I have a directory like this:

$ ls -l
total 899166
drwxr-xr-x 12 me scicomp       324 Jan 24 13:47 data
-rw-r--r--  1 me scicomp     84188 Jan 24 13:47 lod-thin-1.000000-0.010000-0.030000.rda
drwxr-xr-x  2 me scicomp       808 Jan 24 13:47 log
lrwxrwxrwx  1 me scicomp        17 Jan 25 09:41 msg -> /home/me/msg

And I want to remove it using rm -r.

However I'm scared rm -r will follow the symlink and delete everything in that directory (which is very bad).

I can't find anything about this in the man pages. What would be the exact behavior of running rm -rf from a directory above this one?

migrated from stackoverflow.com Jan 25 '12 at 17:18

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Example 1: Deleting a directory containing a soft link to another directory.

susam@nifty:~/so$ mkdir foo bar
susam@nifty:~/so$ touch bar/a.txt
susam@nifty:~/so$ ln -s /home/susam/so/bar/ foo/baz
susam@nifty:~/so$ tree
.
├── bar
│   └── a.txt
└── foo
    └── baz -> /home/susam/so/bar/

3 directories, 1 file
susam@nifty:~/so$ rm -r foo
susam@nifty:~/so$ tree
.
└── bar
    └── a.txt

1 directory, 1 file
susam@nifty:~/so$

So, we see that the target of the soft-link survives.

Example 2: Deleting a soft link to a directory

susam@nifty:~/so$ ln -s /home/susam/so/bar baz
susam@nifty:~/so$ tree
.
├── bar
│   └── a.txt
└── baz -> /home/susam/so/bar

2 directories, 1 file
susam@nifty:~/so$ rm -r baz
susam@nifty:~/so$ tree
.
└── bar
    └── a.txt

1 directory, 1 file
susam@nifty:~/so$

Only, the soft link is deleted. The target of the soft-link survives.

Example 3: Attempting to delete the target of a soft-link

susam@nifty:~/so$ ln -s /home/susam/so/bar baz
susam@nifty:~/so$ tree
.
├── bar
│   └── a.txt
└── baz -> /home/susam/so/bar

2 directories, 1 file
susam@nifty:~/so$ rm -r baz/
rm: cannot remove 'baz/': Not a directory
susam@nifty:~/so$ tree
.
├── bar
└── baz -> /home/susam/so/bar

2 directories, 0 files

The file in the target of the symbolic link does not survive.

The above experiments were done on a Debian GNU/Linux 9.0 (stretch) system.

  • 11
    rm -rf baz/* will remove the contents – Wyrmwood Oct 30 '14 at 20:36
  • 1
    Yes, if you do rm -rf [symlink], then the contents of the original directory will be obliterated! Be very careful. – Buttle Butkus Jan 12 '16 at 0:35
  • Your example 3 is incorrect! On each system I have tried, the file a.txt will be removed in that scenario. – frnknstn Sep 11 '17 at 10:22
  • @frnknstn You are right. I see the same behaviour you mention on my latest Debian system. I don't remember on which version of Debian I performed the earlier experiments. In my earlier experiments on an older version of Debian, either a.txt must have survived in the third example or I must have made an error in my experiment. I have updated the answer with the current behaviour I observe on Debian 9 and this behaviour is consistent with what you mention. – Susam Pal Sep 11 '17 at 15:20

Your /home/me/msg directory will be safe if you rm -rf the directory from which you ran ls. Only the symlink itself will be removed, not the directory it points to.

The only thing I would be cautious of, would be if you called something like "rm -rf msg/" (with the trailing slash.) Do not do that because it will remove the directory that msg points to, rather than the msg symlink itself.

  • 3
    "The only thing I would be cautious of, would be if you called something like "rm -rf msg/" (with the trailing slash.) Do not do that because it will remove the directory that msg points to, rather than the msg symlink itself." - I don't find this to be true. See the third example in my response below. – Susam Pal Jan 25 '12 at 16:54
  • 1
    I get the same result as @Susam ('rm -r symlink/' does not delete the target of symlink), which I am pleased about as it would be a very easy mistake to make. – Andrew Crabb Nov 26 '13 at 21:52

rm should remove files and directories. If the file is symbolic link, link is removed, not the target. It will not interpret a symbolic link. For example what should be the behavior when deleting 'broken links'- rm exits with 0 not with non-zero to indicate failure

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