Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Monarchist Profile: Captain Georg Ritter von Trapp

Many people have probably heard of Captain Ritter von Trapp because of the hugely successful film "The Sound of Music", but not many may be aware of the whole story of this upstanding man and devoted son of Austria. Georg Ritter von Trapp was born on April 4, 1880 in the coastal city of Zara, what is today Zadar, Croatia but what was then a Hungarian port, part of the Hapsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary. The son of a navy captain, the sea was in his blood from the very beginning. He listened to his father's stories of naval adventure all his life and eventually attended the Naval Academy and became an officer in the Imperial and Royal Navy of Austria-Hungary, first seeing service in the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in China where he earned his first combat decoration.

Later on, von Trapp determined to join the new, and still very hazardous, submarine service. He went to Fiume (modern Rijeka) where innovations were being made in submarine and torpedo technology. Promoted to lieutenant commander, he was later offered command of one of the earliest submarines in the Imperial and Royal Navy, the U-6. It was at the christening of U-6 that he met Agathe Whitehead. She was the granddaughter of Robert Whitehead, torpedo inventor and manufacturer and it was she who christened von Trapp's new U-boat. This was 1910, and after the two became acquainted at a ball they were married a short time later. It was said of Georg that he had two great loves in his life: the sea and Agathe. Sadly, though he was to prove a masterful sailor and a devoted husband, he was destined to lose them both. Still, his years of marriage were happy ones, blessed with seven children: Rupert, Agathe, Maria, Werner, Hedwig, Johanna, and Martina. Contrary to his image on film, Georg was a doting father who loved to play with his children.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Captain Ritter von Trapp proved right away to be one of the most courageous and skillful naval commanders of the war. He took command of the U-5 on April 22, 1915, a very early and primitive submarine, with a crew made up of men from all corners of the empire: Austrians, Magyars, Poles, Italians, Czechs and Croats. He scored a major success on the night of April 26-27, 1915 when he sank the French armored cruiser Leon Gambetta (12,500 tons). Later, still at the helm of U-5, Captain von Trapp sank the Italian troop transport Principe Umberto which was carrying 2,000 Italian soldiers. He did finally manage to upgrade his vessel when he was given command of a captured French submarine, the Curie, re-dubbed U-14. At the helm of this boat he sank the massive 11,480 ton ship Milazzo. In 1918, von Trapp was promoted to Korvettenkapitan and given command of a naval base, however, his record stood as the most successful Austrian submarine commander of World War I having completed 19 war patrols and sinking 12 cargo vessels, one French cruiser and one Italian submarine for a total of 58,494 tons of enemy shipping destroyed. Although often forgotten compared to the larger German U-boat fleet, the Austro-Hungarian submarines actually had a success rate of 90%. For his role in this Captain Georg von Trapp was awarded the rare and prestigious Knight's Cross of the Order of Maria Theresa.

Of course, for an officer like this, the defeat of the Central Powers came as a particularly bitter blow. The Hapsburg Empire was destroyed and torn to pieces, Austria being reduced to a small, land-locked republic with no navy at all. Captain von Trapp was forced to surrender, along with all other Austro-Hungarian naval officers, all naval weapons and equipment to the newly created Yugoslavian government. Ritter von Trapp retired, but the loss of his beloved naval career was only the beginning of his misery as in 1924 his beloved wife Agathe died in a scarlet fever epidemic. As someone later wrote, he had now lost the two things in life he had loved the most, and afterwards seemed like a different man, always slightly melancholy.

However, Ritter von Trapp was a devout Catholic and was able to take some comfort in his faith. He also needed someone to help him take care of his large family especially as one of his daughters was ill with the same wave of scarlet fever that had taken Agathe and so turned to the sisters of Nonnberg Abbey. They assigned to him the young novice Maria Augusta von Kutschera, a nun-in-training who had herself had quite an interesting life of her own, having been born and raised as an atheist and socialist before a conversion experience that caused her to devote herself to the service of God. The children adored their new governess and since it was only intended for her to be there temporarily, they began to plead with their father for some way to make her stay. Finally, one suggested they marry. With the children acting as matchmaker, Captain Georg Ritter von Trapp and Maria von Kutschera were married on November 26, 1927.

There remains though some major differences between the movie and what really happened. In 1932 the Great Depression hit Europe and devastated the von Trapp family's finances. To keep things going, the children had to take odd jobs and even sang for money. Although the von Trapp family often sang together for fun, none of them really took it seriously until 1935 with the arrival of Father Franz Wasner, who was a lover of music and became their family chaplain and musical conductor. In 1936 they came to great fame by singing at the renowned Salzburg Music Festival. However, just as Ritter von Trapp seemed on the verge of success in a new area, he was faced with the problem of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. The rise of the Nazi Party in Germany and the eventual merging with Austria created problems that Captain von Trapp could not ignore.

Hearing of the famous Austrian family singers, Adolf Hitler invited them to perform for his birthday in Berlin, but Ritter von Trapp firmly refused. The Nazi government sent him three offers of command in the new German navy, all of which he turned down. This was undoubtedly a sacrifice for someone who loved the navy so much; the opportunity to once again be in command of his own submarine had to be hard to pass up, but Captain von Trapp could never bring himself to fight for the Nazis. His response was, "I have sworn my oath of loyalty to only one Emperor" and Ritter von Trapp was a man who stuck to his word. He had sworn allegiance to the Hapsburg Emperor of Austria and would serve no other. He also refused to fly the Nazi flag from his home in honor of Hitler coming to visit Salzburg, famously saying, "I can do a better job with one of my Persian carpets".

When the now world-famous singers were offered a chance to perform in New York, Captain von Trapp decided to use this as his means of escape. Although not the same as shown on film, it was a dramatic move. It was no small thing for a man like Georg von Trapp to leave his homeland, but his honor was more important still and there was no doubt that if he remained he would be forced into service in the German navy. Disguised as if going hiking, the family escaped to Italy in 1938 where they arranged passage to the United States. They performed concerts, traveled to Scandinavia and eventually settled in Stowe, Vermont in 1942, where their old home is now a resort. It was here that Captain Georg Ritter von Trapp died on May 30, 1947, survived by his beloved Maria and his ten children.


  1. Thanks to your article on Captain Von Trapp I never realized his Austrian U Boat sank the Leon Gambetta in WWI. The ship named after the man who proclaimed the Third French Republic to the world. What incredible karma! A submarine in the service of the heirs of Queen Marie Antoinette destroys the ship named for a founder of the French Republic. Amazing!

  2. historical links [ lara 77] are indeed interesting !!!!!


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