- Maximilian and Carlota: Europe’s Last Empire in Mexico by M. M. McAllen
Given its great historical backdrop and the significant implications involved, it is rather amazing that the French intervention in Mexico and the short-lived Mexican empire it spawned has not received more attention. Further, to the extent that they are covered, the period and the players involved are routinely misunderstood or misrepresented. All of this makes McAllen’s new volume a most welcome addition to the subject’s literature. The story of idealistic young Habsburg Archduke Maximilian and his gifted Belgian princess Charlotte (Carlota), the events that brought this unlikely couple to the French-imposed throne in Mexico, their misguided tenure as New World monarchs, and [End Page 169] their tragic demise has it all—ambition, intrigue, war, romance, colorful characters, and villains that seem to come out of central casting. As one contemporary observer noted, this was the stuff of Shakespeare. And M. M. McAllen delivers a worthy rendering.
McAllen, a San Antonio-based author of well-received works drawn from the history of her native South Texas and neighboring Mexico, presents a well-researched and appropriately nuanced version of an amazingly complex international event that unfolded in the shadow of the U.S. Civil War, the onset of which opened the door to French intervention in violation of the Monroe Doctrine and the conclusion of which doomed the fragile Mexican empire. Although she relies heavily on strong secondary sources and published memoirs, the author also mined extensive archival collections in the U.S., Mexico, and Europe. The result is an impressively comprehensive account that captures the quixotic nature of Maximilian—a reform-minded liberal at heart, called to rule by conservative principles—and the ambitious yet frail Carlota. But the royals are surrounded by nicely fleshed-out characters such as French Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie, whose imperial ambitions and failures sealed the young couple’s fate; the Mexican president-in-exile Benito Juárez, who triumphed over empire and by ordering Maximilian’s execution sent a message to the world; the duplicitous French General Achille Bazaine; U.S. Secretary of State William Henry Seward; and a host of roguish military men, mercenaries, unsavory priests, and all sorts of attendants and office-seekers.
While generally well-written and quite readable, the narrative is not without some distracting flaws, notably pronoun usage, and would have benefitted from more rigid copyediting. That said, McAllen admirably sets a stage and does a good job of describing complicated scenarios, of which there are many. Further, she displays a strong grasp of the material and, importantly, understands the significance of this brief, often overlooked, period in Mexican history. It would be easy to focus solely on the European aspects of this story, but McAllen gives considerable attention to prominent Mexicans on both sides of what was essentially a Mexican civil war: juarista generals such as future president Porfirio Díaz and the sympathetic captor of Maximilian, Mariano Escobedo, as well as conservative leaders who backed the regime: former president Miguel Miramón and General Tomás Mejía, who died with Maximilian before a Mexican firing squad in 1867.
Among this book’s many strengths is a fine collection of illustrations, including a standalone gallery of photographs of the main players in this Mexican tragedy. Completing the package, the author includes lavish endnotes, a helpful bibliography, and good index. There is, however, one major omission. This is a sweeping story full of references to cities large and small, roads and routes and castles, and places in Mexico and Europe with which many readers might not be familiar. A good map—at least one of Mexico—would promote a better understanding of the events depicted.
McAllen has produced a much-needed fresh look at an often neglected and misunderstood period in North American history and in so doing makes clear that this [End Page 170] was a much more...