World War II: Fifth Columns

Figure 1.--Here Republican militiamen pose with a girl near Aragon (1936). The Spanish Civil War gave rise cto a new term--Fifth Collum. It was widely believed in the earky years of Workd War II that vthe stunning German victoiries were in part due to Fifth Collumnists. There was a general failure to recognizwe just how good the Wehrmacht was. Source: Imperial War Museum

Fifth Columists became a major concern in Britain and America in the early years of World War II. It was widely believed at the time Britain braced for an expected German invasion that the stunning German victories in Poland, Norway, and the West were due at least in part to Fifth Columinits that had sabotoged defense efforts. The term Fifth Column was thus in wide use in the early years of the War. It was a term coined by Spainish General Emilio Mola Vidal, a Nationalist commander in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). He commanded four army columns attacking Loyalist-held Madrid. In a public statement he referred to Nationalist supporters in Madrid as his "fifth column" which would attack the Republic's defenses from within. The term thus became used to describe secret sympathizers of Fascist armies intent on sabotaging a country's defenses fom within. The Germans did have spy rings, but Fifth Column connotates more than spies, it suggests a much larger group of actual combatants conducting sabotage and actions to disrupt the defense of a country from behind the front lines. We now know that such sympthizers were a factor in the ensuing German occupation, but not the actual military campigns. The German victories were the result of the rapid NAZI Rearmament and the skill of the Wehrmact based on the adoption of Blitzkrieg tactics. It took some time for the Allies to apprecite how good the Germans were at making war and the importance if their tactiucal doctrine. There were domestic groups which did prove useful to the NAZIS--the Pacifists and Isolationists. These individuals, however, were not Fifth Colunists because they for the most part were not for the most part German symphathizers. There were some NAZI symphitlzers. One example was aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, although after Pearl Harbor Lindbergh's Americanism shown and after the War there wasan effort to cover up his sympathy for the NAZIs and anti-Semitism. The most famous Fifth columists are probably Vidkun Quisling in Norway and Oswald Mosley in Britain. Pétain and the Vichy men might be called Fifth Columists, but that is more of a tough call. The pacfists and even more the isolatiinists groups were supported by the Germans and also the Soviets who for 2 years were German allies. Interestingly, it would not be Fascist Fifth Columnists that would be a factor in the War, but the Resistance in NAZI-occupied Europe. The fear of Fifth Columnisrs was a factor in the Japanese-American internment after Pearl Harbor.


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Created: 5:18 AM 8/5/2012
Last updated: 2:26 PM 12/29/2018