Charlie Chaplin, one of the great film figures of the 20th century and known for his silent work in film, took a great leap of faith and showed moral courage by his performance parodying Adolf Hitler in ‘The Great Dictator.’ This film was the first one where Chaplin had any actual dialogue even though he had been in numerous silent films in previous decades from the 1910s through the 1930s. By that time of the late 1930s, Chaplin had achieved worldwide success and critical acclaim as an actor and a comedian but at that tumultuous time in world affairs, he knew he had the responsibility to speak out about growing militant nationalism that was surging in both Europe and Asia.
Compared to the modern times in which we live, Chaplin was taking a big risk with both his career and his personal safety by mixing politics and world events in his roles in ‘The Great Dictator.’ Because this film was the first of his to use sound and the fact that still in 1940, it was not common to condemn and criticize the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe by Hollywood. Even though World War II had begun, and the U.S. had remained neutral up until that point, Charlie Chaplin brought to life through satire and comedy just how ridiculous dictators like Hitler and Mussolini were in their desire to conquer territory and expand their rule.
It was unknown to Chaplin and the other people involved in making ‘The Great Dictator’ though that Hitler and the Nazis would create concentration camps and extermination chambers to kill over eleven million people, including six million Jewish men, women, and children. Chaplin, like few other actors of the time, was able in this satirical film to play both the main protagonist and the main antagonist. Both a Jewish barber and Adenoid Hynkel, Chaplin in both roles was able to lay out how clearly to the audience how prescient of a threat the rise of fascism in Europe was but also how important it was to poke fun still at the Nazi threat in order to be better able to confront it later on.
While 95% of ‘The Great Dictator’ is making fun of Hitler and the Nazi leadership, the last five minutes is a speech given by Chaplin playing the satirical role of Adenoid Hynkel in full costume but talking seriously about the need to confront Nazism and how it got to this low point in world history. This speech is extremely popular and brilliantly crafted to put it simply. It is no wonder that this film was commercially and critically acclaimed especially in the United States and in the United Kingdom. The invigorating words that Chaplin passionately and profoundly passes on directly to the audience of ‘The Great Dictator’ carries real weight to it especially by the end of the film where it’s been comical and relatively lighthearted up until that point. At the time of the film and of the year it was released, 1940, the horrors of World War II were far from being fully realized yet. However, the ending speech was not just foreboding of what was to come but it was also a forewarning to humanity that this can happen at any time and in any part of the world. Chaplin urges the audience to consider how it got to this point, how we can turn it all around, and how to avoid the dictators who pit us against each other and separate us into us vs. them.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. 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. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.”
Being able to take care of people and to treat each other with respect and dignity is crucial to one’s humanity regardless of race, ethnicity, or religious background. In Chaplin’s speech, he caters to the better angels of our nature and how we really should yearn to make each other’s live better and spread happiness, not hate. The Earth that we have been given is big enough for everyone regardless of who we are and is ‘rich’ in its natural resources and its ability to provide for everybody with food, water, etc. The natural state of man should be yearning for freedom and beauty, but sometimes we have to collectively steer ourselves back in that direction when we have ‘lost the way.’
“Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent, and all will be lost….”
Greed has turned men against one another, has caused hate to fill our souls, and has led us down the paths to misery and bloodshed. Similar to the pre-WWII period, we live in a time of rapid technological change where ‘speed’ is the essence of progress, but this same ‘speed’ has led to the consequence of alienating ourselves from others with these ‘advances in technology.’ While we live in abundant times, there are many out there who still ‘want’ for more because of increasing inequalities. Too much knowledge without wisdom can lead to cynicism. There is a lot of cleverness in the world but what really matters is how you treat other people and that ‘kindness’ and gentleness’ too often takes a back seat to ‘cleverness’ and showing your ego off to others. When there is not enough humanity, Chaplin tells us, life is violent, brutal, and the progress we have made can be reversed all too easily.
“The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men – cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women, and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.”
Substitute the iPhone and social media for ‘the aeroplane and the radio’, and this part of Chaplin’s speech is just as relevant as it was in 1940 with regards to technological change and its effects on humanity. While these devices and inventions can bring us together in an effort to achieve ‘universal brotherhood’, these same tools can be used to drive us apart from one another and lead to more universal forms of control, subjugation, and surveillance if we are not careful. Reaching out using technology to help men, women, and children in trouble thousands of miles away is what we should be striving for especially when they are in danger of being tortured, imprisoned, and killed.
“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.”
Misery is temporary and so is greed which cannot go on forever because it stands in the way of both human progress and human development. Those men who benefit from hatred and violence also fear the progress of humanity because it will prevent them from taking all of the resources, money, and land for themselves. Dictators like all humans will eventually die and disappear from the face of the Earth and the power that was taken from the people will eventually be returned to them. There is always a chance for liberty to exist as long as the people have hope and as long as dictators can have their power be taken from them by force or by the passing of time. The torch of liberty can only be fully extinguished if people give up hope or if one dictator is exchanged for another dictator like nothing ever changed.
“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 and authoritarian brutes do not care about the soldiers who they command and use them as pawns in their game of chess with other nations. These ‘leaders’ give the soldiers commands and teach them what to think, do, and feel, but they don’t instruct them on why they are fighting or what they are fighting for? The men who order soldiers to battle think like ‘machines’ rather than as human being. Men are born with the love of humanity in their hearts and were not born already hating others. Only those who are ‘unloved’ and ‘unnatural’ can be led to hate others (often by dictators). Soldiers enslave themselves to dictators and other leaders by fighting without questioning and instead should fight for the liberty of all human beings to live in peace, pursue their dreams, and better the world. The only fight worth having, Chaplin argues in the speech, is the ‘fight for liberty!’
“In the 17th Chapter of St Luke, it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” – not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power – the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.”
“The Kingdom of God is within man.” We are born imperfect as human beings but in order to create peace, prosperity, and liberty, it is within us alone to make. Only when all men unite together and not just one group or one man alone, there is nothing that we can’t accomplish together. For one, the power to create technology and machines is one that we have exercised for the past few centuries now. This power can be used for terrible things but if we unite together as one humanity then there is the power to do great good such as to pursue happiness, justice, and to make life free and beautiful for all peoples. One man can’t do it alone nor can a group of men from a country or region, but we must be all together united in the struggle to create a better future. These ‘machines’ that man creates can be used for evil or for good, and it is ultimately up to us in how to use the technology we have to further the progress of mankind.
“Then – in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world – a decent world that will give men a chance to work – that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill that promise. They never will!”
Democracy and not dictatorship are the only power we need to unite under a banner of shared humanity. Dictators look to divide and conquer but democracy urges unity and peace among all nations in order to create a decent world. Being able to work and create is what men desire to give future generations a shot at a good life and to aid the elderly in age to have a secure retirement. Brutes promise a lot of things to their peoples under the guise of democracy, but they do not care for democracy or its principles of liberty, equality, and justice for all. Brutes are dictators and authoritarians who lie to the people in order to free themselves financially and politically, so their own families, friends, and connected elites can benefit. They never fulfill the promises that they were elected to handle, and they use the people’s trust to enrich themselves and consolidate power for themselves while criticizing anyone who thinks differently from them.
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!
When dictators rise to ultimate power, they keep that power for themselves and quite literally ‘enslave the people.’ This was the case in World War II with Hitler and Mussolini and is still the case today almost eighty years later. Chaplin argues that the only way the world and its seven billion inhabitants can be truly free is to do away with the borders we have imposed on ourselves to cause unnecessary tension, conflict, and violence, and to stop greed, hate, and intolerance in all of its forms or before it becomes too powerful to resist.
Democracy, liberty, equality, and justice are everlasting principles for human freedom but they must be fought for and obtained with each generation. These principles are not perfect either and they must be reformed and improved upon so that all humans can benefit from these ideals. Only in a world with reason, education (science and other subjects), the quest for humane progress can happiness and self-satisfaction be achieved. In order to prevent dictators from seizing power, democracy must be strengthened not just by ‘soldiers’ but by ‘citizens’ of all nations. Only when we unite together to disavow of false prophets like dictators and rather work together in a fair and free democratic system can we ensure the continued progress of man, woman, and child through the decades, generations, and centuries to come.
Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’ was a brilliant speech that tried to warn the world about the coming world war that would be the deadliest in human history. His words still carry immense weight and troubling foreboding in our world today. I hope and pray that we continue to heed his speech for its vision of a better, free, and just world or we could once again find ourselves staring into the abyss of future conflict, violence, and destruction….
You can read the full speech here: https://www.charliechaplin.com/en/articles/29-The-Final-Speech-from-The-Great-Dictator-