeply polarised” from a bruising civil war. “Worse, under his agreement with France, Maximilian was responsible for the expenses that country had incurred while invading Mexico.” (In other words, as Shawcross puts it, Mexico had to “pay for the privilege of its own occupation”.)

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Yet what struck the truly decisive blow to Maximilian’s regime was the conclusion of the American Civil War in 1865, said Paul Lay in The Times. No longer preoccupied with its internal affairs, Washington decided to act against the European client state being established on its doorstep. In 1866, it issued France with an ultimatum: “remove your troops or it’s war”.

The writing was now “on the wall for Maximilian’s illusory empire”, said Tony Barber in the FT. Napoleon acceded to Washington’s request, which left the “self-styled emperor” in an impossible position. His “ignoble end” came a year later: captured by hostile liberal Mexican forces, he was executed by a firing squad in June 1867 (a scene made famous by Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian, above).

Shawcross describes Napoleon’s incursion into Mexico as a gamble “outrageous even by the standards of European imperialism”. In The Last Emperor of Mexico, he has written a “superbly entertaining and well-researched account” of this “doomed escapade”.

Faber 336pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99

The Last Emperor of Mexico

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