The Great Dictator
Adolf Hitler and Charlie Chaplin were born four days apart in April 1889. There are several key similarities between Hitler’s and Chaplin’s life trajectories that make the comparison a tantalizing one. In fact, Chaplin’s most financially successful film was a spoof on the obvious similarities, differences, and tantalizing juxtapositions. Chaplin and Hitler had similar looks. The most famous and comedic similarity was their toothbrush mustaches. Furthermore, both grew up in relative poverty with alcoholic fathers and ailing mothers. Both were great fans of composer Richard Wagner. Both were expatriated from the country of their birth. Chaplin left Britain to become the most famous entertainer of his time in the United States. Hitler left Austria to become the most powerful man in Germany. Most importantly they both had an equal power to reach audiences with their performances. While Hitler mobilized an entire nation with his words, Chaplin moved the entire world with his silence. Charlie Chaplin’s son Charles Chaplin, Jr. describes how his father was haunted by the similar backgrounds of Hitler and himself:
“Their destinies were poles apart. One was to make millions weep, while the other was to set the whole world laughing. Dad could never think of Hitler without a shudder, half of horror, half of fascination. ‘Just think,’ he would say uneasily, ‘he’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way around.’”
Sir Charles Spencer “Charlie” Chaplin may as well have been Adolf Hitler’s mirror image in both looks and character. Chaplin used mime, slapstick and other visual comedy routines to appeal to his audience’s better qualities, while Hitler perfected his powers of persuasion to inspire his audiences to commit mass murder. Hitler’s chose his words well in those enigmatic speeches that he is known for. Chaplin chose to perform in silence when Hollywood had already moved on to “talkies.” Both were masters of aesthetics and perfected the art of stage and costume design. Chaplin is best known for his role as The Tramp, who incidentally sported a toothbrush mustache like the one that Hitler would become iconic for.
In 1940, Chaplin decided to use his world-wide fame and comedic talents to knock Adolf Hitler down a notch. Chaplin titled this satiric movie “The Great Dictator.” He proceeded with the film, personally financing it against the will of his partners. Like most Chaplin films, he wrote, produced, and directed, and starred as the lead. Ironically, this was Chaplin’s first true talking picture and it would ultimately become his most commercially successful film. More importantly, it was the first major feature film of its period to bitterly satirize Nazism and Adolf Hitler at a time when much of the world was still reluctant to stand up to his aggression. At the time of its first release, the United States was still formally at peace with Nazi Germany. Chaplin’s film advanced a stirring, controversial condemnation of Hitler, fascism, anti-Semitism, and the National Socialists, whom he excoriates in the film as “machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts.”
The film begins during a battle of World War I. Charlie Chaplin played the protagonist, an unnamed Jewish private and a barber by profession which is introduced comically blundering through the trenches as Private Adolf Hitler once had. The movie plot develops to have this Jewish barber take the place of the dictator character as they looked identical to each other, a likely play on Chaplin’s and Hitler’s true-life juxtaposition. The dictator name is Adenoid Hynkel, which was also played by Chaplin. The character in the film that occupies the position of Minister of the Interior is named Garbitsch, and is mimicry of Joseph Goebbels. The Minister of War Herring is a spoof on Hermann Göring. The symbol of Hynkel’s fascist regime is the “double cross” as a blatant juxtaposition to a swastika, which in Nazi Germany was known as the “hooked cross”.
The plot of the movie develops with the Garbitsch character appealing to Hynkel’s insatiable ego to the idea of world domination. In the scene that became iconic of the movie, Hynkel dances with a large inflatable globe, while thinking of being Emperor of the world. It is satirically played to the tune of the Prelude to Act I of Richard Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” then known to be one of Hitler’s personal favorites. On Garbitsch’s advice, Hynkel makes plans to invade the neighboring country of Osterlich, likely a corruption of Österreich, the German name for Austria. Hynkel is initially opposed by Benzino Napaloni, a play on the names of Benito Mussolini and Napoleon Bonaparte. Napaloni in turn is the movie’s dictator of the country Bacteria, an obvious slap in the face to the Italians by Chaplin.
Not all of the comic juxtapositions of the film were overt, but the most tantalizing one was inescapable. The juxtaposition between the film’s Jewish barber and Chaplin’s famous Tramp character is palpable, and it would be foolish to think that this escaped a visually attuned genius like Chaplin. Chaplin’s Tramp character was an icon recognized worldwide, nearly obscuring the actual Chaplin himself at the peak of their fame. The Tramp is the epitome of pathetic hilarity in his endless capacity to get himself into trouble. It is the Tramp character that Chaplin used to perfect the slapstick physical comedy of the silent film era. The character’s ridiculous walk with his twirling cane has endured and survived as the image of Chaplin himself. Most can recognize the image of the Tramp character. It is doubtful that many now can recognize a picture of Chaplin out of the Tramp costume and makeup. It is the Tramp’s comedic lowliness and endearing pathetic qualities which Chaplin brilliantly juxtaposed to the self-importance, egoism, and self-indulgence of the true life Hitler. Annette Insdorf, in her book Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust, writes:
“There was something curiously appropriate about the little tramp impersonating the dictator, for by 1939 Hitler and Chaplin were perhaps the two most famous men in the world. The tyrant and the tramp reverse roles in The Great Dictator, permitting the eternal outsider to address the masses…“
Nor did the commonalities and similarities escape the eye of the rest of the entertainment world of the era. Tommy Handley, the famous BBC radio comedian of the time, wrote a song named “Who is This Man Who Looks like Charlie Chaplin?” Handley was mainly known for the BBC radio show “It’s That Man Again.” and it is here that he took the opportunity to point to the obvious similarities between the fictional Tramp, and the man who went from being a tramp in real life only to rise to become dictator of Germany. The BBC’s “WW2 People’s War – An Archive of World War II War Memories” has an account of the episode that aired the song about Chaplin and Hitler. The war memory was contributed on January 20, 2006, by CSV Media NI and the article ID is A8679928. The account is taken from an interview with Roy Irvine. The interview was by Walter Love, and it puts the timing of the show in context: “In the early days of the war you weren’t allowed to make Comic references to Hitler. It was still the time of Appeasement. But three days into the war, Tommy Handley appeared in a live program called “Who is that man who looks like Charlie Chaplin?” The lyrics sang, in part:
“Who is this man who looks like Charlie Chaplin?
What makes him think that he can win a war?
It can’t be the moustache. That only makes us laugh!
And Charlie’s done it better, and before.
If it wasn’t for the boots and cane and trousers,
You couldn’t tell the 2 of them apart.
But the whole idea’s absurd. Charlie’s never said a word!
And Adolf couldn’t play a silent part!…
He’s amusing when he tries to play the villain.
It’s bound to get a laugh in every clime.
I believe it’s all a fake-up,
And in spite of all the makeup
We’re convinced it’s Charlie Chaplin all the time!
Supposing Charlie Chaplin got the fever.
A war would be a comedy, Pro Tem.
Imagine Adolf getting skittish,
Signing pacts with Rome and British,
And dropping custard pies on MGM.
Charlie Chaplin would be bigger, louder, funnier.
With him in charge the battles would be fun.
And the chief of his Gestapo
Wouldn’t be Groucho Marx, but Harpo,
And he’d soon have Shirley Temple on the run!…
But don’t let us be too hard on poor old Adolf,
He’s a god-send to the comics, he’s sublime.
Cartoonists love his make-up, but one morning we shall wake up
And find it’s Charlie Chaplin all the time!
We have elevated Hitler to the status of evil demigod, beyond human, and more like a comic book villain that was burped up from the depths of hell as the reincarnation of Lucifer himself. The truth is closer to Chaplin’s and Handley’s depiction. The truth is actually more frightening than the politically convenient exaggerations; Hitler was all too frail, effeminate, weak, egotistical, megalomaniac human. It is the sober realization that Hitler was all too human which should awaken us to the reality that, despite all his awkwardness and eccentricities, the atrocities Hitler committed can be brought to bear upon humanity again.
EXCERPT: This is a chapter that did not make the final edit of “From a ‘Race of Masters’ to a ‘Master Race’: 1948-1848” and is presented here with all of its defects and imperfections.