On 20 October 1861, while in Paris, Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph Maria von Hapsburg, brother of the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, received a letter from Jose Maria Gutierrez de Estrada, a Mexican nobleman, inviting him to take the long-vacant throne of Mexico. The future Maximilian I, Emperor of Mexico and his wife eventually arrived at Veracruz in 1864 with the support of Napoleon III of France. Their reign was short, and Maximilian was killed in 1867.

What is the minimum change to history that would allow Maximilian to survive as Emperor, and for his dynasty to last in Mexico until at least World War I? (Hint: so Mexico can go to war with the US in that conflict!)

Changes can take place anywhere after 1861 (and presumably before 1867).

  • $\begingroup$ This change would have to happen in a shorter time window - by the end of 1865, Mexican liberal forces would either had to be completely defeated or somehow turned to Maximilian' s side. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 0:39
  • $\begingroup$ Taking the USA out of the equation is the obvious choice. If you can contrive a way to start the American Civil War later (or start Mexico's earlier), then Lincoln can't afford to meaningful back the Liberals in Vera Cruz, nor to pressure Napoleon III into withdrawing direct support for Maximilian, in the way that Johnson historically did. $\endgroup$
    – abarnert
    Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 1:15
  • $\begingroup$ Another thing you could try is for France to end up closer to the Union. Obviously France isn't going to actually ally with them, but just shifting their diplomatic weight over a bit, with Napoleon III echoing Seward's demands on Europe, etc., might be enough to make Lincoln unwilling to push France in other areas, including Mexico. I'm not sure how you contrive this. Maybe the Confederate cotton embargo hits France harder (maybe because England prevents France from getting access to west Asian cotton?), still not hard enough to have the desired effect, but enough to piss them off? $\endgroup$
    – abarnert
    Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 1:20
  • $\begingroup$ @abarnert You should research and write and answer, then you won't be limited by the size of your comments $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 1:23
  • $\begingroup$ This is a historical what-if question. What does it have to do with worldbuilding? $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 4:21

3 Answers 3

  1. 1862: Jefferson Davis petitions Maximilian for help in the US Civil War.


Such a thing would have, inadvertently, greatly expanded Austrian influence in the New World given that the establishment of a Habsburg monarchy in Mexico (or rather the ‘reestablishment’) would have given Austria a sort of foothold in the region. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was certainly aware of this and tried to enlist the Prussian observer, Captain Justus Scheibert, as an envoy to Emperor Napoleon III of France. He proposed a sort of Franco-Confederate alliance, pointing out that in the Mexican War (of which Davis was a noted veteran) the U.S. had defeated Mexico with only 12,000 men and that if Napoleon would lift the Union blockade of the southern coast, which Davis believed could be done with ‘the stroke of a pen’ and would ensure a Confederate victory, he would supply 20,000 Confederate troops to aid the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, explaining that southern troops were adjusted to the climate and familiar with the fighting style of the Mexicans.

  1. Napoleon is unwilling to battle the Union to lift the blockade, but agrees to supply the Confederates via Mexico through Texas.


While far from the major battlefields of the American Civil War, Texas contributed large numbers of men and equipment to the rest of the Confederacy.[112] Union troops briefly occupied the state's primary port, Galveston. Texas's border with Mexico was known as the "backdoor of the Confederacy" because trade occurred at the border, bypassing the Union blockade.[113] The Confederacy repulsed all Union attempts to shut down this route...

In their role as Confederate allies, Texas hosts an increasing Mexican presence. Davis is good on his word, and early in the civil war a large contingent of Texans and Confederates march into Mexico, routing the domestic opponents of Maximilian.

  1. Mexico resurgent. With the fall of the Confederacy, Texas risks chaos. The occupying Mexican armed forces present prevent this, keeping order and repulsing Unionist opportunists seeking loot. The Texans are appreciative and rather than slink back into the Unions as conquered foes, Texas chooses to rejoin the Mexican state. Mexico then claims back the territories it lost in the Mexican American war. The weary Union does not resist.

A flood of refugees from the fallen South enters Texas and the reclaimed Mexican states. Among them are the elite of the South. These take their place as the aristocracy of the West. The European-leaning elite of Mexico is invigorated with this new blood, and Mexico benefits from the skills of the refugees.

  1. 1867: Having avenged Mexico's honor against the Americans and restored her lands, Maximilian is loved by his people and respected by the European powers. 50 years later when the equivalent of the Zimmermann telegram arrives to invite Mexico to ally itself with German and Austria-Hungry, Maximilian II does not hesitate.
  • $\begingroup$ I think 1862 is a bit early for a Davis-Maximilian alliance. Maximilian had already turned down one offer for the crown, and I don't think anything Davis could have done would have convinced him before Napoleon III's offer and the subsequent late 1863 plebiscite. $\endgroup$
    – abarnert
    Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 3:02
  • $\begingroup$ The problem is that by late 1863, although it might actually be easier to convince Napoleon and Franz Joseph to take a risk (now that the advisors who'd said the Confederacy would fall in under a year could be pretty safely ignored), it might be too late. By then, the Union controlled the whole length of the Mississippi. Historically, once that happened, most of the food and clothing smuggled into Texas failed to reach the rest of the Confederacy, so I'm not sure arms would have been any more useful. $\endgroup$
    – abarnert
    Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 3:06

If you're looking for something Maximilian himself could have done differently, either make the concessions to Juárez even better, or withdraw them once Juárez rejected them. Every other major choice he had seems like it would be too little, too late.

But the biggest factors in his defeat all come down to the USA: Lincoln's open secret program of "losing" munitions at El Paso del Norte, which evolved into Johnson openly arming Díaz's partisans; Seward's hardcore diplomatic pressure on France to withdraw and other countries to stay involved (according to Empress Charlotte, although this may have been partially paranoia on her part, "Everywhere I turn for aid, Seward has been there first, and doors shut in my face"); rumors that Johnson was seriously considering an invasion on behalf of Juárez… there's just no way to win with all of that happening. So, the key is to keep the USA uninvolved.

The easy way is to just push the Civil War back a couple years; by 1867, the Empire could plausibly have been a fait accompli.

The more interesting way is to change US interests just enough to prevent that involvement. Which is challenging, but not impossible.

It all starts with the Cotton Embargo.

  • In April 1861, the CSA began a voluntary embargo on cotton exports. The theory was that this would drive Britain and France to the brink of a depression, they would blame the Union blockade, and sweep the seas of the Union navy. The historical result is that it was laughably ineffective, and only managed to mildly annoy the French.

  • The first problem was that the CSA started the embargo too early, before the Union blockade was even set up, so nobody would have blamed the North if there were a problem. Leave that the same in your history.

  • The second problem was that France had their second year in a row of massive crop failures, meaning wheat and corn imports from the North were far more important than cotton. At the same time, England's Egyptian cotton plantations had a bumper crop, and were able to massively expand operations.

  • Reverse the two, and France really would have faced serious economic hardship, and blamed it entirely on the CSA.

When Seward makes his declaration that anyone who aids the CSA is at war with the Union, instead of ignoring it (but doing little to aid the CSA), Napoleon III, to spite the South, wholeheartedly agrees, and insists that all European states remain neutral.

Instead of spending the rest of the war alternating between veiled and open threats to keep Europe out of the war, the US State Department begins cultivating friendly relations. When France has a crop failure in 1862 instead of 1861, Seward takes advantage of the trade agreements to strengthen the positive ties. Of course the French still aren't going to back the Union, but their diplomatic position is far more pro-North than it would have been, and that carries a lot of weight in the rest of the Europe.

  • By 1863, rather than unilaterally declaring a Mexican Empire, Napoleon III encourages Maximilian to bring the USA in to arbitrate.
  • Being still busy fighting the Civil War, there's little the USA could practically do if they turned this down, so they accept.
  • The Seward Compromise is Juárez as Imperial Prime Minister, and a pledge to continue his social programs (that Maximilian wanted to continue anyway). In exchange, both France and the Union pledging to support the compromise government, and France promises only limited troop deployments.
  • A group of Maximilian's Conservative backers announce they will withdraw support if he agrees to it—but he agrees anyway.
  • Now it's down to Juárez. It's basically the same deal he turned down historically—but getting the deal from the USA rather than from Maximilian makes a big difference, and Maximilian being more cut off from both native and French support makes it a lot easier to trust him to keep to his side.
  • Juárez, despite being reluctant and wary, sees it as the best option, and signs.

  • Juárez gives a famous speech, known as Los Cien Días, asking the people to give the new government 100 days before passing judgment.
  • Porfirio Díaz refuses to join the government, or to merge his army with the Imperial army, but agrees to the 100 days.
  • For 50 days, everything seems to be going well. Maximilian keeps his word, allowing Juárez's reforms to continue. Napoleon III keeps his word too, sending only limited troops.
  • Then comes the Hacendado Coup. A group of Maximilian's original strongest supporters, together with some retired French and Austrian officers, capture most of Mexico City, and announce the dissolution of the government. They claim they're doing this for the benefit of the Emperor, but Maximilian announces that he remains faithful to the government, and calls on all of the people of the Empire to support him.
  • Díaz quickly moves to retake the city. The French troops, after a tense standoff, withdraw to the port to avoid taking sides. Díaz quickly restores order, and Juárez welcomes him in the name of the Emperor.
  • A few months later, the American Civil War ends, and Lincoln is shot. Johnson isn't very happy with the Empire next door, but there's not much he can do about it. Maximilian and his government are successful and popular, the key revolutionary figures have been co-opted.
  • The USA begins a policy of trying to sway Mexico closer to their side, but it has little effect. While Mexico does drift away from France, especially after the Third Republic is declared in 1870, the main beneficiary is Austria.
  • In 1900, after a long and mostly successful reign, Maximilian is succeeded by his nephew, Otto Franz.
  • In 1914, Emperor Otto I's older brother Franz Ferdinand is assassinated, and Mexico is the third country to declare war on France.
  • In 1917, Germany decides it needs to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, even though it will probably draw the USA into the war. Their allies in Mexico preemptively declare war and launch an immediate invasion.

Perhaps it is not the minimum change, but certainly it would be a sufficient change. I suggest that the continuation of the American civil war for perhaps another four years would do it. France would have stayed interested in the American political scene, and America would continue to be distracted. Ferdinand would have continued to receive French support.

Also recalling that the US annexed Texas only 20 years earlier, had Mexico persevered and won border concessions, keeping larger parts of New Mexico and Texas itself, would there have been more support for Ferdinand? Mexico would have been far stronger economically. Certainly if Mexico had declared war with America over the annexation, all bets would be off.

There can also be no doubt that if Texas had not agreed to its annexation, America would not have been strong enough to interfere with Mexican affairs.

But the least change? Had Ferdinand executed Juarez early in the process, instead of negotiating with him, and all of his immediate leadership, he might have survived. Either that, or Juarez agrees to join Ferdinand's government, instead of rejection the offer, the internal civil war might have ended.

  • $\begingroup$ I like the Civil War idea, but I will say that the US had just spanked Mexico in a way, and it had some ~30 million to ~8 million people; so I don't really see Mexico getting Texas back. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 3:10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @kingledion I do not recall 'practicality' to be a criteria. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 13:37

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