meanings and history of the term ‘fifth column’

The term fifth column, which translates Spanish quinta columna, denotes the enemy’s supporters in one’s own country, or a body of one’s supporters in an attacked or occupied foreign country, hence, more generally, any group of hostile or subversive infiltrators, any enemy in one’s midst—synonym: the enemy within.

The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) was the conflict between Nationalist forces, including monarchists and members of the fascist Falange Party, and Republicans, including socialists, communists, and Catalan and Basque separatists. It began with a military uprising against the leftist Republican Popular Front government in July 1936. In bitter fighting, the Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco (1892-1975), gradually gained control of the countryside but failed to capture the capital, Madrid. After periods of prolonged stalemate, Franco finally succeeded in capturing Barcelona and Madrid in early 1939. He established a Fascist dictatorship that lasted until his death in 1975.

In October 1936, the Nationalist general Emilio Mola (1887-1937) declared that he had in Madrid, which he was besieging, a column of supporters in addition to the four columns of his army outside the city. The New York Times (New York City, New York, USA) of 16th October 1936 published the following, by William P. Carney:

2,000 Are Seized in Homes as Result of Mola’s Boast of Aid From Within the Capital.

MADRID, Friday, Oct. 16.—Police last night began a house-to-house search for Rebels in Madrid. It will be continued nightly until the government is satisfied that a thorough round-up of dissidents has been made.
Many persons were arrested, especially among retired army officers. It has been declared that every house in Madrid will be searched for suspects.
Orders for these raids, which were issued by the Ministry of the Interior, apparently were instigated by a recent broadcast over the Rebel radio station by General Emilio Mola. He stated he was counting on four columns of troops outside Madrid and another column of persons hiding within the city who would join the invaders as soon as they entered the capital.

The following day, the same newspaper published this:

MADRID, Oct. 16.—[…]
Several hundred thousand adults in Madrid voted for the Right in the last election. These may be potential enemies of the Socialist régime. Indeed Generals Francisco Franco and Emilio Mola recently reported said the Insurgents counted upon them. Prudence counsels the government to forestall as far as possible the activities of this “fifth column.”

However, I have found earlier occurrences of fifth column in Franco’s “Secret Army” Scares Madrid: Hundreds Arrested, an article that William Forrest wrote on 4th October 1936, and that the Daily Express (London, England) published the following day:

Forces of the Spanish Government have assumed the offensive against the insurgents, who are trying to encircle Mdrid.
The offensive is on two fronts: One in the valley of the Tagus, near Toledo; the other in Madrid itself. For the capital is threatened, not only from without, but from within.

‘Column In Madrid’

Insurgent General Franco has said that in addition to his four columns in the field he has a column in Madrid.
“Let us begin by annihilating this fifth column,” cries Mundo Obrero, the Communist Party newspaper.
How strong is this fifth column? No one knows. But its numbers must run to many. thousands. Insurgent spies—and they are everywhere—agents provocateurs, rumour mongers, grumblers in the food queues—all these are members of that fifth column. At least, they are so regarded by the Popular Front: “Those who are not for us are against us.”
There are to be no neutrals in this life-and-death struggle between the Right and Left forces of Spain.
Stern measures against the fifth column are being urged by “Pasionaria”—Dolores Ibarurri, the Communist woman leader. “We are going to impose justice—swift and exemplary justice.” 

Other early occurrences of fifth column date from the 10th of October 1936, when several U.S. and Canadian newspapers quoted an AP (Associated Press) dispatch sent from Madrid on that day. For example, the following is from The Ottawa Evening Journal (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) of that day:

The Socialist newspaper Informaciones caused a sensation in Madrid by asserting Fascists had claimed assistance, during the final drive, from a “fifth column inside the capital.”
(Despatches concerning the “inside” column were cut drastically by the Spanish censor although indications were given mass arrests of Fascist suspects followed the newspaper’s story.)

It is therefore possible that, contrary to what is generally claimed, quinta columna was not coined by Emilio Mola, but by Republicans.

The earliest transferred use of fifth column that I have found is from The Yorkshire Evening Post (Leeds, Yorkshire, England) of 29th November 1937:


                                                                                                                             Moscow, Monday.
No “fifth column” of Fascist sympathisers and spies will be formed in Russia, said M. Litvinoff, the Foreign Minister, in a pre-election speech at Leningrad, where he is standing for election to the Soviet Parliament.
A vigilant secret service, he said, would prevent the formation of any “fifth column” by the enemies of the Soviet Union. […]
M. Litvinoff upbraided Germany for her designs on Czecho-Slovakia.
“Preparation for war begins in peace time,” he said. “It means establishing a network of spies in other countries—the ‘fifth column’—such as in Czecho-Slovakia, where 1,000 spies were recently arrested, and a most serious conspiracy against the French Republic exposed. […]—British United Press.

The Fifth Column is the title of the only full-length play written by the American novelist, short-story writer and journalist Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961). First published in 1938, it grew out of Hemingway’s experience of the Spanish Civil War as a correspondent for the North American Newspaper Alliance, as a participant in filming The Spanish Earth, and more specifically out of adventures in and around besieged Madrid, particularly in the Hotel Florida and in a bar called Chicote’s.

In the House of Commons on 4th June 1940, the British statesman Winston Churchill (1874-1965) declared:

We have found it necessary to take measures of increasing stringency, not only against enemy aliens and suspicious characters of other nationalities, but also against British subjects who may become a danger or a nuisance should the war be transported to the United Kingdom. I know there are a great many people affected by the orders which we have made who are the passionate enemies of Nazi Germany. I am very sorry for them, but we cannot, at the present time and under the present stress, draw all the distinctions which we should like to do. If parachute landings were attempted and fierce fighting attendant upon them followed, these unfortunate people would be far better out of the way, for their own sakes as well as for ours. There is, however, another class, for which I feel not the slightest sympathy. Parliament has given us the powers to put down Fifth Column activities with a strong hand, and we shall use those powers subject to the supervision and correction of the House, without the slightest hesitation until we are satisfied, and more than satisfied, that this malignancy in our midst has been effectively stamped out.

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