the politics of The Sound of Music

(in Atlanta) My family watched The Sound of Music over the winter break. I am not a big fan of musicals, but the music, lyrics, and cinematography of this movie are famously good. I had always thought the politics of the story were problematic, in a naive sort of way. Thanks to an impressively researched essay by Robert von Dassanowsky, I now believe that the politics are quite sophisticated and perhaps a bit less problematic.

The von Trapp family is threatened by Nazis. The hero of the film, Captain von Trapp, explicitly opposes Nazism. But he doesn’t object to the obvious problems: Antisemitism, militarism, or authoritarianism. His concern is the threat that Nazi Germany poses to Austrian independence. That stance had always struck me as implausible as well as offensive. Austria, after all, was the accidental product of defeat in World War I. It was only a few years old at the time the movie is set (“The Last Golden Years of the Thirties”): a rump, landlocked, German-speaking, Tyrolean republic created very much against the wishes of people like Captain van Trapp, a former officer of the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Navy. Veterans with  authoritarian, hyper-conservative, nationalistic sentiments would be drawn to Germany and to Nazism. Hitler himself was Austrian, and Austria was a crucible of his movement. So I always thought that The Sound of Music was a Hollywood confection, a fantasy of a Germanic nationalist who could be anti-Nazi without having to mention Jews, democracy, or war. You could even suspect that Uncle Max (the money-grubbing urbanite) is meant to be Jewish. That would be a kind of soft Antisemitism, since Max does save the von Trapps at the end, but he is clearly their inferior.

But von Dassanowsky shows that the movie is very carefully contrived (down to the smallest detail) to evoke the specific ideology of the “the anti-Nazi authoritarian state, the 1934-38 Austrofascist Ständestaat of the Chancellors Engelbert Dollfuss (1892-1934) and Kurt von Schuschnigg (1897-1977).” This regime replaced the first Austrian Republic. It was authoritarian; the government jailed political opponents and even executed people accused of “rioting.” But it was also explicitly anti-Nazi; in fact, it imprisoned Austrian Nazis. It was not aggressive, militaristic, or Antisemitic. Numerous prominent Austrian Jews supported the regime. Its natural ally was Mussolini’s Italy, and once Mussolini withdrew his protection, the Ständestaat collapsed.

Von Dassanowsky traces the rather learned evocations of the Ständestaat in the film. For instance: “Captain von Trapp is defined by a white Austrian decoration in the shape of a crusader’s cross or Kruckenkreuz around his neck, and displays the Austrian flag in his entry hall during the ball. … The Austrofascist Chancellor Dollfuss believed the Kruckenkreuz to be a Christian symbol that would show Austria to be a ‘better’ Germany in contrast to the Third Reich, which found representation in the pagan symbol of the swastika.” The invented nationalism of the Ständestaat combined several distinctive elements: the Austro-Hungarian military aristocracy, the Catholic church,  Tyrolean peasant culture and folk music, patriarchal families, a peaceable and friendly foreign policy, and the Baroque heritage. Once Maria and Georg are married, and the former naval officer is the leader of a large family folk music ensemble from Baroque Salzburg, the Ständestaat ideal is complete.

I find it very surprising that Hollywood producers in post-War America would know or care enough about this episode from Austrian interwar history to evoke it so carefully, especially since Austrofascism was not remembered fondly in post-War Austria. The ideological motivation, however, is understandable. In the midst of the Cold War, it would comforting to view a highly conservative and authoritarian cultural movement as an ally in the fight against Nazism.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.