History And The Sound Of Music

18 03 2015

I recently re-watched (for the gazillionth time) The Sound of Music with my two older sons. Apparently, I have been negligent in their cultural upbringing, because they had never seen it before (and both are well into their teens). However, my oldest son had questions about the historical context, and it got me thinking about the movie and the time in history it took place.

Warning: I not only may spoil the plot, I may spoil a cherished memory of a touching movie. If you read on, don’t blame me if I taint the story for you. You’ve been warned.

First, It Is Still A Great Movie

Before I take on some of the somewhat-controversial elements of the movie, I want to make it clear that I still think it is a wonderful movie, and I will watch it again (and again and again). The tremendous singing talent of Julie Andrews is simply amazing, and the story is still very heartwarming. What I am about to explore shouldn’t diminish the work in any way.

I won’t bother going into the wildly inaccurate timeline in the movie when compared to the real von Trapp history (and for the record “von” is never supposed to be capitalized, it is an honorific indicating minor nobility, not a proper name). The real history of the family is itself fascinating, and would make a compelling story (which has been done in other works). The movie is, ultimately, a work of fiction, so taking liberties with family history is not a surprise. Taking further liberties with world history is also not surprising, and ‘calling the movie out’ for doing so can be seen as pointless. But knowing the real history adds a bit of colour to the story, without necessarily ruining what is otherwise a fine film.

What Was Said

There are few bits of exposition in the movie that give us backstory, and further context on events in the movie. First, we know that Georg von Trapp (his first name is pronounced “gay-org”, not “george”) is a retired Captain from “the Imperial Navy”. Second, when the von Trapps return from their honeymoon, Max makes the comment “at least the Anschluss happened peacefully”. The implications of those two facts are (obviously) not explored, but if you know the historical facts, it changes things a bit.

The real Captain von Trapp (actually Corvette Captain Georg Johannes, Ritter von Trapp) was a decorated officer in the navy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, one of the two main aggressors in the Great War (now known as World War I). He commanded U-boats which sunk over 40,000 tons of Allied shipping from 1914-1918. Basically, he was an officer on the losing side of the Great War. He was “the enemy” to most of the world.

Max’s comment on the Anschluss will be explored further on. It is worth looking at the Austria that was portrayed in the movie, because reality and fiction diverge to some degree here.

A Pastoral Empire?

The movie’s characters and imagery implies that Austrians were naturally a pastoral, peaceful and music-loving people. Certainly, Austria produced some of the greatest composers in history, and Austria’s impact on global culture cannot be overlooked. The country was, at the time of the Anscluss in 1938, certainly very different from the Austria that von Trapp fought for. It was certainly more peaceful than the country it was up until 1918.

Consider, though, that prior to the end of World War I, Austria was the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a quasi-dictatorship that ruled over a considerable portion of central Europe and parts of the Middle East. Certainly, it had some democratic elements, but the Emperor/King had significant power. They got that power through some projection of force and through conquest, as well as via political maneuvering. Formally, the Austrian Empire, followed by the merger that created the Austro-Hungarian Empire, lasted from 1526 until 1918. It can trace its roots back to the original Roman Empire, which began around 27 BC as the successor to the Roman Republic that had stood for 500 years prior to that time. While much of the Austrian component that the Hapburgs ruled was built as much though politics as it was through conquest, it is an empire that knew how to use military force when needed.

The Emperor in 1914, Franz Joseph I, was more-or-less a willing ally of Germany and Kaiser Wilhelm II. They were an active participant in the initial invasion of neutral Belgium in August of 1914, and subsequent attacks against France. Franz Joseph’s successor, Charles I (known as Charle IV in the Hungarian half of the empire) continued support of Germany up until his resignation in November 1918, and the collapse of both the Empire and Germany.

Captain von Trapp commanded U-boats for that Empire which sank, among other things, civilian cargo vessels. Now, it wasn’t as if he were an inherently evil person. He was following in his father’s footsteps, and he was “following orders”. Georg von Trapp was also a vocal opponent of the Nazis, and suffered for it to some degree. He was ordered to serve in the German navy and refused. His family did leave Austria (although not having to “escape”. The von Trapps were technically Italian citizens, and could leave more-or-less when they wanted while the borders remained open).

So while the Austria of 1938 was certainly more peaceful than the Austria that participated in one of the bloodiest wars in human history, it wasn’t the idyllic and pastoral nation that the movie would have us believe it was.

A Peaceful Anschluss?

Now to address the “peaceful Anschluss” that Max mentions in the movie. The Anschluss, or annexation of Austria, was not exactly peaceful. The takeover of Austria by Nazi Germany followed years of political and economic pressure, as well as a civil war in 1934, several terror attacks (including the assassination of the Austrian president) and a failed putsch. It isn’t that there wasn’t general support in Austria for a merger with Germany. Some believe that, absent the violent events that took place in 1936 and 1937, the Austrian public would have voted to become part of Germany. Certainly there were opponents that disagreed with a closer association with Germany, but public sentiment seemed to run otherwise.

From 1934 through to the annexation in 1938, over 800 people died in Austrofascist terror attacks. Estimated casualties in the 1934 civil war range from 400 to 1,000 deaths. The Anschluss itself was completed in March of 1938 when the 8th Army of the German Wermacht entered Austria. Granted, the was no actual combat. But to characterize the Anschluss as “peaceful” is a bit of a stretch. Worse, historical data seems to indicate that most Austrians welcomed a closer relationship with Germany.

When making the film, Robert Wise apparently received resistance from Salzburg officials to dressing parts of the city up with Nazi flags and such. His backup plan was to use stock footage, but that would have looked worse: it showed happy Austrians welcoming German forces into the country. That was not the image that the city wanted to see on screen, and they relented to allow the original plans for filming.

 So What Does This Mean?

Peaceful or not, the Anschluss was the primary reason the von Trapps left Austria. There was tension between Georg von Trapp and the Nazis, and the family opposed the Anschluss. That their “escape” in real life was a bit more prosaic doesn’t change the fact that the family wasn’t really able to stay and remain true to their own values.

That Captain von Trapp was a decorated war hero for the losing side of a massive conflict doesn’t make him an evil person. It doesn’t really change the way the character in the movie would act. As the descendent of a former Afrika Korps infantryman and Allied PoW, I have a sense of what it means to have to live in a country where you fought for the “wrong side”. What it does mean is that Captain von Trapp would have likely put his uniforms and other accoutrements in storage, and not worn them in public (or to his own wedding). His naval bearing would have remained, but to wear items in public that harken back to being one of the “bad guys” (and worse, an ally of the now-hated Germans) would be unlikely.

Does any of this really change the story? Fundamentally, no it doesn’t. The movie’s director and producer might have chosen to do things a bit differently (drop the use of uniforms and decorations from the “wrong side” of WWI), but I don’t see the point in trying to atone for history here. Ultimately, it is a story about a man who regains his life and his family, with the help of a young and outspoken woman. That is still a good story to tell.

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