How Charlie Chaplin became Hitler's Enemy

In a black-and-white realm there's a man who moves swiftly albeit silently, and never fails to make people laugh. Now, you can hardly find a person who doesn't know who Charlie Chaplin is. One of the greatest creative minds, a true visionary, and one of the first Hollywood success stories – Chaplin is a staple in the history of cinema.

by Yar Varsobin


As a Victorian era man from a poor background, he worked his way up supporting himself with a range of jobs related to performing, since "he always wanted to be famous. He just needed the audience" (The Real Charlie Chaplin (2021)). Many saw his potential and talent, which helped the young artist to join a theatrical agency, take part in plays and then switch to big screens. His most memorable character, the little Trump, a man with a bucket hat and funny mustache, first appeared in Chaplin's second movie, Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914). The persona was created by accident, when Chaplin was dressing up for his role in Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914) and wanted to add a "comic touch" to the character. Movies including his appearance such as The Kid (1921), The gold rush (1925), City Lights (1931) made Charlie Chaplin famous worldwide, and his persona instantly recognizable.
A man who stole his mustache
Charlie's career blew up: movie releases, major contracts and international recognition. He visited Berlin in the early 1931 when Hitler's party rose to prominence, and there he crossed paths with Hitler for the first time. Unnerved by the warm welcome of the famous comedian by the citizens, the party dedicated a few lines to Chaplin in their book about Jews, calling him a 'disgusting Jewish acrobat'. Even though Chaplin wasn't of Jewish descent, this meant that somehow he got under Hitler's skin with his comedy.

The resemblance between Hitler and Charlie's character Trump wasn't unnoticed and often got its fair share of humorous commentary. Chaplin himself was said to have been haunted by similarities him and Hitler had shared. These memories are documented by Charlie's son. The famous comedian thought that his and Hitler's destinies were poles apart – one brought joy, the other – suffering. Their birthdays were only a couple of days apart in April of 1898, and their success stories were too similar. A comic and a madman. If fate intervened, it could be the other way around.

Neither the odd similarities he and Hitler shared nor the unpleasant attention of his party stopped Chaplin from treating Hitler as the best target for satire. "The greater the imposter you take on, the better are your chances of making a funny picture" – that was the rule. And in the mid 1930s' Hitler looked like the biggest imposter of all. Being world-famous, Charlie Chaplin had his voice and wasn't afraid to use it. The actor found a way to show his criticism of the growing Nazi regime and express his solidarity with the Jewish people. As Hitler's critic, he had the idea to fight the regime using the tool that he mastered – his comedy.
As the news of Jewish oppression in Germany grew bigger, people around Chaplin became more skeptical of his idea of making a satirical movie about fascism. Later in life, Chaplin wrote that knowing the extent of horror and suffering that Jewish people underwent, he would never have gone through with his idea. He wrote, directed and produced his first sound film, The Great Dictator (1940) which became his most commercially successful movie and the first big Hitler satire.
Major Hollywood anti-Nazi manifesto
The Great Dictator was written in 1938, came into production a few days after the Second World War started in 1939, and soon after its release, it became the center of the world's attention. The reason for a spotlight was not the voiced dialogs, but the acute satire.

This comedy-drama tells a story of a land of Tomainia that lost in the World War and ended up with a dictator, Adenoid Hynkel (Charlie Chaplin). The atmosphere in a country is described vividly in the opening titles – "insanity cut loose" and "liberty took a nosedive". Against the background of the country's depression, the Adenoid Hynkel's party rose to prominence and started ruling "with an iron fist". Meanwhile, a Jewish barber (also Charlie Chaplin), the World War veteran suffering from amnesia comes back to Tomainia and finds himself in another world.

The movie takes a full swing at dictatorship, unmasking it and its leaders. Behind the dictator, everything is cardboard. The "inventions" his yes-men are presenting don't work, the ideas they give are absurd, the instructions they get aren't carried out. Chaplin mocks both German and Italian oppressive regimes, showing Italy with its leader Mussolini as Benzino Napaloni (Jack Oakie), the dictator of Bacteria. Napaloni and Hynkel argue, displaying their childish and boneheaded nature; they fight with food when they are unable to decide who is going to sign the treaty first.

Amid the struggles that the dictatorship faces, the persecution of Jewish people grows stronger; the barber and his friends, the embodiment of courage and liberty, are fighting back. Eventually the barber gets sent to a concentration camp and his friends flee the country. At the end of the movie, the most absurd thing happens: Hitler violates the treaty with Napaloni, plans to invade Osterlich, and goes duck hunting near the border, while the barber escapes the camp nearby – as a result two men get mistaken for one another. Hynkel gets taken away by the police, and the barber suddenly becomes the new dictator of a country that's invading a neighboring land. The Jewish barber is presented with a chance to make a statement under Hynkel's name. At the movie's climax, he gives a five minute long speech about brotherhood and liberty, future and democracy, peace and tolerance.

Making comedy about Hitler was controversial, but the risk was taken. Chaplin got everything right about Hitler – about him as a performer and about him as a person. The Great Dictator is a classic for a reason. Through cinematic subtlety and acute irony, the movie shared the biggest anti-war message. This message was heard then, and it hasn't got old yet.
The greatest enemy
There seems to be a lot of reasons for Hitler to be angry at Chaplin, especially if he saw the movie. A few sources said that he did in fact see it, multiple times, alone.

Chaplin was said to "reflect back to people what they wanted" and maybe it was the only time the comic failed. Chaplin showed dictatorship in an absolutely absurd light, painting Hynkel as a weak, insecure man and juxtaposing it to the courage of Jewish people. Hynkel is called a "medieval maniac". His ally commander Schultz says openly that "his cause is doomed" and his "policy is worse than a crime," and after hearing that Hynkel sends Schultz to the camp. Hynkel can't tolerate the truth. He sometimes lives in his imaginary world, playing with the globe shaped balloon like a child and climbing up the curtains in his castle of lies. In one scene the barber's girlfriend looks at the sky and says that the stars are the only beautiful thing in the world that Hynkel can't reach. This leaves no doubts – everything he touches is doomed.

Chaplin challenges the ideas of who the great dictator tries to paint himself as. Hynkel is weak, not scary, not smart and not cold headed either. He is just a megalomaniac who got to the place of power by pure luck. Moreover, the fact that both Hynkel and the Jewish barber are played by the same person and get mistaken for one another might be the biggest point of Hitler's outrage. For obvious reasons.
The most famous comedy artist and the infamous dictator – the amount of energy they dedicated to the polar opposite causes is astonishing. But it's never sad to be hated if you know you're fighting the great evil. So, in a sense, being Hitler's enemy is a true honor.
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