A coup d’état, a putsch, or an overthrow. These are different words for the same thing. Either a cabal of generals or an uprising of the civilian population, coups are designed to violently transfer power from one government to another. In the 20th century, numerous coups succeeded. In 1967, the Greek military established the “Regime of the Colonels” which ruled with an authoritarian fist until 1974. The Republic of Turkey has experienced numerous coups since the 1950s, including the successful military coups of 1960 and 1980.
However, for every successful coup, there are numerous failed coups that cost many lives. Failed coup attempts tend to be extremely bloody affairs, with different elements in society coming together in order to fight or kill each other over differing ideas about governance. History is littered with gruesome coups that only managed to further sour relations in the given society.
This list highlights those unsuccessful coups that still managed to get people killed. Some did not pile up huge bodycounts at the time, but nevertheless made future butchery possible. Every single episode on this list is a lesson in extreme political violence.
15. The Kapp Putsch (1920)
The Germany that Hitler inherited following the 1933 elections had long known political violence. Following the defeat of the vaunted German Army in World War I, the hasty declaration of the German Republic threw Deutschland into utter chaos. The first major uprising saw a group of German Communists (called Sparticists) try and recreate the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 in January of 1919. The Sparticists were violently suppressed by the combined forces of the Social Democratic government, the army, and the Freikorps – a loose confederation of right-wing paramilitary groups. Although the move was designed to grant war-weary Germans peace, it actually convinced reactionaries in the army and the Freikorps that force could dethrone the hated Weimar Republic.
By the spring of 1920, the relationship between the government of President Friedrich Ebert had a very contentious relationship with the army. Because of this, when General Walther von Luttwitz was removed from several of his posts by Ebert’s government, he, other generals, and German conservatives conspired to replace the SPD government with a military junta. On March 13th, von Luttwitz led the 6,000-man strong Freikorps unit known as the Marinebrigade Ehrhardt into Berlin under the pretext that a Bolshevik revolution was imminent. A Prussian civil servant named Wolfgang Kapp served as the coup’s chief publicist.
After five days, the coup failed because the Weimar army was divided. Ironically, although the Kapp putsch itself was not particularly deadly, it did set off the Ruhr uprising that same month. Communist workers under the Red Ruhr Army set a general strike in motion in Germany’s industrial heartland that lasted until early April. This left-wing revolution was bloodily put down by the army and the Freikorps. Approximately 1,000 Ruhr workers were killed.
14. The Algiers Putsch (1961)
The decolonization of the French Empire was a very bloody process. Between 1946 and 1954, the French Union fought an unsuccessful war in order to keep Indochina as part of their global empire. The already drained French military lost thousands of lives to jungle and mountain fighting in Vietnam, but civil unrest at home was relatively muted. This is because French Indochina (comprising modern Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) had been more of an economic project that required few French colonizers.
Algeria was a completely different story. Ever since King Louis Philippe I decided to invade the African nation in 1830, the French had long treated Algeria as the jewel of their empire. The Algerian coast contained millions of French settlers, while the French Army often treated the Muslim nation as their primary area of control.
Thus, following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, Algerian nationalists staged violent revolts throughout the country in 1954. The French moved into to suppress these rebellions and used numerous tactics to do so. As the FLN (National Liberation Front) began targeting civilians with bombing campaigns, the French military, including the French Foreign Legion, began using torture and extrajudicial killings as a way to defeat the independence campaign.
By the late 1950s, it was clear to many in Paris that French claims on Algeria were no longer sustainable. As such, the government of President Charles de Gaulle initiated secret negotiations with the FLN in order to transfer power to the native Algerians. A group of French generals despised this plan and began an ultranationalist coup in order to overthrow de Gaulle’s government and keep Algeria under French control. On April 22, 1961, a group of right-wing generals and colonels took control of Algiers and used elements of the French Foreign Legion (specifically the 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment) to keep the regular French Army from revolting. Ultimately, because most conscripts in the French Army defied the state of emergency called by the rebellious generals, the coup failed.
While only one person actually died during the failed putsch, the so-called Algiers Putsch led to the creation of the OAS, a militant terrorist organization that killed numerous French soldiers and Algerian citizens.
13. The Beer Hall Putsch (1923)
The Nazis burst onto the scene in dramatic fashion. Prior to the Beer Hall Putsch, the NSDAP (the Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party) was one of many right-wing political parties that had been born because of the widespread hatred of the terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty. However, the Nazis were predominately a minor party in Bavaria and did not have a lot of followers in comparison to some of the larger parties in Germany.
What the Nazis did have was passion. Already led by the World War I veteran Adolf Hitler, the Nazis attempted to seize control of the Bavarian government in Munich between November 8 and 9, 1923. Taking inspiration from Benito Mussolini’s successful “March on Rome” in 1922, Hitler and his officers concocted a plan whereby they would kidnap state commissioner Gustav von Kahr and force him to abdicate power. Rather than Hitler (a virtual unknown outside of Munich), the Nazis chose General Erich Ludendorff, a hero of the Eastern Front during World War I, to be the figurehead of the coup.
The Beer Hall Putsch, which began in a large beer hall called the Bürgerbräukeller, failed to unseat either the Munich government or the Weimar Republic itself. For his crimes, Hitler was sentenced to five years in prison for treason. Because of right-wing agitation, Hitler actually served less than a year. While behind bars, the future leader of Germany composed Mein Kampf. All told, about twenty people died during this coup attempt.
12. Yukio Mishima’s Coup Attempt (1970)
The goal of the Allies following the defeat of Japan in World War II was to effectively defeat Japanese militarism once and for all. This is why the once proud Japanese Army became the small and handicapped Japanese Self-Defense Forces. This is also why the postwar Constitution of Japan forbids offensive military campaigns.
Such constraints on the Japanese military have long been a sore spot for Japanese nationalists and other members of the Japanese right. One of these men was respected poet and novelist Yukio Mishima. Mishima (whose real name was Kimitake Hiraoka) had a distinguished literary and acting career prior to joining the Self-Defense Forces as an enlisted man in 1967.
While in uniform, Mishima formed the Tatenokai (“shield society”), a private militia composed of soldiers and students who had sworn to protect the Emperor. On November 25, 1970, Mishima and four members of the Tatenokai took over the Ichigaya Camp in Tokyo, tied up the camp’s officers, and told the assembled troops that a coup had been launched. Following widespread jeering from the majority of the soldiers watching Mishima’s speech, the famous writer committed ritual suicide (seppuku) by slicing open his own stomach and having a second man decapitate him.
11. The July Putsch (1934)
Although the words tend to be synonymous these days, Nazis and fascists were not exactly friendly with each other in the 1930s. Indeed, outside of Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, many of Europe’s fascist parties tended to espouse a combination of ultranationalism, militarism, and political Catholicism (or Orthodox Christianity in the Slavic east). Some would even argue that the so-called “Austrofascists” of post-World War I Austria were not fascist at all.
The hard right of Austria during the 1930s was led by the Fatherland Front, a political party that served as the chief headquarters of the various strands of right-wing nationalism in Austria, from the Christian Social Party to the paramilitary Heimwehr organization. Led by the diminutive former Austro-Hungarian military officer Engelbert Dollfuss, the Fatherland Front consolidated power in Vienna in 1933. The goal of the Fatherland Front was to establish an authoritarian, corporatist, and conservative Catholic state that would roll back the Enlightenment.
Despite sharing some of the same political goals, Hitler and Dollfuss did not get along. The main point of contention was Dollfuss’ Austrian nationalism and his refusal to accept any single German state controlled by the Nazis. Because of this, Hitler personally oversaw the 1934 coup attempt by the Austrian Nazis. Ostensibly, the putsch was designed to stop Dollfuss from growing into a closer alliance with fascist Italy. However, the putsch, which was kickstarted by 154 SS men disguised as regular Austrian soldiers, failed to capture Vienna. Because the Nazis killed Dollfuss and refused to let a Catholic priest give him Last Rites, the purge following the failed putsch was very bloody. It is believed that around 270 died as a result of the coup and its aftermath.
10. May 15th Incident (1932)
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Japan’s move towards right-wing militarism was accelerated by a series of attempted coups started by both the army and navy. Impatient with the slow destabilization of the Japanese liberalism that had been born during the Taisho period, these military commanders utilized right-wing circles within the military itself to enact new, more authoritarian policies in Tokyo.
On May 15, 1932, a secret band of naval officers and Japanese civilians known as The Blood Brotherhood attempted to murder their political opponents. Following a list of enemies (including the Anglo-American comedian Charlie Chaplin), The Blood Brotherhood (also known as the League of Blood) attempted to overthrow Japanese democracy. Their only successful action was the murder of Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi.
Following this assassination, eleven naval officers, some army officials, and civilians were brought up on charges of murder. Tsuyoshi’s death was tried alongside the earlier killings of Junnosuke Inoue (a former Finance Minister) and businessman Dan Takuma. 350,000 Japanese citizens signed their names in blood on a petition calling for lenient sentences for the accused. During the court martial, the naval officers announced their loyalty to the Emperor. In the end, the accused were given very light sentences, thus showing how powerful and popular militarism had become in Japanese society.
9. Pajama Putsch (1938)
Fascism, with its third position ideology that embraces both elements of left-wing syndicalism with right-wing statism, was often perceived as a threat to more traditional right-wing parties. Case in point: the failed coup in Brazil in 1938.
In 1930, the Brazilian “Old Republic” was overthrown by a brilliant and charismatic politician Getulio Vargas. As the Brazilian president, he appointed himself dictator of the industrializing nation. Under his “New Order” (Estado Novo) regime, Vargas relied on a coalition of large landowners, the military, the urban middle class, and former members of the radical left in order to push through a socio-economic agenda that embraced economic populism (social welfare), nationalism, centralization, and anti-Communism.
Initially, Vargas supported the Brazilian Integralists – a fascist paramilitary group who copied much of the mannerisms and tactics of the Italian Blackshirts and the German Nazis. However, despite agreeing with the right-wing policies of Vargas, the Integralists sought to gain more political power at Vargas’ expense. Therefore, in 1938, the Integralists attempted to seize the Guanabara Palace during the night. This caused a gun battle to erupt between the attacking Integralists and members of the Brazilian police and army. Some twenty casualties were the result of this exchange of fire. Following this failed coup, Vargas used his powers as dictator to thoroughly purge the Integralists from Brazilian politics.
8. Albrook Massacre (1989)
Just this year, former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was declared “not guilty” following an investigation into his connections with the Albrook Massacre of 1989. Undoubtedly, the former dictator, military general, and employee of the CIA had a hand in pulling off the Albrook Massacre, no matter what the court in Panama City says.
By the late 1980s, the U.S. government under Ronald Reagan had grown deeply suspicious of Noriega and his regime in Panama. Specifically, the U.S. worried that Noriega would threaten U.S. citizens in Panama and would cut off U.S. access to the Panama Canal. Noriega’s direct involvement in drug trafficking also worried the U.S., as the country was already a decade into its War on Drugs program.
In 1988, a coup attempt failed to unseat Noriega. One of the people who put this coup down was Major Moises Giroldi Vega, a member of the Panamanian Defense Forces. A year later, Vega and other military officers recently back from a UN peacekeeping mission in Namibia tried to unseat Noriega because of the endemic corruption of his government.
After failing to get the support of the elite Battalion 2000, the coup’s attempt to deliver Noriega into the hands of U.S. forces stationed near the Panama Canal failed. Using air transport to skirt around U.S. forces, members of the military loyal to Noriega murdered eight plotters in an aircraft hangar in Albrook, while Vega and another conspirator were killed at a military base in San Miguelito. News of the Albrook Massacre led to Operation Just Cause, the U.S. military invasion of Panama between 1989 and 1990.
7. Jamaat al Muslimeen (1990)
For some reason, the fact that Trinidad and Tobago is a hotbed of Islamism gets underreported in the mainstream media. Trinidad has the largest per capita ISIS membership in the Western Hemisphere. That fact alone should raise more eyebrows in Washington, D.C. and Ottawa. Even more shocking is the fact that Islamists almost seized control over the entire nation back in 1990.
Beginning on Friday, July 27th, members of the Jamaat al Muslimeen group took over Parliament while it was conducting a televised debate from The Red House. The armed gunmen took hostages, including then Prime Minister A.N.R. Robinson. At the same time, approximately seventy-two other Islamists took control of the country’s only television and radio stations. Until they surrendered to the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force on August 1st, Jamaat al Muslimeen controlled almost the entire media.
In the end, twenty-four people died as a result of the coup attempt, while the cost of property damage was believed to be in the millions. The group’s leader, Yasin Abu Bakr, was acquitted on charges of conspiracy to commit murder.
6. Kenyan Air Force Coup (1982)
Unfortunately, coups, both successful and unsuccessful, are all too common in sub-Saharan Africa. Kenya, which is often considered one of the few success stories of the post-colonial period, is no exception.
In 1982, several officers in the Kenyan Air Force attempted to throw out the government established by Daniel arap Moi, the longest serving head-of-state in Kenya’s history. On Sunday, August 1st, several airmen took over the Voice of Kenya (V.O.K.), the largest radio station in the country. They announced that they had officially taken control of the government.
However, the coup failed to take control of the country’s transmitting facilities, which allowed the government to shut down their broadcast. Further comedy came from the fact that airmen had to use reggae in lieu of martial music during their coup broadcasts. Eventually, the six-hour coup attempt was put down by both paramilitary units and the Kenyan police. Somewhere around 100 soldiers and airmen died during this aborted coup attempt, while another 200 civilians died also.
5. Azerbaijani Coup Attempt (1995)
Between 1988 and 1994, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the Armenian-majority Nagorno-Karabakh Republic fought an extremely bloody war that cost thousands of lives and displaced almost a million Armenians and Azeris. The region, which continues to be a flash point to this day, also saw the influx of many non-state actors, from Chechen terror groups to ultranationalist Turks known as the Grey Wolves.
Prior to 1995, a secret collection of Turkish police officers and special forces members traveled to Azerbaijan in order to fund and train members of the Special Purpose Police Unit (OPON) for the planned coup. The goal of the uprising was to unseat President Heydar Aliyev and reinstate former president Abulfaz Elchibey. When the coup began on March 13th, it was quickly foiled because of the actions of Turkish President Suleyman Demirel. After learning that members of the Turkish deep state (including the Grey Wolves) were involved in the plot, Demirel warned President Aliyev.
By Friday of that week, Azerbaijani soldiers had surrounded and stormed the OPON compound that housed the conspirators. About 700 police officers were arrested, and the group’s leader, Colonel Rovshan Javadov, was killed. At least thirty people were killed over four days and many more were wounded.
4. Failed Coup in Turkey (2016)
The jury is still very much out on this failed coup. Some claim that the coup was actually engineered by Turkish President Recep Erdogan himself. The other, more established theory is that a group of Turkish Army officers attempted to seize power while Erdogan was away on vacation. However, because the coup was so badly planned, the military’s plot was foiled by both the Turkish police and pro-Erdogan citizens.
Modern Turkey has a history of successful coups, with the last one taking place in 1997. For the most part, Turkey’s coups have come as a result of the Turkish Army’s position as the defenders of Kemalism, the political system of secularism established by Mustafa Kemal in the 1920s. Because Erdogan is an avowed Islamist who has held power in Turkey since 2003, there are many in the military who would like to see him dethroned.
Since the coup’s failure last summer, Erdogan’s government has blamed the followers of Fethullah Gulen for engineering the conspiracy. In the wake of the failed coup, opponents of Erdogan have been purged from the military, academia, and the press. Similarly, over fifty soldiers are now on trial for the attempted assassination of President Erdogan. The total death toll has been placed at about 400.
3. Communist Coup in Estonia (1924)
The tiny Baltic nation of Estonia had to fight for its independence following the conclusion of World War I in 1918. Just a year before, the country was under the thumb of the German military, which had successfully negotiated a separate peace treaty with the new Soviet government of Russia. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk recognized the German sphere of influence in the Baltic. However, because Germany lost the war, the German Army was forced to pull back from the Baltic. The Baltic German landowners and oligarchs, who had held privileged positions in Estonian and Latvian society since the Middle Ages, were not willing to give up their privileges without a fight. From November 1919 to February 1920, the Estonian War of Independence pitted the brand new government of Estonia against the Soviet Union, Estonian Communists, and the Baltische Landswehr, a well-armed militia run by Baltic Germans.
Although Estonia eventually won the war, insurgencies against the new government continued to appear from time to time. In 1924, an Estonian Communist named Jaan Anvelt tried to take control of the Estonian government with help from Soviet intelligence officials. On December 1st, about 279 Estonian and Russian Communists tried to seize numerous buildings in Tallinn, including Toompea Castle. The well-armed militants were ultimately repulsed by approximately 500 soldiers and cadets. Many of the plotters fled to the Soviet Union. About 125 Communists died and more than five hundred were arrested.
2. Decembrist Revolt (1825)
In December 1825, the Russian upper class, many of whom were members of the army, attempted to thwart the coronation of Tsar Nicholas I by pledging allegiance to his brother Constantine instead. About 3,000 members of the Russian army (almost all of whom were officers) were joined by dissident civilians and other members of secret societies, including the Freemasons, the Northern Society, and the Southern Society. Overall, the Decembrist rebels wanted to liberalize the Tsar’s autocratic government.
The uprising began in Saint Petersburg when the Northern Society tried to convince the majority of the army to pledge their loyalty to Constantine. However, the revolt was not well organized, and before long, Colonel Prince Sergey Trubetskoy, the planned dictator of the future government, fled the city.
Later, the Chernigov Regiment tried to rebel in the south, but were suppressed by the forces of General Friedrich Caspar von Geismar. The exact death toll of the Decembrist Revolt is not known. However, hundreds of the rebels were sent into prison in Siberia, where many met their deaths.
1. Black September (1970)
By the late 1960s, thanks to the Six-Day War, a majority of the population in Jordan was Palestinian. As such, the Arab kingdom became one of the largest recruiting areas for the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or PLO. At that same time, Palestinian insurgents also formed the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). This much more radical group not only sought to commit acts of terror against the Israeli government, but it also sought to lead a coup against the government of Jordan.
Jordan, which had occupied the West Bank prior to the Six-Day War in 1967, did not want its territory to be used for cross-border attacks into Israel. Therefore, King Hussein secretly maintained cordial relations with Israel in order to halt the spread of Palestinian militancy inside of Jordan. Before September 1970, various Palestinian militants fought a series of gun battles against the Jordanian Army. Between June 9th and June 16th, some 1,000 people were killed in these fire fights.
While King Hussein signed a treaty with PLO that summer, thus creating the Ten-point Edict, the PFLP and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) refused to acknowledge the accord. In September 1970, PFLP rebels hijacked three planes at Dawson’s Field in Zarka, Jordan. Other planes were hijacked in Cairo and Bahrain and then flown to Zarka. While television cameras rolled, all of the empty planes were blown up.
Incensed, King Hussein declared martial law on September 15th. A large Jordanian Army contingent was sent into Irbid in order to flush out the Palestinian rebels. This offensive forced the Palestinians up into the mountains of Ajloun and Jarash. Anywhere between 1,000 and 25,000 Palestinians were killed. A later Syrian Army offensive to aid the Palestinians failed, killing upwards of over 600 Syrian soldiers.