We often imagine war only in the context of two opposing states or empires, rarely considering that in many cases, internal civil wars can turn out to be bigger and much more destructive than any war between states. Some of the biggest rebellions and revolutions in history have also been some of the biggest wars. Quite a few of them have managed to change the course of history, too, depending on the extent of the disagreement between the ruler and their rebelling subjects.
While some of these biggest rebellions in history managed to achieve their goals, others were eventually crushed. All of them, though, managed to etch their names in history as the biggest shows of dissent ever put up by ordinary folk.
8. The Haitian Revolt
There are very few revolts in history that could claim to be successful against a major European colonial power. Even fewer of them were slave revolts, as slavery – despite all of its ills – was always an efficiently and sternly-run enterprise. Haiti’s successful revolt against one of the biggest colonial powers of the time (France) wasn’t just a pivotal event in the region’s history, but also a watershed moment in the overall history of the abolition of slavery. It was also the only time a slave revolt was able to successfully defeat a colonial power and establish an independent state of its own.
What began as a localized revolt among slaves in the French colony of Saint-Domingue in 1791 soon spread like wildfire across the country. Ironically, the rebels were inspired by the French Revolution, and – after 13 years of brutal warfare against well-equipped European armies – successfully established the Republic of Haiti on January 1, 1804. It was the beginning of the end for the Atlantic slave trade, as well as one of the biggest and most successful rebellions in history.
7. Yugoslav Partisans
The Second World War was a ridiculously spread out event, with battles happening in almost every corner of the civilized world at its peak. Because of the brutality of the various invasions throughout the war, quite a few successful rebellions sprang up across Allied and Axis territories. While there are too many of them to list here, one was so successful that it deserves a mention.
The Yugoslav Partisans was only one of the many resistance groups that had formed in the wake of the Nazi occupation across Europe, though it was by far the most successful. While it was an organized movement under the leadership of communist leader Josef Tito, it also saw widespread participation and support from students and local communities. They had their own network of news, propaganda, literature, poetry and warfare tactics to keep the Nazis engaged. Just like the Polish resistance – which was more unorganized and spread out than the Partisans – it remains one of the largest and most successful rebellions of the Second World War.
6. The Third Servile War
The Roman Empire had to fight its fair share of rebels from time to time, as it commanded such a vast and diverse territory. There was hardly a time in the entire history of the empire that nobody wanted to rebel against it, though by and large, most of them were minor affairs that require little mention in the history books.
Of course, that doesn’t apply to the massive slave rebellions, the biggest of which ended up posing a direct threat to the Roman state. Started by an ex-gladiator named Spartacus (yeah, you’ve probably heard of him), it came to be known as the Third Servile War. The rebels came very close to victory, too, as Spartacus’s forces, at their peak, numbered at around 70,000 and were even on the verge of victory… if only they had returned home and come back with reinforcements. Instead, he decided to march on Rome, and even won a few victories on the way. Spartacus was eventually defeated and killed by Roman forces, with his entire army crucified along the Appian Way as a warning for the rest of the populace.
5. The Algerian Revolution
The Algerian revolution was far from being the biggest revolution of the last century. The Russian (or even the Chinese) revolution would probably take that spot, though enough has been written about them. The Algerian revolution, on the other hand, is rarely even mentioned, let alone discussed as an important part of our recent history. Regardless, it remains one of the biggest and most important civil wars of the 20th century, and for good reason, too.
Beginning in 1954, the war was a result of a long, drawn out struggle between the Algerians and their colonial French government for self rule. France – much like most of the other European powers at the time – was wary of letting go of its territories, and decided to fight for it. Algeria, though, was having none of it anymore, and decided to fight for it with the National Liberation Front (FLN) – originally a localized resistance force in Algiers.
In the eight years that followed, the FLN would turn from a loose group of rebels to one of the most successful insurgent forces of the last century, making it a major war of the 20th century. At its peak, France had around half a million troops in Algeria, and the whole conflict ended up killing around 1.5 million Algerians. By the end of it all, France had to leave the country after eight long and brutal years of fierce fighting against local guerrilla forces, mostly in urban areas. It was one of the few times a European colonial power was defeated on the battlefield by a native rebel force, setting the stage for future conflicts that ended on the same lines, like the Vietnam War. Speaking of which…
4. The Vietnam War
From the perspective of the United States, the Vietnam War was definitely all the things that people allege that it was. Even its most ardent supporters were unable to come up with a satisfactory answer to why it dragged on as long as it did. It was difficult to morally justify, triggered a massive civil rights movement in America, and permanently altered the sociopolitical make-up of the country.
If we look at it from the Vietnamese side, though – something we avoid doing for some reason – it was also one of history’s most successful rebellions. While by no means Vietnam’s first rebellion by a long shot, it was the most important. The Vietnam War was the focal point of the larger Cold War between free-market economies and communist-run states, and would eventually end up changing America – and the world – in more ways than we could count.
In Vietnam, the war strengthened the wave of radical nationalism that first swept across its countryside during its war of independence against France, something that’s visible in the country’s politics till today. It was a brutal conflict that lasted almost twenty years, and saw a huge chunk of the local population from around the country – especially in North Vietnam – join the conflict.
The war also fundamentally changed American politics. The anti-war civil rights movement was one of the biggest the country had ever seen, and saw people from all walks of life participate in huge numbers. In stark contrast to WW2, the Vietnam War was viewed by many to be – at the least – pointless. There were also lasting changes to the American military after it ended, the most important one being the end of the draft by Nixon in 1972.
3. The 1857 Sepoy Mutiny
At its height, the British empire was so humongous that it was colloquially known as ‘the empire on which the sun never sets’, as no matter what the time of the day it was, the sun was still up in at least one of Britain’s overseas colonies. Being the largest empire in history, it’s natural that the British empire would have faced its fair share of rebellions around the world. None of them, however, affected Britain – and in turn the rest of the world – like the 1857 revolt in India.
Started by Sepoys – Indian soldiers in the ranks of the East India Company – the rebellion was by far the biggest resistance to its rule the Brits had ever come across, before or since. It was a wildly popular rebellion in many parts of the country. It came quite close to succeeding, too, as the rebels had managed to capture quite a few crucial British posts in the early days of the fighting. The descriptions of the brutality of the British killings – including those of children – in British newspapers shook the populace, demanding direct action from the queen.
While the revolt was eventually put down due to a lack of capable leadership, opposing objectives of the various rebelling factions and superior British firepower, among others, it marked the end of the East India Company – possibly one of the most successful corporations in history, and brought the colony of India directly under the control of the monarchy.
2. The Spring Of Nations
The Russian and French revolutions are often remembered as two hugely important events in Europe’s history. Apart from completely transforming the political and social structure of their own countries, both of them had a huge impact on the rest of the world, too. While they undoubtedly deserve their reputations, we forget that they weren’t the only revolutions of their kind. The wave of revolutions in almost all European monarchies in the spring of 1848 – hence the nickname Spring of Nations – were also instrumental in changing European society and bringing it into the modern age.
While the localized issues were as numerous and varied as the people in Europe, the larger cause was the longstanding sense of disillusionment of the people against the centralized power of European monarchies. With the exception of Russia, Spain and Scandinavia, there were massive protests in almost every European country, leading to varied results. While the rebellion was put down followed by repressive measures in some countries, it also led to social reforms in places like Austria, Germany and Italy. In France, though, it turned out to be wildly successful, toppling the monarchy and eventually leading to the establishment of the Second Republic.
1. The Taiping Rebellion
Ranking the largest rebellion or civil war in history is probably not possible, as ‘largest’ means different things for different people. While some rebellions changed the course of history in various ways, others were bigger in terms of scale. If we talk about sheer numbers, though, the Taiping Rebellion – fought between 1850 and 1864 in China – could easily be placed right on the top. Apart from being the largest rebellion in history, it was also one of the bloodiest wars ever, with a death toll of around 20-70 million people.
Fought between the Chinese Qing Dynasty and a religious cult called God Worshipping Society, the rebellion could be compared to wars like WW1 and the Vietnam War in terms of scale. At its height, the rebels – led by a self-proclaimed messiah called Hong Xiuquan – numbered close to two million. They even won a string of victories against the organized Qing forces in the beginning of the conflict, including the successful invasion of Nanjing – a major economic centre at the time. The city was under the rebels for over 11 years, and was only taken by the Qing forces – aided by many European empires – after Hong was found to have mysteriously died in 1864.