Did you know that the von Trapp family from “The Sound of Music” is a real family? Their story actually happened! While they may not have burst out in song while hiking mountains, much of the film is based in reality. However, there are many things that were dramatized or left out entirely. Part of the story of the real von Trapp family can be found in the records of the National Archives. When they fled the Nazi regime in Austria, the von Trapps traveled to America. Their entry into the United States and their subsequent applications for citizenship are documented in the National Archives.
In 1926, Georg von Trapp’s second-oldest daughter, Maria, contracted scarlet fever—the same disease that took the life of his first wife four years earlier—and could no longer walk the four miles to school. The retired naval captain paid a visit to Salzburg’s Nonnberg Abbey to find a suitable tutor for his daughter. Given Maria Augusta Kutschera’s training at Vienna’s State Teachers College for Progressive Education and her deteriorating health cloistered in the abbey, the 21-year-old was chosen for what was supposed to be a 10-month stint before she formally entered the convent. However, that life would never come to pass for Maria. Unlike in the film, when they wed as the Nazis were taking control of Austria in 1938, 47-year-old Georg von Trapp and 22-year-old Maria wed more than a decade earlier on November 26, 1927.
The names and ages for the real von Trapp children were changed for the film and three children were completely omitted: there were ten von Trapp children, not seven. But this did not fit the altered timeline as the captain and Maria had three children of their own. In actuality, the eldest von Trapp child was not 16-going-on-17-year-old Liesl, but Rupert, who was born in 1911 and a practicing physician by the time the family fled Austria in 1938.
One of the disappointments the von Trapp children had about “The Sound of Music” was the portrayal of their father as a detached disciplinarian. While he did use a whistle with a distinctive sound for each child and dressed them in sailor suits, the captain did not make his children march or stand at attention. “In reality, Georg was a warm and loving if somewhat overwhelmed father. It was actually Maria herself, with her emotionally stunted upbringing, who needed thawing.” Johannes von Trapp told the BBC that his father was “a very charming man, generous, open, and not the martinet he was made out to be both in the stage play and in the film. My mother did try to alter that portrayal for the film, but she was not successful.”
The captain hardly disapproved of music. He and his first wife introduced music and song into their house and even taught their children how to play musical instruments including the accordion, violin, and guitar. “My real mother was very musical,” daughter Maria Franziska von Trapp recalled in a 1999 interview with Vanity Fair. “She played violin and piano and we all sang before we met Maria. We had at least a hundred songs before she came. What she did was teach us madrigals, and of course this is very hard to do, but we found it was no problem for us.”
Like many families, the von Trapps went broke during the Great Depression, losing their fortune when their bank went under in the 1930s. Forced to raise money, the von Trapps took in boarders, including Father Franz Wasner, who recognized their musical talent after hearing them sing. As the family’s musical director, the priest crafted the von Trapps into professional singers. “He slowly but surely molded us into a real musical entity,” Maria von Trapp once said. After fleeing Austria with the von Trapps, Wasner toured with them through Europe and the United States.
In the climactic scene of “The Sound of Music,” the von Trapps flee Salzburg, Austria, under the cover of night and hike across the surrounding mountains to safety in Switzerland. Had they scaled the Alps in real life, however, the von Trapps would have crossed into Nazi Germany, not neutral Switzerland, which was approximately 200 miles away. “Don’t they know geography in Hollywood? Salzburg does not border on Switzerland!” complained Maria von Trapp after seeing the film. “In Hollywood you make your own geography,” came the reply from the film’s director, Robert Wise. The von Trapp’s real-life departure from Austria was less dramatic, if not just as timely as the one on the silver screen. In broad daylight, the family exited the gate at the rear of their villa and crossed the railroad tracks that ran behind it to board a train to Italy, where the family had citizenship once Captain Georg von Trapp’s birthplace became Italian territory in 1920. Salzburg residents saw off the captain, a pregnant Maria and the nine von Trapp children who were traveling with suitcases in tow under the guise of a family vacation in Italy. They left just in time; the next day the Austrian borders were sealed. During World War II, Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler used the von Trapp’s villa as a summer residence.
A union between Germany and Austria had been forbidden under the terms of the Versailles Treaty, but in 1938 this took place. Between 1933 and 1935, Austria had been protected against any German bullying by Italy. By 1936, Germany and Italy were forming a friendship and by the end of 1936, Mussolini withdrew his support for Austria. In 1937, the Austrain chancellor, Schuschinigg, was actually told by Mussolini that Italy would no longer defend Austria against attack. Hitler had always seen Austria as being part of Germany. He himself had been born in the Austrian town of Brannau, but for all his life, Hitler considered himself German. Many Austrians had the same belief so that Hitler felt empowered to bully Schuschnigg into submission. Under extreme duress, Schuschnigg resigned along with his cabinet. The only member of his cabinet not to resign was Seyss-Inquart. As the sole member of the Austrain government, he invited German troops into Austria in March 1938. On March 15th, 1938, Hitler entered Vienna in triumph. The pleasure of the huge crowds was difficult to disguise. It is said that even Hitler was surprised by the size of the crowds and by the cheering. Austria became part of the German Greater Reich; Schuschnigg was arrested and imprisoned and almost immediately, the Austrian Jews lost their rights.
What did the powers of Europe do? Mussolini, as expected, did nothing. Britain and France verbally protested to the German government, but did nothing else–just as Hitler had predicted. Britain would not truly declare war until September of 1939, over a year later.
In the early 1940s, the von Trapp family toured the United States as the Trapp Family Singers before eventually settling in Stowe, Vermont on an enchanted farm with sweeping mountain vistas reminiscent of their beloved Austria. In the summer of 1950, they began welcoming guests to a rustic, 27-room family lodge. After a devastating fire in 1980, the original structure was replaced by the new Trapp Family Lodge, a striking, 96-room alpine lodge situated on 2,500 acres offering magnificent indoor and outdoor resort amenities. The entire property is owned and operated by the von Trapp family. You can still book stays at their villa and tour the beautiful surrounding mountains.
Gearin, Joan. Movie vs. Reality: The Real Story of the Von Trapp Family. National Archives. 2005. https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2005/winter/von-trapps-html
Klein, Christopher. The Real History Behind “The Sound Of Music.” History. 2018. https://www.history.com/news/the-real-history-behind-the-sound-of-music
Eschner, Kat. The Real-Life Story of Maria von Trapp. Smithsonian Magazine. 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/real-life-story-maria-von-trapp-180967182/