Liberal Kingship: The Case of Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria

Author: Stephanie Truskowski

Picture of Stephanie Truskowski
Stephanie Truskowski at the Castle of Miramare, Maximilian's residence in Trieste

In the spring of 1864, a Habsburg archduke departed Trieste to take up the position of emperor of Mexico. Many historians treat this moment as the start of a story of French ambitions to create a puppet government in Latin America – a curiosity in the history of European relations to the rest of the world. My project views the moment when Maximilian accepted the Mexican crown instead as the culmination of developments both within the Habsburg empire and in Europe writ large and seeks to reconstruct the political imaginaries that led to the creation of a monarchy in Mexico. This summer, I traveled to Vienna and Trieste to do preliminary research for my dissertation dealing with the question of how Maximilian’s political involvement before the offer of the Mexican crown reflected an ideal form of European liberalism.

The history of the Second Mexican Empire has treated it as an event that only held relevance for Mexico. The body of scholarship on Maximilian has largely been limited to biographies and books that seek to explain why the empire failed. This post-mortem approach often treats Maximilian’s period as an archduke in Austria as a prelude to establishing his lack of political prospects in Austria. My research engages with the period before the offer of the Mexican crown to prioritize the European dimension of the moment, which has been largely missing in the historiography. I argue that the decisions that led to the Mexican project were deeply embedded in the diplomatic logic of the Concert of Europe. By virtue of the Habsburg empire having no colonial possessions, Habsburg history has lagged in engaging with global connections, creating the impression that the empire was insular. My project aims to demonstrate that Maximilian’s connection to these European ideological trends demonstrates the interconnectedness of the Habsburg empire to both European and global developments.

Picture of a box in an archive with the label "Max von Mexiko." There are a number of documents open on the table.
Documents in the Maximilian collection of the Vienna Court archives

I spent three weeks at the Haus, Hof, und Staatsarchiv in Vienna and one week at the Archivo di Stato di Trieste In particular, it was in the court archives in Vienna that I found a wealth of documents, such as Maximilian’s personal journals as well as the administrative documentation from his period as vice-admiral of the Austrian navy and from his period of Governor of Lombardy-Venetia. These spoke to his investment in a myriad of political developments including the progress of Italian unification, an uprising in Poland, and the diplomatic efforts to put forward candidates for the Greek throne – a discussion where Maximilian’s name was put forward by the British prime minister. Thanks to these elements, we can demonstrate two relevant points. Firstly, Maximilian was not as politically isolated nor as naive as many biographies have painted him. Secondly, the diplomatic logic of creating monarchies was not isolated to Mexico. The boxes that contained diplomatic correspondence discussing that the civil wars in Mexico and the United States represented the wholesale failure of republicanism. Brazil – which was a monarchy in the 1860s – emerged as the example of a viable state in the Americas. In constructing a monarchy in Mexico, the Great Powers sought to apply the idea of monarchy as a stabilizing factor to the rest of the world.

The archives from the Castle of Miramare proved to be enlightening not only for what they contained but also for what they lacked. The archives underwent an administrative restructuring in the 1870s that removed documents that were considered to be “politically relevant” to the empire to Vienna. In practice, this included all the documents dealing with the expansion of Trieste harbor and Maximilian’s involvement with Lloyds Austria – the commerce company headquartered in Trieste. This archival restructuring reveals that Maximilian was not politically irrelevant after his resignation as governor of Lombardy; his work as a patron of commerce was intertwined with the interests of the navy and the imperial economy. The visible gaps in the archive in Trieste speak to the fact that Maximilian was never truly uninvolved with the empire’s political landscape, and they also reveal the anxiety of the Habsburg state to protect any documentation of the archduke’s political involvement behind the walls of the court archive.

These documents open avenues of inquiry that are significant to my future research and the field as a whole. Firstly, the archives showed a wider European diplomatic political imaginary that was engaged with the crisis of democracy precipitated by the civil war in the United States and the ongoing question of the relationship between monarchy and elected institutions. Rather than being a uniquely French project, the Mexican empire was part of a larger European pattern. 

On a broad level, this project questions how we as scholars understand the relationship between Europe and the rest of the world. The conversation about imperial domination of colonies and former colonies is useful for understanding colonial powers like England and France. Yet, where does that leave the Habsburg empire, which never possessed overseas colonies? How do states and dynasties that were not formally involved in colonialism fit into the global currents of the nineteenth century? In arguing that the Second Mexican Empire was not solely a French imperial project, this research argues that only understanding Europe’s global connections through colonialism may be insufficient. This project proposes an alternative: That Europe’s involvement in global politics took a number of forms and that projects abroad could mirror internal political strategies instead of only belonging to a separate category of coloniality.

About the Author:

Stephanie Truskowski is a Ph.D. student who studies the history of Central Europe in the 19th century. She received a BA in History from UCLA, a Master’s in Modern History from Utrecht University, and a Master’s in Social Science from the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on the Habsburg empire and the overlapping concepts of nationalism, liberalism, and monarchy. Her research has also explored the international connections of the Habsburg empire and the German states to the Americas.

Her dissertation project will ask questions about Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian’s liberalism before the establishment of the second Mexican empire and the ways that European diplomatic norms reacted to instability and republicanism. It will also ask questions about how the Habsburg empire imagined overseas empire and the legacy of the Spanish Habsburgs.

Suggested Additional Readings:

  • Pieter Judson, Exclusive Revolutionaries: Liberal Politics, Social Experience, and National Identity in the Austrian Empire, 1848-1914 (Anne Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996)
  • Alison Frank Johnson, “The Children of the Desert and the Laws of the Sea: Austria, Great Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and the Mediterranean Slave Trade in the Nineteenth Century,” in American Historical Review 117, no. 2 (April 2012), 410-444
  • Dominique Kirscher Reill, Nationalists Who Feared the Nation: Adriatic Multi-Nationalism in Habsburg Dalmatia, Trieste, and Venice, Stanford Studies on Central and Eastern Europe (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012)