The Great Dictator: When Charlie Chaplin took on Adolf Hitler and dared to laugh

The Great Dictator: When Charlie Chaplin took on Adolf Hitler and dared to laugh

When Charlie Chaplin recognised his resemblance to Adolf Hitler, the satirist of the century couldn’t pass up the chance to make a mockery of the Führer. Beginning filming just six days after Chaplin’s native Britain entered World War II, The Great Dictator would go on to be a comical hit ahead of its time.

Charlie Chaplin: The Great Dictator

In the mid-1930s, while many of the allied nations were still being wooed by Germany’s new leader, Charlie Chaplin saw an excellent opportunity to mock what he knew was dangerous. 

Upon its US release in 1940, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther had already named The Great Dictator as “perhaps the most significant film ever produced." As Hitler cast himself in the role of the world’s menacing “saviour”, Chaplin held a warped mirror to the Führer’s self-aggrandisement with his first “talkie” and the sufficiently silly-named Adenoid Hynkel, “Fooey” of Tomania. 

The life of Charlie Chaplin and his mustache

By 1940, Charlie Chaplin had already established himself as one of the most influential film stars and satirists of his time, with over 25 years of experience in the film industry. Until this point, his Tramp character, who also lived in the fictional Tomania, was much to thank for the actor’s fame.

But with the new decade, Chaplin saw his prominence muddied with a series of controversies in his work and personal life. Between a growing determination to comment on the rise of nationalism in 1930s world politics and recognising parallels across his own life and that of Adolf Hitler - born within the same week in 1889 into an impoverished childhood and with a striking resemblance to one another - Chaplin’s next project began to take shape.

The Great Dictator: The movie’s beginnings

The two-year-long journey of The Great Dictator from typewriter to silver screen was not one without barriers. After attending a screening of Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of Will, which documents the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, Chaplin began work on the script in 1938. The film would be funded by United Artists, the production and distribution company that Chaplin had co-established back in 1919, founded on the idea that artists would be allowed to control their own interests.

But at this point, in Chaplin’s native England and his adopted US, Hitler was still seen as someone worth forging political alliances with. In 1935 Churchill had expressed his “admiration” of Hitler and the leader’s “courage, the perseverance, and the vital force which enabled him to [...] overcome all the [...] resistances which barred his path,” and as 1938 dawned the Duke and Duchess of Windsor had only just returned from their tour of Nazi Germany the previous autumn. Chaplin’s colleagues at United Artists stressed that the satire would never make it past censorship laws still protecting the Führer from mockery in the UK and US. 

"I began receiving alarming messages from United Artists," Chaplin wrote in his 1964 autobiography. "They had been advised... that I would run into censorship trouble. Also, the English office was very concerned about an anti-Hitler picture and doubted whether it could be shown in Britain. More worrying letters came from the New York office imploring me not to make the film, declaring it would never be shown in England or America."

But come 1939 the US and UK abandoned their appeasement policy and, six days after Chamberlain announced “this country is at war with Germany”, filming for Chaplin’s groundbreaking work began. For the politicians who would have stopped The Great Dictator from making it into cinemas, Chaplin's film was now an excellent piece of propaganda to rally the war effort and, by 1941, it was the second-biggest box office hit in the US.

Unsurprisingly, the “talkie” was silenced in every country the Third Reich occupied and in Germany, Der große Diktator didn’t make it onto screens until 1958, when Germany was well into its period of so-called Entnazifizierung (“denazification”). 

Resemblance between Charlie Chaplin and Hitler

“To me, the funniest thing in the world is to ridicule impostors,” Chaplin wrote in his autobiography, "it would be hard to find a bigger impostor than Hitler." And his plot is filled with imposters; Adenoid Hynkel, a weak, insecure man parading his power and posing as the answer to his country’s problems. The same goes for Garbitsch and Herring, modelled on Goebbels and Göring. In one scene, Herring, i.e. Göring, has been granted so many medals by Hynkel that he has to turn sideways to find a space to pin the new addition.

A character closer to Chaplin's Tramp, the barber, is forced by Hynkel’s stormtroopers to impersonate the leader, after the genuine Hynkel is mistaken for the barber and arrested. And then there is Chaplin’s impersonation of Hitler, an irresistible opportunity for the satirist of his time, whose likeness to the real dictator was clear to many.

In 1939, English comedian Tommy Handley recognised the similarity in his song, Who Is That Man...? (Who Looks Like Charlie Chaplin), preempting the comic potential of the Hynkel character, who was yet to be introduced to the world, in his last verse: 

"But don't let us be too hard on poor old Adolf

He's a Godsend 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!"

Iconic scenes in The Great Dictator movie

In the end, it was Alexander Korda, a Hungarian-British producer, who suggested Chaplin should lose the iconic bowler hat and capitalise on his unfortunate doppelganger to create the now iconic scenes of cinema history.

Chaplin’s dog-German

Since the Nazis' defeat, impassioned speeches performed in exaggerated or mock German have become ten a penny in cinema, the famous bunker scene from the German film Downfall or Look Who's Back being some of the most well-known modern examples. The 3 Stooges' sketch You Natzy Spy, from January 1940, beat Chaplin to the mark with public mockery of Hitler by a few months but didn't manage to carve out a place for itself in cinematic history quite so well as Adenoid Hynkel, with his dog-German and comical hand-waving.

Video: YouTube / Charlie Chaplin

Hitler crying

Perhaps the scene which best harks to Hitler as an imposter: the globe scene. Hynkel’s Commander Schulz convinces the leader of his greatness, “They will worship you as a God!” To which the Fooey jumps up with a camp sprightliness and demands, “No, no. You mustn’t say it! You make me afraid of myself!”

Video: YouTube / Charlie Chaplin

The Great Dictator speech

Finally, the most well-known scene of Chaplin’s 1940 work. After the barber is confused for Hynkel he is pushed onto the stage to make a speech in front of his supporters, in which Chaplin revisits themes from his earlier film Modern Times (1936), where his famous Tramp character struggles to survive in a world of increasing industrialisation.

Video: YouTube / Charlie Chaplin

Hitler's response to Chaplin's Dictator movie

While Chaplin was busy throwing around balloons and speaking made-up German, Hitler was reaching the peak of his power, none the wiser to the mockery that lay in store for him. According to various historical accounts, Chaplin ordered the dictator to be posted a copy once the film was released, an eyewitness saw Hitler’s first watch and the leader screened the movie twice for himself.

And of course, Chaplin had to react to his own film once the extent of Nazi atrocities was revealed to the world. "Had I known the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator; I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis,” Chaplin wrote in his autobiography. But in the context of 1938, he was “determined to go ahead, for Hitler must be laughed at."

On the 80th anniversary of Chaplin’s cinematic behemoth, Nicholas Barber summarised why the humour of Chaplin’s work still resonates so well, years later. “Think of today's dictators and would-be dictators, in any country, and you can spot all the juvenile qualities that Chaplin identified: the fetish for photo opportunities, the lavish lifestyles, the policy flip-flops and the crackpot schemes, the self-aggrandising parades and the chests full of medals. [...] Chaplin had already recognised that, as with every subsequent dictator, his villainy was bound up with his immaturity.”

Happy Birthday Charlie Chaplin

There's no better day to revisit the works of one of the world's greatest satirists. After a deeper dive into a movie which made cinematic history, how do you think The Great Dictator holds up, almost 90 years later?

Thumb image credit: spatuletail /

Olivia Logan


Olivia Logan

Editor for Germany at IamExpat Media. Olivia first came to Germany in 2013 to work as an Au Pair. Since studying English Literature and German in Scotland, Freiburg and Berlin...

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