What Is A Coup D'Etat?

Wall graffiti calling for a coup d'etat.

A coup d’etat occurs when a small group of individuals attempts to take over the government in power. This political move is illegal and usually carried out by either the military or high ranking government officials and may or may not be supported by the general public. Recent research suggests that coup d’etat can result in 1 of 4 outcomes. These include failure, leader removal with no regime change, dictator replaced by another regime, and dictatorship replaced by democracy. This article takes a look at some famous coup d’etat attempts and their results throughout history.

Successful coup d’etat

The first recorded use of the term coup d’etat comes from that of 18 Brumaire. This event took place on November 9, 1799, and put Napoleon Bonaparte into power as the First Consul of France. The country was torn apart by the French Revolution at the time when Napoleon invaded Egypt and Syria. When he returned to France in October of 1799, the public received him with open arms and high approval. Emmanuel Sieyes was then in power and seeing the public’s regard for Napoleon, decided to use him in his plans to overthrow the government. Napoleon agreed but had his own scheme. The morning of the coup, the majority of the Directory resigned (under false pretenses), and the two who refused were arrested by Napoleon’s forces. After some convincing, the Ancients appointed him as a provisional Consul along with two other individuals. He then drafted a constitution that gave majority power to the First Consul position which he then took. This coup is notable in history because it resulted in the First French Empire.

Cuba experienced a coup d’etat in 1959 when the 26th of July Movement overthrew US-backed General Fulgencio Batista. The revolutionary group was led by Fidel Castro after he unsuccessfully petitioned Cuban courts to remove Batista from power. It took six years of planning, attacking, and fighting to run the general out of Cuba. On December 31, 1958, the 26th of July Movement began the Battle of Santa Clara and after their successful defeat, Batista flew to the Dominican Republic. From there, Castro and his forces took over. This coup d’etat is significant because it launched the end of friendly relations between the now-communist Cuba and the democratic United States.

Unsuccessful Attempts

One of the most well-known failed coup d’etat attempts is that which occurred on July 20, 1944 (also known as the 20 July Plot or Operation Valkyrie). This coup d’etat was Claus von Stauffenberg’s unsuccessful assassination attempt of Adolf Hitler. His goal was to take over the Nazi party and establish peace as soon as possible. Of the 7,000 people involved, nearly 5,000 were killed by the Gestapo after their arrest. The Nazi regime maintained power for another year.


One of the possible positive outcomes of coup d’etat is that they can lead the government from dictatorship to democracy. This fact is true of both successful and failed attempts. In a successful overthrow of an authoritarian government, the new leader is motivated to regulate and legitimize the movement as well as stabilize and boost the economy by turning to democracy. In an unsuccessful attempt, the leader who stays in power might be induced to changing policies to avoid future overthrow attempts.

Negative Outcomes

While it is possible that a coup d’etat results in democracy, it is not likely. The results may actually be bleak. In some instances, the new leader ends up enforcing more authoritarian control than the overthrown leader. In unsuccessful attempts, the leader may replace rebel military officials with loyalists thus strengthening the regime. Additionally, coup d’etat attempts are viewed as a sign of an unstable government and trigger economic sanctions and foreign aid reductions from other countries.


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