Tom Hanks as William Dodd takes on Hitler — could he have saved the Jews?

Universal has purchased the rights to the Erik Larson novel “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin,” published last May, as a potential starring vehicle for Tom Hanks, whose Playtone label will co-produce, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

According to descriptions of the book, the movie will explore American naivete during the rise of Nazi Germany. The book reportedly tells the story of William Dodd, the history professor-turned-United States ambassador to Berlin, who served during Hitler’s rise to power from 1933-1937. Though Dodd was initially taken in by Hitler, he eventually became one of the most outspoken American diplomats on the dangers of the Nazi regime.

The story also includes a rather central plot twist involving his daughter, Martha, a doxy and a socialite, who is enamored of Hitler and tries to lure him into an affair. She was known for her romances with Gestapo officials and other statesman, and as THR dishes, “was excited when Hitler kissed her hand.” But her infatuation with Nazi Germany did not last, and Martha eventually became involved in left-wing politics. According to Larson’s book, as the Dodd family became more and more aware of Hitler’s intentions, they eventually discovered their phones tapped and that their servants were spies in disguise. (Martha eventually became a spy herself, betraying her country of birth for the Soviet Union, though, this too, was also borne of a love affair.)

Some highlights in their fascinating story:

Before William Dodd departed with his family for Germany, his friend, the poet Carl Sandburg reportedly told him “to find out what this man Hitler is made of, what makes his brain go round, what his blood and bones are made of” and “be brave and truthful, keep your poetry and integrity,” according to a Wikipedia reference citing Arnold A. Offner’s book, “American Appeasement: United States Foreign Policy and Germany, 1933-1938” published by Harvard University Press in 1969.

Dodd was appointed to his ambassadorship by President Franklin Roosevelt who, according to several biographies, advised him:

The German authorities are treating Jews shamefully and the Jews in this country are greatly excited. But this is also not a government affair. We can do nothing except for American citizens who happen to be made victims. We must protect them, and whatever we can do to moderate the general persecution by unofficial and personal influence ought to be done.

When Dodd realized what the Nazis were really about, he spoke out publicly against them.

According to Wikipedia (who, for those in doubt, cites many credible sources in Dodd’s entry):

On October 12, 1934, Dodd gave a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Berlin, with Joseph Goebbels and Alfred Rosenberg in attendance, and used an elaborate analogy based on Roman history to criticize the Nazis as “half-educated statesmen” who adopted the “arbitrary modes” of an ancient tyrant.[34] His views grew more critical and pessimistic with the Night of the Long Knives in June-July 1934, when the Nazis killed prominent political opponents many dissenters within the Nazi movement. Dodd was one of the very few in the U.S. and European diplomatic community who reported that the Nazis were too strongly entrenched for any opposition to emerge.[35] In May 1935 he reported to his State Department superiors that Hitler intended “to annex part of the Corridor, part of Czechoslovakia, and all of Austria.” A few months later he predicted a German-Italian alliance.[36] Feeling ineffectual, Dodd offered to resign, but Roosevelt allowed him only a recuperative visit to the U.S.

Early in his tenure as ambassador, Dodd decided to avoid attending the annual Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg rather than appear to endorse Hitler’s regime. In 1933, the State Department left the decision to him, and other ambassadors, including those of France and Great Britain, adopted a similar policy.[41] As the Nazi Party became indistinguishable from the government, however, the State Department preferred that Dodd attend and avoid giving offense to the German government. State Department pressure increased each year until Dodd determined to avoid attending in 1937 by arranging a visit to the United States at the time of the rally. His advice against sending a representative of the U.S. embassy to attend the September 1937 Nazi Party congress in Nuremberg was overridden by his State Department superiors, and the State Department allowed its overruling of Dodd’s position to became public.

When his dispute with the State Department over a U.S. presence at the Nuremberg rallies became public, the German government told the State Department Dodd had to go. He practically fled Berlin, never alerting the press to his resignation. The Nazis were thrilled with his more benign replacement. Which begs the question, what might have happened if the U.S. State Department had listened to Dodd instead of trying to subvert him?

Upon his arrival back in the states, a New York Times headline read: “Dodd Back, Bitter on Dictatorships…Denounces the Spread, “from Rome to Tokyo” of Regimes that Suppress Freedom…SEES WORLD WAR BREWING.” That was in January 1938.

Bring on the movie.