In 1940, famous silent film comedian Charlie Chaplin made a film called the Great Dictator. Released at the onset of World War II, the movie was a lampoon of Hitler and Nazism.
Despite tackling a somber issue, it was very much a comedy.
However, at the film’s conclusion, Chaplin’s character climbs up onto a stage and drops his goofy persona to deliver a dead serious speech. The address is technically made to the soldiers in front of the podium, but in reality he is speaking to the actual film audience.
The speech is often referred to as the greatest speech ever made. I’ve watched it repeatedly. It bears many similarities to the Gettysburg Address. It’s effective because to appeals to emotion. It’s rooted in rhetoric, not reason or not facts.
When you strip away the sentimentalism, what you find is a rather flawed, inconsistent appeal to populist ideals and democracy. Notably, he doesn’t appear to challenge the role fascist governments plays in their people’s lives, only the form of the government itself.
The speech’s text is printed in italics below. My comments are in regular font.
The Great Dictator Speech
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.
So far, so good.
We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that.
We also want the right to choose whether to help or not and if so whom we help and how we help them.
We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery.
Some do. Others do not.
We don’t want to hate and despise one another.
Again, some do and others don’t.
Notice his use of the word “we.” As Jack Donovan has remarked, never use the word “we” when you really mean “them.” So who is Chaplin referring to here? All mankind or just people like him? In other words, what exactly separates us from them?
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.
This is one of the many sentimental declarations Chaplin makes in the speech. They sound warm and comforting, but they also don’t mean anything.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed.
Greed is a natural human emotion. It is as normal as hate and love. I can’t recall where or who said it, but they pointed out blaming greed on corruption is like blaming gravity for airplane crashes. It’s true, but it’s also irrelevant.
We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want.
More sentimentalism. Machines lifted people out of abject poverty and made it possible for them to buy things that ordinarily only royalty and the rich could afford. Odd that Chaplin would say this, since many of his films concerned the plight of the urban poor.
Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind.
People were anything but cynical at that time. Just look at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The art deco art and architecture represents the zenith of unadulterated futuristic idealism. People had reason to be optimistic; in just a few decades mankind was making leaps and bounds with the automobile, film, and the airplane. Their problem was they had too much idealism. They were naïve about human nature. Cynics don’t create the Kellog-Briand Pact.
We think too much and feel too little.
The Nazis, Soviets and fascists didn’t come to power because people thought too much. Americans didn’t continually reelect FDR into the White House despite the failures of the New Deal because they put all emotions aside.
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….
A fair point. Modern technology cannot replace what humans offer one another.
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.
The airplane was created out of the deep desire to prove man could fly. It was ingenuity and creativity, not virtue or goodness. It didn’t take long for that invention to be used as a fighter and bomber. Technology advances are inspired by or later used for use in warfare.
That’s the real universal brotherhood, the unconscious desire for conflict.
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.
Greed doesn’t go away. Only man’s capacity to act on their greed or incentive to be greedy can be restricted.
The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people.
Not always. Russians endured communism for 70 years. It didn’t stop when Lenin died.
And so long as men die, liberty will never perish. …..
The desire for liberty will never die, but the light of freedom has often been put out.
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!
The best part of the entire speech – a great anti-war statement.
You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural!
No, hate is as natural as love. You cannot hate if you do not love first. If you love something you must hate what threatens it.
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.
Very bizarre reasoning. He neglects to recite the entire passage and leaves out the context. He then immediately turns the theological statement into an unrelated political one.
“The power to create happiness” is another comforting throwaway line that means nothing.
Then – in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite.
How did democracy suddenly enter the conversation?
More importantly, what different role does democracy play in the lives of people compared to fascism or communism?
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.
I have a strange feeling his vision of accomplishing this doesn’t involve removing the minimum wage, onerous businesses regulations, and allowing people to invest their own money rather than have it forcibly put into a Social Security fund.
By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill that promise. They never will!
Very true. So why should we trust anyone to carry out that promise for us?
Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfill that promise!
How? As a democracy, or as individuals?
Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance.
What does “national barrier” mean? Does it mean borders? Differences in national identifies? The answer is somewhat relevant.
Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.
Wait, didn’t he just say we thought too much and felt too little, that the machine failed to give us something we need?
Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!
Comrades, let us all unite to get rid of Mr. Jones and run the farm ourselves.