BOOK REVIEW / One last shot in Mexico: 'Maximilian and Juarez' - Jasper Ridley: Constable, 16.95

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The Independent Culture
ON THE coast, within sight of the city of Trieste, there shimmers the romantic Victorian Gothic castle of Miramar, built by the Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian and his wife Charlotte, known as Carlotta. He was the younger brother of Franz Josef, who ruled Austria from the aftermath of the Revolution of 1848 until the middle of the First World War; she was the beautiful daughter of the wise King Leopold of the Belgians.

It was to Miramar that emissaries of the conservative party in Mexico came in 1864 to ask Maximilian to become their emperor. They were desperate to find a leader around whom they could rally to defeat the liberals who, led by the Indian Benito Juarez, had won the War of the Reform.

The story has the romantic fatality of grand opera. Noble of brow and beard, with vague good intentions, a truly Habsburg sense of his own importance, and none too many brains, Maximilian stumbled with tragic inevitability towards his fate. At first the Mexicans shouted 'Long live the Emperor of Mexico]' With the help of Napoleon III's soldiers, it looked as if Juarez and the liberals would be annihilated and Juarez, the legitimate president of the Republic as far as at least half the Mexicans were concerned, would be driven over the border into the United States like an outlaw.

Maximilian never understood how deeply his own party's hands were stained in blood, and how unpopular its leaders were. He oscillated feebly between generosity towards the rebels and a weak man's ferocity. In the end he was betrayed by Napoleon III, who pulled out his troops rather than risk war with the United States, leaving his agent Maximilian to his fate.

Courageous to the last, he blundered into a trap at Quertaro, was captured and, in spite of all efforts to save his life, shot. The final scene was immortalised by Manet in a painting as magnificent as it is inaccurate. (Maximilian stood on the left, because one of his fellow victims was superstititious about occupying the position taken by that one of the thieves crucified with Christ who did not go to heaven; and he died wearing a white hat, not the Mexican musician's creation of the painting.)

Carlotta escaped to Europe before the catastrophe, but - whether out of shame at her husband's fate or anger at his infidelities - she went most operatically mad. She lived until 1927, when she was 86, speaking of herself in the third person, and saying to visitors, 'Yes, the mad woman is still alive'. One of the firing squad at Maximilian's execution outlived her by a quarter of a century and him by not far off a century.

Jasper Ridley has retold this libretto, verging as it does on the improbable, with diligent scholarship and great verve, and he has done his best to set the tragic story of Maxmilian against its background in the high politics of the mid-19th century. It is perhaps churlish to say so, since Ridley has ploughed through such voluminous materials to produce a readable narrative, but perhaps it would have been better to write a longer and more ambitious book. For this account leaves the reader with too many unanswered questions.

Why, for example, did Napoleon III want to take advantage of America's Civil War? Did he seriously contemplate, as Ridley suggests at one point, creating a French empire or commercial sphere of influence in Latin America as a whole? Or was this, like his other imperial expeditions and adventures in Asia and Africa, part of his effort to invoke the memory of his great-uncle and keep his own balance on his precarious throne?

What was American policy, not just towards the wretched Maximilian, but towards Mexico and Central America? After all, not 20 years before Maximilian's death American interests were trying to build a canal across Nicaragua, and the filibuster William Walker was trying to build a great slave empire in the Caribbean. Were those dreams still in the minds of the Confederate leaders?

It was Juarez's lieutenant, Porfirio Diaz, and his cientificos who became Washington's men in Mexico. If the victorious Republicans were ready to back Juarez against Maximilian, was it because of a shared hatred of monarchy? A determination to enforce the Monroe Doctrine against European interference in the New World? Or because Juarez and the liberals already promised greater opportunities for American investment? In other words, this account does not quite justify its title. It is an admirably readable retelling of the tragedy of Maximilian. It is sympathetic to Juarez. But it does not fully unravel the relations between Mexico and the Colossus of the North. And it still leaves Juarez, who was after all one of the first great non-European leaders to challenge European imperialism in the 19th century, a frustratingly shadowy figure.