Fifth Columnist
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1936 N.Y. Times 16 Oct. 2/2 Police last night began a house-to-house search for Rebels in Madrid.+ Orders for these raids+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.

Basic Information

A fifth columnist is one who, despite being apparently a member of a given group (such as a nation, party or company) is actually hostile to it and conspiring with (or desiring to conspire with) its enemies.

The term originates (as per the flavour text) early in the Spanish Civil War when Nationalist troops were advancing on Madrid to liberate it from communist occupation. The local nationalist commander, General Emilio Mola, announced in a radio broadcast that the city would soon be liberated as he had four columns of troops approaching the city and another ready within it. This proved counterproductive as the communist forces took it as fair excuse to massacre those prisoners they already held, known nationalist sympathisers and anyone else they deemed insufficiently loyal to their cause. Between this and the defeat of the four external columns, the libaration of Madrid was delayed by several years.

Despite its origins the image of the fifth column has become a popular shorthand for the enemy within, especially when conspiring with the enemy without and is a broad synonym for traitor. On a national scale, expect to find this rodent in cahoots with enemy aliens (and indeed enemy aliens in the right setting), foreign intelligence agents, terrorists and other external threats. Their activities are normally viewed as treason - unless the enemy power wins, in which case they may become The Quisling instead. They are also prone to entryism both on a national scale and at more parochial levels.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • No-one loves a traitor, and hunting down these scum, putting them to the question and killing them can be great fun for your PCs.
    • However, a PC may also be suspected of fifth columnism and come under threat himself, perhaps due to over-association with enemy aliens or extended residence in the territory of a hostile foreign power.
  • Their penchant for entryism may mean that the PCs colleagues, or even their boss (or someone else in the chain of command) is a secret fifth columnist. Once they discover the traitor some of their previous missions may appear in a whole new light - and they are still faced with the problem of knowing what has leaked, who is at risk and how they can expose (or other wise deal with) him without being bumped off in the attempt.
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