What does purge mean? Definition explained

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PURGE is a word that can be used in a number of contexts – referring to health, organizations and even countries.

In March 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a brutal purge of his army personnel over the Ukraine war disaster. Here we take a look at what the term actually means and five infamous purges in history.

Saddam Hussein purged members of the Ba'ath Party when he came to power in Iraq in 1979

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Saddam Hussein purged members of the Ba’ath Party when he came to power in Iraq in 1979Credit: Reuters

What does purge mean?

To purge means to remove or to get rid of.

It can refer to actual things, such as getting rid of people, or feelings – like ridding yourself of guilt.

A purge of an organization means removing members who are seen as undesirable.

In some cases purging can mean simply dismissing or removing people from a group or situation, but in other cases it can mean killing them, perhaps because they are a threat to the established order.

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Purge can also mean cleansing and is a term often used in cases of bulimia.

Synonyms for purge include get rid of, expel, remove, dismiss and axe.

What purges have happened in history?

North Korea, 2013

In 2013 the world was shocked when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s uncle was purged from the Party and executed after being accused of treachery.

Chang Song-thaek had mentored Kim Jong-un during his rise to power and was frequently pictured with his nephew.

Before the accusations emerged he had held senior posts, notably as vice-chairman of North Korea’s National Defense Commission.

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Burmese/Myanmar, 2004

When young, popular general Khin Nyunt posed a threat to Than Shwe’s regime in Myanmar, he was quickly deposed and jailed.

Shwe, who ended up ruling for over two decades, imprisoned Nyunt after the military leader had established his own power base and newspaper.

Nyunt was purged from the Party and sentenced to 44 years in prison in 2005, but he was freed in 2013.

Chinese, 1980

When Mao Zedong died in 1976 there was a power vacuum in the Chinese Communist party.

Deng Xiaoping gained popularity over Mao’s chosen successor Hua Guofeng.

Eventually four of Mao’s allies ended up in a political show trial which aimed to consolidate Deng’s leadership.

Mao’s allies were purged from the Party, found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Iraq, 1979

When Saddam Hussein ascended to power in Iraq he carried out a public purge of over 60 Ba’ath Party members, despite the fact that they had paved the way for him to be President.

Various politicians were denounced as traitors and executed for treason, and some of his opponents were taken out and shot live on national television.

USSR, 1934

Purging was a tactic used frequently by leader of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin.

Stalin is thought to have killed his right-hand man Sergei Kirov as an excuse to launch a ferocious purge of the Party, leaving himself untouchable.

Dozens of leaders within the USSR’s Communist Party were killed or exiled, often after being subjected to brutal show trials as a propaganda tool.

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Germany, 1934

Adolf Hitler carried out a purge of the Sturmabteilung (SA) or “brownshirts” – the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party – after he saw them becoming too powerful under the leadership of Ernst Roehm.

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In summer 1934, Hitler ordered the death of Roehm and dozens of other SA leaders in what has come to be known as the Night of the Long Knives.



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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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