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What Is a Fifth Columnist?

By Eugene P.
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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A fifth columnist is a person who is collaborating with an enemy or foreign power with the intention of overthrowing or somehow subverting the current leadership.‭ ‬The term comes from the idiom "the fifth column,"‭ ‬based on comments by General Emilio Mola during the Spanish Civil War. He described a group of rebels loyal to his cause who were already present inside the city he sought to conquer.‭ ‬The term has seen use several times since then,‭ ‬and a fifth columnist is now more generically defined as anyone who is fighting for,‭ ‬or actively supporting,‭ ‬the enemy.

Mola was attempting in 1936 to lay siege to Madrid, Spain, during the Spanish Civil War.‭ ‬He had surrounded the city with four columns of his soldiers.‭ ‬During a radio address,‭ ‬he said his four columns of soldiers would‭ ‬be aided by another column of people already inside of the city.‭ ‬The Fitchburg Sentinel newspaper in Massachusetts then used the term "fifth column" in an article about the ultimately unsuccessful siege on‭ ‬14‭ ‬October‭ ‬1936.

The actual fifth columnist‭ ‬group to which Mola was referring to was a‭ ‬faction of residents who lived in Madrid and were opposed to the loyalist government.‭ ‬The rebels formed a secret group and were intent on providing support for the troops that Mola planned to send into the city.‭ ‬Despite the staying power of the idiom,‭ ‬the actual fifth column was not effective in winning control of Madrid.

The term gained popularity,‭ ‬especially during World War II.‭ ‬Both the British and the United States used the term to describe suspicious citizens and immigrants who were of German decent and believed to be sympathizing with Germany.‭ ‬It also was used in Eastern Europe during the same time period to denote groups of Polish and Czechoslovakian citizens who aided‭ ‬in‭ ‬the capture of their own nations by Germany.

The term fifth column is an idiom, or the use of a phrase or word in a figurative way as opposed to a literal way.‭ ‬To call a person a fifth columnist is not to imply that he or she is somehow related to the events in‭ ‬1936 or actually makes a column of some sort.‭ ‬Rather, it implies that his or her actions or‭ ‬ideologies are similar to those in the original context.‭ ‬The term has come to refer to anyone who is a member of a subversive organization or otherwise actively seeks to undermine a larger power.

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Discussion Comments

By hamje32 — On Jan 01, 2012

@SkyWhisperer - I didn’t realize that the fifth columnist definition hearkened back to the days of the Spanish civil war.

I now understand what is meant by “column.” I had heard its usage in popular culture but didn’t know the etymology. Like you said however the concept is not in itself new. It just took on a military context.

If you want to know what I fear most, however, it’s not the spy rings. It’s the computer hackers who have attacked vital U.S. information resources. They do it remotely, but it’s quite possible some of them could get visas and work in our most trusted national security interests near Washington, D.C.

They would be fifth columnists with the most strategic access to carry on high level information warfare attacks, from the inside out in my opinion.

By SkyWhisperer — On Jan 01, 2012

@MrMoody - The first time that I heard of the phrase the fifth column was in a science fiction movie.

These alien humanoid beings were planning an attack on planet Earth. Yet they were concerned because a fifth column of their army had sided with the humans, and even mated with them (yeah it’s gross, but they were humanoid as I said).

Finally the fifth column rose up against the mother ships to spoil their attack and save planet Earth. Everyone lived happily ever after.

By MrMoody — On Dec 31, 2011

So I guess that a 5th columnist could be a mole, spy or sleeper agent then. I remember years ago reading about a group of sleeper agents, ten of them in all, who had formed a Russian spy ring in the United States in various cities.

These people completely melded into the culture around them. They were part of suburban America. None of their neighbors suspected anything unusual about them, yet they were working for the “enemy,” in this case Russia, to whatever extent you still consider Russia an enemy.

At least for espionage purposes it is, and likewise the United States with Russia. We may have sleeper agents there but I suppose it would be a bit more challenging to pass an American off as a Russian. Your Russian would have to be pretty good.

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