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What is the Carnation Revolution?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Carnation Revolution or Revolução dos Cravos was a largely bloodless coup which occurred in the nation of Portugal in 1974. The result of the Carnation Revolution was the toppling of a dictatorship which had prevailed for almost 50 years. After a brief period of turmoil, Portugal emerged as a democratic country, to the great delight of many of its citizens and the world in general.

The history of this event began in 1926, when a military coup established the Estado Novo, overthrowing the nascent First Republic of Portugal, a democratic government which had replaced Portugal's monarchy in 1910. Portuguese citizens chafed under the Estado Novo, but the end of this regime was ultimately brought about by the actions of the military, rather than the citizens. Military officers with left-wing inclinations masterminded their coup d'état in response to the sacking of a Portuguese general who spoke out against Portuguese colonial policy.

In the early hours of 25 April 1974, the Carnation Revolution began in the Portuguese city of Lisbon. The military forces quickly overwhelmed the government, sparking spontaneous demonstrations in the street, in which civilians ran out to mingle with the soldiers, despite orders to stay inside. At the time, carnations were flooding the famous central flower market of Lisbon, and many citizens put them into the gun barrels of the soldiers, inspiring the name “Carnation Revolution” to describe this event in Portuguese history.

Government forces managed to kill four people before it was clear that they were not going to win the Carnation Revolution. The relative peacefulness of the coup has also been credited to a determined desire to avoid violence on the part of the revolutionary soldiers. Individual citizens also encouraged members of the regime to surrender, rather than fighting, making it easier for the coup to remain free of violence.

As often happens when a government is overthrown, even with the support of the populace, Portugal underwent a period of instability after the Carnation Revolution. It took several years to create a strong democratic government, and during this period Portugal divested itself of almost all of its foreign colonies and underwent severe economic turmoil, as the dictatorship had controlled the Portuguese economy with such a stranglehold that it took some time to stabilize. For the Portuguese and their former colonies, this was a very difficult period, but many feel that the short-term effects of the Carnation Revolution were well worth the trouble. Today, Portuguese celebrate Freedom Day on 25 April every year.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon924624 — On Jan 06, 2014

The Carnation Revolution was bloodless because it had been agreed almost a year before that Portugal was to have a change of government. The neatest and most externally convincing method was to set-up a social revolution (which had in reality been taking place long before.) There are those today who still believe it was a coup d'etat. Things were carefully negotiated long before by those who were in the positions to do so. Marcello Caetano collaborated as did Gen. Antono de Spinola, together with important others involved in international enterprise. The EEC was forming as well and there were strong economic reasons for change. It is an old culture but the world only sees what it wants to see and believes what it wants to believe.

By Esther11 — On Aug 19, 2011

From doing a little reading about Portugal, I feel a sense of real admiration for the country. After the Carnation Revolution, it's true there was some ups and downs politically and economically. But the rebuilding of this country has been amazing.

They lived under a democracy and then were thrust into a government with a strong dictator. Those who criticized the government were dealt with harshly and the censorship was strong.

Not living under the democracy they once had must have stayed in their collective memory. The dictatorship lasted a long 50 years. To restore democracy to their country in such a quiet, almost bloodless revolution is something!

By live2shop — On Aug 18, 2011

I hadn't heard of the Carnation Revolution. I visited Portugal in 1969 and I guess I was young and ill informed, but I didn't know that it was a dictatorship at the time. I thought all the European countries had let go of their colonies before then.

The Portuguese citizens had to wait a long time to get their democracy restored.

During the revolution, it must have been quite a sight to see all the carnations in the gun barrels of the soldiers. There have been a few other quiet revolutions like this one, but most have been full of blood, resentment and a huge adjustment after they're over.

By serenesurface — On Aug 18, 2011

The Carnation Revolution brought huge changes to Portugal for sure. It brought democracy and the liberties and freedoms that all democracies have.

But it was also a huge change and relief for the Portuguese colonies in Africa who were at war because of the Portuguese dictatorship. It was a revolution for Portugal but also liberation for African colonies like Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and Angola.

I think that these African countries had a much harder time getting on their feet than Portugal did though. It was not, and is still not easy for them.

By candyquilt — On Aug 18, 2011

I saw a movie about the Carnation Revolution, it is called Capitaes de Abril or the April Captains. It's a Portuguese film about the Revolution, how it was planned and carried out.

I'm not Portuguese and didn't know anything about the Carnation Revolution before seeing the film, but I feel that I learned a lot. I truly respect the April Captains, which is what the Revolutionary Soldiers- the planners of the Revolution- were called.

They really were amazing people because they had the courage to put into action what the Portuguese people wanted and they did it without harming anyone, even those who were their enemies.

By SteamLouis — On Aug 17, 2011

The Carnation Revolution must be one of the few peaceful ones that history has seen. Revolutions continue to happen today but they are all usually very violent because, unlike the Portuguese government during the Carnation Revolution, dictatorships generally refuse to give up their posts. The don't mind using violence and brutality to try to control the masses.

Of course, it never works and regime change happens but at the cost of many lives. It would be interesting to look into the details of the Carnation Revolution and learn more about how it was done peacefully and why other Revolutions did not do the same.

Was it because the Portuguese government did not have the support of its military? If the military were on the government's side and willing to harm revolutionary soldiers and civilians, would the outcome have been very different?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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