The Edelweiss is simply a flower found only in high mountain regions, mainly in Austria and Switzerland. In 1965 the edelweiss took on a completely different meaning when Captain von Trapp sang a song about the flower twice in The Sound of Music. The song became an anthem of sorts for Austria and a retroactive defiance to Nazism.
The von Trapp family was a real family (though depicted differently in film) and, while perhaps not as romantic, the reality is more interesting than the story we’ve been told. For one, they weren’t all blonde (most were brunettes), there were 10 children (which would have made the song “So Long, Farewell a great deal longer), and Maria didn’t fall in love with Georg, but married him because she loved the children. While interesting, those aren’t the focus of my post.
Captain Georg von Trapp was a highly decorated and very successful Navy officer for Austria-Hungary during World War I. He married well to Agathe Whitehead, the niece of 1st St John Brodrick, 1st Earl of Midleton, and granddaughter or Robert Whitehead, the inventor of the first modern torpedo. Unfortunately, she died of scarlet fever in 1922. Maria was hired as a tutor for one of his daughters who also had Scarlet fever, but was recovering from the illness. Georg and Maria eventually married in 1927, more than 10 years before the start of the war (unlike the movie’s portrayal).
After the war the Navy collapsed with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. With no sea coast, the Navy became obsolete as did Captain von Trapp’s job. The family had been doing well financially due to family investments in the Bank of England. That all was lost when the family moved money into the Austrian banks in order to try and help stabilize the economy. They lost nearly everything and Georg still had no job. The traveling band wasn’t a luxury of a family who loved music as the movie portrays, but a necessity to make ends meet.
What makes the story great (in my view) is the dilemma that came in 1938. The Nazi German Navy offered a commission to Captain von Trapp via telegram. The telegram made it clear that acceptance was an ordered fate that couldn’t be turned down. He attempted to escape with his family, but German guards were watching them. In order to stall being taken to Germany, the von Trapp family actually met Adolf Hitler in a restaurant to show their allegiance.
Unlike the movie, the family didn’t pack their bags and escape to the hills of Switzerland, but instead got on a train and went to Italy (a bad choice since the war was about to start and Italy was to be a Nazi ally). Captain von Trapp was considered a criminal at this point and Europe was unsafe; so the family escaped to America. Georg von Trapp died in Stowe, Vermont in 1947 as an American citizen. Before his death he and his family started the Trapp Family Austrian Relief based in Vermont to help the victims of Austria.
The point of this post at this time is that, while I’m not Austrian, when I hear the song “Edelweiss” today, I feel that sense of a nationalism long gone. While our Republic has not been overthrown in a Civil War conducted by two parties like the Social Democrats and Conservatives did the First Austrian Republic in 1933, our nation is split by two opposing parties who are both undermining our Republic for the sake of power. While a new Constitution is not being imposed on us like it was in Austria in 1934 by the Austrofascists, our Constitution is being bypassed and ignored by those whom it was made to regulate. And while we don’t have Nazi’s spying on us to make sure that we don’t do anything to undermine their authority and power, we do have a federal government that has been spying on its citizens, using its power to coerce political groups, and lying to its citizens about these abuses among other things.
Which brings me back to the song Edelweiss. This song, as portrayed in the movie, is not a nationalistic song of pride, as much as a song of mourning. Captain von Trapp was mourning the loss of his country as he knew it when he sang it to his children, and defiantly doing the same when he sang it in front of the Nazis at the Salzburg Festival with the accompaniment of other Austrians. The song reflects on the beautiful flower that marked his blessed homeland, but is sung with such a sorrow that implies that flower is now gone, no longer greeting him, no longer blossoming, no longer the homeland he knew. His children would only know of that flower through song.
Today I wonder how much my children will know of my homeland from anthems and songs rather than experience. Now we mourn.
“O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave”
“My country,’ tis of thee,
sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing;
land where my fathers died,
land of the pilgrims’ pride,
from every mountainside let freedom ring”
“While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free, “
“O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!“
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