The Real Captain von Trapp -
An Amazing Life
The role of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music movie was played by Christopher Plummer, but who was the real Captain that became a household name after the film was released, and how did his character differ in real life from the screen version?
The real Captain's name was Georg Ludwig Ritter von Trapp, who was born on 4th April 1880 to August von Trapp and Hedwig Werner. Georg always showed an interest in the navy and a fascination of submarines, and was determined to start a new, but dangerous career in the Austrian Navy.
It was at the naming ceremony of one of these vessels that he met Agathe, the grand-daughter of Englishman Robert Whitehead, inventor of the torpedo. They married and went on to have seven children.
When the third child arrived in 1914, no personal telegrams were allowed, so Agathe and Georg had agreed on a code beforehand……a message to Georg was sent saying “SMS Maria arrived”.
Captain von Trapp was awarded the Cross of the Empress Maria Theresa – the highest award that can be given to an Austrian in wartime. He was given the medal for becoming "the dread of the Adriatic". Out of all the medals, this one was his favorite, and the only one he was able to smuggle out of Austria. This military order entitled him to add ‘Ritter’ and ’von’ to his name. He could then also use the title ‘Baron’.
He has been described as an officer that commanded his boat with ‘paternal charisma’ and as a ‘true Catholic gentleman’. Like many officers who served during conflict, he struggled with the horrors of modern warfare.
“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”.
In 1922, after contracting scarlet fever, Agathe died. Georg found this a very difficult time in his life, as he had two loves - the sea and Agathe. After the Great War, Austria no longer needed a Navy and so Captain von Trapp lost his profession, as well as his wife.
“My father’s life was the navy. He was very uncomfortable doing anything else. He was simply lost.” Johannes von Trapp
In 1924 the family moved to Aigen in Salzburg and made it their family home. The beautiful house has since been converted into a hotel, known as the Trapp Villa. Captain von Trapp was a good father to his children, unlike the cold person that was portrayed in the movie. He was always found playing with his children and encouraging them in their interests of music and the arts. It distressed the real von Trapp family greatly when they saw the stern character in the Sound of Music. The real Maria von Trapp even tried to make the producers of the film change the movie character of the Captain into a kinder, less authoritarian figure.
Captain von Trapp was far quieter than his movie character but in real life he really did use a whistle to call his children to come to him. The grounds of their family home were so vast that it was impossible to call the children and there were no cell phones, so the Captain used a whistle.
"Their house was so big he would have to whistle for them because he was the captain of a submarine so it came naturally to him. He was the strong, fatherly figure who all the kids looked up to and respected. He really was the rock of the family."
Sophia (great grand daughter of Georg von Trapp)
Baron von Trapp later employed Maria, a nun from the local Abbey, to help teach one of his children who was too weak to go to school. When Maria met Georg for the first time, she said of him:
“Half his life had died with the navy. Of the other half, most seemed to be buried with Agathe”
However Georg fell in love with Maria and they married on November 26th 1927. They then had three more children. Unlike in the movie, Georg and Maria had been married for ten years before the Anschluss, when Germany ‘invaded’ Austria.
Adolf Hitler was forcing men like Captain von Trapp to fight in the German Military. Georg did not like what the Nazis were doing, and turned down several requests made by Hitler. Georg decided to resist the evil of the Nazis and stand up for what he believed in. He did the most heroic and courageous act of all, taking the opportunity to leave his beloved homeland and go to America in 1938 to start a new life with his family.
"It's an honour to know who my great-grandparents were and how my great-grandfather stood up against something that was so wrong. Every time I go on tour, I am so amazed at how so many people know our family history through The Sound of Music. It represents so many other people who went through the same thing."
Sophia (great grand daughter of Georg von Trapp)
Georg purchased a farmhouse, and with the help of the family turned it into a very successful business. It is still operating as a hotel and ski resort today and is known as The von Trapp Lodge.
‘To The Last Salute’ was a book written by Georg von Trapp about life on a U-boat in World War 1 from a military aspect not from a personal one.
“This book is highly recommended to those interested in the von Trapp family, the musical The Sound of Music, World War1 from an Austro-Hungarian view and U-boats”.Amazon
It was originally published in Austria in 1935, and later translated into English by a grand-daughter, Elizabeth Campbell, who wanted other people to know her Grandfather’s story. My husband read this book and found it a fascinating account of his time in the submarines.
Captain von Trapp did live to see the Nazis defeated, but on May 30th 1947, Georg died from lung cancer, brought on from the toxic fumes emitted from his submarine during WWI. The von Trapp family decided to stay in America, but it was only after Georg’s death that the story of him and his family became famous worldwide through the making of the movie The Sound of Music. He was a remarkable man indeed.
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