Alt-History – the Musical?

A few weeks ago, at the start of the semester, I was filling in for the drama teacher. No, JY, I was not demonstrating how to have drama. These are teenagers – they’ve mastered that skill. The drama teacher also teaches a communications class. She was starting with movies as communications – what messages are conveyed, how do actors modify or enhance the script, that kind of thing. So the students were watching the original Sound of Music. I’d seen it before, and was playing “where’s that” as I matched locations to my memories of Salzburg and the surrounding area. Which led to musings about the film as a form of alt-hist.

A little background is probably in order, since the history of Austria between 1919 and 1939 is about as messy as the floor of my closet after one of the clothes rods broke. Austria had never existed as a separate country. Parts of it had been personal territories of the Habsburg family, other parts had been attached to different rulers, including the bishop of Bamberg, Germany or the Prince-Archbishops of Salzburg until after Napoleon came through. In 1919 chunks of the Habsburg lands were carved away, and others invaded by the new South Slave state, forcing a referendum that led to the creation of the state of Carinthia (Kärnten) in southern Austria. After the various treaties and referenda finished carving up the old Habsburg lands, what was left was pretty much modern Austria, which a quick glance at a topo map will show has lots of mountains, some mineral resources, and unhappy neighbors on three sides, with Germany being too poor to help. Then Austria and Hungary got hit by hyperinflation like Germany, but for different reasons (including the socialists taking over and making tens of thousands of new government jobs in a country with millions fewer people and no tax base) as well as having to pay war reparations. As you can imagine, much unhappiness ensued.

So when fascism and nationalism reared their ugly heads, they found all-too-fertile ground in Austria, much as happened in Italy, Hungary, and Germany. A lot of people supported a union with Germany, both for cultural and economic reasons and because it would be a stick in Western Europe’s eye. Thus the Anschluss and all the evils that went with it.

So, what does this have to do with the Sound of Music? A little, because Captain von Trapp’s refusal to support the Nazis was the reason the family fled the country (and ended up in New England running a ski and summer resort.) They did not flee overland, however, but took the train. The film plays up the captain being an Austrian patriot, emphasis on Austrian. Given his rank and wealth, a Habsburg Imperial loyalist would have been more logical, but try explaining that in a movie. Plus there’s a lot of other things about the German “merger” with Austria to dislike if you  are a devout Catholic. As it was, Hollywood played up the “Austrians = good, Nazis = bad” aspect, in part because by 1965 Austria was a neutral country that leaned more to the west than the east. And the true story is still a good story.

It was several decades before the film was shown in Austria. The period between 1919 and 1945 is one that most Austrians of the older generation preferred not to remember. Between the economic suffering, the consequences of the Anschluss, the war, the occupation after the war, the enormous shift in population after the war as German-speakers were hounded out of Eastern Europe . . . Neutrality and focusing on what happened before 1914 made sense. Mozart, Hayden, the Salzburg Festival, Beethoven, (housing the UN and OPEC) all came first, especially when it came to attracting tourists. But after a critical mass of crazy Americans shows up wanting to pay money to see “where the movie was,” well, who wouldn’t want to part the Yankees from their currency? 🙂

So to me, Sound of Music falls a bit into alt-history. I understand why the producers glossed what was glossed, and let’s face it, in 1965 the Nazis were not really a topic for a musical. The movie is still entertaining, well done, with good music, does not push any of my “oh geez, really? Blagh” buttons like so many seem to do, and tells a positive story. True love, for a woman and for a family, finds a way. And the scenery is great, too.


7 thoughts on “Alt-History – the Musical?

    • No. I keep forgetting that the family wrote about their experiences. Until two years ago, it was a time period I deliberately avoided reading about or researching. There’s a very low limit to how many depressing books I can process per year (in this case depressing because of the events in Europe, not because of the specific people involved.)

      I do know that the youngest daughter, who was the reason her father hired a governess, died last year. One of my German culture publications mentioned it.

      • The one I read was by Maria Trapp. Good book. I understand that there is at least one more book, but I have never run across it.

        Trapp Family Singers isn’t depressing at all. It is quite the opposite, very inspiring. They did lose everything when the left Austria, but they also built a new life here. Sound of Music only hints at the good things to come.

  1. Speaking of alt-(Austrian)-history, have you read “A Sailor of Austria?” (First in the Otto Prohaska trilogy.) Very funny while being rather sad.
    Scenes of crossing the Med in an experimental (and temperamental) submarine – with a live (and very grumpy) camel as cargo.

  2. It’s funny. While I like Salzburg, and the salt mines are a must for any visitor, I much prefer Austria west of there — from Innsbruck to Liechtenstein. My one trip to Vienna was an absolute bust — it rained all three days we were there, and I worked 14 hours a day during the trip (military TDY mission). The people are absolutely the best in Europe!

    • I’m becoming enamored of Steirmark and Tirol, although Kärntan has some neat places in it. I want to go back to the mining district west of Klagenfurt and see that museum that has the battle standard the miners captured from the Turks while the miners were fighting for Prince Eugen . . . in Belgrade! Among other things. Agree on the people, although once you get off the beaten track, much of Bavaria’s great, as are parts of Rhineland-Pfalz.

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