The 7 Most Impactful Revolutions in Modern History

Many have had a monumental ripple effect, not just on their country, but on the nations across our entire planet over the centuries. For example, the American Revolution inspired the birth of other democratic republics. The Russian Revolution similarly inspired the creation of other communist nations. Call them what you will, Rebellions, Revolutions, Insurrections, or Coups, here are seven of the most impactful in modern history, in the order in which they occurred.  Let’s get the two most obvious out of the way first.

1. The American Revolution (1775-1783)

General Washington crossing the Delaware River
The British government in London had aggressively taxed their 13 American colonies without any representation in Parliament. These taxes were met with extreme outrage from many of the colonists. A Revolutionary War eventually began between the original 13 colonies and the British Empire. Skirmishes between colonial militiamen and British Redcoats in New England evolved into a full -blown war.  The colonies famously declared their independence from Britain in 1776, forming the new United States. They then appointed General George Washington as Commander of the Revolutionary Army.  The war lasted 8 long years until the defeat of the General Cornwallis and the British Redcoats at Yorktown, Virginia in 1783.

2. The French Revolution (1789-1792)

Storming of the Bastille in Paris
The French commoners began to revolt against the absolute monarchy of King Louis XVI in Versailles.  Even though peasants made up over 96% of French society, they had virtually no political power.  In addition to this, the Age of Enlightenment and the recent success of the American Revolution had been transforming the way people think all over France. Lead by the bourgeoise class, the peoples’ objective was to create a republic that would embrace Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.  On July 14, 1789, an armed Parisian mob stormed and seized the Bastille, a prison fortress and armory.  Within days, Louis XVI conceded to the demands of the National Assembly to create a constitutional monarchy. Subsequent years of chaos ensued. The monarchy was abolished and the 1st French Republic declared in 1792. King Louis was ultimately and publicly beheaded, along with his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, in 1793.

3. The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804)

Governor General Toussaint l’Ouverture
In 1659, the western half of the Spanish island of Hispaniola became a French colony, Saint Domingue.  Landowners increased the African slave population of the island into the hundreds of thousands.  Haitian slaves endured punishing workdays and lived in squalid conditions, dying from diseases and malnutrition. Inspired by the French Revolution, groups of slaves rose up to fight their oppressors. Over 100,000 slaves and former slaves joined in, killing the plantation owners and wealthy French colonists. Led by former slave Toussaint L’Ouverture, the revolutionaries took control of a third of the island, with l’Ouverture as Governor General. Napoleon’s army captured and imprisoned l’Ouverture, but failed in an attempted to retake the island. In 1804, Saint Domingue declared its independence. The renamed Republic of Haiti became the first ever nation of former slaves.

4. The Russian Revolutions (1917-1922)

Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks
The Russian Empire was both impoverished and underdeveloped. When World War I  erupted against Germany, it crippled the Russian economy and left thousands dead on the western front. Tsar Nicholas II was an uninspiring and ineffective leader. His wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, was a German and widely unpopular amongst the people.  During the February Revolution of 1917, protestors took to the streets of Saint Petersburg, joined by soldiers angry with the Tzar. A new provisional government was formed, and the Tsar abdicated the Romanov throne. The new bourgeoise government continued to support the war.  During an October Revolution, later in 1917, armed revolutionaries led by Vladimir Lenin and the Communist Bolshevik Party, stormed the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, seizing power in a coup d’état. Lenin planned a Communist government ruled by a laborer collective. The Tzar and his entire family were executed in a firing squad by the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks were not widely popular and a five-year civil war erupted.  It ended in a victory for Lenin and the beginning of the Soviet Union in 1922.

5. The Chinese Revolutions (1911 & 1949)

Chinese ‘Cultural’ Communist Revolution
After a century of failed wars, the Qing Dynasty was losing power in Asia. Frustrations sparked rebellion among the commoners. In the fall of 1911, an uprising in Wuchang lead by politician and physician Sun Yat-sen started a wave of revolts across China. The Qing court began promising a constitutional monarchy. Even with this potential for reform, provinces declared their allegiance to the new Revolutionary Alliance. Representatives gathered for a National Assembly and elected Sun Yat-sen President of the new Republic of China. The Emperor Puyi abdicated the throne in 1912, and eventually fled Beijing, bringing an end to centuries of imperial dynastic rule. This rebellion then paved the way 30+ years later for a second revolution. After World War II and the end of Japanese occupation, the Communist Cultural Revolution erupted with a Civil War in 1945. It would eventually lead to the expulsion of the Nationalists to Taiwan and the establishment the People’s Republic of China under the rule of Chairman Mao Zedong.

6. The Cuban Revolution (1956-1959)

Fidel Castro in Havana 1959
After the Spanish American War, Cuba became a republic in 1902.  In 1952, the Cuban president was removed from office in a coup d’état by General Fulgencio Batista.  Batista canceled all elections and became a military dictator. A young communist lawyer named Fidel Castro then began planning to overthrow Batista. In 1953, Castro organized an attack on military barracks in Santiago, but the attempt failed and he was imprisoned for two years. Castro and is brother Raul gathered another rebel army in 1956, but was once again defeated by Batista’s forces. He started using guerrilla tactics and began combining together all the rebel groups in Cuba. In 1959, Castro finally forced Batista to resign and flee the country. Castro too permanently suspended elections and proclaimed himself President for Life. He jailed or executed anyone who opposed his dictatorship. Castro began his communist government and became a close ally with communist Soviet Union.

7. The Iranian Revolution (1978-1979)

Iranian Revolution in Tehran
Iran was ruled for decades by Shah Reza Pahlavi.  Anti-Shah protests began in the late 1970’s when anger rose among the working and middle classes, who felt the Shah only supported the wealthy elite. Many Islamic leaders were vocally opposed to the modernization or “Westernization” of Iran by the Shah. One exiled cleric in particular, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, demanded the removal of the Shah, to be replaced by an Islamic State.  The flashpoint occurred when security forces of the Shah fired on a group of angry protesters. Hundreds died and thousands were wounded. Within days, thousands more Iranians rioted in the streets of the capital, Tehran. The Iranian Revolution was complete in 1979 when the Shah and his family fled the country into exile. A month later, the cleric Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran, took control, and declared Iran an Islamic republic.
So, looking at these 7 modern examples, we can see many similarities emerging. Most began with a large disgruntled populace, ignored and often underestimated by the ruling aristocracy. Many had as their instigator a bold, charismatic leader. Most resulted in violence, often lasting for years, sometimes escalating to civil war. And let us not forget it often resulted in the execution or expulsion of an antiquated ruling monarch. As mentioned above, a few were inspirational rebellions that lead to other revolutions elsewhere in the world. Some became peaceful democratic republics, others ruthless military dictatorships. What does all of this hold for the future? Well, perhaps we have gained a few hard-earned lessons, if we choose to learn from them.
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Published by andrewspaulw

LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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