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World War II poster from the United States
World War II poster from the United States

A fifth column is any group of people who undermine a larger group from within, usually in favor of an enemy group or nation. The activities of a fifth column can be overt or clandestine. Forces gathered in secret can mobilize openly to assist an external attack. This term is also extended to organised actions by military personnel. Clandestine fifth column activities can involve acts of sabotage, disinformation, or espionage executed within defense lines by secret sympathizers with an external force.


Republican patrol on the streets of Madrid, 1936
Republican patrol on the streets of Madrid, 1936

The term "fifth column" originated in Spain (originally quinta columna) during the early phase of the Civil War. It gained extreme popularity in the Republican media since early October 1936, and immediately started to make rounds also abroad.[1]

Exact origins of the term are not clear. Its first identified appearance was in a secret telegram sent to Berlin by the German charge d’affaires in Alicante, Hans-Hermann Völckers dated September 30, 1936. He referred to an unidentified "supposed statement by Franco" which "is being circulated" (apparently in the Republican zone or in the Republican-held Levantine zone). In the statement, Franco allegedly claimed that there were four Nationalist columns approaching Madrid and the fifth column waited to rise from the inside.[2] However, the telegram was part of the secret German diplomatic correspondence and was discovered long after the Civil War.

The first public use of the term identified is in the October 3, 1936 issue of the Madrid Communist daily Mundo Obrero. In a front-page article the party propagandist Dolores Ibárruri referred the same statement as reported by Völckers, but attributed it to general Emilio Mola.[3] On the same day the PCE activist Domingo Girón made a similar claim during a public rally.[4] During the following days Republican papers repeated the story, but with differing detail; some attributed the phrase to general Queipo de Llano.[5] In mid-October media already warned against "famous fifth column".[6]

Historians have never identified the original statement referred by Völckers, Ibárruri and others.[7] Though transcripts of Franco’s, Queipo and Mola’s radio addresses have been published, they did not contain the term referred;[8] no other original statement with the phrase in question has ever surfaced. A British journalist who took part in Mola’s press conference on October 28, 1936 claimed that Mola referred to quinta columna on this very day,[9] though at that time the term had already been used in the Republican press for more than 3 weeks.[10]

Historiographic works offer differing perspectives on authorship of the term. Many scholars have no doubt about Mola’s role and refer to "fifth column" as to "a term coined in 1936 by General Emilio Mola",[11] though they admit that the exact statement can not be identified.[12] In some sources Mola is noted as a person who used the term during an impromptu press interview, and different though detailed versions of the exchange are offered.[13] Probably the most popular version refers the theory of Mola’s authorship with a grade of doubt, either noting that it is presumed but never proven[14] or that the phrase "is attributed" to Mola,[15] who "apparently claimed" so,[16] or they note "la famosa quinta columna a la que parece que se había referido el general Mola."[17] Some authors consider it possible if not likely that the term has been invented by the Communist propaganda with the purpose of either raising morale or providing justification for terror and repression; initially it might have been part of the whispering campaign, but was later openly floated by Communist propagandists.[18] There are also other theories afloat.[19]

Though the 1936 usage is widely regarded as the origins of the phrase, historian Christopher Clark quotes a February 1906 letter by Austrian military attaché Joseph Pomiankowski using the phrase, "the fifth-column work of the [Serbian] Radicals in peacetime, which systematically poisons the attitude of our South Slav population and could, if the worst came to the worst, create very serious difficulties for our army."[20][21][22]

Some writers, mindful of the origin of the phrase, use it only in reference to military operations rather than the broader and less well defined range of activities that sympathizers might engage in to support an anticipated attack.[a]

Second World War

By the late 1930s, as American involvement in the war in Europe became more likely, the term "fifth column" was commonly used to warn of potential sedition and disloyalty within the borders of the United States. The fear of betrayal was heightened by the rapid fall of France in 1940, which some blamed on internal weakness and a pro-German "fifth column". A series of photos run in the June 1940 issue of Life magazine warned of "signs of Nazi Fifth Column Everywhere". In a speech to the House of Commons that same month, Winston Churchill reassured MPs that "Parliament has given us the powers to put down Fifth Column activities with a strong hand."[24] In July 1940, Time magazine referred to talk of a fifth column as a "national phenomenon".[25]

In August 1940, The New York Times mentioned "the first spasm of fear engendered by the success of fifth columns in less fortunate countries".[26] One report identified participants in Nazi "fifth columns" as "partisans of authoritarian government everywhere," citing Poland,[27] Czechoslovakia, Norway, and the Netherlands. During the Nazi invasion of Norway, the head of the Norwegian fascist party, Vidkun Quisling, proclaimed the formation of a new fascist government in control of Norway, with himself as Prime Minister, by the end of the first day of fighting. The word "quisling" soon became a byword for "collaborator" or "traitor".[28]

The New York Times on August 11, 1940 featured three editorial cartoons using the term.[29] John Langdon-Davies, a British journalist who covered the Spanish Civil War, wrote an account called The Fifth Column which was published the same year. In November 1940, Ralph Thomson, reviewing Harold Lavine's Fifth Column in America, a study of Communist and fascist groups in the U.S., in The New York Times, questioned his choice of that title: "the phrase has been worked so hard that it no longer means much of anything."[30]

Dr. Seuss cartoon in PM dated February 13, 1942, with the caption 'Waiting for the Signal from Home'
Dr. Seuss cartoon in PM dated February 13, 1942, with the caption 'Waiting for the Signal from Home'

Immediately following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox issued a statement that "the most effective Fifth Column work of the entire war was done in Hawaii with the exception of Norway."[31] In a column published in The Washington Post, dated 12 February 1942, the columnist Walter Lippmann wrote of imminent danger from actions that might be taken by Japanese Americans. Titled "The Fifth Column on the Coast," he wrote of possible attacks that could be made along the West Coast of the United States that would amplify damage inflicted by a potential attack by Japanese naval and air forces.[32] Suspicion about an active fifth column on the coast led eventually to the internment of Japanese Americans.

During the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in December 1941 said the indigenous Moro Muslims were "capable of dealing with Japanese fifth columnists and invaders alike".[33] Another in the Vancouver Sun the following month described how the large population of Japanese immigrants in Davao in the Philippines welcomed the invasion: "the first assault on Davao was aided by numbers of Fifth Columnists–residents of the town".[34]

Later usage

  • German minority organizations in Czechoslovakia formed the Sudeten German Free Corps, which aided the Third Reich. Some claimed they were "self-defense formations" created in the aftermath of World War I and unrelated to the German invasion two decades later.[35] More often their origins were discounted and they were defined by the role they played in 1938–39: "The same pattern was repeated in Czechoslovakia. Henlein's Free Corps played in that country the part of fifth column".[36]
  • In 1945, a document produced by the U.S. Department of State compared the earlier efforts of Nazi Germany to mobilize the support of sympathizers in foreign nations to the superior efforts of the international communist movement at the end of World War II: "a communist party was in fact a fifth column as much as any [German] Bund group, except that the latter were crude and ineffective in comparison with the Communists".[37] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote in 1949: "the special Soviet advantage—the warhead—lies in the fifth column; and the fifth column is based on the local Communist parties".[38]
  • North Koreans living in Japan, particularly those affiliated with the organization Chongryun (which is itself affiliated with the government of North Korea) are sometimes seen as a "fifth column" by some Japanese, and have been the victims of verbal and physical attacks. These have occurred more frequently since the government of Kim Jong Il acknowledged it had abducted Japanese citizens from Japan and tested ballistic missiles near the waters of and over mainland Japan.[39]
  • Some Israeli Jews, including politicians, rabbis, journalists, and historians, who believe that Israeli Arabs identify more with the Palestinian cause than with the state of Israel or Zionism, have referred to them, who compose approximately 20% of Israel's population, as a fifth column.[40][41]
  • Counter-jihad literature has sought to portray Western Muslims as a "fifth column", collectively seeking to destabilize Western nations' identity and values for the benefit of an international Islamic movement intent on the establishment of a caliphate in Western countries.[42] Following the 2015 attack by French-born Muslims on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the leader of the UK Independence Party Nigel Farage said that Europe had "a fifth column living within our own countries".[43] In 2001 Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn talked about Muslim immigrants being a "fifth column" the night he was dismissed as leader of Liveable Netherlands.[44]
  • The term was frequently used by some Russian media during 2014 pro-Russian unrest in Ukraine to describe any form of criticism of Russian policy in Ukraine. Aleksandr Dugin came up with a concept of "sixth column" describing those members of Russian elite who do not demonstrate sufficient enthusiasm in supporting the official policy and thus indirectly support the enemy.[45]
  • During the 2019/2020 pandemic, Donald J Trump was referred to as fulfilling the role of a 5th Columnist due to his conduct during the 2016 election and during the Pandemic in a Tweet that stated, "Be it pandemic or national election, Donald J Trump fulfills the role of 5th columnist; fueling hardship, energizing despair, and, motivating enemies of America. The public has a right to know why". [46]

In popular culture

In the US an Australian radio play, The Enemy Within, proved to be very popular, though this popularity was due to the belief that the stories of fifth column activities were based on real events. In December 1940 the Australian censors had the series banned.[47]

British reviewers of Agatha Christie's novel N or M? in 1941 used the term to describe the struggle of two British partisans of the Nazi regime working on its behalf in Britain during World War II.[48]

James Ellroy heavily references the presence of fifth column activities in Los Angeles following the attacks on Pearl Harbor in his novels, Perfidia and This Storm.

In Frank Capra's film Meet John Doe (1941), newspaper editor Henry Connell warns the politically-naïve protagonist, John Doe, about a businessman's plans to promote his own political ambitions using the apolitical John Doe Clubs. Connell says to John: "Listen, pal, this fifth-column stuff is pretty rotten, isn't it?", identifying the businessman with anti-democratic interests in the United States. When Doe agrees, he adds: "And you'd feel like an awful sucker if you found yourself marching right in the middle of it, wouldn't you?"[49]

Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942) features Robert Cummings asking for help against "fifth columnists" conspiring to sabotage the American war effort.[citation needed] Soon the term was being used in popular entertainment.

Several World War II era animated shorts include the term. Cartoons of Porky Pig asked any "fifth columnists" in the audience to leave the theater immediately.[50] In Looney Tunes' Foney Fables, the narrator of a comic fairy tale described a wolf in sheep's clothing as a "fifth columnist".[51] There was a Merrie Melodies cartoon released in 1943 titled The Fifth-Column Mouse.[52] Comic books also contained references to the Fifth column.[53]

Graham Greene, in The Quiet American (1955) famously uses the phrase "Fifth Column, Third Force, Seventh Day" in the second chapter.

The V franchise is a set of TV shows, novels and comics about an alien invasion of Earth. A group of aliens opposed to the invasion and assist the human Resistance Movement is called The Fifth Column.

In the episode "Flight Into the Future" from the 1960s TV show Lost In Space, Dr. Smith was referred to as the fifth columnist of the Jupiter 2 expedition. In the first episode, he was a secret agent sent to sabotage the mission who got caught on board at liftoff.

There is an American weekly news podcast called "The Fifth Column",[54] hosted by Kmele Foster, Matt Welch, Michael C. Moynihan, and Anthony Fisher.

See also


  1. ^ Madeleine Albright, for example, in a lengthy account of German sympathizers in Czechoslovakia in the first years of World War II, does not use the phrase to describe their actions until she considers their possible response to a German invasion: "Many, perhaps most, of the Sudetens would have provided the enemy with a fifth column".[23]


  1. ^ in French newspapers the term first appeared on October 4, 1936, one day after its first usage in the Madrid press, La Passionaria preche la terreur, [in:] Le Journal 04.10.1936. In more distant countries like Poland the term started to appear since mid-October, see e.g. Oviedo ostatecznie uwolnione, [in:] Dziennik Wileński 18.10.1936
  2. ^ Ruiz, Julius (2014), The 'Red Terror' and the Spanish Civil War, Cambridge, ISBN 9781107054547, p. 187
  3. ^ the actual copy of Mundo Obrero is not available for consultation online. Many authors claim that in the article Ibarruri referred to an unidentified Mola's radio broadcast, see e.g. Preston Paul (2011), La Guerra Civil Española: reacción, revolución y venganza, Madrid, ISBN 9788499891507. However, other scholars when quoting Ibarruri do not refer the broadcast detail, see e.g. Ruiz 2014, pp. 185-186
  4. ^ Domingo Girón was a Madrid mid-level Communist activist. In his speech he referred to "cierta declaración hecha por el general Mola a un periodista extranjero", Un gran mitin del Socorro Rojo internacional, [in:] Hoja Oficial del lunes 04.10.1936. In March 1939, he was detained by the Casadistas and handed over to the Francoists later on. Following trial, he was sentenced to death and executed on July 3, 1941
  5. ^ Ruiz 2014, pp. 186-187
  6. ^ Informacion radiotelegrafica, [in:] El bien publico 13.10.1936
  7. ^ De Jong Louis (2019), The German Fifth Column in the Second World War, London, ISBN 9781000008098
  8. ^ Preston Paul (2012), The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain, London, ISBN 9780393239669
  9. ^ Preston Paul (2011), La Guerra Civil Española: reacción, revolución y venganza, Madrid, ISBN 9788499891507
  10. ^ Prensa Historica service, Hemeroteca Digital service
  11. ^ Kennedy, David M. (ed.) (2007), The Library of Congress World War II Companion, New York, ISBN 9781416553069, p. 79, also Lejeune Anthony (ed.) (2018), Concise Dictionary of Foreign Quotations, London, ISBN 9781135974893, , also Romero Salvadó, Francisco J., (2013), Historical Dictionary of the Spanish Civil War, London, ISBN 9780810880092, p. 199,
  12. ^ Preston Paul (2011), El holocausto español: Odio y exterminio en la Guerra Civil y después, 2011, ISBN 9788499920498,
  13. ^ one version is “sómo es, general Mola, que piensa usted tomar Madrid con cuatro columnas?; no, no tengo cuatro; son cinco las columnas que tengo, porque en Madrid hay una quinta columna", Carrillo Alejandro (1943), Defensa de la revolución en el Parlamento, s.n. 1943,. Other version is “no tiene usted sino cuatro columnas, general; tengo la “Quinta Columna” en Madrid”, Pérez de Oliva, Fernán (1991), Historia de la invención de las Indias, Madrid 1991, ISBN 9789682317699, p. 22
  14. ^ Barros Andrew, Thomas Martin (2018), The Civilianization of War: The Changing Civil–Military Divide, 1914–2014, Cambridge, ISBN 9781108429658, p. 49
  15. ^ Loeffel Robert (2015), The Fifth Column in World War II: Suspected Subversives in the Pacific War and Australia, London, ISBN 9781137506672
  16. ^ Beevor, Antony (2006), The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, London, ISBN 9781101201206
  17. ^ Cierva, Ricardo de la (1996), Historia esencial de la Guerra Civil Española: todos los problemas resueltos, sesenta años después, Madrid, ISBN 9788488787125
  18. ^ Ruiz Julius (2014), The 'Red Terror' and the Spanish Civil War, Cambridge, ISBN 9781107054547, p. 185. The opposing view is that the Republican repression was inadvertently triggered by Mola, who did not realize what effect his alleged statement would have, Laguna Reyes Albert, Vargas Márquez Antonio (2019), La Quinta Columna: La guerra clandestina tras las líneas republicanas 1936-1939, Madrid, ISBN 9788491645894
  19. ^ a British correspondent in the Republican zone claimed after the Civil War that "many weeks" before October 1936 he had used the term in The Daily Telegraph when discusing the Nationalist advance towards Madrid. Allegedly the term was picked up by Republican journalists and in turn somehow filtered out to the Nationalist zone; Mola liked it and started to use it. The alleged Daily Telegraph reference has never been identified. Thomas, Hugh (2018), La guerra civil española, Madrid, ISBN 9788466344821
  20. ^ M., Clark, Christopher (March 19, 2013). The Sleepwalkers : How Europe Went to War in 1914 (First U.S. ed.). New York. pp. 58. ISBN 9780061146657. OCLC 795757585.
  21. ^ Günther., Kronenbitter (2003). "Krieg im Frieden" : die Führung der k.u.k. Armee und die Grossmachtpolitik Österreich-Ungarns 1906-1914. München: Oldenbourg. p. 327. ISBN 3486567004. OCLC 53805594.
  22. ^ Letter from Austrian military attache in Belgrade, Serbia, Joseph Pomiankowski to Beck, cited and quoted from reference #2, Günther Kronenbitter: Krieg im Frieden. Die Führung der k.u.k. Armee und die Großmachtpolitik Österreich-Ungarns 1906–1914 ("War in Peace. The Leadership of the Imperial and Royal Army and the Great Power Politics of Austria-Hungary 1906-1914"), Verlag Oldenbourg, Munich, 2003, ISBN 3-486-56700-4, p. 327
  23. ^ Albright, Madeleine (2012). Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948. NY: HarperCollins. pp. 102.
  24. ^ Churchill, Winston (June 4, 1940). "We Shall Fight on the Beaches". Retrieved July 25, 2017.
  25. ^ Richard W. Steele, Free Speech in the Good War (St. Martin's Press, 1999, 75-6)
  26. ^ The New York Times: Delbert Clark, "Aliens to Begin Registering Tuesday," August 25, 1940. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
  27. ^ Polish Ministry of Information (2014). The German Fifth Column in Poland. Washington, D.C.: Dale Street Books. pp. 3–6. ISBN 9781941656099.
  28. ^ Tolischus, Otto D. (June 16, 1940). "How Hitler Made Ready: I - The Fifth Column" (PDF). The New York Times. Retrieved July 7, 2012.
  29. ^ Barkley, Frederick R. (August 11, 1940). "Nation Shapes Defense against Foes at Home" (PDF). The New York Times. Retrieved July 7, 2012.
  30. ^ Thomson, Ralph (November 27, 1940). "Books of the Times" (PDF). The New York Times. Retrieved April 25, 2015.
  31. ^ Niiya, Brian. "Frank Knox". Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 27, 2014.
  32. ^ Niiya, Brian. "The Fifth Column on the Coast". Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 27, 2014.
  33. ^ "80 Japanese Troop Ships Are Sighted Off Luzon (Continued From Page1)". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. December 22, 1941. p. 7. Retrieved October 30, 2014.
  34. ^ Curtis, Herbert (January 13, 1942). "Japanese Infiltration Into Mindanao". Vancouver Sun. p. 4. Retrieved October 30, 2014.
  35. ^ Robert G.L. Waite, Vanguard of Nazism: The Free Corps Movement in Post-War Germany, 1918-1923 (1952), 88
  36. ^ Yale Law School: Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Volume 4, 215, December 20, 1945. Retrieved July 19, 2012
  37. ^ Thomas G. Paterson, Meeting the Communist Threat: Truman to Reagan (Oxford University Press, 1988), 10
  38. ^ Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Politics of Freedom (Heinemann, 1950), 92-3
  39. ^ "North Koreans in Japan have long been vilified as a communist fifth column" (Hans Greimel, "Test sparks N. Korea Backlash in Japan", Associated Press dispatch, October 24, 2006 "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on February 5, 2007. Retrieved January 9, 2007.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link))
  40. ^ "... they hurl accusations against us, like that we are a 'fifth column'." (Roee Nahmias, "Arab MK: Israel committing 'genocide' of Shiites", Ynetnews August 2, 2006)
  41. ^ "... a fifth column, a league of traitors" (Evelyn Gordon, "No longer the political fringe[permanent dead link]", Jerusalem Post September 14, 2006)
  42. ^ Akbarzadeh, Shahram; Roose, Joshua M. (September 2011). "Muslims, Multiculturalism and the Question of the Silent Majority". Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs. 31 (3): 309–325. doi:10.1080/13602004.2011.599540.
  43. ^ Bordelon, Brendan (January 7, 2015). "UKIP's Farage: Multiculturalism Creating 'Fifth Column' in West". National Review. Retrieved January 8, 2015.
  44. ^ "Fortuyn: ramp voor politiek en vaderland" (in Dutch).
  45. ^ Александр Дугин (May 21, 2014). За Ахметова грудью встала российская шестая колонна. (in Russian).
  46. ^ {reference:}
  47. ^ Loeffel, Robert (2015). The Fifth Column in World War II: Suspected Subversives in the Pacific War and Australia. Palgrave. p. 85.
  48. ^ The Times Literary Supplement, November 29, 1941 (p. 589); The Observer, December 7, 1941 (p. 3)
  49. ^ Riskin, Robert (1997). McGilligan, Patrick (ed.). Six Screenplays. University of California Press. pp. 664, 696.
  50. ^ Meet John Doughboy on IMDb
  51. ^ Foney Fables on IMDb
  52. ^ The Fifth-Column Mouse on IMDb
  53. ^ Goodnow, Trischa (January 20, 2017). The 10 Cent War: Comic Books, Propaganda, and World War II. ISBN 9781496810311.
  54. ^ "The Fifth Column / Podcast". The Fifth Column / Podcast. Retrieved June 27, 2019.

Foyles War, Series 2 Episode 3, "War Games" - "It's the Second salvage collection I've missed, they've got me down as a fifth columnist"

Further reading

  • The German Fifth Column in Poland. London: Polish Ministry of Info. 1941.
  • Bilek, Bohumil (1945). Fifth Column at Work. London: Trinity.
  • Loeffel, Robert (2015). The Fifth Column in World War II: Suspected Subversives in the Pacific War and Australia. Palgrave.
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