Europeans coming to Veracruz during the 19th century were invariably impressed by its large population of vultures and sharks. Those who arrived in the 1860s in pursuit of Napoleon III’s Mexican dream, or who followed in the train of Maximilian von Habsburg in the hope of sharing in the glory and profit of his new empire, found what one French officer called ‘these disgusting animals’ which ‘stalk you like a prey’ a sobering sight. Things were to turn out worse than their worst forebodings.
Mexico seemed to invite the sort of mutually advantageous interference – ‘civilisation’ supplied in return for trade and natural resources – that formed the standard imperial package. It was barely a state at all. The Americans had already seized nearly half its territory. The Church, vastly powerful thanks to its enormous wealth as much as its spiritual influence, had a larger income than the Government, and had recently used it to finance successful military coups. The Army belonged to regional warlords and their retainers. Local economic and political power was held by an estate-owning aristocracy, the hacendados, who ruled over an indebted peasantry that were little more than slaves. Liberal governments – anti-clerical and anti-military bourgeois nationalists, supported by disaffected warlords – had begun to limit the powers and nibble at the wealth of the Church, but their ‘modernising’ land policy was dispossessing the Indian peasantry of their communal lands and driving them to make common cause with the formidable conservative opposition which was not in favour of land reform. Torn by endemic struggles between warlords, with civil war shading into brigandage, and social, racial and religious divisions, Mexico seemed easy meat for further United States aggression, unless someone else got there first.
Ever since the country gained independence in the 1820s, Mexican conservatives had been attracted by the idea of importing a genuine European monarch, and finding a European power as protector. Britain had been approached a number of times, but the Empire had no vacancies. Lord John Russell defined his attitude to Mexico in what could serve as a permanent axiom of British diplomacy: ‘it would be ... unwise to provoke the ill feeling of North America unless some paramount object were in prospect, and tolerably easy of attainment.’ Besides, noted Palmerston, all these requests added up in the long run to 20,000 British troops and ‘many millions sterling’.
This shopkeeper’s mentality had no appeal for the heir of the Bonapartes, the Emperor Napoleon III. Ever since the Revolution, the need for a successfully assertive foreign policy had seemed evident to many progressive-minded Frenchmen, not least as a remedy for internal divisions. There were recurrent fantasies of a ‘French India’ that could put France in the first rank of world powers, and various parts of the world, some of them rather unlikely, were successively cast in this role. Governments had had an eye on Central America for half a century. A little imagination could show Mexico as a prize well worth a calculated risk: the key to Central America, a possible canal route to the Pacific, and a vast new sphere of political and economic influence. The visionary socialist Fourier declared it the natural capital of the world. An astute seizure of initiative would dazzle France and Europe with another of Napoleon III’s sleights of hand: it would be hailed as ‘the great idea of the reign’, and would carry the added bonus of annoying the Americans and halting their frequently predicted rise to superpower status. Only boldness and imagination would enable France to punch above its weight in the world of the future, and the American Civil War provided a window of opportunity.
It is easy, if not inescapable, to condemn France’s gratuitous meddling in Mexico as cynical, opportunistic, amoral – the sort of blunder that Fouché regarded as worse than a crime. There are a few extenuating circumstances, however. Napoleon III, a rare (fortunately) combination of mystic and manipulator, saw himself as representing moderation and progress. His mission, he had said, was to end the era of revolutions by satisfying the legitimate needs of the people. ‘Liberal dictator ship’, as he called it, seemed to have done the trick in France, and ought to work in Mexico too, bringing order and progress, attracting foreign investment and keeping the national territory intact. In French eyes, the justification of this well-meaning imperialism was the unique global mission of France to spread ‘the values of 1789’, if possible by example, but if necessary by the force of what Michelet called her ‘sacred bayonets’.
As Jasper Ridley shows, Archduke Maximilian lent himself to this risky venture with a characteristic mixture of eagerness and indecision. When he first met Napoleon III in 1856, he was rightly suspicious, but for the wrong – purely snobbish – reasons: he disliked the ‘parvenu etiquette’ at his court and found the company ‘unbelievably mixed’. But he was in the classic position of the younger son, and the offer of a crown of his own, first made in 1861, when his prospects of a career in Europe were limited, proved irresistible, in spite of the prescient pessimism of Prince Albert and his own brother Franz Josef.
In 1861, following confiscations by the Mexicans of foreign-owned property and a default on state bonds, Britain, France and Spain agreed to send a naval and military force, ostensibly to occupy the port of Veracruz and seize its customs revenues in compensation for their losses. It was soon evident that the French had greater ambitions: to take control of the whole country and install a client government under Maximilian. The British and Spanish withdrew their forces.
On the face of it, a royal couple more suitable for export could scarcely be imagined. Maximilian was a scion of the most illustrious of royal houses, used to governing an unlikely combination of polyglot subjects. Charlotte was the beautiful and ambitious daughter of the most successful off-the-peg monarch, Leopold I of the Belgians, who had shown since 1831 how ersatz German royalty could offer a new and shaky state stability, dignity, neutrality and valuable connections. Maximilian was said to have moderately liberal inclinations. In reality, as Ridley neatly puts it, he was ‘modern-minded in superficial ways’. In less superficial ways he was a caricature of blue-blooded doltishness: dim, indecisive, narrow-minded, stingy, snobbish, arrogant, fond of tasteless jokes. His first reforming impulse was to draft an etiquette book for his imperial court.
Accounts vary as to how those of his new subjects who met him reacted. They must have been disappointed by his habit of going to bed at 8 o’clock, thus missing the late-night opera which was the great social event of Mexico City. Photographs show a rabbity-looking individual with a grotesque profusion of whiskers of the type that then passed for male beauty. Ridley suggests that he charmed those he came in contact with, especially ladies of the court. He certainly had a liaison with the gardener’s daughter – rather a Habsburg speciality. He went in for the usual palace building and pursued the common royal interest in collecting things: in his case, botanical specimens. He even played some cricket. But he showed little political or administrative acumen. It would have needed the talents of a Raffles or a Rhodes to make a go of the throne of Mexico, but Maximilian was no buccaneer: his most testing experience to date had been mingling with ‘tailors’, ‘cobblers’ and ‘English shopkeepers’ at a court ball at Laeken.
Probably none of this mattered much. Those who had chosen him – Mexican conservatives and Napoleon III – neither expected nor wanted him to show initiative. French generals – the most famous of them was Achille Bazaine, later notorious for surrendering Metz to the Prussians – acted as proconsuls. Maximilian was their rubber stamp. The problem for Napoleon and Maximilian, however, was that they wanted to steer a middle course between the conservatism of the Church, the large landowners and the warlords, who were their supporters, and the nationalist, republican liberals, who would not accept a foreign monarchy at any price. Moderately enlightened measures – concerning peasant rights, for example – annoyed the conservatives without winning over the liberals, though they gained the loyalty of many Indians. But the small property-owners who provided the bedrock of Bonapartism in France simply did not exist in Mexico, where most people sensibly rallied to whichever side was the stronger. This meant that Maximilian’s Government relied on armed force, above all the sacred bayonets of France.
The veteran wielders of those bayonets, generally hailed as ‘the finest army in the world’, found that Mexico offered a spectrum of discomforts, ranging from those they knew from the Sahara to those they had recently encountered in the Crimea, often in rapid succession. Heat, thirst, cold, few roads, no railways, seas of mud, myriads of mosquitoes and, worst of all, a selection of deadly diseases, especially yellow fever, the vomito negro, whose victims died vomiting dark blood ‘which looks like coffee with the grounds suspended in it’, as Douglas Porch records in his history of the Foreign Legion. Moreover, they found themselves entangled in a guerrilla war against enemies who sprang ambushes and galloped away unscathed. The only Mexican engagement celebrated in French military history, the last stand at Camerón in April 1863 by an isolated, surprised and outnumbered Foreign Legion detachment, was – significantly – not a victory but a massacre.
On 16 January 1865, a plump and resilient Austrian lieutenant, Ernst Pitner, a member of a typical Viennese family of bureaucrats and officers, arrived hopefully at Veracruz, where he too noticed the vultures: ‘one can almost regard them as the pigeons of St Mark’s.’ Far from rich and way down the list for promotion at home, he was one of seven thousand Austro-Hungarians who volunteered to follow Maximilian to Mexico, with the grudging consent of the Austrian Government. His surviving diaries and letters to his mother, recently discovered, are now published for the first time with an excellent commentary by a descendant, Gordon Etherington-Smith, and a useful background note by Don Coerver. They give a realistic picture of the unenviable lot of a 19th-century soldier of fortune, and if not a major historical source, they contain much of interest and not a little unconscious humour.
Optimistic on arrival, vultures notwithstanding, and armed with a wad of letters of recommendation, Pitner was hoping for a cushy job at Maximilian’s court. Instead, he was dispatched with his corps to various uncomfortable and more or less disease-ridden provinces, where he and his comrades – clearly from the same army as the Good Soldier Schweik and his Lieutenant Lukash – passed dreary months worrying about money (everything was dearer than they expected), dreaming about promotion, buying and selling horses, fighting the occasional duel and gambling at cards. He invariably lost, and his hopes of finding compensation by being lucky in love proved vain. Although staff officers strutting about in Mexico City sometimes achieved dazzling marriages with the adolescent daughters of wealthy hacendados (as, notoriously, did General Bazaine himself), subalterns out in the sticks were lucky if they could attract a few sedate Mexican ladies and their chaperones to tea-dances – a severe drain on mess funds which gave no return on the investment.
The guerrilla war settled down into sporadic and futile forays against mainly civilian targets in a rising spiral of atrocities, reprisals and more atrocities – hangings, shootings, burnings, torture, rape, extortion, mutilation. The fighting became an end in itself, with its own grisly satisfactions. (Meanwhile, the well-meaning Maximilian was planning to release two thousand imported European birds to improve his palace garden.) Guerrilla warfare was familiar to the French Army, whose long campaigns in Algeria had produced their own techniques of terror. They found willing volunteers and mercenaries to man ‘counter-guerrilla’ units, whose aim was to fight fire with fire, and answer terror with terror. General Bazaine retreated into the awkward hypocrisy of the ‘civilised’ commander, hoping that his troops could leave the dirtiest work to the Mexicans. In October 1865, Maximilian signed an order – ultimately fatal to himself – to shoot Republican prisoners on the spot.
It was this fairly small-scale mayhem – there were never more than about twenty thousand French troops involved – that ultimately decided the fate of Maximilian’s empire and perhaps even of Napoleon’s. Napoleon, who had quickly realised that things were going wrong, prepared discreetly to cut his losses. He had backed the wrong horse – the Confederacy – in the American Civil War, and to stay in Mexico once that war was over was to risk an unwinnable conflict with the United States. Generals Grant and Sheridan – without the support of their government, which was reluctant to tangle with ‘the finest army in the world’ – encouraged French fears by engaging in military activity along the Texas bordar, and by supplying arms to Juárez’s Republican forces.
The diplomatic dimension on both continents is very well covered by Ridley, who gives us a competent narrative of the tangled events as a whole, without attempting to explain them in depth. At the European end, he tends to stress personal contacts and ambitions. At the Mexican end, it is never very clear why all these alarms and excursions are happening at all – which puts the reader in much the same position as Maximilian. One can easily forgive Ridley for not having written a monograph on Mexican society or European diplomacy: plenty of those exist already. Yet without some broader background analysis, the story is one of unfathomable factional struggles and incomprehensible skirmishes. More disappointingly, this lurid little epic, a combination of Gabriel García Márquez and a particularly nasty spaghetti Western, is rather baldly described. Ridley gives us a good idea of what Maximilian was like and a little of Charlotte. But Juárez remains shadowy, although his career, from his birth in an Indian village to the presidency of the Republic, was extraordinary. And the large cast of adventurers, scheming ecclesiastics, sweating soldiers, sadists, maniacs, crooks, idealists and politicians only occasionally comes to life.
One of these was Pitner. A duel temporarily paralysed his sword arm. Half his company died of yellow fever. When a substantial Austrian detachment was ordered to march overland as escort to a large convoy, it was attacked by a vastly superior Republican force and slaughtered Pitner was wounded in the face and neck by a cavalry sabre, and was lucky not to have been finished off. As it was, he might well have died from his wound – his gullet was severed – but in spite (or perhaps because) of receiving no attention from the army surgeons, he was soon able to drink and eat again, even it what he swallowed then dribbled out of the hole in his neck. There followed months of dreary captivity, when even this irrepressible correspondent admitted he could not find anything to write about – except his financial situation, which was always going from bad to worse.
Those who had the option of leaving did so, and the realisation that the French were abandoning them faced Maximilian and Charlotte with a difficult decision. She left for Europe to rally support, but very soon went mad, having already shown signs of mental instability while still in Mexico. Maximilian – at least, in the romantic interpretation – stayed behind nobly to meet his fate. In fact, he could not make up his mind, and left his escape too late. Pitner, belatedly realising what was up, believed that he was reluctant to abdicate because if he did so Napoleon III would shift the blame for the debacle onto him. Eventually Maximilian was besieged with his remaining forces at Querétaro. It was to be his sad apotheosis – and Pitner’s finest hour. He had been released by the Republicans on the understanding that he would return home. But, in debt and with nothing but his second lieutenant’s commission in the Austrian Army to go back to, he could not resist playing double or quits, and rejoined the Emperor. He was rapidly promoted to lieutenant-colonel and commanded the élite light infantry, which he seems to have led with courage, despite having some difficulty in moving his bulks frame around in the heat; and he received several more wounds. Unfortunately, Pitner’s diaries for this, the most exciting and important period of his adventure, do not survive, or perhaps he was too busy to write them up. Finally, as in so many of his barrack-room card games, he ended up with misère: Querétaro fell on 15 May 1867.
Maximilian tried ineffectually to escape and then surrendered. He and his two leading Mexican generals were court-martialled and sentenced to be shot. European and American intercession failed to win a reprieve: feelings in the liberal camp ran too high. Juárez, feared that mercy would be seen as weakness, and also that an exiled Maximilian would act as a rallying point for dissidents. The Emperor faced death with dignity, and with a Habsburg concern for etiquette – deciding who should stand where facing the firing-squad. His final words were regarded by some as moving: ‘Men of my class and race are created by God to be the happiness of nations or their martyrs.’
The rest is history, or rather, art history. Manet’s paintings of the execution, which provide the dust-jacket of both these books, were the most memorable expression of the sensation it caused in Europe, but far wider circulation was given to postcards showing Maximillan’s bullet-torn clothes and his clumsily embalmed corpse in its coffin (left, noted Pitner, ‘like a bit of old junk in a corner of a dark and dirty room’ while diplomats haggled about how to dispose of it). The French Government banned the postcards and excluded Manet’s painting from the official 1869 Salon.
Pitner was lucky to escape his emperor’s fate. After further months of imprisonment, seemingly abandoned by the Austrian Government, he was allowed to return home, having lost everything, including his medals and kit, and being owed substantial and irrecoverable arrears of pay. He was eventually given a job in the consular service, and there he ended his days. Others were not so fortunate, meeting little sympathy in an Austria defeated and diminished in their absence by the fateful war with Prussia of 1866. The disabled, Etherington-Smith notes, received no compensation or pension, and had to ‘eke out a miserable existence to the end of their lives’,
Napoleon III also paid a price. Mexico confirmed growing apprehensions about his competence. The military strain of the expedition was one reason for his inability to mediate effectively during the crucial war between Prussia and Austria. Fears inside France about his trustworthiness hampered the expansion of the Army he undertook in order to face up to the strength victorious Prussia. In 1870 the fear of further humiliation look him into a war with Germany after he refused to countenance Bismarck’s plan to have a German prince succeed to the Spanish throne – the crisis was triggered by Generel Prim, the Spanish dictator who had quarrelled with the French over Mexico in 1862. The ‘finest army in the world’ was crushed, and the fate of Europe profoundly altered. The civil war that followed defeat saw some veterans of the Mexican ‘counter-guerrilla’ using their well-honed methods against the Republicans of Paris in May 1871: the summary shooting of prisoners seems to have become a reflex. Interestingly, the banker Jecker, whose highly profitable investments had been a cause of the Mexican intervention, was one of the few hostages shot by the Paris insurgents: they, too, remembered Mexico. The Empress Charlotte lived on until 1927. Maximilian’s son by the gardener’s daughter was shot by the French as a spy in 1917. One member of the Querétaro firing-squad out-lived them all: he died in 1952, at the age of 111.