Authority, Nationalism and 'The Sound of Music'
October 18, 2005

A substantial component of our collective ways of thinking consists of our reaction to Naziism. We rightly condemn them for their brutality and aggression. But sometimes we react to other famous traits of the Nazis by going too far in the other direction. In particular, there is a strong anti-authoritarian streak in our thinking that is, in part, a reaction to the hyper-authoritarianism of the Nazis and the Fascists.

We can see this in popular culture. A restauranteur who expects customers to comply with his own somewhat rigid ideas is called a "soup Nazi" on the Seinfeld TV show. Politically active women who are overly eager to control the thoughts and behaviors of their fellow citizens are called "feminazis" by radio personality Rush Limbaugh.

The problem is that just about any kind of decent, pleasant society requires some exercise of authority. Part of being a well-adjusted individual involves being able to comfortably exercise authority, when appropriate, and to comply with it when appropriate. Being a moral agent -- acting to uphold some notion as to what things are right and proper -- will sometimes involve challenges to authority when it is improperly or unjustly exercised. There is a real fluidity here. Rigid dogmas such as hyper-authoritarian Naziism or hyper-anti-authoritarian anarchism lead to absurdity.

Some contrasts between proper and improper authority are illustrated beautifully in the movie The Sound of Music (1965). (I discuss details of the ending later on, so if you haven't seen the movie, you should watch it before reading the rest of this article.) The movie begins with Maria, a young woman learning to be a nun, having difficulty complying with the rules of the abbey. The authority of the Mother Superior is recognized as just and proper, but Maria is too free-spirited to fit into the subculture of the nunnery. The Mother Superior suspects that the problem is a fundamental unsuitability, so she properly exercises her authority and orders Maria to leave the abbey and serve as a governess.

Her new position also involves difficult authority relationships. Captain von Trapp, the father whose wife had died about five years earlier, has been running his family like a navy ship. Maria challenges his way of doing things; much of the plot in the first part of the movie involves the conflict between Maria and von Trapp. There is also an authority conflict between Maria and the von Trapp children. "I'm sixteen and I don't need a governess!" Liesl defiantly exclaims.

Liesl also went against her father's strong political leanings by having a Nazi boyfriend, although she didn't understand the significance of it. This was in 1938 before Austria allowed itself to be taken over by the Germans. Captain von Trapp was an Austrian patriot who despised the Nazis.

After a rendezvous with Rolf, the Nazi, Liesl gets caught in the rain and tries to sneak back into the house through Maria's window. Maria offers to help Liesl dry out her dress and so on. Liesl then admits that maybe she did need a governess.

The authority conflict between von Trapp and Maria is resolved after a major confrontation. Maria criticizes von Trapp for being so emotionally distant from his children. Von Trapp fires her. But when he goes back into his house, he hears his children singing to Baroness Shraeder, the woman von Trapp is considering proposing to. He is charmed, he joins in on the song and it is one of the greatest tear-inducing moments of sentimentality in all of movie history. Maria gets her job back and the plot starts revolving around the romantic conflict between Maria and the Baroness. Von Trapp, meanwhile, exercises the proper authority of a father, not military authority improperly applied in a nonmilitary context.

There is a similarly nuanced treatment of the issue of nationalism in The Sound of Music. We could get hung up on words here. Strictly speaking, "nationalism" means that the dominant political unit would be at the top, national level. Smaller units, states and municipalities, would be less important. Originally, the U.S.A. was not a "nation," it was a federation of sovereign states. It became a nation after the War Between the States. Many paleoconservatives and libertarians regard that development as unfortunate.

Germany didn't become a "nation" until some time around the 1850s. Obviously, by the mid 1930s, German nationalism had become pathological. The movie contrasts the aggressive, crude, bullying "nationalism" of the Germans, symbolized by the "black spider" on the Third Reich flag with the natural love of place, tradition and people of the Austrian patriots, symbolized by the "small and white, clean and bright" flower, the edelweiss, which, interestingly, translates as "noble white." The contrast is also made earlier in the movie, when, at a party, von Trapp tells one of the local Nazi honchos, "Some of us prefer Austrian voices raised in song to ugly German threats."

The issues of authority and nationalism play a major part near the ending of the movie. The Nazis are trying to force von Trapp to serve in the Third Reich's navy. They are about to nab him, but he says he must participate in a Folk Festival along with his children. The Nazis point out that his name isn't on the program. Von Trapp replies, "It says 'The von Trapp family singers,' and I'm the head of the von Trapp family, am I not?" Thus, by asserting his proper authority as a father, he thwarts the illegitimate authority of the Nazis.

Von Trapp and all of the Austrian patriots present at the festival further defy the Nazis by singing the song Edelweiss, asserting their natural love for their country, Austria, and implying a degree of contempt for the perverted "nationalism" of the Third Reich.


Early in the film, after a confrontation with young Nazi Rolf, von Trapp has a distant look on his face. "Where are you?" the Baroness asks. "In a world that's disappearing, I'm afraid," he replies.

The Sound of Music came out in 1965. That was the year an immigration law was passed in the U.S.A. that led to profound changes in the makeup of our population. We now have tens of millions of people in our country who did not grow up "on that mountain," who do not hear the mountain singing, and who would, in any case, not be able to understand the lyrics.

A few years later in the '60s we saw a massive decrease in respect for any kind of authority. This was, of course, partly the fault of an idiotic foreign adventure pursued by the authorities themselves. It was partly a reaction to Naziism. It was many things. It was the Age of Aquarius, the dawning of sexual freedom, of feminism, of persistent challenges to "white, male, heterosexual, Christian" hierarchies. These challenges later took on names such as "multiculturalism" or "diversity." It was the beginning of a great craziness, a great deconstruction of traditional relationships and meanings and feelings, especially those of middle America and the middle class. Now, the feelings of these people, treated so contemptuously by more "enlightened" sectors of our society for so many decades, are morphing into something that is called, with good reason, Red-State Fascism. Perhaps a greater intensity of derision would have shamed them all into becoming good multiculturalist liberals. Who knows?

Over in Europe, Austrian patriotism is regarded as reactionary. When Austrian voters vote for pro-Austrian candidates, they are denounced as antidemocratic. A central authority, certainly less brutal but possibly larger in scope than the one envisioned by Hitler, now crushes the edelweiss under its heal.

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Addendum, October 4, 2007:

David Yeagley has a post on that deals with nationalism. See: Nazism in Israel?

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