“Well, now you have seen what the Fuehrer can be like at times. But the next time I am sure that it will be different. You know the Fuehrer can be absolutely charming!”
– Franz von Papen to Kurt von Schuschnigg following his Feb. 12, 1938 meeting with Adolf Hitler.
Hitler -vs- Schuschnigg – a Stacked Deck
This must have been cold comfort to Schuschnigg, the Austrian Chancellor who had just gotten a full taste of the Fuehrer’s charm during a meeting in which he had been bullied into effectively signing away his nation’s independence. The day would “…forever remain one of the darkest and most fateful days in the annals of Austria.” “Anschluss” is the German word for “link up”, and that is what Adolf Hitler had been pressing to do with Austria ever since he had come to power in Germany. With his consolidation of power in Germany, Hitler now cast his menacing gaze upon his native Austria, and determined to annex her to Germany. In the February 12th meeting mentioned above, the Austrian
Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg (pictured, above) had met with Hitler, hoping to negotiate some sort of settlement which would preserve Austria’s independence. But he found Hitler to be in an extremely foul frame of mind. By threats and bluffs, and by more subtle means Hilter played on the Austrian’s weaknesses. He knew that Schuschnigg was a chain smoker, and kept him from smoking for over two hours as he harangued him about Germany’s destiny (nobody was permitted to smoke in the Fuehrer’s presence). Then allowing him to meet with his aide, he made known the presence of soldiers which lead the Austrians to fear imminent arrest. He was bullied that night into signing away Austria’s independence on paper.
Austria is Swallowed up on March 12, 1938
Schuschnigg found over the next four weeks that Hitler fully intended to make good on that night’s work. Basically, Schuschnigg was forced into accepting into his cabinet, several Nazis, including a leading Austrian quisling (traitor), Dr. Arthur Seyss-Inquart (“the gentle Judas” in William Shirer’s phrase) as Minister of the Interior with authority over the police. These men saw to it that Hitler’s threats of invasion were taken seriously. Schuschnigg surprised and infuriated Hitler by calling for a plebiscite on the question of union with Germany. But by threats of force and bloodshed, which Schuschnigg was not prepared to risk, the plebiscite was cancelled and the defeated Austrian Chancellor resigned. German troops entered the country and took control without opposition on today’s date, March 12, 1938. This is important, because yet again, Hitler discovered that the west would not interfere as it could have done. He now had his next target, Czechoslovakia enveloped on three sides as the map above shows. Another step was thus taken on the road to war.
The Saga of the von Trapps
While the Anschluss had a chilling effect on the growing number of people who understood the Nazi threat, it would have what would come eventually to be a brightening effect on American Musical Theater, and ultimately upon American popular culture many years later. The von Trapp family, then living near Salzburg would be driven from Austria by the Nazi take-over of Austria. But those expecting the real Maria von Trapp to resemble Julie Andrews who played her in the film version of “The Sound of Music” are likely to be disappointed. Similarly, those expecting Christopher Plummer as Captain von Trapp, Uncle Max, the merry story of the von Trapp family singers, and a daring escape across the mountains with the Nazis nipping at their heels will be disappointed as well. The actual story of the von Trapp family was greatly simplified for both the Broadway musical starring Mary Martin and for the wildly successful film version which was named the Best Picture of the Year at the 1965 Academy Awards. But the most basic facts of their story as it has come to be known are true.
Georg von Trapp (above) had been an officer in Austria’s Imperial navy during World War One. But when Austria was left without seaports following the Great War, he retired from active service. His first wife with whom he had had seven children died in 1922, and Maria Augusta Kutschera came to the family from an Abbey in Salzburg as a tutor to von Trapp’s daughter Maria who was recovering from scarlet fever.
As depicted in the film, Maria (above) did indeed develop a loving and nurturing relationship with the children. But they were already musically inclined, so she did not teach them to sing. And while Captain von Trapp was indeed reluctant to have his family sing in public, he was far from the glowering and distant figure who was brought to love his children through music by Frauline Maria. He was in fact a loving father who had always enjoyed singing with his family.
The von Trapps Depart Austria
But the essential fact that Captain von Trapp was unwilling to cooperate with the Nazi absorption of his country into the German Reich was correctly portrayed. Not only did he refuse to fly the swastika banner of the Nazis, stubbornly persisting in displaying the flag of Austria, but he refused to accept an offer of a naval commission in the navy of the Third Reich. The fact was that von Trapp had lost a great deal of money during the world wide depression, so the family singing act was actually a way to keep the von Trapp family in the black. There was no “Uncle Max”; the manager of the act was a clergyman, Reverend Franz Wasner. The group was sufficiently famous to receive an invitation to sing at Hitler’s birthday party in 1938. But they refused. Despite the simplification and sugar-coating of their story for Hollywood, the basic fact was that when faced with the choice of continued fame and success under the Nazis, and leaving everything and everyone they knew in order to escape a regime they detested, the von Trapps chose to leave. But it was not the daring trek over the mountains after the Nazis had sealed the borders. They simply took a train to Italy.
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Austrian requiem / Kurt Von Schuschnigg Chancellor of Austria and prisoner of Hitler by Kurt von Scuschnigg, Putnam & Sons, New York, 1947.