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In history, religion, and political science, a purge is the removal of people who are considered undesirable by those in power from a government, from another organization, or from society as a whole. Purges can be peaceful or violent; many will end with the imprisonment or exile of those purged, but in some cases they will simply be removed from office. Restoring people who have been purged is known as rehabilitation.
The earliest use of the term itself was the English Civil War's Pride's Purge. In 1648, the moderate members of the English Long Parliament were purged by the army. Parliament would suffer subsequent purges under the Commonwealth including the purge of the entire House of Lords. Counter-revolutionaries such as royalists were purged as well as more radical revolutionaries such as the Levellers. After the Restoration, obstinate republicans were purged while some fled to New England.
The Shanghai massacre of 1927 and the Night of the Long Knives of 1934, in which the leader of a political party turned against and liquidated a particular section or group within the party, are commonly called "purges" while mass expulsions on grounds of ethnic unreliability, such as the Crimean Tatars and the Japanese-American internment are not.
The term "purge" is often associated with the Stalinist and Maoist regimes. While leading the USSR, Joseph Stalin imprisoned and executed, i.e. purged, "wreckers", or citizens accused of plotting against communism. The most notorious of CPSU purges was the Great Purge initiated by Joseph Stalin during the 1930s.
Though sudden and violent purges are notable, most purges are relatively peaceful, for example the periodic massive purges of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia on grounds of apathy or dereliction, or the purge of Jews and political dissenters from the German Civil Service in 1933-34. Deng Xiaoping was known for having returned to power several times after having been purged.
After France's liberation by the Allies in 1944, purges were processed by the Free French and mostly the French Resistance against former collaborationists, the so-called "vichystes". The legal term was known as épuration légale ("legal purge"). Similar processes in other countries and on other occasions were denazification and decommunization.
"Purging" is often used in relations to the removal or shredding of documents or records. These documents can be soft copy such as database records, files or software; or it can be hard copy such as physical files, printed documents, hard disks, etc.
In many countries, laws require certain records to be stored for a specific period (usually 7 years). They can be purged afterwards. Physical files are usually shredded.