Massimiliano was born on 6 July 1832 in Vienna, in the Schönbrunn Palace, as the second son of Archduke Francis Charles of Hapsburg-Lorraine and Princess of Bavaria Sofia. While he was entitled to Prince Imperial and Archduke of Austria, his brother Franz Joseph became Emperor of Austria. From a young age, Maximilian had a strong intelligence and showed a particular inclination for the arts and sciences. Influenced by progressive ideas in vogue at the time, it soon became a "liberal" reputation.
In February 1857 he became viceroy of Lombardy-Veneto and as governor general of this region he tried to meet Italians with a friendly attitude. But almost every time the archduke tried to take political initiatives aimed at greater administrative autonomy, he clashed with the court in Vienna and with the will of his brother Francesco Giuseppe. He was repeatedly reprimanded with harshness by the emperor and finally dismissed. Since then Massimiliano retired embittered in his beautiful castle of Miramare near Trieste.
After the ruinous Austrian military defeat against Prussia at Königgrätz, more voices were heard in Vienna against Francesco Giuseppe, demanding his abdication in favor of Maximilian, which many considered more affable and likeable. This was undoubtedly a warning signal for the emperor and the opportunity to get rid of his brother in a diplomatic and elegant manner came soon.
When the French emperor Napoleon III conquered, with a military expedition, the Republic of Mexico, he offered Massimiliano the crown of the future Mexican empire. Francesco Giuseppe, as head of the House of Habsburg, gave his brother permission, but insisted that Maximilian, in return, renounce the throne forever in Austria. Massimiliano, who was also rather ambitious, willingly gave up and set off, all happy, for Mexico where he hoped to finally realize, undisturbed by the beloved court of Vienna, his political ideas of a liberal and moderate monarchy.
But when Maximilian arrived in Mexico he knew practically nothing about the country. He did not know in what political and military vespaio he would find himself, he had not the slightest idea of the chaotic situation that prevailed in the country and that the French troops would soon abandon the country completely, thus creating a very dangerous situation for Maximilian.
He did not know that the Mexican republicans, led by Carlo Benito Juarez, did not want, at any cost, to accept a foreign government and would immediately start fighting against the new emperor from Europe. And no one had informed him that even the neighbors of the United States of America did not like the intrusion of a European force in an area that was part of their sphere of interests.
The crown of King of Mexico, given to him by Napoleon III, not to burn his hands in a politically very hot area, and by his brother Francesco Giuseppe, to turn him away from the crown of Emperor of Austria, soon proved to be a poisoned gift.
In his ingenuity and in his ignorance of the political forces of the Massimiliano country he accumulated errors on errors: with some liberal decrees he adopted many of the policies proposed by the republican Juarez, such as agrarian reform, freedom of religion and extension of the right to vote to the classes peasant. But so he created enemies among his conservative allies. On the other hand he decreed that Juarez and his followers who did not want to submit to his crown were banished, and that anyone who met them had to shoot them on both feet. It was a fatal mistake that had the only result of making his reforms ineffective and of further inflicting all Republican opponents.
The Republicans, supported with arms and money from the United States of America, assaulted the imperial troops and reconquered the country. Massimiliano, now completely alone, could have escaped to Europe, but hesitated, because having renounced his archduke rights, in Austria he no longer had prospects for a high position. Francesco Giuseppe then returned his title, believing that the Mexican rebels would treat with more respect an Austrian archduke. But Juarez was not the least impressed by the gesture of the emperor of Austria. Many sovereigns of Europe and other famous people (including Victor Hugo and Giuseppe Garibaldi) sent messages to save Massimiliano's life, but Juárez refused. He wanted to send the signal that Mexico would never again tolerate governments imposed by foreign powers.
Dopo un assedio durato alcune settimane Massimiliano, che si era arroccato nella piccola città di Queretaro, decise di tentare la fuga, ma venne intercettato e, dopo un breve processo davanti a una corte marziale, fu condannato a morte e fucilato. Così finì, dopo appena tre anni, l'infelice avventura messicana di Massimiliano.
Il corpo di Massimiliano venne imbalsamato ed esposto in Messico e poi, un anno dopo, fu riconsegnato all'Austria e sepolto nella "Cripta dei Cappuccini" a Vienna.