Across the world the media is in breathless shock over the extraordinary case of an Austrian man who kept his daughter imprisoned in his basement for 24 years, fathering 7 secret children with her. The attention is not surprising, this is a truly bizarre story. But what does it all mean for Austria, especially considering this is the third such instance in just two years?
To recap, Josef Fritzel, a 73 year old retired engineer in the town of Amstetten in Austria, has confessed to drugging his daughter Elisabeth at the age of 18, imprisoning her in his windowless basement, and then keeping her and the subsequent children he fathered with her chained in this secret lair for 24 years. The story is so complex the news broadcasts on the subject have had to use charts to explain the various players in it.
Apparently Elisabeth’s mother, Rosemarie Fritzel, had no idea about any of this, Mr. Fritzel having told her in 1984 that Elisabeth had run away and joined a cult. Over the next two decades Fritzel had seven children with his captive daughter, three of whom he kept locked in the basement with her. Extraordinarily, the other three he brought to the surface, raising them in the main house as normal children. Fritzel told his wife they had been left at the doorstep by Elisabeth, with a note saying she couldn’t take care of them.
All of this only came to light when the eldest daughter living in the basement, who has never seen sunlight in her 19 years on earth, started getting sever cramps from lack of oxygen. Fritzel had to take her to the hospital. The details of what happened next are still unclear, either Fritzel then took Elisabeth to the hospital as well, or Elisabeth put a note in her daughter’s pocket pleading for help, there have been varying media accounts.
Even as extraordinary as this story is, what’s even more extraordinary is that this is the third such case in Austria in just two years. In August 2006 there was another notorious kidnapping of an Austrian schoolgirl, Natascha Kampusch, who was hidden in a windowless cellar for eight years until she escaped. The following February it was discovered that another three children had been locked in a rat-infested hideaway for seven years in Linz by their deranged mother. And now this.
What’s unbelievable is the ease with which all of these people were able to hide their captives. What’s insane about the Fritzel story is that this three-story building was in the middle of a crowded shopping street, and while the top two floors were used by the Fritzel family, apparently the ground floor, just above the basement, was rented out to different tenants over the decades. When Elisabeth went missing the police never questioned it, even though Fritzel had previously been in prison for sexual assault and had also been convicted of arson according to reports. And when the children, in three different instances, were “left on the doorstep,” social services didn’t bat any eye and allowed the family to adopt them.
Today in Austria the whole nation just seemed to be in shock. How could three such horrifically similar events have happened in such a small country? The Austrian daily newspaper Österreich railed in an editorial, "The whole of Amstetten should drown in shame. The neighbours have turned a blind eye.” And Der Standard wrote, "The whole community must ask itself what is really fundamentally going on."
Though the image of Austria in people’s mind is often defined by its charming rolling hillscapes with Julie Andrews spinning around a la the Sound of Music, today people are seeing a very different side to the country. Austria, and indeed all of Europe is asking whether these events have exposed the country as a "look-away society", a land where people would rather turn their heads and ignore possible suffering than acknowledge it.
The British press seems to be grasping for historical precedent. An editorial by David Jones in today’s Daily Mail speculated that it was Austria’s uncomfortable experience during World War II, when after the annexation the Nazis encouraged Austrian neighbours to spy on each other and report any dissent, that has produced an insular mentality that still permeates the society. This argument is of course patently absurd. Austrians lived with this reality for less than a decade, while their neighbours to the East in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany lived with this reality for 45 years – and they’re not having a rash of unspeakable crimes. What’s more, Germans would have experienced this same reality for even longer than Austrians, as would anyone living in an occupied country.
Perhaps more convincing is Jones’ argument that an obsession with privacy, common also in Switzerland and Bavaria, could be to blame. The Southern German lands are notorious for holding privacy as an extremely important value. My family, Americans who live in Zurich, have often experienced this firsthand. Their efforts to get to know their neighbours have been met with confusion or suspicion. If a neighbour thinks they are making too much noise they’ll phone the authorities rather than confront them directly. A neighbour even once complained to my father because he had let a TV license inspector into the building. Apparently the neighbour was incenses that he would let a stranger in, even though that stranger was an agent of the government inspecting licenses (not surprisingly, this neighbour didn’t have one!).
Privacy is also enshrined into law in both Austria and Switzerland. As Jones notes, both countries have perhaps the most Draconian privacy laws in the Western world. In fact it seems that not only neighbours, but police as well are discouraged from prying too deeply into another person’s affairs.
Of course it will take time to get to the bottom of all this and figure out who knew what and when, but in the mean time it’s safe to say Austria seems to be primed for a psychological crisis. Perhaps it is just a gruesome coincidence that these three heinous crimes were discovered so closely together. But perhaps the key ingredient that made them happen in Austria as opposed to somewhere else is not that Austrians are somehow more predisposed for depravity, but that their “look-away” culture has allowed such acts of depravity to go on for much longer than they would elsewhere. It’s an uncomfortable question, but it is perhaps one that needs to be asked.