You Say You Want a Revolution – Famous (and Not So Famous) Coups D’état

Roman senators stab Julius Caesar to death in the year 44. One of the most famous attempted coups in history was launched by conspirators to overturn the self-appointed dictator's own unlawful rise to power.

Roman senators stab Julius Caesar to death in the year 44. One of the most famous attempted coups in history was launched by conspirators to reverse the self-appointed dictator’s own unlawful rise to power.

The world watched with mixed feelings last week as Egypt’s army toppled the widely unpopular and oppressive (yet democratically elected) national government in Cairo. Although the ousted president, Mohammed Morsi, and his Islamist Freedom and Justice Party swept to power in that country’s first-ever open elections in June of last year, by November his administration was effectively ruling by decree and enacting policies that curtailed freedoms and marginalized women, minorities and opposition parties. Earlier this month, amid crippling popular unrest, the military put Morsi on notice: resolve the standoff with the people of Egypt or be replaced. Morsi scoffed at the ultimatum and by Wednesday the commander in chief of the army, Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, announced the end of the year-old regime. More than a few observers characterized the move as a military coup (albeit a popular one). While certainly newsworthy, coups d’état like this are by no means rare occurrences. In fact, there have been more than 350 successful insurrections worldwide since 1800. Leaders as diverse as Napoleon Bonaparte, Augusto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein, the Shah of Iran, Fidel Castro, the Taliban’s Mullah Mohammed Omar along with hundreds of others all rode into power via coups d’état. Here are some more coup-related facts:

The Roman republic both began and ended amid coups d’état. In 509 BCE, a Roman aristocrat named Lucius Junius Brutus became so disenchanted with the rule of the
burgeoning city state’s seventh king, Tarquin the Proud, he moved to overthrow the monarch. The nobleman led his uprising after Tarquin’s son raped a member of the Brutus household named Lucritia. According to legend, the young woman committed suicide following the attack and Brutus leveraged the outrage among the wider nobility to topple and banish the king and declare a Roman republic. Five centuries later, another member of the Brutus family named Marcus Junius would partake in a conspiracy to reverse a de facto coup d’état by the Roman general turned dictator Gaius Julius Caesar. On March 15, 44 BCE, Brutus and a group of prominent Romans ambushed Caesar, stabbing him 23 times on the steps of the senate. The incident touched off a civil war that would lead to the rise of imperial Rome and the downfall of the very republic the conspirators hoped to save. Rome would continue to witness coups and civil wars for the next five hundred years. In fact, in 69 CE alone, no fewer than four successive emperors were overthrown!

Some could argue that the House of Brutii was fighting to preserve a republic, but other conspirators through the ages have not been so altruistic. Consider these: Sir Mark Thatcher, son of the late British prime minister, was implicated in an attempted coup d’état in Equatorial Guinea. In August of 2004, the 50-year-old businessman was charged by South African police for allegedly providing “funding and possible logistical assistance” to a mercenary army that formed to topple the government of the small oil rich African nation. The so called “Wonga Coup” was planned by business interests to replace the government of Equatorial Guinea with a regime that would grant outside investors greater control over the country’s oil and gas industry. Thatcher was fined 3 million rands and given a four-year suspended sentence.

It wasn’t an English baronet, but rather drug barons that helped bankroll a military coup in Bolivia in 1980. The uprising, which became known as the Cocaine Coup, was led by a staunch anti-communist general named Luis Carcia Meza. The conspirators used foreign mercenaries hired by former Gestapo commander Klaus Barbie (aka “The Butcher of Lyon”) to undermine the lawful government. The putsch succeeded in snuffing out the South American country’s fledgling democracy and ushered in an era of repression during which time, cocaine exports from Bolivia approached $1 billion.

If an uprising financed by drug lords isn’t bad enough, how about one carried out by racial supremacists? That’s who tried to topple the local government of Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898 following municipal elections in which a number of African Americans won seats on the council. In November of that year, a mob of 1,500 white militants attacked incoming council-members, destroyed an African-American-owned newspaper and killed an un-determined number of citizens. What’s worse, local militia regiments mobilized to quell the disturbance ended up firing on black civilians using machine guns. Residents appealed in vain for Washington to intervene. Following the uprising, most of the town’s blacks relocated.

Mexican republicans overthrow and execute their king in 1867. The Austrian born Emperor  Maximilian I was really a puppet ruler placed on Mexico's throne by France's Napoleon III. Confused yet?

Mexican republicans overthrow and execute their king in 1867. The Austrian born Emperor Maximilian I was really a puppet ruler placed on Mexico’s throne by France’s Napoleon III. Confused yet?

History also records a number of foreign-organized coups. Consider these: French emperor Napoleon III (who himself rose to the throne after his own coup in 1851) ordered the army to invade Mexico and replaced its president following the latter’s failure to repay its debts. Napoleon ultimately chased president Benito Juarez from power and restored the country’s monarchy by placing the Austrian prince Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph on the throne. For three years, Emperor Maximilian I was little more than a puppet ruler of French. He was overthrown by Mexican republicans and executed in 1867.

American marines, wealthy settlers and businessmen were all instrumental in the dismantling of the century-old Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893. After prominent citizens from the U.S. mainland declared that 57-year-old Queen Liliʻuokalani was somehow a “threat” to their safety, the group petitioned Washington to annex Hawaii. U.S. troops landed and ended her rule, leading to the creation of a republic that in 1898 would formally become a U.S. territory. Liliʻuokalani was later implicated in a 1895 plot to restore the monarchy and sentenced to five years hard labour, although her punishment was commuted to house arrest.

Not all coups succeed. Consider the famous July 20th Plot by anti-Nazi elements in the German army to overthrow Hitler. Other failed uprisings were more quickly forgotten. For example:

Almost a full century before Lexington and Concord or the Battle of Bunker Hill, residents of the Massachusetts colony launched (and then abandoned) a proto-American revolution of their own. In 1689, militia units and angry mobs removed the colony’s draconian governor Sir Edmund Andros along with several other English officials that ran the so called Dominion of New England. The plotters even seized the captain of HMS Rose. The colonists were up in arms over plans by London to take greater control of England’s New World holdings. This coupled with unrest among Puritans surrounding King James II’s Catholic pedigree boiled over leading to the unrest. Order resumed when Andros was removed from power following the abdication of James II who was succeeded by the Protestant William of Orange. However, a number of ringleaders were taken to England for trial.

Hitler’s famous abortive Beer Hall Putsch has overshadowed a lesser known coup that also sought to bring down the wobbly Weimar Republic. In the spring of 1920, ultra-nationalists, conservatives and even some monarchists within the shattered German military marched on Berlin to overthrow the moderate post war regime of Friedrich Ebert. Led by a 61-year-old American-born German nationalist named Wolfgang Kapp and the First World War general Walther von Lüttwitz, the insurgents managed to scatter the government and cabinet. And they might have succeeded were it not for throngs of striking civil servants and ordinary Berliners who were opposed to the junta.

It wasn’t an angry mob that overturned a 1981 communist coup in Gambia, but rather a three-man squad of British commandos. After being dispatched to neighbouring Senegal to observe and report on the Marxist insurrection, a SAS major by the name of Ian Crooke took matters into his own hands. He infiltrated the Gambian capital and along with two sergeants dressed in civilian clothes liberated the ousted president’s family, launched an assault on a rebel garrison and drove 400 insurgents from the city… all in less than two days. What’s more, he did so without orders. The full story is available here.

More than 150 countries have seen coups d’état since the beginning of the 19th Century. Some nations have seen more than a few. Consider these:

  • Between 1948 and 1970, Syria suffered no fewer than eight coups.
  • Thailand experienced 11 between 1932 and 2006.
  • From 1919 to 2001, Afghanistan had its government overthrown at least a dozen times.
  • Bolivia saw 14 different coups in 81 years beginning in 1899.
  • No country can hold a candle to Haiti. The troubled Caribbean nation, which itself was born out of rebellion, experienced a whopping 25 coups d’état between 1804 and 1991.
American historian and strategist Edward Luttwak penned this revolutionaries' handbook in the 1960s. It's still available today.

American historian and strategist Edward Luttwak penned this revolutionaries’ handbook in the 1960s. It’s still available today.

Thinking of trying your hand at overthrowing your own country’s government? Then you might want to pick up a copy of Edward Luttwak’s seminal work: Coup D’état: A Practical Handbook. Published in 1968, the famous how-to manual provides readers with a template for toppling any regime complete with a list of vital targets and even diagrams on how to construct barricades and other fortifications.

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