A coup d'état, known more simply as a coup, is the seizure and removal of a government and its powers. It comes from the French phrase meaning a "stroke of state" or "blow of state". These transfers of power are illegal and, oftentimes, violent. The transfer of power is typically given to a political faction, rebel group, the military, or a dictator. We know many of these dictators well: Adolf Hitler, Muammar Gaddafi, Francisco Franco, Idi Amin. Happening since antiquity, here are a few coups, and coup attempts, through the years that changed history.
The Assassination of Julius Caesar
“Et tu, Brutus?” Allegedly uttered by Caesar at the moment of his betrayal, these are arguably the most immortal words ever spoken during a coup. A bloody one, at that. The Roman dictator Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of senators during the Ides of March in 44 BCE. The infamous moment occurred during a meeting of the Senate in Rome, where senators stabbed Caesar 23 times.
At least 60 senators were involved in the conspiracy to end Caesar’s reign by bloodshed, including Brutus and Cassius. The politicians were fearful that Caesar was concentrating too much power during his dictatorship and undermining the hope and promise of the Roman Republic. The senators considered themselves heroes; convinced that the act of tyrannicide was not only warranted, but needed for the health and vitality of the people.
The coup led to a civil war. The conspirators were unable to restore Rome’s institutions, and the Roman Republic evolved into the Roman Empire as a result. Both Brutus and Cassius would commit suicide upon losing the war.
Coup of 18 Brumaire
The Coup of 18 Brumaire brought General Napoleon Bonaparte to power as First Consul of France. Bloodless, it occurred on November 9, 1799. At that time, the nation was governed by the Directory, a five-person committee. The Directory was always in tumult and, as a result, so was France’s economy. This political body was continually at odds with foreign nations, including Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and others. Though possessing a strong military under the firm guidance of Napoleon himself, the political support for the Directory was in tatters.
Upon his return from the French campaign in Egypt and Syria, Napoleon took control of France, abolishing the Directory and replacing it with the French Consulate. Under the French Consulate, Bonaparte created a military dictatorship, establishing himself as the head of an authoritarian, autocratic, centralized republican government. He would rule for 15 years in total.
The Overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom
The US government wrote an apology in 1993 for overthrowing the Hawaiian Kingdom. Congress conceded that "the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii occurred with the active participation of agents and citizens of the United States and [...] the Native Hawaiian people never directly relinquished to the United States their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people over their national lands, either through the Kingdom of Hawaii or through a plebiscite or referendum".
The coup against Queen Lili’uokalani took place on the island of Oahu. It was led by the Committee of Safety, a secret society of elite business and political leaders who were eager to annex Hawaii to the United States for economic and political reasons.
Related: How Hawaii Became a State
There was money to be had there and it was sweet to American business interests. Plantations began popping up in Hawaii in 1835 to grow sugar cane. Within 30 years, plantations existed on four of the main islands. Hawaii's economy changed virtually overnight. American-born plantation owners began flexing their muscle in Hawaiian politics, asking for representation. Things became more and more dire for the Hawaiian Kingdom (recognized as independent the world over) as business interests grew to a fevered pitch.
So they pitched the Queen aside. On January 17, 1893, the Chairman of the Committee of Safety addressed a crowd in front of the official royal residence, the ‘Iolani Palace. He proclaimed that the Queen had been deposed, the monarchy abolished, and that in its place a Provisional Government of Hawaii would be established under President Sanford Dole. Dole would remain president until the island was officially annexed to the United States in 1898. It would become a state in 1959. Lili’uokalani would spend the remainder of her life fighting for justice. She would be unsuccessful, dying in Honolulu in 1917.
The Beer Hall Putsch
The Beer Hall Putsch was a failed coup led by Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler in early November 1923, during the time of the Weimar Republic. The coup may have failed, but it solidified the power of the world's most notorious dictator.
The plan was to seize power from the government of Bavaria, a state in southern Germany. By doing so, the Nazis could launch a larger coup against the Weimar Republic as a whole. They planned to accomplish this by kidnapping Gustav von Kahr, the state commissioner of Bavaria, and other politicians.
Related: 5 Failed Assassination Attempts That Could Have Changed History
Von Kahr was scheduled to address a crowd at one of the biggest beer halls in Munich, so Hitler and hundreds of his armed followers surrounded it. Hitler burst in, shots firing, declaring a national revolution. But things didn’t go according to plan for Hitler. Nazi marchers were met by a police cordon. Hitler escaped but, two days later, was arrested and charged with treason.
The coup attempt brought national attention to Hitler. He was brought to trial, found guilty of treason, and sentenced to prison. It was there that he wrote Mein Kampf and redirected his focus towards obtaining power through legal means and propaganda rather than armed revolution. It would prove lethally effective.
The Cuban Revolution
Some coups aren't an immediate success. The Cuban Revolution began in July 1953 and continued sporadically until December 31, 1958. The revolution was an armed uprising led by Fidel Castro that eventually toppled the brutal dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, who himself had seized power during a coup. Batista fled the island of Cuba the following day. He lived in exile until his death in 1973.
Related: Fidel Castro, the CIA, and John F. Kennedy’s Assassination
Castro would lead Cuba as a dictator from 1959 until 2011. Under his administration, Cuba became a one-party communist state. Industry and business were nationalized, and state socialist reforms were implemented throughout the country. He died at the age of 90 in 2016.
1973 Chilean Coup D'état
Be careful what you wish for. In September of 1973, Chile’s armed forces staged a coup against the government of President Salvador Allende, the first democratically elected Marxist in Latin America. Allende retreated to his presidential palace in Santiago. The palace was bombed by air force jets and troops stormed the burning palace. Allende died in the maelstrom, reportedly by suicide, using a gun given to him as a gift by Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
The U.S. government and the CIA had worked to foment the coup. President Richard Nixon felt that Allende was a threat to democracy in Chile and Latin America. The man who took his place? General Augusto Pinochet, a brutal dictator who ruled Chile with an iron fist for the next 17 years.