In 1940 Charlie Chaplin released his first all-talking picture, The Great Dictator (13 years after The Jazz Singer had broken the sound barrier). In the early 30s many had remarked how much he looked like Adolph Hitler, particularly around the upper lip. Der Führer apparently never thought the comparison was funny. His propaganda machine targeted Chaplin as a “Jewish acrobat,” part of that Jewish conspiracy that he believed controlled the world. That’s when the silent comic thought of capitalizing on the likeness by making a film lampooning the fascist leader. He knew one thing dictators cannot stand is being laughed at, although Chaplin later admitted that he never would have attempted such a film if he had known the true depth of the atrocities of the concentration camps.
The film was a hit, two hours of slapstick gags and political satire, all poking fun at the most hated man in America. But at the end of the film, Chaplin did something shocking and risky. He got serious. He had spent almost 30 years building capital in the hearts of Americans, Britons, and people the world over. Now he was going to spend it. He was going to use the end of the film to speak his mind. And that’s exactly what he did– for 8 minutes, he appeals to all peoples to stop the madness. Though still essentially in the character of the Jewish barber who is mistaken for Der Fooey (Der Führer), Chaplin skewers everything from fascism and capitalism to modernism and technology run amok
“I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone – if possible – Jew, Gentile – black man – white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery…
“To those who can hear me, I say – do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.
“Soldiers! don’t give yourselves to brutes – men who despise you – enslave you – who regiment your lives – tell you what to do – what to think and what to feel! Who drill you – diet you – treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!
“Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!”
With the world at war, few could find fault with Chaplin’s sentiment at the time. But 7 years later, in the war’s aftermath, in a new Cold War, the filmmaker came under new scrutiny. Funny, there’s nothing like spouting off about freedom, peace, unity, and democracy to make people suspect you of communism. (Jesus would have fared no better.)
Listening to this speech today, in the context of the insanity that now passes for American politics, Chaplin’s words can give us both hope and courage.
(To read or watch the speech in its entirety, click here.)