What was the Carnation Revolution?

It was an almost-bloodless coup, led by members of the armed forces which – on 25 April 1974 – brought down more than 40 years of dictatorship in Portugal and ended Europe’s longest-surviving authoritarian regime.


Why did the Carnation Revolution happen?

Since 1933, Portugal had been ruled by the Estado Novo (New State), formally the Second Portuguese Republic. Initially under the authoritarian rule of António de Oliveira Salazar (until 1968), the new authoritarian regime ushered in an era of oppression, and the censorship of newspapers and books. Catholicism was reinstated as the state religion, with the principles of the dictatorship closely allied with that of the Church.

The regime also had its own secret police, which quashed political freedoms as well as civil liberties, including the right to strike or join a trade union. Opponents to the government were imprisoned and sometimes killed.

The Estado Novo was unpopular with much of the international community as well as many Portuguese people. At this time the nation was in the midst of a colonial war that had been raging for 13 years. Many nationalist movements were rebelling against Portuguese rule in their African territories, which included Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique. This was an extremely unpopular conflict, and many of the troops had been conscripted. The majority of the population approved of decolonisation to put an end to the bloody and costly war – something the Estado Novo regime opposed.

How was the coup carried out?

In March 1974, General António de Spínola was dismissed from his position as deputy minister of the armed forces.

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He had written a book in which he suggested that the Portuguese colonial wars should come to an end. He was critical of the current Portuguese regime, something that was regarded as heretical by Portugal’s right-wing establishment.

The Armed Forces Movement (MFA) was soon formed by dissident and low- ranking officers who supported Spínola. Captains within the armed forces were also unhappy with a law which would grant privileges to conscripted officers, to the resentment of professionally trained officers. The armed forces’ support for the government was rapidly deteriorating.

Just before midnight on 24 April, Portugal’s entry for the Eurovision Song Contest – ‘E Depois do Adeus’ (And After The Farewell) – was played by the radio station Emissores Associados de Lisboa, as had been arranged by the rebels. This was the first of two secret signals that the army was waiting for.

Tanks entered the centre of Lisbon in the early hours of 25 April and soon the airport, television and radio centres were taken over, as well as the Salazar Bridge over the river Tagus. Prime Minister Marcello Caetano, along with other ministers, had taken refuge in the Carmo barracks, which housed the

National Republican Guard, and these were stormed by troops, armed with machine guns. With little resistance, Caetano surrendered to Spínola. After initially being taken under custody to the Portuguese island of Madeira, Caetano spent the remaining years of his life as an exile in Brazil.

Radio appeals by the revolutionaries asked people to stay inside, but many flooded the streets and joined in, supporting the troops. By the time the sun had risen on 26 April, the MFA was in charge and promised to hold democratic elections for a national assembly as soon as they could.

Why was it called the Carnation Revolution?

Unlike many military coups, almost no shots were fired, and red carnations were given to soldiers by the jubilant crowds to celebrate the overthrow of the government. The soldiers placed the flowers inside their guns and pinned them on their uniforms. Carnations soon became a symbol of the revolution and its success in bringing democracy to Portugal.

Was anyone hurt during the unrest?

Although the revolutionaries didn’t use violence, four civilians were shot by the DGS – the regime’s political police – when they fired into crowd surrounding the police headquarters. They were later arrested.

Had Portugal undergone any other coups before this?

The Carnation Revolution was Portugal’s third successful coup of the 20th century. In 1910, the Portuguese Republican Party overthrew the monarchy and in 1926, this was replaced with the Ditadura Nacional (National Dictatorship) which would later be renamed the Estado Novo.

What happened after the Carnation Revolution?

Spínola was briefly installed as interim president and was succeeded by general Francisco de Costa Gomes at the end of September 1974. Power was initially held by the National Salvation Junta.

A chaotic period followed with attempted counter-coups, until the Portuguese Constituent Assembly election was
held on 25 April 1975. Another election, held the following year, saw the first constitutional government come into power, with Mário Soares of the Socialist Party becoming prime minister.

Decolonisation was one of the key driving forces behind the new government. The Portuguese Colonial War came to an end and the former Portuguese territories of Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe gained their independence. Portugal also left East Timor – which was almost instantly invaded by Indonesia. The more than one million Portuguese citizens who left the former territories for Portugal became known as the retornados (the returned).

Under the new democratic government, censorship was prohibited, political prisoners were released, and free speech was allowed. People were free to practice any religion. A major redistribution of land was carried out and 60 per cent of the economy was nationalised.

How is the Carnation Revolution remembered today?

Today, 25 April is celebrated in Portugal as a national holiday, known as Freedom Day. One of Lisbon’s bridges, formerly known as the Ponte Salazar, was renamed Ponte 25 de Abril to commemorate the revolution.


This article was first published in the June 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed


Emma Slattery Williams was <BBC History Revealed’s staff writer until August 2022, covering all areas of history – from Egyptian pharaohs and pirate queens to Queen Victoria and Marilyn Monroe. She also compiled HistoryExtra’s Victorian newsletter and interviewed historians on the HistoryExtra podcast.. She studied both History and English at Swansea University.