Emperor Maximilian of the Mexico before the Execution — Jean-Paul Laurens / Public domain / WikiMedia Commons
On June 19, 1867, a firing squad assembled on the Cerro de las Campanas (“Hill of the Bells”) in Querétaro City, Mexico.
Three men were led out into a clearing that overlooks the arid, rolling hills of Mexico’s central plateau. One of the condemned, a European, made a brief statement in Spanish: “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!”
Shots rang out, and three men, Miguel Miramón, Tomás Mejía, and Maximilian I of Mexico, lay dead.
The Execution of Maximilian (far-right)— Unknown author / Public domain / WikiMedia Commons
So how did this young man, born in Austria, end up dead on the Hill of the Bells in Mexico? What twists of fate led him to his final demise? It’s a complex — and fascinating — story.
Maximilian’s mother, Sophie, was an extraordinary woman in her own right. In the years leading up to his birth, Sophie carried on an extremely close friendship with Napoleon II (the son of THAT Napoleon and his second wife, Marie Louise). Although Napoleon II would die of tuberculosis the same month that Maximilian was born, rumors circulated in the Austrian court that Maximilian’s actual father was Napoleon II, rather than Franz Karl.
Whatever the truth was behind Maximilian’s paternity, he was raised as the entirely legitimate son of a Habsburg Archduke. Sophie channeled her ambitions into her children, especially her two eldest sons — Franz Joseph (born 1830 and the future Emperor of Austria) and Maximilian.
Maximilian As A Boy — Joseph Karl Stieler / Public domain / WikiMedia Commons
As was the Habsburg tradition, Maximilian received a well-rounded education spanning a wide variety of subjects, from languages and art to history and law. He excelled in numerous fields and was particularly adept in botany.
Two years younger than his brother Franz Joseph, Maximilian fought fiercely to gain recognition in his own right. Whereas his older brother Franz Joseph was known as stern and aloof, Maximilian had a natural charm and easygoing nature. He joined the Austrian Navy, made several long-distance journeys with the fleet, and help plan a scientific expedition.
Politically, Maximilian found himself at odds with members of his own family and his older brother Franz Joseph in particular. Maximilian advocated liberal, reform-minded progressive policies. In the aftermath of the liberal revolutions of 1848, which saw riots in the streets of many European capitals — including his hometown of Vienna — Maximilian expressed tacit support for the revolutionaries.
“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.”
— Maximilian on the Revolutions of 1848
In 1857, at the age of twenty-five, Maximilian married his second cousin, the seventeen-year-old Charlotte of Belgium. At the behest of Franz Joseph (now the ruler of Austria), the young couple made their home in the Austrian-ruled Kingdom of Lombardy–Venetia. They first settled in Milan, then Miramare Castle near Trieste. However, with Italian nationalism on the rise (the Italian unification movement would expel the Austrians from Northern Italy by 1870), Maximilian began to wonder whether his future lay outside of Europe.
Empress Charlotte of Mexico (circa 1865) — Hofburg Palace / Public domain / WikiMedia Commons
As chance would have it, 1859 would be the year that members of a foreign aristocracy would first contact Maximilian. Which foreign country, you might ask? Mexico, of course.
After gaining its independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico had spent the next four decades battling internal divisions and foreign meddling. A war with the United States from 1846–1848 ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which saw nearly half of Mexico’s territory ceded to the United States. All the while, politicians and generals came and went as Mexican Head of State. General Antonio López de Santa Anna (see The Alamo) served twelve non-consecutive terms as President over a twenty-two year period.
From 1858–1861, Mexico endured a civil war between liberal and conservative factions. After the liberals secured victory on the battlefield, conservatives sought to regain power through foreign influence. The liberal government of Benito Juarez had suspended debt payments after winning the civil war. Claiming that a restored conservative government would repay the external debt, the conservatives convinced France, Britain, and Spain to commit to an intervention that would bring down Juarez’s liberal government — and see the debt repaid. In addition to aiding banking interests at home, all three European powers saw an opportunity to exert influence in the Western Hemisphere with the United States on the brink of civil war.
However, the British and Spanish quickly bailed on the project when it became clear that the French were more intent on building a client state in Mexico.
Napoleon III (the nephew of THAT Napoleon), had come to power in France in 1848. His primary aim was to re-establish France as a global power, and in Mexico, he saw an opportunity to gain a foothold for France in the western hemisphere.
After his troops won several battles against Juarez’s liberal forces, Napoleon III reached out to Maximilian to gauge his interest in ruling Mexico.
Maximilian initially hesitated but noting that his prospects of ever wielding any real power inside Austria remained slim, eventually agreed to become Emperor of Mexico in October 1863.
The Mexican Deligation appoints Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria as Emperor of Mexico (circa 1864) — Cesare Dell’Acqua / Public domain / WikiMedia Commons
Maximilian and Charlotte arrived in Veracruz in May 1864 and took residence in Mexico City later that year. From the start, Maximilian failed to connect to the people he, in theory, ruled. His liberal instincts were often at odds with the conservative Mexicans who had initially courted him back in 1859. Maximilian backed progressive laws that abolished child labor and limited working hours — further driving a wedge between him and his erstwhile conservative allies. Meanwhile, his liberal policies could never bridge the divide with patriotic Mexicans, who never saw him as anything other than a French puppet.
By 1865, Maximilian’s dubious hold on power grew even more so. Napoleon III, facing a growing threat from the soon-to-be German Empire, turned sour on his pet project in Mexico. Additionally, the United States’ civil war had ended with a Union victory. American policy favored a liberal Republic under Juarez, not an Empire run by Maximilian. Under pressure from the United States, Napoleon III recalled his forces in May 1866 and urged Maximilian to return with them.
However, Maximilian would not abandon the few supporters who remained loyal to him. Instead, hoping to restore French support, his wife, Charlotte, sailed for Europe in the summer of 1866. She traveled to Paris and sought an audience with Napoleon III. Throughout August and September, Charlotte met with Napoleon III on three different occasions. She implored Napoleon to stand by the Treaty of Miramar and not to abandon Maximilian. However, Napoleon and his advisers were unmoved. They made it clear to Charlotte that there would be no further support for Maximilian or his regime. Distraught, and increasingly paranoid, Charlotte visited Rome and met with Pope Pius IX. The Pope was sympathetic but ultimately unwilling to advocate on Maximilian’s behalf.
Back in Mexico, Maximilian’s hold on power continued to deteriorate. In February 1867, he retreated to Querétaro City with the few supporters that remained loyal. Republican forces quickly laid siege to the city. In May, the Republicans broke through and captured Maximilian. A hastily arranged military tribunal convicted Maximilian and sentenced him to death.
Despite appeals from prominent liberal reformers in Europe, the Republican leader, Benito Juarez, resolved to move forward with Maximilian’s execution. Juarez saw it as a necessary step to dissuading future European adventurism in Mexico.
And so it came to pass that on June 19, 1867, Maximilian was led to that clearing on the Hill of the Bells. Also condemned to die at his side were his two most loyal generals, Miguel Miramón and Tomas Mejía.
Maximilian left behind his widow, Charlotte, but no children. Both Charlotte and Maximilian’s mother, Sophie, would experience intense depression after his execution. Sophie died in 1872, still heartbroken over the loss of her son.
Charlotte, already in a fragile mental state before Maximilian’s execution, was not initially told of his demise. She returned to Belgium and lived to the age of 86, dying in 1927. She never remarried.
Maximilian’s brother, Franz Josef, would reign as head of the Austrian-Hungarian empire until 1916, at the age of 86. Formal relations between Mexico and Austria would not resume until 1900. The following year, the Emperor Maximilian Memorial Chapel was built on the Hill of the Bells, commissioned by Franz Josef for his late brother.