Throughout history, major revolutions have resulted in massive ideological and political shifts that changed the world. But no two revolutions are the same. They may happen relatively quickly or span years - or even decades. Protests, fighting, and even efforts at peace all characterize revolutions, with varying degrees of hardship and hope experienced by participants and bystanders.
To get a look at how insurrections took shape and played out, history books provide comprehensive discussions of people, events, and outcomes. By looking at the accounts of people who actually participated in the revolutions, we can get an entirely different perspective on what happened.
From casual observers to individuals who simply wanted to survive, these firsthand accounts of some of history's most significant coups truly offer a new perspective on the past.
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Across Europe, 1848 was a watershed year that saw numerous revolutions. Despite efforts to remove monarchs in France, Germany, Italy, and other locations, revolutionaries were unsuccessful. In Austria, ethnic groups pushed back against imperial rule, very much influenced by Enlightenment thought and revolutions taking place in countries all around.
German Carl Schurz wrote about how the wave of revolutionary spirit came flooding through Europe in 1848. As word of the French Revolution reached Vienna:
Students of the university were the first to assail the Emperor of Austria with the cry for liberty and citizens' rights. Blood flowed in the streets, and the downfall of Prince Metternich was the result.
In other cities, similar events occurred, with large groups taking to the streets in solidarity:
Then [came] the demands for civil rights and liberties, free speech, free press, the right of free assembly, equality before the law, a freely elected representation of the people with legislative power, responsibility of ministers, self-government of the communes, the right of the people to carry arms, the formation of a civic guard with elective officers and so on - in short, that which was called a Constitutional form of government on a broad democratic basis.
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The Cuban Revolution culminated in the establishment of a revolutionary government under the leadership of Fidel Castro. On January 1, 1959, Castro and his fellow revolutionaries ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista after years of guerrilla strikes.
Arthur Brice was only 5 years old when he heard about Batista's removal from office from a passerby as he walked to the local bakery with his father. He remembered his parents being quiet, opting to stay indoors rather than risk any harm. Later that night, he recalled that "we heard loud gunshots as rebels hunted down Batista officials and supporters door-to-door."
Brice recalled much more than the events of that one day. He explained how his entire childhood was marked by horrifying moments, such as the following:
My dad unsuccessfully trying to push my head down in the back seat so I couldn’t see the body lying next to the highway, barbed wire strung around the man’s neck... [and] seeing a car full of young men chasing a screaming woman down the middle of the street. The men’s arms stretched out of the windows as they pointed weapons at the woman.
A young Cuban named Janet described her own childhood during the revolution:
You learned to come in if the bullets were flying more than a couple miles close to the house. You learned to do that... You kept the windows closed at Christmas because Christmas trees were counter-revolutionary, and things like that.
I spent some nights under my mother's bed, unbeknownst to her, sometimes, and I learned to avoid the windows when they were moving medications through our yards as they would shoot around the windows. I collected bullets of various calibers and could identify the size of the holes in my house by the caliber or by ear, at a distance.
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The French Revolution lasted for years, with many phases characterizing the country's long struggle to institute a liberal democracy. During the early stage, members of the Third Estate - the woefully under-represented nonaristocrats - took a stand against their colleagues in the Estates-General.
When it was established in the early 17th century, the Estates-General had a tripartite construct, with each of the three estates having a vote in governmental matters. The First Estate comprised nobility, the Second Estate comprised the clergy, and the Third Estate was essentially everyone else in society.
After the Third Estate broke away from the larger body, it formed the National Assembly in 1789. Its members took the so-called Tennis Court Oath to affirm their dedication to constitutional reform. Within a month, enthusiasm and anxiety about social and political changes resulted in a riot at the Bastille prison and fortress in Paris on July 14, 1789.
Thomas Jefferson, serving as the American minister to France, was in Paris in the days leading up to the storming of the Bastille. He wrote about "great tumults in Paris last night, and engagements between the mob, and some of the foreign troops" in a letter dated July 13. His words mirrored a report from The London Gazette from the same day:
All the Shops were shut; all public and private Employments at a Stand, and scarcely a Person to be seen in the Streets, except the armed Burghers, who acted as a temporary Police for the Protection of private Property, to replace the established one, which had no longer any influence.
A letter from one resident of Paris provided more details as to the happenings at the Bastille itself:
The Bastille made some Resistance but was taken yesterday Evening. The Governor and sub-Governor had their Heads cut off, which were carried in Triumph around the City.
The storming of the Bastille was a victory for revolutionaries in Paris - a symbolic end to the tyrannical monarchy they were hoping to abolish. The military governor, Bernard-René Jordan de Launay, was merely one among many individuals who would go on to lose their heads during the decade-long French Revolution.
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Velvet Revolution, 1989
As the Soviet Union declined and the Berlin Wall came down, former areas under the control of the USSR pushed for autonomy. In Czechoslovakia, the Velvet Revolution - also called the Gentle Revolution - was relatively peaceful.
The end result of the Velvet Revolution was the establishment of two states: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. According to Tibor Holoda, a student in November 1989, he and his friends participated in protests in Bratislava without issue, while his counterparts in Prague were met with police attacks. Holoda explained:
Often we would go to some pub after the protests and I very well remember that moment when everything changed. We were at a bar and there was a TV with the evening news. Then came the announcement that the communist government had resigned. The whole three story pub went silent and suddenly everyone started ringing with their keys - that was the symbol of those demonstrations at the time. It was like the last ringing of the bells - it was over for the old regime.
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Glorious Revolution, 1688
During the 17th century, religious and political tension left England in a constant state of unease. As the contest between Catholics and Protestants to dominate the government escalated, there was concern that "popery" would win out after King James II took the throne in 1685. As a Catholic, James represented a threat to the Protestant population - and irked Parliament - with his pro-France stance seen as equally problematic.
In 1687, James II dismissed Parliament and formed a new representative body, one that he expected to back him without hesitation. The following year, James's Protestant daughter Mary was moved aside as heir when a son was born. The king made it clear that the boy, also named James, would be brought up in the Catholic Church.
At that point, Mary's Dutch husband, William of Orange, was invited to England by rebellious Protestants. William invaded England in November 1688, an event that prompted observer John Evelyn to "pray God to protect and direct the King for the best and truest interest of his people!"
As William and his Anglo-Dutch forces made their way from his landing site at Dover to London, "never were windows more crowded with the faces of both sexes" as their army marched through. In cities like Salisbury, "never were people shouting and echoing forth huzzahs more in the air."
But, as one loyal royalist put it, "The king is betrayed, his counsels are betrayed, and I am betrayed." On December 18, 1688, Evelyn "saw the King take barge to Gravesend at twelve o'clock - a sad sight!" Evelyn then flocked to see William of Orange for himself, describing him as very stately, serious, and reserved.
Once James II left England, Mary and William ruled together after what was largely a "Bloodless Revolution."
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Haitian Revolution, 1791-1804
The Haitian Revolution included more than a decade of struggles between enslaved residents of the French colony and their European overseers. Known as Saint-Domingue at the time, Haiti experienced what has been called the only successful - and largest - slave rebellion in history.
Led by former slave Toussaint L'Ouverture and his two generals, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henry Christophe, the initial stages of the revolution resulted in the abolition of slavery in 1795. In his autobiography, L'Ouverture described some of the battles he and his colleagues fought, such as the struggle at Verrettes:
This battle was so fierce that the roads were filled with the dead, and rivers of blood were seen on every side. I took all the baggage and ammunition of the enemy, and a large number of prisoners.
He went on to detail his own sacrifices:
Several times I narrowly escaped being made prisoner; I shed my blood for my country; I received a ball in the right hip which remains there still; I received a violent blow on the head from a cannon-ball, which knocked out the greater part of my teeth, and loosened the rest. In short, I received upon different occasions seventeen wounds, whose honorable scars still remain.
L'Ouverture became the governor-general of the colony the following year and took control of the Spanish-controlled portion of the island of Hispaniola in 1801. Continued tumult, fighting, and unrest prompted Napoleon Bonaparte to invade Haiti in 1802. As Bonaparte's forces reasserted French authority on the island, L'Ouverture was forced to surrender, imprisoned, and later sent to Europe where he succumbed to consumption.