Hills are alive with sound of guilty silence

<preform>The Sound of Music is to be staged for the first time in the country where the real-life events happened. Peter Popham</b></i> explains Austria's sensitivity about its Nazi past</preform>
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The Nazis will take over a Viennese theatre tonight. An enormous swastika will drop from the flies, a squad of armed soldiers in Nazi uniforms will burst into the auditorium, sirens, whistles, furious orders will ring around the chandeliered ceiling. And as the audience nervously titters, stormtroopers with dogs will fan out in search of those daring to evade them, namely a warbling Austrian family with an inordinate number of children.

The Nazis will take over a Viennese theatre tonight. An enormous swastika will drop from the flies, a squad of armed soldiers in Nazi uniforms will burst into the auditorium, sirens, whistles, furious orders will ring around the chandeliered ceiling. And as the audience nervously titters, stormtroopers with dogs will fan out in search of those daring to evade them, namely a warbling Austrian family with an inordinate number of children.

Yes, The Sound of Music is in town. It is the first full production of the musical to be staged in Austria. And that is curious, because the musical is actually set in Austria, in the city of Salzburg. All the characters in the play are supposed to be Austrian. The whole look of the film, from the introductory aerial view of Salzburg to the final dramatic escape over the mountains, is a paean of praise to the Austrian landscape. The historical event around which it revolves is the Anschluss of 1938, in which Nazi Germany swallowed Austria whole.

And yet for all these years the Austrians have wanted nothing to do with The Sound of Music. Curious. They could not keep it out altogether, of course. Sound of Music tours of Salzburg have been an important source of tourist dollars for many years. Everyone in Austria has probably heard of the play. They know it is popular abroad and they know roughly what it is about. But it has never been staged before, and the film has never been screened in Austrian cinemas. It has been shown once, and once only, in the mid-1990s, on state television.

But this year the new director of Vienna's state-owned Volksoper, Rudolf Berger, has made it the highlight of the present season. He has cast a well-known local pop star, Sandra Pires, in the Julie Andrews role and splashed large posters of her strumming her guitar across the building's facade. "We've sold 20,000 seats in advance, 80 per cent of seats for the run, which is terrific," he said. "There's huge curiosity about it, everyone's talking about it." Yet others say that is not true. "No word has got around about it all," said Bethany Bell, whose story on the BBC's website this week was the first information on the show to reach the outside world. "It's funny, I haven't heard anything about it," said another foreign journalist in town. It is still a subject, it appears, many would prefer to avoid. And it is not hard to pinpoint why.

For anyone who has been out to lunch for the past 50 years, or perhaps living in Austria, here in a nutshell is what the play is about. Maria is a postulant in a convent outside Salzburg. But she does not cut it as a nun, ever taking off into the hills, strumming that guitar, daydreaming. So the kindly mother superior sends her out into the world, to be governess for the seven children of a widowed captain and war hero, Georg von Trapp.

The children fall for Maria and her guitar, and she teaches them how to sing ("Doe's a deer", etc). Kapitan von Trapp also falls for Maria, though more slowly, and she for him, though the affair is impeded by the presence of his rich, snooty fiancée, Elsa Schrader. From time to time, rumours of increasing German interference in Austrian affairs arrive; Georg's friend Max is repeatedly telephoned by mysterious contacts in Berlin. Then comes Anschluss, Nazi flags are hoisted all over town, the village postman starts Heil-Hitler-ing; and Georg, who has made his distaste for the Nazis plain already, is standing out like a sore thumb.

In a song that was dropped from the film version called "No Way to Stop It", Elsa tries to persuade her kapitan to see sense and start saluting like everybody else. "You lovable and dreamy idealist," she chides him, "What can a herring do against a shark? Why don't you learn to adapt? I will not torture myself," she declares. "I will choose the easier way ..." But Georg, a proud, stubborn man, is having none of it. He shuns Elsa, marries Maria, and resolves to flee Austria rather than bend his knee. Under cover of a singing contest in which the family competes, they head for the hills and freedom.

If The Sound of Music were merely a Yankee fantasy about Middle Europe, the Austrians might have found it easier to laugh the thing off. But it is substantially based on fact. Maria Kutschera really was a postulant in a convent; Georg von Trapp was a real-life First World War Austrian war hero, whose submarine sank a French warship. Maria came to the family home to nurse his sickly daughter. The von Trapps all took up singing. And Kapitan von Trapp repeatedly and very courageously defied the Nazis after the Anschluss.

"Three times he refused the Nazis," said Renaud Doucet, the director of the show in Vienna. "Twice he refused to become the commander of a U-boat. And then he refused to sing at Hitler's birthday party. With that third refusal, the family realised they had to get out. They took a train and crossed into Italy, and at midnight on the same day, Hitler closed the borders."

The von Trapps first stayed in Trieste then moved to the United States. For the best part of 20 years, they travelled the world, making their living as a choir. It was with the publication of Maria von Trapp's memoirs, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers in 1949, that their dramatic story came to the attention of the world.

Her story was a vision of Austrian history through the prism of her family's unique experience. Heroic in the first war, as she saw it her kapitan was equally heroic in the second. Broadway and Hollywood, of course, were never really bothered about historical facts. As the director of the new production puts it: "For me Austria is merely an anecdote in the story. We're discussing freedom, we're discussing finding yourself, finding other people and dealing with life. That's why it's famous all over the world." Yet for Austrians it is stubbornly an Austrian story, and one that looks substantially different depending on whether you stayed in Austria, like many, or you left, like the von Trapps.

I asked Rudolf Berger, the Volksoper's director, why he thought the play had taken 50 years to reach Austria. "I think it's a kind of feeling, what do they know about us to write a piece like that?" he said. "And in a country like this where tourism plays an important part, many people come here and tell us that that is the image they have of Austria, and there's a resistance to it.

"In the 1960s, when the film came out, it was still not easy to talk about these things: the scars were still very raw. And to make not an Ibsen drama but an entertainment piece about that part of Austrian history hurt some people's feelings. Some people might have said, 'We stayed here through those hard times and they left and after the war they made a profit out of it and they lived happily ever after'."

Austria did not need The Sound of Music. God knows, we in Britain have enough experience of our history and literature being turned into absurd Hollywood packages to understand the urge to shun; how much better off we would be without Disney's versions of Pooh and Mary Poppins or Mel Gibson's absurd Braveheart.

But there is more to the Austrian rejection of this juggernaut of schmaltz than cultural disdain, or pique at the von Trapps' profitable American reincarnation. The Sound of Music deals with a period of Austrian history which most Austrians, even today, can only deal with by not thinking about.

The union with Germany represented by the Anschluss was not rejected by the mass of Austrians, Rudolf Berger points out, because it was what the nation had wanted since the end of the First World War. "After the first war, Austria was the only country stripped of everything," he said. "All the other powers became nation states, but Austria was not allowed to join the new German state, which was what all the political forces except Communists wanted."

During the 1930s, Austria's totalitarian Christian regime mirrored the Fascists in Italy and the Nazis in Germany. And when Hitler proposed the amalgamation that had been denied at the Versailles conference, a popular referendum in Austria overwhelmingly backed the idea. Hitler was welcomed with open arms. Kapitan von Trapp's rejected fiancée Elsa spoke for her nation. Georg was the odd man out.

As the happily Seig-Heil-ing postman in the play makes clear, Austrians fell into line with the Nazis without protest. They were recruited in disproportionate numbers to work in the Nazi concentration camps. Austria also willingly fell in with Hitler's plans for Austria's own Jews, and 65,000 from Vienna alone perished in the camps.

Yet Austria, unlike Germany, has never come to grips with its Nazi past. "The process of de-Nazification in Austria stopped in the early 1950s, because of the Cold War," said Tina Walzer, a historian of the period. The West needed Austria as a bulwark against the Warsaw Pact countries, and the pressure to purge society and politics of former Nazis and to restore the property of expropriated Jews was removed. It was only in the late 1980s, with the revelations of the UN secretary general Kurt Waldheim's past as a Nazi officer, that the degree to which Austria had failed to reform became clear. Even today the task remains undone. Rudolf Berger said: "The Social Democratic Party has just published a book lifting the lid on just how many former Nazis came into the party after the war. That was never talked about and now suddenly it's being talked about. And it's created pain and accusations. So there are a lot of things still to be done."

But in many cases it is far too late to do anything. Take the restitution of stolen property. Large swaths of Vienna were owned by Jews. After the Anschluss they were expropriated, but no compensation was paid. "Jews were not accepted as victims," Tina Walzer, the historian, said. "After the war, Austria described itself as 'the first victim' of the Nazis, so the Jews could not be victims, too. The real victims were the Austrian soldiers who died fighting for the Nazis, not the Jews who survived."

Today Austria has set up what it calls the National Fund for Reparation of the Victims of the Nazi Regime, but Ms Walzer dismisses its significance. "The amounts they are offering are small; it's a small, symbolic gesture. And in fact nothing has actually been paid out yet."

The Austrians went from being Hitler's first allies in 1938 to his "first victims" at war's end. What happened in between to change everything? "They see the Nazis as conquering the country from outside then disappearing," Ms Walzer said. "They entered as if dropped from the sky, then some time later they left, and nobody saw them.

"In the Austrian view, the real enemy was the Allies who conquered and occupied the country from 1945 to 1955. For Austria, the war ends, not in 1945 but in 1955, when the last foreign soldier left Austrian soil. The day that happened, 26 October, is marked as Austria's National Day. That's when Austria regained its serenity."

A Nazi banner dropping from the flies, a few comical Nazi soldiers gallumphing around a theatre, these will not make enough noise to wake Austria from its sleep, Tina Walzer believes, or shake its serenity. "This corresponds to the new style of dealing with the Nazi past," she said. "It's not so important; it's not so terrible. Make it into an everyday something."