To hear the author M.M. McAllen talk about the subjects of her latest book, “Maximilian and Carlota: Europe’s Last Empire in Mexico,” you’d think she was a master chef espousing on the importance of local produce or a high-amp televangelist spreading the word of the gospel.
It was many years ago that McAllen walked into a gallery in Manhattan and stumbled across an old photograph of Maximillian von Habsburg unceremoniously stretched out in a coffin, already partially decayed. It certainly didn’t look the death mask of an emperor, and almost immediately, a fire of curiosity was born.
Who was this man?
A bright twinkle glows in her eyes when McAllen throws out names like Tomás Mejía, Jose Luis Blasio, and Augustin Fischer. It is through the stories of these many characters that you begin to see the passion that inspired more than six years of research that took McAllen across three continents and into the archives of royalty and conquerors. It is that passion that drives this new telling of Mexico’s Second Empire and Louis Napoléon’s installation of Maximilian von Habsburg and his wife, Carlota of Belgium, as the emperor and empress of Mexico, and her literary prowess that brings the dramatic and tragic story of a six-year siege to life.
In “Maximilian and Carlota,” M. M. McAllen offers readers a highly detailed and vivid portrait of a unique marriage and of the international politics and high society surrounding the French rule in Mexico.
April marks the 150th anniversary of Maximilian’s installation as emperor of Mexico by Napoleon III. It was during that time that France saw the American Civil War as an opportunity to seize territory in Mexico and made an all-out bid to annihilate Benito Juárez’s regime and claim Mexico, and thus to gain a foothold in North America.
“Maximilian and Carlota” details Napoléon’s intrepid scheme to install Maximilian as emperor, through the three years following, and closes when the effort ends in disaster for France and for Maximilian and Carlota. This disastrous story is largely unknown in the history of the Americas, and McAllen brings the cultural and ideological clashes of the era to life.
The story of Maximillian and Carlota highlights the incongruities that occur when numerous cultures, in this case not only from Mexico and Europe, but also from Asia and Africa, come together under tense circumstances. The liminal qualities of this story—so many foreigners in a foreign land—make for a fascinating glimpse into the 19th century, the philosophies of European heads of state, a newly emerging Mexico, and the shake-up in the United States.
The empire’s violent collapse is one of the most spectacular personal tragedies and political failures of the 19th century, ending with the execution of Maximilian by firing squad and Carlota on the brink of madness. The two could not have anticipated that the Mexican nation would no longer tolerate foreign interference or the seismic political shifts that were already in motion. Even with the lives lost and the bloodshed, Maximilian’s short reign helped usher in a new era of national unity for Mexico, and it remains an important part of Mexican history.
“Maximilian and Carlota” offers a fast-faced, compelling read for anyone interested in the socioeconomic and political history of Europe and the Americas, and for any armchair student of the human condition. Though one paid with his life and the other with her sanity, Maximilian and Carlota remain an indelible part of the soul of Mexico, considered by many among the most colorful figures in Mexico’s rich historical pageant.
RR: How did you become fascinated with the story of Maximilian and Carlota?
MM: Through my adolescence and young adult years, I spent a great deal of time in Cuernavaca and Mexico City with my Mexican relatives. On a regular basis, their family mentioned Emperor Maximilian and his wife Carlota, how they lived, how they dined, and the intrigues of their court. Later, while on a trip to New York I found a 1867 photograph of Maximilian, embalmed and laying in a crude casket. It so fascinated me I bought it and and kept thinking about the story. When collector friends in the U.S. invited me to examine rare caches of documents on this period regarding the battles to secure Mexico and interventions by the Americans, my curiosity peaked. My search for a book to answer questions about this curious and long-forgotten episode, proved that no well-documented book had been written with an American prospective. Having researched the period for my degree, I decided to craft a retelling of Maximilian and Carlota’s history using these new documents with a fresh look at first-hand materials in Austria, Italy, Mexico, and Belgium. The story just had be presented again.
RR: Of all the different characters in the book, who is your favorite and why?
MM: Aside from Maximilian, Carlota, and Juarez, all fascinating on their own, Felix Salm-Salm stands out as the ultimate adventurer with a heart of gold for Maximilian. He comes in at the end to try to save Maximilian from great calamity.
RR: What can their story teach us about the Mexico of today?
MM: That the richness of culture we see in Mexico today is very much produced by impacting historic events. In many ways, the incursions into Mexico from outside forces bent on showing the people how best to run their country and treat the people, only annealed their resolve to create their own nation. However, they kept the best parts of the French, Austrian, and Belgian cultures, especially the foods and music, and assimilated them into their own traditions.
RR: What are you working on now?
MM: Researching a new book on Woodrow Wilson’s near invasion of Mexico in 1917. After the discovery of German collaborators within the Mexican government, who fomented violence and rebellion, it was believed that an attack on the United States was imminent. The story involves a mysterious telegram intercepted in London, the intervention of John J. (Black Jack) Pershing in Mexico, and the launching of U.S. dreadnoughts to Veracruz.
RR: What book are you currently reading?
MM: “The Selected Letters of Willa Cather,” Willa Cather, (eds. Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout) and “The Son,” Philipp Meyer.
M.M. McAllen will appear at the San Antonio Book Festival. Click here to check out the schedule online. Download the full festival schedule as a PDF here. For a more interactive approach, download Eventbase from the app store on your phone (iPhone or Android) and customize your own schedule for the day by choosing your favorites.
*Featured/top image: Maximilian and Carlota (1957). Photo in the U.S. public domain.