Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Before The Sound of Music, there was Das Boot.

I have never been able to sit all the way through The Sound of Music, even though I've had plenty of opportunities since it's one of my wife's favorite movies. But I'm reading a book right now that's given me a new appreciation for the father of the singing Von Trapp family, Captain Georg Von Trapp. The movie makes it clear that he had been a sailor of some kind, incongruous as that seems in landlocked Austria, but it doesn't give his whole back-story. In fact, Von Trapp had been a submarine pioneer in the Imperial Austrian Navy before the First World War and a highly successful U-boat commander during the war, sinking British and French cargo and warships in the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas.

One of his grand-daughters has now translated into English and published Von Trapp's memoir of his war experiences, To the Last Salute. I am fascinated by submarine narratives in general - maybe because I'm too claustrophobic to tolerate actually being in a sub myself - and this is the best one I've ever read. It's full of amazing details about the early days of undersea warfare, such as the "gasoline stupor" (unconsciousness brought on by breathing fumes) that would overtake the crewmen when a gas engine boat was forced to dive before it could be completely ventilated.

The narrative is also full of poignant political sentiments by Von Trapp, usually contrasting the impending fragmentation of his beloved monarchy with the harmonious working of his multi-national Imperial Navy crews:

"Our men are really good fellows ... everything runs so smoothly. It is really a beautiful life we have together on U-14!"

"Yes sir" [a fellow officer answers Von Trapp] "and at the same time you must consider that we have on board representatives from every nation that exists in the monarchy. This business with the nationality disputes - I don't believe it. It is only a rumor from a few instigators who want it to happen. Let the men live alongside one another as human beings under a fair command, and look how well it works."

And it is obvious: it is not only the duties and their responsibilities that force them to get along with one another; no, it is true friendship that binds them together. It is a matter of course for them to accept responsibility for one another.

Von Trapp wrote his memoir right after the war, while he was still stunned by the crushing loss of defeat. He lost not only the war, but the navy, the empire, and even the coastline. Eventually he lost Austria itself, when it was absorbed into the Third Reich.

An interesting tidbit from the book is that the first songs Von Trapp taught his children to sing were ditties the Imperial Navy used to teach German letters and numbers to new sailors who spoke Hungarian, Czech, Croatian, and all the many other languages of the monarchy. Now that I know the "Do-Re-Mi" song had its origins in Austrian Navy boot camp, it doesn't seem quite so treacly. I might even manage to watch the whole movie sometime.

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