• History
  • Pop Culture

What to Know About the Rise and Fall of the Theory That the Smurfs Are Communists

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

It was Oct. 23, 1958 — 60 years ago — that the world first encountered the Smurfs, the little blue creatures from a Belgian comic franchise that have become world famous.

Since first appearing in a comic by Belgian artist Pierre Culliford, known as Peyo, the Smurfs have expanded into movies, television shows, video games and more. They’re mostly known for being cute, fun and kid-friendly, and aren’t commonly known to have any political motivations or opinions. Even so, controversial rumors that the Smurfs are communist or anti-Semitic have persisted for about a decade. Here’s what to know about how that conspiracy theory spread.

The Smurfs made their debut in 1958 as sprites who make a magic flute in Culliford’s series Johan and Peewit. In French, they were called “les Schtroumpfs,” a reference to a dinner during which Culliford, who couldn’t remember the term for salt, asked his table mate to pass the “schtroumpf.” Culliford’s wife, the Belgian colorist Janine Culliford, was the person who gave the Smurfs their iconic blue color, according to The Comics Journal.

“That was a process of elimination,” Janine Culliford said of picking the shade. “Green would have mixed them up under the foliage; yellow would make them look ill. If they were pink, they would seem embarrassed and, if they were red, readers would think they were angry.”

The process worked. In the decades that followed, the Smurfs charmed the world. But in the Internet era, they have been dogged by rumors that they have a dark side.

The conspiracy theory that the Smurfs are more than innocuous, friendly creatures gained much of its popularity due to a 2008 YouTube video by user Evan Topham, despite the fact that the video itself clarifies that it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. The video sums up ideas that had been floating around the Internet for some time about how the Smurfs represent communist values. It points out similarities between an ideal communist society with that of the Smurfs: they are self-sufficient in running their own community, they function without money in a collectivist society, each Smurf works for the good of everyone and their leader — who bears a passing resemblance to Karl Marx — loves the color red.

Topham’s video goes on to note that the villain of the Smurfs, the greedy, ruthless Gargamel, represents capitalism. “His only concern is with his own personal gratification,” says the video’s narrator. “He’s what happens when the individual makes himself more important than the society he lives in.”

The video claims that the communist undertones of the Smurfs was part of a ploy to influence children during the Cold War, and proposes that Smurf is actually an acronym for “Small Men Under Red Forces.” (This, of course, doesn’t really make sense, considering that the original name for the Smurfs in French was “schtroumpf.”)

But as far as their creator Peyo’s family was concerned, the Smurfs had nothing to do with politics — and, in fact, Peyo was apparently completely uninterested in the subject.

The official stance that the Smurfs were not a metaphor for political ideas did not stop people on YouTube and message boards from diving into the idea. The theories coalesced and hit mainstream news in 2011 in the form of a book, Le Petit Livre Bleu (The Little Blue Book), by the French academic Antoine Buéno, who claimed that Peyo’s little characters and their ideology represented Stalinist, anti-Semitic and racist leanings. Much like Topham’s video did, Buéno pointed out the similarities between communism and Smurf society, noting that all the Smurfs eat together and infrequently reward individualistic actions.

“Does that not remind you of anything? A political dictatorship, for example?” Buéno said at the time in an interview with the Guardian.

Buéno took his theories about the political undertones of the Smurfs a step further, by saying certain characters and storylines were racist and anti-Semitic. One claim centered on a story about a Smurf whose skin turns black after he is bit by a fly, who then goes on a rampage, biting the others, turning their skin black and rendering them unable to speak. Buéno said the story brought to focus how “blood purity” is a vital point in the Smurfs, also noting that the Smurfette’s appearance emphasizes Aryan blond ideals. Buéno also cited the Smurfs’ nemesis, Gargamel, who is presented with a hooked nose and unrepentant thirst for gold, as an anti-Semitic caricature.

Buéno received a tremendous amount of backlash for his claims. Some Smurf fans called the scholar a “dream breaker,” and accused him of tarnishing childhood memories, and many fans said Buéno’s arguments were not credible.

“Generally speaking, I’ve gotten two types of knee-jerk reactions: people saying that I’m either an idiot or a crook,” he said at the time. “But my analysis isn’t just coming from nowhere. People in the United States at one point suspected Peyo’s Smurf albums of being socialist propaganda, going as far as to say the word Smurf was actually an acronym for ‘Small Men Under Red Forces.’”

Pierre Culliford’s son Thierry Culliford, who took over drawing the Smurfs after Pierre died in 1992, reiterated that his father had no interest in politics in 2011 and criticized Buéno’s book in an interview with French magazine L’Express, as The Atlantic reported.

But Buéno’s response was undeterred. As he wrote for the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur in 2011, Peyo himself didn’t have to be political in order for his work to have been the product of a political time and for his readers to have interpreted it in a political way. In this view, the Smurfs themselves may not have been communists, but they can still be of interest as artifacts of the Cold War world of their creation.

In the years since then, the conspiracy theory has pretty much died down — leaving behind only what has already endured for six decades: interest in the Smurfs, whether as historical artifacts or simply the pleasant little creatures their creator intended.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Mahita Gajanan at mahita.gajanan@time.com