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Historian reveals Chaplin’s praise for Mussolini

Published: 4 April 2017 at 09:41

Charlie Chaplin, in The Great Dictator, dressed in a military uniform with his fist held up in the air

But Great Dictator star and director stood firm with pre-War criticism of Hitler

A new biography released later this month [27 April] sets out the true nature of screen comedian Charlie Chaplin’s relationship with fascism – one which was far from black and white.

Charlie Chaplin: A Political Biography from Victorian Britain to Modern America, by Dr Richard Carr, Lecturer in History at Anglia Ruskin University, shows that despite later mocking the dictator on the silver screen, the British film star held a real life admiration for Italian leader Benito Mussolini.

Although he would satirise Mussolini in his 1940 box office hit The Great Dictator, Chaplin had long praised the Italian fascist for his success in reducing unemployment. 

There were several examples of this:
  • When discussing the matter with friends, in 1928 Chaplin named Mussolini as one of his “great [global] personalities” of the year because, as the film star stated, the Italian “took a nation and put it to work”. 
  • Travelling to Italy in 1931, Chaplin wrote that he was “impressed with its atmosphere. Discipline and order were omnipresent. Hope and desire seemed in the air”. 
  • Even as late as March 1938, as war neared, Chaplin was heard around Hollywood saying that the Italian leader had “made the trains run on time”.
However, Chaplin never felt the same about Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany – whose anti-Semitism the book says was “always completely anathema to him”.  Despite Nazi claims to the contrary, Chaplin was not Jewish – but his half-brother Sydney and long-time romantic partner Paulette Goddard both had Jewish fathers. 

Chaplin therefore became fixated on encouraging the British and Americans to declare war against Hitler – something which flew in the face of the appeasement policies of the late 1930s.

According to files unearthed at the National Archives, Kew, once Chaplin set out his plans to make The Great Dictator in mid-1938, he came under significant pressure from the British Foreign Office to change the proposed tone of the film.

In April 1939 London diplomats wrote to the British Consulate in Los Angeles, requesting they approach Chaplin to ask him to “treat the subject in a way that it could be exhibited in this country without offending Germany”.  This did not succeed.  Having spoken to Chaplin, the consulate in LA wrote back to London to tell them that Chaplin was entering into the film – where he would play the Hitler parody Adenoid Hynkel – with “fanatical enthusiasm”.

By June 1939 the Foreign Office was writing to the British Board of Film Censors asking them to “give the film the most careful scrutiny should it be presented to you for a license in this country” and dropping the heavy hint that “it may be banned almost everywhere else”. 

The book describes these exchanges as “a classic British fudge” which gave “the censors a firm nudge as to which side of the fence to come down on” whilst nominally allowing the government to claim they were not interfering with an independent body. 

Once war came in September 1939 the British government began to support the film – eventually released to great success in October 1940.  Its famous final speech encouraging “universal brotherhood” has recently gone viral in protest at the election of President Trump and his Muslim ban.  But the book shows that without its creator’s bravery, it might never have been released.

The book’s author, Dr Richard Carr of Anglia Ruskin, said: 

“Chaplin’s politics were usually more left than right wing, but Mussolini’s efforts on job creation initially allowed Charlie to pass over the negative aspects of Italian fascism, and to sympathise with it. 

“But Hitler was different.  Chaplin hated Hitler the man, and detested his regime. Even when governments fearful of war told him that The Great Dictator would not pass the censors, or would make no money, he showed a steely determination. 

“Famous for twirling a cane on screen, Chaplin’s financial independence and celebrity position allowed him in 1939 to stick two fingers up to Anglo-American appeasers.

“The book shows that Chaplin was often a nightmare to know personally.  But his actions in standing up to Hitler were undeniably brave, and helped slowly shift opinion towards opposing the Nazis.”