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World War II poster from the United States denouncing fifth columnists
World War II poster from the United States denouncing fifth columnists

A fifth column is any group of people who undermine a larger group from within, usually in favor of an enemy group or nation. According to Harris Mylonas and Scott Radnitz, "fifth columns" are “domestic actors who work to undermine the national interest, in cooperation with external rivals of the state."[1] 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.


The term "fifth column" originated in Spain (originally quinta columna) during the early phase of the Spanish Civil War. It gained popularity in the Loyalist faction media in early October 1936 and immediately started to spread abroad.[2]

The exact origins of the term are not clear. Its first identified appearance was in a secret telegram sent to Berlin by the German chargé 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 a fifth column waiting to attack from the inside.[3] However, the telegram was part of the secret German diplomatic correspondence and was discovered long after the civil war.

The first identified public use of the term 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 to a very similar or the same statement as the one reported by Völckers but attributed it to General Emilio Mola.[4] On the same day, the PCE activist Domingo Girón made a similar claim during a public rally.[5] During the following days, Republican papers repeated the story but with differing detail; some attributed the phrase to General Queipo de Llano.[6] In mid-October, the media already warned of the "famous fifth column".[7]

Historians have never identified the original statement referred to by Völckers, Ibárruri, de Jong, and others.[8] The transcripts of Francisco Franco's, Gonzalo Queipo de Llano's, and Emilio Mola's radio addresses have been published, but they do not contain the term,[9] and no other original statement containing this phrase 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,[10] but at that time the term had already been used in the Republican press for more than three weeks.[11]

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",[12] though they admit that the exact statement cannot be identified.[13] 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.[14] Probably the most popular version describes the theory of Mola's authorship with a grade of doubt, either noting that it is presumed but has never been proven,[15] or that the phrase "is attributed" to Mola,[16] who "apparently claimed" so,[17] or else noting that "la famosa quinta columna a la que parece que se había referido el general Mola." (the famous fifth column that General Mola seems to have referred to)[18] 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.[19] There are also other theories afloat.[20]

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."[22] In July 1940, Time magazine referred to talk of a fifth column as a "national phenomenon".[23]

In August 1940, The New York Times mentioned "the first spasm of fear engendered by the success of fifth columns in less fortunate countries".[24] One report identified participants in Nazi "fifth columns" as "partisans of authoritarian government everywhere", citing Poland,[25] 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".[26]

The New York Times on August 11, 1940, featured three editorial cartoons using the term.[27] 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."[28]

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."[29] 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.[30] 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".[31] 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".[32]

Later usage

Australian Prime Minister Menzies proposed a federal referendum on 22 September 1951 asking voters to give the Commonwealth Government the power to make laws regarding communists and communism.
Australian Prime Minister Menzies proposed a federal referendum on 22 September 1951 asking voters to give the Commonwealth Government the power to make laws regarding communists and communism.
Putin says (on 18'23"): "Yes, of course, they will back the so-called fifth column, national traitors – those who make money here in our country but live over there, and “live” not in the geographical sense of the word but in their minds, in their servile mentality", and mentions the fifth column two more times, on 19'57" and 20'33"
(Closed captions available)

In popular culture

The title of Ernest Hemingway's only play "The Fifth Column" (1938) is a translation of General Mola's phrase, la quinta columna. In early 1937 Hemingway had been in Madrid, reporting the war from the loyalist side, and helping make the film The Spanish Earth. He returned to the US to publicise the film and wrote the play, in the Hotel Florida in Madrid, on his next visit to Spain later that year.[46]

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]

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". There was a Merrie Melodies cartoon released in 1943 titled The Fifth-Column Mouse.[non-primary source needed] Comic books also contained references to the fifth column.[51]

Graham Greene, in The Quiet American (1955) uses the phrase "Fifth Column, Third Force, Seventh Day" in the second chapter.[non-primary source needed]

In the 1959 British action film Operation Amsterdam, the term "fifth columnists" is used repeatedly to refer to Nazi sympathizing members of the Dutch Army.

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.[non-primary source needed]

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.[non-primary source needed]

There is an American weekly news podcast called "The Fifth Column",[52] hosted by Kmele Foster, Matt Welch, Michael C. Moynihan, and Anthony Fisher.[non-primary source needed]

Robert A. Heinlein's 1941 story "The Day After Tomorrow", originally titled "Sixth Column", refers to a fictional fifth column that

destroyed the European democracies from within in the tragic days that led up to the final blackout of European civilization. But this would not be a fifth column of traitors, but a sixth column of patriots whose privilege it would be to destroy the morale of invaders, make them afraid, unsure of themselves.

— Robert A. Heinlein, "The Day after Tomorrow (original title: Sixth Column)", Signet Paperback #T4227, Chapter 3, page 37

In Foyle's War, Series 2 Episode 3, "War Games", one line reads, "It's the Second salvage collection I've missed, they've got me down as a fifth columnist."[citation needed]

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".[21]


  1. ^ Mylonas, Harris; Radnitz, Scott, eds. (2022). Enemies Within: The Global Politics of Fifth Columns. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 17. ISBN 978-1107661998.
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ Ruiz, Julius (2014), The 'Red Terror' and the Spanish Civil War, Cambridge, ISBN 9781107054547, p. 187
  4. ^ This edition of Mundo Obrero is not available for consultation online. Many authors claim that in the article Ibarruri referred to an unidentified radio broadcast of Mola, see e.g. Preston Paul (2011), La Guerra Civil Española: reacción, revolución y venganza, Madrid, ISBN 9788499891507. However, other scholars quoting Ibarruri do not refer to the broadcast detail, see e.g. Ruiz 2014, pp. 185-186
  5. ^ 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. He was tried, sentenced to death, and executed on July 3, 1941.
  6. ^ Ruiz 2014, pp. 186-187
  7. ^ Informacion radiotelegrafica, [in:] El bien publico 13.10.1936
  8. ^ de Jong, Louis (1956). The German Fifth Column in the Second World War. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9781787203242. OCLC 2023177. Retrieved October 3, 2021. translated from the Dutch by C.M. Geyl
  9. ^ Preston Paul (2012), The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain, London, ISBN 9780393239669
  10. ^ Preston Paul (2011), La Guerra Civil Española: reacción, revolución y venganza, Madrid, ISBN 9788499891507
  11. ^ Prensa Historica service, Hemeroteca Digital service
  12. ^ 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,
  13. ^ Preston Paul (2011), El holocausto español: Odio y exterminio en la Guerra Civil y después, 2011, ISBN 9788499920498,
  14. ^ One version is "¿Cómo 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.", 'How is it, General Mola, that you intend to take Madrid with four columns?; No, I do no have four; it is five the number of columns I have, because there is a fifth column in Madrid.', 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", 'You do not have but four columns, General; I have the "fifth column" in Madrid.', Pérez de Oliva, Fernán (1991), Historia de la invención de las Indias, Madrid 1991, ISBN 9789682317699, p. 22
  15. ^ Barros Andrew, Thomas Martin (2018), The Civilianization of War: The Changing Civil–Military Divide, 1914–2014, Cambridge, ISBN 9781108429658, p. 49
  16. ^ Loeffel Robert (2015), The Fifth Column in World War II: Suspected Subversives in the Pacific War and Australia, London, ISBN 9781137506672
  17. ^ Beevor, Antony (2006), The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, London, ISBN 9781101201206
  18. ^ Cierva, Ricardo de la (1996), Historia esencial de la Guerra Civil Española: todos los problemas resueltos, sesenta años después, Madrid, ISBN 9788488787125
  19. ^ 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
  20. ^ 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
  21. ^ Albright, Madeleine (2012). Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948. NY: HarperCollins. pp. 102. ISBN 9780062128423.
  22. ^ Churchill, Winston (June 4, 1940). "We Shall Fight on the Beaches". Retrieved July 25, 2017.
  23. ^ Richard W. Steele, Free Speech in the Good War (St. Martin's Press, 1999, 75-6)
  24. ^ The New York Times: Delbert Clark, "Aliens to Begin Registering Tuesday," August 25, 1940. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
  25. ^ Polish Ministry of Information (2014). The German Fifth Column in Poland. Washington, D.C.: Dale Street Books. pp. 3–6. ISBN 9781941656099.
  26. ^ Tolischus, Otto D. (June 16, 1940). "How Hitler Made Ready: I - The Fifth Column" (PDF). The New York Times. Retrieved July 7, 2012.
  27. ^ Barkley, Frederick R. (August 11, 1940). "Nation Shapes Defense against Foes at Home" (PDF). The New York Times. Retrieved July 7, 2012.
  28. ^ Thomson, Ralph (November 27, 1940). "Books of the Times" (PDF). The New York Times. Retrieved April 25, 2015.
  29. ^ Niiya, Brian. "Frank Knox". Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 27, 2014.
  30. ^ Niiya, Brian. "The Fifth Column on the Coast". Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 27, 2014.
  31. ^ "80 Japanese Troop Ships Are Sighted Off Luzon (Continued From Page1)". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. December 22, 1941. p. 7. Retrieved October 30, 2014.
  32. ^ Curtis, Herbert (January 13, 1942). "Japanese Infiltration Into Mindanao". Vancouver Sun. p. 4. Retrieved October 30, 2014.
  33. ^ Robert G.L. Waite, Vanguard of Nazism: The Free Corps Movement in Post-War Germany, 1918-1923 (1952), 88
  34. ^ Yale Law School: Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Volume 4, 215, December 20, 1945. Retrieved July 19, 2012
  35. ^ Thomas G. Paterson, Meeting the Communist Threat: Truman to Reagan (Oxford University Press, 1988), 10
  36. ^ Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Politics of Freedom (Heinemann, 1950), 92-3
  37. ^ "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.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link))
  38. ^ "... 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)
  39. ^ "... a fifth column, a league of traitors" (Evelyn Gordon, "No longer the political fringe[permanent dead link]", Jerusalem Post September 14, 2006)
  40. ^ "Lieberman goes after Arab Joint List: They are a fifth column". Retrieved November 1, 2020.
  41. ^ Krauss, Joseph (September 18, 2019). "Israel's Arabs poised to gain new voice after tight election". AP NEWS. Retrieved November 1, 2020. Arab citizens have close family, cultural and historical ties to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and largely identify with the Palestinian cause. That has led many Israelis to view them as a fifth column and a security threat.
  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. S2CID 145595802.
  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). November 18, 2013.
  45. ^ Radnitz, Scott; Mylonas, Harris. "Putin's warning about Russian 'fifth columns' has a long, sordid lineage". Retrieved April 7, 2022.
  46. ^ Meyers, Jeffrey (1987). Hemingway. London: Paladin. Grafton Books. pp. 316–7. ISBN 0-586-08631-5.
  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 at IMDb
  51. ^ Goodnow, Trischa (January 20, 2017). The 10 Cent War: Comic Books, Propaganda, and World War II. ISBN 9781496810311.
  52. ^ "The Fifth Column / Podcast". The Fifth Column / Podcast. Retrieved June 27, 2019.

Further reading

  • Mylonas, Harris; Radnitz, Scott (2022). Enemies Within: The Global Politics of Fifth Columns. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-762794-5.
  • 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.
  • Britt G. The Fifth column is Here / George Britt. New York: Wilfred Funk, Inc.,1940 125 p.
  • Lavine H. Fifth column in America / Harold Lavine (1915-). New York: Doubleday, Doran, Incorporated, 1940 240 pp.
This page was last edited on 26 September 2022, at 22:44
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