Edelweiss, a show tune written for the musical Sound of Music, refers to the sturdy mountain flower, which in the 19th century became a symbol for the people of the Alps. In 1907, it became a symbol of the elite Alpine troops of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The song is a good reflection of the quiet Austrian patriotism of a most remarkable man: Georg Johannes Ritter von Trapp.
Born in 1880, he was the son of a Commander in the Austro-Hungarian navy, who had been elevated to the nobility in 1876. This gave his son Ritter (Knight) status, allowing him to put von in his name and to be addressed as baron. His father died when Georg was four, which did not deter him from following in his father’s footsteps by entering the Austrian naval academy in 1894.
He enjoyed a colorful career in the Austrian navy, including participation in quelling the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, which earned him a decoration. Always fascinated by submarines, he transferred to the infant Austrian submarine service in 1908. When he took command of the U-6, it was a double red letter day for him. His ship was christened by Agathe Whitehead, the granddaughter of the English inventor of the torpedo. Georg went on to marry her in 1910. They were very happy together and had seven kids. When their daughter Maria was born, she sent her husband who was on patrol and could not receive personal missives, a coded message advising him that the SS Maria had been successfully launched!
During World War I, Georg bcame a national hero as a result of his exploits as a U-boat commander. During the War, he sank the French cruiser Leon Gambetta, the Italian submarine Nereide, and 11 cargo vessels. He was awarded the Knight’s Cross of Maria Theresa and ended the War in command of a sub base with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. In 1935 he wrote his memories of the U-boat war, To the Last Salute, filled with humor and an honest look at the harrowing conditions of war at sea during the Great War. Like the best of military men Georg understood the innate sadness of war:
“So that’s what war looks like! There behind me hundreds of seamen have drowned, men who have done me no harm, men who did their duty as I myself have done, against whom I have nothing personally; with whom, on the contrary, I have felt a bond through sharing the same profession”.
After the War with the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Georg found himself without an occupation, the new land-locked Austrian republic no longer needing a navy. He missed his career greatly, but he settled down to happy domesticity with his seven children and his wife. His happiness was brief, with his beloved wife being taken from him by scarlet fever in 1922.
Enter Maria Augusta Kutschera. Raised as an atheist and a socialist after the death of her parents, she accidentally attended a Palm Sunday Mass while in college, thinking it was a Bach concert. She was stunned by what she heard in the sermon preached by a priest: “Now I had heard from my uncle that all of these Bible stories were inventions and old legends, and that there wasn’t a word of truth in them. But the way this man talked just swept me off my feet. I was completely overwhelmed.” After she graduated from college she entered the novitiate at the Benedictine Abbey of Nonnberg in Salzburg. When Baron von Trapp sought a teacher from the convent for his ailing youngest daughter, Maria was chosen by the Mother Superior due to her training as a teacher, and also because her health was failing due to lack of exercise and fresh air. Her assignment was to last ten months.
Contrary to how he was portrayed in the film, which Maria von Trapp vigorously protested against, Georg was not a cold hearted martinet who ruled his children with an iron hand. Instead, he was a relaxed, gentle man who loved nothing more than to play with his children. He did use his captain’s whistle to summon them, but that was due to the size of the house. He began the process of teaching his children to be musically inclined and loved to sing with them. Intriguingly it was Maria who had the temper in the family, sweetened with smiles and hugs as her angers passed swiftly. She fell in love instantly with the seven children, and when Georg asked him to marry her in 1927, she accepted because he emphasized that the children needed a mother. In time a great love grew between them, and they would have three children.
As a result of the Great Depression, Georg lost most of his money and he, reluctantly, agreed to the formation of the Trapp Family Singers to support the family. With the Anschluss Georg faced a dilemma. He despised the Nazis and all their works. When ordered to display the Nazi flag he responded that his old Persian carpet would look better. He declined invitations for his family to perform at Nazi functions and refused on three occasions a command of a U-boat in the German navy to be based in the Adriatic, although it was made clear to him that his refusals could eventually lead to his arrest. The von Trapps were appalled at the anti-religious propaganda of the Nazis, their persecution of the Jews and the Nazi brainwashing of the youth of Austria. They determined that they had to get their family out of the Third Reich.
Their escape was not as dramatic as portrayed in the play, but it was dramatic enough. They boarded a train dressed for hiking. Traveling to Italy, Georg claimed Italian citizenship for himself and his family since he had been born in Zara, now in Italy. When the War began in 1939, they left for the US to start a new life in America. In Stowe, Vermont they founded the Trapp Family Lodge where the family could perform. Two of Georg’s sons, Rupert and Werner, fought in the US Army during the War, both serving with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy.
In 1947, at the request of Major General Harry J. Collins who had seen the devastation in Austria while he commanded the Rainbow Division, the Trapps founded the Trapp Family Austrian Relief, Inc.. In 1949 Pope Pius XII awarded Maria von Trapp the Benemerenti medal for the good works performed in Austria by the relief organization.
Georg no doubt would have shared in the medal, but he died on May 30, 1947 from cancer, brought on by the toxic fumes he breathed in while commanding U-boats.
The old sailor would no doubt have loved this tribute paid to him 50 years after his death:
The occasion was a visit by 89 cadets of the graduating class of the Theresianum Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt, about 25 miles south of Vienna. Three years ago, they chose as their class patron Baron Georg von Trapp, the family patriarch, who fled Austria because of his opposition to its Nazi occupiers. To honor him, the cadets accepted an invitation from the family and traveled en masse to spend the weekend at the Trapp Family Lodge here.
The ceremonies ended today in a morning Mass, at which the cadets stood watch during a performance of Franz Schubert’s ”German Mass,” then laid a wreath at the grave of Baron and Baroness von Trapp, who were portrayed by Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews in the 1965 film ”The Sound of Music.”