The Spartacus Monster and The Golem


Kirk Douglas as Spartacus

Kirk Douglas as Spartacus

(If you aren’t familiar with the legend of the golem, read my previous post on this creature here:  The Golem of Prague)

Spartacus the Revolutionary Hero

The gladiator Spartacus lived around 100 BC; Roman historians record that he was a leader in a slave revolt against Rome. Spartacus himself was a mercenary taken prisoner by the Romans, but the slave revolt that he helped to lead secured his place in modern times as a symbol of the power of the people and a warrior against injustice and slavery.

Most Americans know Spartacus only through the Stanley Kubrick film of the same name, starring Kirk Douglas.  The film came out in 1960, right at the end of the era of McCarthyism, and was presumed to be making a statement about the persecution of communists and suspected communists. Anti-communist protesters picketed theaters that were showing the film.

It may be surprising to hear that the mythic ideal of Spartacus, allied with such pro-American values as the fight against oppression and slavery and the support of liberty, should also be a strong symbol of Marxism, but this idea is older than 1950’s American anti-communist paranoia.

Karl Marx praised Spartacus as a symbol of the proletariat, and in Germany the Spartacus League was a Marxist  revolutionary movement organized during World War I that agitated for a communist revolution in Germany along the lines of the Soviet revolution in Russia. They even organized massive protests called the “Sparticist Uprising” in 1918.

Spartacus the Monster

The Spartacus Monster

The Spartacus Monster

The German government crushed the Spartacus League, and wealthy right-wing Germans formed the “Anti-Bolshevist League.” This group produced a number of bizarre propaganda posters, such as the one above, depicting Spartacus as a giant, golem-like monster threatening Berlin. The German Historical Museum in Berlin explains it this way:

In the revolutionary period the image of Spartacus as a demon bringing death and calamity was used often. The Anti-Bolshevist League, which was supported by leading industrialists, also used the image often.

Spartacus and the Golem

It seems to me that this “Spartacus demon” is a political variation on the golem of Jewish folklore. Whoever designed the Anti-Bolshevist League’s Spartacus poster was likely very familiar with the golem as an occult monster of Jewish creation who attacked Prague several times in folkloric accounts, in order to protect the Jewish community. This depiction of the golem on a poster sold in the Jewish quarter of Prague makes the parallel pretty obvious.

The Golem of Prague

The Golem of Prague

People in power fear an uprising from people who are less powerful. When communist-led revolts threatened the government of Germany in the early 20th century, the symbol of Spartacus was used by both sides of the struggle. On the one hand Spartacus was a freedom-fighting hero; on the other, a threat to order and civilization. Likewise, the golem of Prague was a monster created to protect the powerless against the powerful. The golem was a helper for the Jews, an attacking monster to the non-Jewish people in Prague.

Once the National Socialist (Nazi) party had taken contol of the German government, they scapegoated both communists and Jews as a threat to the rebuilding of German society. Ultimately, these two characters of folklore merged under the suspicion that they were secretly corrupting the world.