The Sound of Munich: Rewriting Germanic Identity for the Cold War in The Sound of Music

Let’s start at the very beginning.

A very good place to start.


For most re-tellings of The Sound of Music, writers turn to the rise of Nazism, the anxieties of the von Trapp family on the eve of the German Anschluß of Austria and their climb over ev’ry mountain to escape, World War II, or even with the history of the Great White Way. As inspirational and relentless cheery the production may be—actor Christopher Plummer once dubbed the movie “The Sound of Mucus” for its dripping with cute kids and childish sentimentality—Rogers’s and Hammerstein’s movie need not go back to the 1930s to trace its roots. Instead, The Sound of Music, produced on Broadway in 1959 and adapted for the movies in 1965, reflects a sanitized popular memory of Austria under National Socialism. The usual vestiges symbolizing the rise of the Third Reich, such as Neville Chamberlain’s waving a white paper as if it were a surrender flag, clips of Nuremberg newsreels, or even pictures of Hitler himself, are not enumerated among the favorite things sung by Dame Julie Andrews.

And appropriately so—for The Sound of Music is not a film about the Second World War. It is not a warm recollection of 1938 by Maria von Trapp.

It is a Cold War story.

After World War II, German “rehabilitation” required not only the de-Nazification of the German people, but, in American eyes, the deprogramming of the movie-going public from four years of “hating the Hun.” This legacy had roots in decades of the popular culture, stretching back to World War I and the nineteenth century nativist fears about foreigners. Indeed, the famous Marshall Plan, formally known as the European Recovery Plan, was designed to woo Europe, especially Germany, into an American sphere, lest Germany fall into the clutches of the Soviet Union. With the occupied and devastated countries flirting with socialism—even the Untied Kingdom ousted Winston Churchill in favor of a socialistic welfare program in 1945—the United States needed to anchor Europe to an American sphere, which U.S. leaders saw as pivotal for stability and security. The Marshall Plan was thus a $12 billion (nearly $120 billion in 2016 dollars) investment to remake the world in an American image. The Berlin Airlift of 1948 and 1949, in which the Americans spent over $224 million delivering food, fuel, and machinery (and candy!) to grateful German refugees deterred public accusations that the U.S. was taking food out of the mouths of starving babies at home and giving it to refugees the nation was in a death struggle with a few years earlier.

Germany was a sticky situation in particular. The country was divided, including its capital city, and the Soviets were draining East Germany of personnel and resources, partly because the U.S. excluded the Soviets from any Marshall Plan dollars. And for good reason—with Nazism vanquished, the image of the Soviet Union rapidly degenerated from a close wartime ally under “Uncle Joe” Stalin to a demonic Red Menace ushering in gulags and the downfall of civilization. During the Korean War, as the U.S.-led forces struggled against communism, the State Department recognized the necessity of West Germany as an armed ally and West Germany joined NATO in 1955 to save the world for democracy.

By the early 1960s, then, West Germany was “rehabilitated” in American eyes, just in time for another European crisis. The Berlin blockade in 1958 to 1961 led to the erection of the Berlin Wall, but the Wall represented more than just a pile of bricks and concrete between east and west Berlin. As former Secretary of State Dean Acheson reported, the Berlin Crisis “will go far to determine the confidence of Europe—indeed of the whole world.” Acheson added the Americans intended to “change the present apparent Russian disbelief that the United States would go to nuclear war over Berlin.” The military fallout from this crisis between Eisenhower/Kennedy administration and the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev led directly to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

It also dovetailed into The Sound of Music’s immediate background. In 1959, the American people were willing to go to war with the commies over Berlin. A Gallup poll showed over eighty percent of the people believed the U.S. should stay in Berlin, “or Russia will overrun all of Europe.” However, this hawkish stance decreased as the tensions mounted. Two years later, in 1961, the American people decided they didn’t want war after all. According to a 1961 Gallup poll, over eighty percent of the people now preferred a peaceful settlement through the United Nations, even if it meant compromise. That same year, reports of anti-German sentiment increased, with Nazism often conjured as a stand-in for German identity. The New York Times attributed much of this old fervor to the (now classic) work The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, published in 1960 by foreign correspondent William L. Shirer. Shirer’s work won a National Book Award for its one thousand page history of Hitler’s rise and how his specter coul ascend again. “The Bonn [West German] government,” Shirer charged, is “full of old Nazis.” Director Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg, also released in 1961, also revisited the ugly political aftermath of the Third Reich. Early on, one of the movie’s military officers explains the U.S. needs German cooperation and they won’t get it by persecuting civic leaders. However, the moral-centered American Judge Haywood dispenses justice when he sentences Nazi doctors to life in prison. Their cunning German lawyer assures the judge that within five years, none of the men would still be serving. The final title card confirms this: “The Nuremberg trials held in the American Zone ended July 14, 1949. There were 99 defendants sentenced to prison terms. Not one is still serving his sentence.” Within the context of the Berlin Crisis and renewed anti-German sentiment, the movie accuses the U.S. of abandoning its principles for the sake of political convenience.

            Judgment at Nuremberg was a blunt reminder of Germany’s recent past at a time when Berlin took the public spotlight in a showdown between the Americans and the commies. Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music rebutted Kramer’s hard-hitting drama with sweet sixteen teenagers. lots of golden sun, and, of course, armfuls of Edelweiß. The movie mixes Nazism and communism as a joint form of oppression—never mind that the political ideologies are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. The more important point is that Captain Georg von Trapp embodies the clichés of anti-Americanism: autocratic, decked out in Hollywood fineries, and plays Pavlov with his children, forcing them to obey his whistle. His opulence and misguided feelings for fellow elitist snob Baroness Elsa Schraeder—a scheming shrew who wants to send his unloved children to boarding school (as any aristocratic parent would do)—pretty much renders the good Captain an upper class snob. His only redeeming feature is that von Trapp hates the Nazis, which Georg von Trapp did in real life and his political principles motivated him to leave with his family. The movie version has the Captain simply hating them for the Anschluß and violating Austrian sovereignty. Hitler was an Austrian, too, but this the movie ignores this potential complication. Instead, von Trapp’s ripping the swastika flag elicits cheers from the audience. He is a “good” Austrian, one who, after the Allies set things right, will be a valued ally for the United States.

And who better to usher him into Laendler than Maria?

Maria is not a problem to solve, according to American sensibilities. Instead, she makes things right, paving the way for the Americanization of Austria. Julie Andrews, sans a German accent, personifies the Anglo-American perkiness and free-spirits. Not only does her voice bring the hills alive, she also awakens the democratic impulse of the autocratic elite. Her origin as a nun represents a spiritual purity that the godless commies and the heartless Nazis cannot match, while her status as a novice assures audiences she isn’t as rigid in her ways as the Mother Superior. In fact, the real Maria von Trapp even sniffed that Julie Andrews (and Mary Martin in the Broadway production) were too sweet, “too gentle-like girls out of Bryn Mawr.” The real Maria, with an iron will to keep the singing family group together in the USA, had more temperament than a dog’s bite or a bee’s sting.

Of course, the revitalized von Trapps quickly take to her; the kids immediately prefer to slum around in upholstery fabric than in their father’s matching uniforms; von Trapp reconnects with the peasantry, including lonely goat herds and the folksy clothing for the Slazburg Festival; and everyone develops an intense disliking for the luckless Baroness Schraeder. Indeed, the von Trapps democratization irked the real von Trapps: in 1998, one of Georg’s sons, Johannes von Trapp, made a comparison between the 1965 representation of his family and the then-box office king, Titanic. Wise’s portrayal was “not what my family was about,” von Trapp recalled, stating his family had “good taste, culture, all these wonderful upper-class standards that people make fun of in movies like Titanic.” But had Wise adhered to class-based authenticity, it would have flown in the face of the American myth: just as Titanic’s doomed Jack Dawson brought Rose DeWitt Bukater down (or up?) to American standards to the swoon of a million sighs, Maria did the same, albeit a generation earlier. And, one might remember, Maria served a greater cause than a silly boy-girl romance: she rallied the public for a hardened line against communism in the shadow of the Berlin Crisis—followed by the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Thus, no wonder the von Trapps flee into neutral Switzerland, bound westward for the U.S before Austria, then Czechoslovakia, then Poland fell before the Wehrmacht. The real von Trapps actually snuck out of town on board a train to Italy, but the trading of one fascist state for another would hardly do for moviegoers. Instead, the movie ends the way it begins, up in the Bavarian Alps. Despite the lush nature, audiences know dark times awaited Europe ahead. The opening title card read, “Salzburg, Austria, the last golden days of the Thirties” and, by the end shot, moviegoers know the rest of the story. So much so that in Germany, the branch manager for 20th Century-Fox initially cut the third act from the film, ending the film at the Hollywood-style wedding between Georg and Maria, and leaving the flight from Austria on the cutting room floor.

The branch manager’s hasty actions cost him his job. But he needn’t have worried. Even as 1960s Americans jeered at the re-villainized Germans in popular culture, the movie offers a glimmer of hope that an innate goodness survived. This unlikely hero is Rolfe Gruber, the smitten telegram messenger boy who romances Liesl, the eldest von Trapp daughter. Although Rolfe joins the bad guys and blows their cover in the climax (he does not do so in the original Broadway production), Georg von Trapp astutely nails it on the head when he tells the teenager, “You’ll never be one of them.” Indeed, for all his bluster about taking care of of Leisl from a world of men, Rolf is not a shining example of Aryan manhood. In their courtship, Leisl is the aggressive partner while her beau shies away, hesitates, and reacts with wide-eyed timidity when she wants to get close between lyrics. At another point, when von Trapp catches him trying to catch Leisl’s attention, a stammering Rolfe “heils” and the embarrassed boy then runs away. The shallow Baroness shrugs of his salute with “He’s just a boy,” as if dismissing totalitarianism as a youthful fad. But von Trapp knows better, worrying over the future of his country. Nevertheless, at the end, his parting comment to Rolfe serves as a backhand assessment of the future. And who better to make this evaluation than the aristocrat who rediscovered his own common-man roots? With the von Trapps leaving Austria, the nation’s fate rests with the next generation of postwar youngsters headed by kids like Rolfe, who, deep-down, will “never be one of them.”

With the seeds of German redemption planted in Rolfe, von Trapp leaves central Europe in good hands. The film’s tagline, “The happiest sound in all the world,” speaks to the Americanization (or, as one Austrian historian writes, the Coca-colonization) of Austria after 1945, as Broadway tunes, including the Rogers & Hammerstein-created Edelweiß, standing in for the real Germanic folk songs sung for a thousand years. The film’s sugary story line turned off some critics, including, ironically, Christopher Plummer, who described the experience as akin to “being hit over the head with a big Valentine’s Day card, every day.”

But that was the point. While Plummer may prefer to boldly go and extend his acting range in undiscovered countries, the filmic von Trapps stayed centered in an American vision of Germany, circa 1965. The happy rendition of the “golden days” of 1938 was created specifically for American audiences at a time when Germany needed a face-lift in American popular culture. Austria, an occupied country during World War II and a militarily neutral country during the tug-of-war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., served as the perfect battle ground to present this makeover. While Germans and Austrians may have preferred the older films Die Trapp-Familie (1956) and its sequel Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika (1958) to the Hollywood version, the powerful legacy of the Cold War musical dominates the public memory of Georg von Trapp’s family, just as American culture bloomed and grew world-wide, drawing Europe away from the commies. The Sound of Music survived its context, refusing to say so long, farewell as its warm nostalgic depiction of a very frightful time(s) takes us back to Do.

Peter Lee

Peter Lee

Peter W. Lee is a doctoral candidate at Drew University, where he focuses on American history and youth culture. His dissertation examines the construction of boyhood through American films in the early Cold War. Among his most recent publications are chapters in The Ages of the Avengers, Children in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock, and The Journal of the West.
Peter Lee