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This Day in History: How “The Great Dictator” Was Proclaimed an “Anti-American Movie”
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This Day in History: How “The Great Dictator” Was Proclaimed an “Anti-American Movie”

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It’s a pretty well-known fact that one of the greatest comic actors, filmmakers and directors of all time Charlie Chaplin was born April 16, 1889 to the family of an actress Hannah Chaplin and an entertainer Charles Chaplin Sr., and in just four days, April 20, 1889, in Braunau Am Inn, in the territory of Austo-Hungaria, was born the most evil man in the history of humanity, responsible for the rise of Nazism, and the war that cost the whole world tens of millions of deaths - Adolf Hitler.

Chaplin and Hitler could be portrayed as the images of the Light and the Darkness. Chaplin devoted his life to make people laugh, make them happy and reflect themselves through the characters he starred all over his extraordinary career that spanned for an unbelievable 75 years. Apart from being a great entrepreneur, one of the most iconic people of his time and receiving numerous awards, including three Academy ones, and a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he was known for his active social position, and as a true defender of just social values.

The work on “The Great Dictator” had already been on its way, when Chaplin started receiving messages that he shouldn’t actually film it:

“Half-way through making The Great Dictator I began receiving alarming messages from United Artists. They had been advised by the Hays Office 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. But I was determined to go ahead, for Hitler must be laughed at…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 I was determined to make it, even if I had to hire halls myself to show it… Before I had finished The Dictator England declared war on the Nazis…”

By October 15, 1940, when one of the most important and influential movies of Chaplin, “The Great Dictator” (which, of course, mocked Adolf Hitler) was released the Second World War in Europe had already been on for more than a year. By that time Poland and Czechoslovakia had been divided, Denmark and Norway - occupied, Belgium, the Netherlands and France capitulated, “receiving” Vichy Regime as the only “legitimate” representation of French statehood.

The Luftwaffe started bombing Great Britain early July 1940, so by October of the same year the Royal Air Force had been already fiercely and bravely protecting their island for more than three months, so the Battle of Britain was in its severest stage, when “The Great Dictator” was in the cinemas.

The aces from occupied countries, especially – from Poland and Czechoslovakia, fought in exile to protect the last fighting Allied power at that moment. The Nazis even planned an invasion of the British islands after the “victory” in the aerial Battle of Britain: the operation Unternehmen Seelöwe, or “Operation Sea Lion”. As we know from history, the United Kingdom managed to stop the Luftwaffe, and the landing never happened.

So, the situation in Europe was crucial. The Nazis were seen as the power nobody could stop, bringing death and misery to millions of people all over the occupied countries. Yet, the US at that time preferred to follow the politics of isolationism and didn’t want to get into war.

The American public loved the Chaplin’s movie, mocking the criminal nature of Nazi-regime, and – in particular, the creation of ghettoes for Jewish people:

“On the Western Front in 1918, a Jewish Private (Charlie Chaplin) fighting for the Central Powers nation of Tomainia valiantly saves the life of a wounded pilot, Commander Schultz (Reginald Gardiner), who carries valuable documents that could secure a Tomainian victory. However, their plane crashes mid-flight, and the Private subsequently suffers memory loss. Upon being rescued, Schultz is informed that Tomainia has officially surrendered to the Allied Forces, while the Private is carried off to a hospital.

Twenty years later, still suffering from amnesia, the Private leaves the hospital to return to his previous profession as a barber in the ghetto. The ghetto is now governed by Schultz, who has been promoted in the Tomainian regime under the ruthless dictator Adenoid Hynkel (also Chaplin)…”

Almost a year after the release of “The Great Dictator”, September 10, 1941, the group of American senators, who still supported the policy of isolationism blamed Charlie Chaplin for “English propaganda” and claimed “The Great Dictator” was an “Anti-American” movie. The isolationists didn’t want to provoke Hitler, despite the fact that similar policy of “appeasement” practiced by the U.K. and France in the inter-war period actually untied Hitler’s hands and led to the beginning of the Second World War.   

By that time the Nazis and other Axis powers (they now consisted not only of Germany, Italy, Japan, but also of Hungary, Slovakia, Romania which joined the bloc in November 1940, and Bulgaria, that “chose” the Axis March 1941) already besieged Malta, attacked Greece, occupied and divided Yugoslavia, had been fighting in Africa, besieging the port of Tobruk.

Eventually, June 22, 1941 the Axis attacked the Soviet Union, so the bloodiest and tragic part of the Second World War – the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet people against the Nazi occupants, started. The Red Army fought with courage and bravery, but couldn’t stop the Nazis advancement on the Soviet soil, so by the 10th of September, the date “The Great Dictator” was called a movie aimed at pulling the US into the War by the group of American senators-isolationists, the territories of Belarusian, Ukrainian, Moldovan, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian Soviet Socialist Republics and broad territories of Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic were under Nazi occupation.

The Soviet Union by that time had lost millions of people, killed by the Nazis, the Axis countries and their collaborators in the occupied territories. Even though the Barbarossa plan eventually failed, and the Soviet Army managed to stop the Nazis during the Yelnya Offensive, the situation in the Eastern Front was still close to be called crucial. For instance, Kiev, the capital of Ukrainian SSR, was just about to be occupied. The capital of Belarusian SSR, Minsk, as well as thousands of Soviet cities, were in ruins.

Yet, America still didn’t want to join the war against the pure evil, wishing to stay apart. At the peak of anti-“Great Dictator” campaign Charlie Chaplin’s movie was called a part of “English propaganda”, and, indeed, the United Kingdom did use “The Great Dictator” as an entertaining and funny movie to diminish the image of Adolf Hitler. The isolationists were still strong and influential in the domestic politics of the US, so they put all their effort into criticizing this movie, yet – their efforts were in vain, since “The Great Dictator” became the second most popular movie of the year in 1941 in the U.S.: right after the masterpiece picture “Citizen Kane”.

The anti-“Great Dictator” campaign and the accusations of this movie being a tool to draw the country into the war only ended on the 7th of December 1941, the day militarist Japan attacked Pearl-Harbor, and the U.S. had no other choice, than to strike back, so they joined the Allies and stepped into the Second World War in the Pacific.

Author: USA Really