The Great Dictator - Charlie Chaplin’s Enduring Speech

    Against the Rise of Dictators, Fascism & Inhumanity

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    A couple years ago, I stumbled upon Charlie Chaplin’s final monologue from The Great Dictator (1940), which was his first film with dialogue. Nominated for five Academy Awards, the film is a political satire comedy-drama in which Chaplin plays both a persecuted Jewish barber who lives in the ghetto, and his doppelganger, Adenoid Hynkel (Adolf Hitler), the dictator-ruler of fictional Tomainia. I have to admit that I was floored by the speech’s power and its relevancy. To me, it seemed as if it were filmed today in response to current events in America and around the world. It was so affecting that I must have watched the video a dozen times that week. Indeed, the monologue has been hailed as one of the greatest speeches in film history. In his autobiography, Chaplin wrote that in order to see beyond the hateful, racist, and ultra-nationalistic sentiments of despots “all one has to be is a normal, decent human being.” Unfortunately, there are times when normal, decent human beings fall victim to the propaganda of savvy authoritarians and the machinery of malicious mass media. During such dark and ominous times, Truth gives way to falsehoods, and the peddling of fear and hysteria gives rise to a cult of over-zealous and ultra-patriotic followers who cannot be convinced otherwise. Like Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, The Great Dictator is a stirring example of the power of political satire.

    As a matter of history, Chaplin and Hitler were born within a week of one another. “There was something uncanny in the resemblance between the Little Tramp (Chaplin) and Adolf Hitler, representing opposite poles of humanity,” writes Chaplin biographer David Robinson, reproducing an unsigned article from The Spectator dated 21st April 1939: “Providence was in an ironical mood when, fifty years ago this week, it was ordained that Charles Chaplin and Adolf Hitler should make their entry into the world within four days of each other… Each in his own way has expressed the ideas, sentiments, aspirations of the millions of struggling citizens ground between the upper and the lower millstone of society… Each has mirrored the same reality, the predicament of the “little man” in modern society. Each is a distorting mirror, the one for good, the other for untold evil.”

    Chaplin 2Chaplin spent many months drafting and re-writing the speech for the end of the film, a call for peace from the barber who has been mistaken for Hynkel. Many people criticized the speech, and thought it was superfluous to the film. Others found it uplifting. It has been eighty years since Chaplin filmed The Great Dictator. And yet, all around the world we have seen parallels to the language that gave rise to Adolf Hitler and other dictators. Chaplin speaks of the power of media, specifically of radio, which in 1940 was the most effective way of reaching millions of people. Almost a century later, we can add to radio television, the Internet, and social media. The effects are the same, perhaps worse. Hitler won his ascendency to power with the slogan “Make Germany Great Again.” By the end of WWII, Germany was reduced to rubble and ruin for decades thereafter. In the late 1930s, Charlie Chaplin saw the inhumanity of authoritarians and despots across Europe like Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin as well as the ruthlessness of those who followed them blindly while waving flags. All three despots locked up their political rivals or had them executed. Chaplin foresaw the evil that men can do. He saw the absence of compassion and decency and mercy. He saw how easily religious gestures can be adopted and abused by false prophets espousing tin slogans . . . all for the sake of securing their own power for their own edification and fortune. Regrettably, Chaplin’s words are as relevant today as they were in 1940. The same mechanisms are at work in our society today. How is it that millions of “normal, decent human beings” are unable to see beyond the fabricated veil?

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    At the end of the film, the little Jewish barber trying to escape the Fascists by impersonating Hynkel (Hitler), who is absent by a twist of fate while out duck hunting, is thrust upon the stage before an enormous audience. The barber, who has never given a public speech before, warily approaches the microphone, and seizing the opportunity to alter the course of events, delivers an impassioned plea to humanity.

    Click on this link to watch the monologue or read the transcription below:

    “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. And this world has 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. 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. 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. 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! 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. 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! 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!"

    Chaplin might as well have declared, “Citizens! In the name of democracy, let us all unite!”


     

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    Dr. John Smelcer is the Inaugural Writer-in-Residence for the Charter for Compassion where he teaches a global online course called “Poetry for Inspiration and Well-Being.” He is the author of over 60 books, including A New Day, his timely new pocketbook of meditations to inspire love, compassion, hope, mercy, charity, tolerance, contemplation, and peace. He is currently working on a book about his discovery of Thomas Merton’s relics in the spring of 2015.

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