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Essay: The changing landscape of ‘The Sound of Music’

  • Matt Faucher appears as Georg von Trapp in a scene from Northern Stage's production of "The Sound of Music." (Kata Sasvari photograph)

For the Valley News
Published: 12/20/2019 5:49:39 PM
Modified: 12/20/2019 5:49:26 PM

The first time I ever saw The Sound of Music was also my first time in a grown-up theater. It was in London in 1964 and I skipped home in a British drizzle singing “Raindrops on roses...”

Last week, Northern Stage’s production made me feel like skipping home singing once again.

In White River Junction in 2019 I noticed some things I had missed back in 1964. From Salzburg, how could the von Trapps walk to Switzerland, hundreds of miles away? How did Georg von Trapp manage to be in the navy of a landlocked country?

The answers to these questions are found in the fact that The Sound of Music is not so much a story of Austria and World War II as it is of Italy and World War I.

In June 1914, Archduke Ferdinand of Austria’s assassination in Sarajevo plunged Europe into war because it triggered treaties between two great European alliances: the Triple Entente of France, Britain and Russia and the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy.

In 1914, Italy was a new country and — in Italian eyes — an incomplete one. Italian patriots felt their country’s 1861 unification would be realized fully only when it controlled “Italian” territory then in Austrian hands: the Alto Adige in the Dolomites region and the Istrian peninsula on the eastern Adriatic.

So instead of immediately supporting its treaty partners in 1914, Italy waited on the sidelines. The treaty with Germany and Austria had never been popular, because of Italy’s claims on the Alto Adige and Istria. While Entente and Alliance faced off across French and Belgian trenches, Italy debated about whether to join the fight, and on which side. In a process the Italian prime minister called “sacred egoism,” Italy flirted with both sides, letting them court her with promises of land and money should their side win.

In 1915, Italy decided it liked the Triple Entente’s offer better. If France, Russia and Belgium won, Italy would get a huge cash bonus plus the Alto Adige — the South Tyrol, Südtirol or Sud Tirol depending whom you ask — plus Istria, where Austria had its only access to the sea.

Italy’s bet paid off and its side won. Against the wishes of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who believed in national self-determination, Italy absorbed Alto Adige and Istria along with millions of ethnic Slovenes, Croats and Germans (95% of Alto Adige spoke German). Italy gave them all passports.

In the 1920s, Mussolini began harassing the “non-Italians,” particularly in Alto Adige. He made Italian obligatory in school and transferred southern Italians into traditionally German areas. Some German speakers stayed and resisted Italy’s heavy-handed ethnic management. Others emigrated to the rump of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the tiny Austria of dirndls and Sacher torte we know today.

One who left was Austrian naval hero Georg von Trapp, who had been born in Istria. When von Trapp returned home from the war, Austria’s naval bases and his home town were Italian. He stayed for a few years and his eldest children were born in Istria. But in 1924, after his first wife’s death, von Trapp moved his family to a villa near Salzburg. There he hired a governess named Maria Augusta Kutschera (a Czech name, such was the Austro-Hungarian empire).

With the Anschluss in 1938, Austria was effectively transferred to Germany and the von Trapps were trapped (sorry) in Salzburg. The closest borders were Germany and Italy. Although Mussolini was Hitler’s ally and had not been kind to Italy’s German speakers, Georg von Trapp and his eldest children had Italian passports. Rather than “climb every mountain,” they boarded a train to Italy, eventually reaching the U.S.

This story wasn’t good enough for either Broadway or Hollywood. Plus, walking hundreds of miles across the mountains to Switzerland — another country of dirndls and lederhosen — makes a better story and song.

That was not the end of the von Trapps’ story, as we in the Upper Valley know.

Nor was it the end of the story for either Alto Adige or Istria.

After World War II, Nazi war criminals slipped into German-speaking Alto Adige, where they took the “ratlines” to Genoa and South America. Italy still has a German-speaking political party (its symbol is an edelweiss). After separatist violence in the 1950s and 1960s, Italy gave its German-speaking regions special autonomy. The Austrian consul in Milan still keeps a quiet eye on Alto Adige.

Complications with World War I treaties turned Istria into an Italian Fascist cause in the 1920s. After World War II, Tito claimed Italy’s World War I prize for his own and Yugoslavian partisans committed atrocities against Italians in Istria. In 1954, the conflict over Capt. von Trapp’s homeland was resolved — barely avoiding war — forcing more than 200,000 Italians out overnight. With the split-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Istria is now divided among Italy, Croatia and Slovenia.

The Sound of Music’s lessons about honor and Nazism are well known. Any lessons about nationalism in the von Trapps’ true story are hidden.

On the night I saw Northern Stage’s The Sound of Music, Boris Johnson and his Brexit program won the British elections.

Too bad The Sound of Music is no longer on the London stage. It would do Boris good to see it.

Madeleine Johnson lives in Enfield and spent three decades sailing, hiking and skiing in Istria and Alto Adige.

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