Is there a Josef Fritzl on your street

The heinous cellar-incest crime is being turned into a metaphor for the dangers of family life.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

There are some things so heinous that they stretch to breaking point my conviction that ‘nothing which is human is alien to me’. One such thing is the alleged imprisonment and rape of Elisabeth Fritzl by her father Josef in a cellar in Amstetten, Austria, for the past 24 years. Josef allegedly forced his daughter into a depraved, incestuous relationship which produced seven children, three of whom were imprisoned with Elisabeth in the sunlight-free bunker that Josef built especially for them. Many of us cannot understand how a human being could do such unspeakable things.

Yet in much of the response to the Fritzl scandal, observers have suggested that, far from being ‘alien’, Josef’s alleged crimes are all too ‘human’. Rather than being viewed as an aberration, a story which has dominated headlines around the world precisely because it is so extraordinary, the cellar-incest horror is being turned by some into a metaphor – a metaphor for the continued haunting of Europe by the ghosts of Nazism; for Austria’s strange and unknowable ‘Eastern’ streak; and for the dangerous unpredictability of family life in general, especially as lived ‘behind closed doors’.

It takes a deeply disturbed individual to imprison his daughter. It takes a deeply disturbed society to behold such grotesque crimes and think to itself: where else might this sort of thing be happening?

Most commonly, the Fritzl outrage is being held up as an indictment of the Austrian people. They have been judged harshly by Western observers for their alleged buttoned-up, look-the-other-way attitude, which apparently allowed Fritzl to get away with raping his daughter and abusing his children/grandchildren for a quarter of a century.

‘How could Austria let this happen?’ asked one newspaper report, as if all eight million Austrians were somehow responsible for the actions of one individual (1). The main problem, it seems, is that Austria is a ‘look-away society’ – that is, instead of peering into one another’s lives, Austrians ‘keep themselves to themselves’ (2). Such a ‘culture of secrecy’ was apparently complicit in allowing Fritzl to carry out his family atrocity. ‘It is the interlocking circles of secrecy that make Austria special in the way it deals with, or ignores, individual tragedies’, argued one British journalist based in Vienna (3).

This view of Austria was summed up by a horror film-style headline that declared: ‘In Austria, no one can hear you scream.’ (4) The implication is that if Austrians were a bit more like proper Western Europeans – a bit more suspicious, questioning, interrogative – then Elisabeth and her children may have been saved earlier. In an echo of the ‘collective guilt’ debates that followed the experience of Nazism in the Second World War, the whole of Austria is being charged with turning a blind eye to the dungeon of horror in the small town of Amstetten. Only in a ‘cosy, incurious community concerned with Schein nicht Sein, or “appearance, not reality”’ could a ‘crime so macabre, which is already being described as the crime of the century’ take place, says one report (5).

Numerous reports have claimed that there is a ‘trend’ in Austria for people to be kidnapped and locked up. A headline in the UK Daily Mail says: ‘Austria – secrecy, shame and the land of lost children.’ (6) Forget lederhosen or The Sound of Music – those, apparently, are the three things Austria is best known for now. Reporters point out that, ‘unbelievably, this proud old country of just eight million people is now the scene of yet another chilling and unspeakably sordid case of kidnapping and sexual enslavement – the third in the past 20 months’ (7).

First there was Natascha Kampusch, who was kidnapped as a child and held captive in an underground lair in a Viennese suburb, before escaping in August 2006. Then in February 2007 it was discovered that in Linz a deranged mother had locked her three children in a rat-infested hideaway for seven years. Now Fritzl. ‘Why are child abuse scandals happening in Austria?’ ask newspaper reports. One British journalist has an answer: it is because ‘the concept of good neighbourliness is utterly alien to many older Austrians’, who are ‘so wary of over-familiarity’ that they ‘usually have no clue what is going on next door, and have no wish to find out’ (8).

According to The Times (London): ‘In the mind’s eye of non-Austrians, the land of powder skiing, avid recycling and Gluhwein has morphed into the kind of place… in which sordid things happen to children.’ (9) In the real world, away from our rather warped-sounding ‘mind’s eye’, the three recent child abuse scandals in Austria have very little in common. Natascha Kampusch was kidnapped by a loner who at first imprisoned her and later treated her as something akin to a daughter (though he regularly beat and threatened her). The middle-class mum in Linz suffered a nervous breakdown and withdrew her children from the world – there have been very similar cases in America and Western Europe. Also, there have been shocking instances of children held in captivity elsewhere in the world: last year 15-year-old Shawn Hornbeck was found in Missouri in the US after being held captive for four years; Belgian paedophile Marc Dutroux held two girls captive for 80 days (10).

There have been a smattering of thankfully rare abductions and imprisonments across the globe – and they have revealed nothing about ‘national traits’ or any widespread human depravity. Yet that has not stopped Western reporters rushing to psychoanalyse ‘warped’ Austria. Apparently, the reason why Austria has become ‘the child abuse capital of the world’ is because it is traumatised by history. Its Nazi past is coming back to haunt it, in the shape of both eerie child kidnappings and the failure of the mass of the population to do anything about them.

Under the headline ‘A country in crisis’, the UK Daily Express reports one theory for the Fritzl scandal: ‘Maybe in Austria there is an undercurrent of playing at Nazis and putting concentration camps in your basement.’ (11) The Australian newspaper claims that ‘there is a consensus mentality’ in Austria, ‘an aversion… to open conflict, which has reached almost neurotic proportions’. Apparently Austria ‘locks out whistleblowers and malcontents as surely as Josef Fritzl locked up his daughter and children/grandchildren’ – and the ‘tone’ for this national neurosis was set in the 1930s ‘when Nazi Germany incorporated Austria into the Third Reich’ (12).

The Australian says: ‘It would be wrong, of course, to see a Nazi lurking behind every floral-patterned sofa in provincial Austria. But an amateur psychologist might draw the conclusion that 73-year-old Fritzl, whose early childhood was spent in Nazi Austria, came to accept certain patterns of behaviour.’ (13) The operative word here is ‘amateur’. Everywhere, observers are using bizarre, amateurish cod-psychology to find out why Austria is so damaged and pathetic. This is not only a mad view to take on the basis of one shocking case of abduction and imprisonment: it is also a deeply fatalistic diagnosis, which views an entire country and its people as having been defined by their history, as if they were automatons somehow brainwashed by the Nazis of 70 years ago to be insular, uncaring and cowardly. Blaming Nazism for Fritzl’s alleged crimes is as mad as saying that Britain’s Fred West was made into a serial killer by the sex comedies of the 1970s – after all, didn’t they feature weird men in flares who took home young women and frolicked with them? Clearly those movies warped a generation.

There is something deeply contradictory in the post-Nazi reading of modern Austria. Some claim that Fritzl and other Austrians (who, precisely?) may be aping the Nazis’ tactics by imprisoning people in mini-concentration camps. Yet others say it is because Austrians have turned their backs on their Nazi past that they have become the victims of child abuse scandals: ‘Perhaps Austrians, in rejecting the practice of denunciation that flourished under the Nazis, have become too ready to look the other way?’ (14) What are these journalists saying, exactly? That Austrians should re-embrace the fascist culture of spying and snitching in order to sniff out any remaining Fritzls in their obviously fucked-up country? Such implied conclusions show up both the amateurish and morally reprehensible nature of the post-Fritzl rush to pass judgement on an entire nation.

Reading some of the coverage of the Fritzl case, it seems clear that Austria has replaced Germany as the recipient of Western – and most obviously British – fear of the threat from the strange Eastern automaton. All of the things now being said about Austria – that it has a ‘consensus mentality’, that its people are unfeeling and unquestioning, that their personalities have been moulded by Nazism – were once said about the Germans. Yet as Germany has emerged over the past 15 years as a major player in a newly united Europe, these prejudices have been projected further Eastwards, on to the unpredictable nations of Austria and Poland in particular, which apparently are struggling to ‘come to terms’ with their Nazi-annexed or Nazi-occupied pasts. Many have pointed out Austria’s dual identity as a Western wannabe that is closely connected to Eastern Europe. Austria is ‘a stepping-stone on the road to Eastern Europe’, said one report about Fritzl; another pointed out that Amstetten is in eastern Austria, which is ‘cold and cheerless’ (15). In the denunciations of Austrians for failing to find the Fritzls and drag them from their cellar, we can see how Austria has become a proxy Germany – a place where it is claimed that backward Nazi attitudes still survive – and also a symbol of everything that is dark, dangerous and odd about the East of Europe.

The greater and more worrying implication behind the reaction to the Fritzl scandal is that there is something inherently dangerous about family life itself – both in the East and the West. Alongside pointing out the peculiarity of the Austrian character, some reporters have asked: could it happen here? ‘Is a Fritzl horror happening in Britain?’ demands the Daily Telegraph. After all, Fritzl’s alleged crimes ‘took place on an ordinary suburban street in an unremarkable European city’ (16).

One British analyst says that one reason why Fritzl’s alleged crimes may have gone undetected is because ‘people do not assume the worst in others’: ‘In some ways we are incurious about what goes on behind closed doors because it serves as a kind of self-protection. It does us no good to reflect, for example, that in a busload of 60 or 70 passengers, statistically there may be at least half-a-dozen dangerously disturbed individuals.’ (17) Next time you catch the bus to work, look out for the Josef Fritzls.

The phrase ‘behind closed doors’ has cropped up again and again in the coverage of the Fritzl case. ‘We know not what goes on behind closed doors…’ says one commentator. ‘Oh, what horrors exist behind closed doors’, says another (18). ‘Closed doors’ have become a powerful symbol of the alleged threat and danger of family life. As Frank Furedi argued in Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age: ‘The phrase “behind closed doors” articulates the mistrust in fundamental private encounters. Suspicion regarding what is likely to happen behind the closed door has become an important motif in contemporary culture.’ (19) Now, the Fritzl horrors are held up as evidence that ‘closed doors’ are a problem – that private family life is dangerous, and that people’s failure to peer through their neighbours’ windows can allow criminality and insanity to go unchecked. Yet as one Austrian journalist sensibly asked: ‘Should we all invite social workers to look in our basements?’ (20)

In truth, there are not Josef Fritzls lurking everywhere. If Austrians do not ‘assume the worst in others’, that is a good thing. And if they feel alienated or dislocated from their neighbours and fellow citizens, then they are by no means alone: that is a common experience in the Western world today. One thing is certain, though: encouraging greater suspicion of our friends, neighbours and fellow bus travellers on the basis that any one of them might be a Fritzl will do nothing to heighten community solidarity – but it will do a lot to spread fear and doubt and, most likely, to encourage a hands-off attitude to other, potentially dangerous people. It will make us feel further ensconced in our own homes, and at odds with other individuals ensconced in theirs. As the freed Fritzl children discover the joys of sunlight and take their first steps on the road to recovery, it would be a shame if they grew up in an Austria and a Europe made even more uptight by the one-off horror that they endured.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black pondered the return of the paedophile panic. Heather Piper provided the truth about satanic abuse. Helene Guldberg criticised the nostalgia about childhoods past. Mick Hume examined the increasingly strange case of Madeleine McCann. Or read more at spiked issue Parents and kids.

(1) Why are child abuse scandals happening in Austria?, The Times (London), 29 April 2008

(2) ‘The whole of Amstetten should drown in shame’, Independent, 29 April 2008

(3) In Austria, no one can hear you scream, News.com.au, 30 April 2008

(4) In Austria, no one can hear you scream, News.com.au, 30 April 2008

(5) In Austria, no one can hear you scream, The Australian, 30 April 2008

(6) Austria – secrecy, shame and the land of lost children, Daily Mail, 29 April 2008

(7) Austria – secrecy, shame and the land of lost children, Daily Mail, 29 April 2008

(8) Austria – secrecy, shame and the land of lost children, Daily Mail, 29 April 2008

(9) Why are child abuse scandals happening in Austria?, The Times (London), 29 April 2008

(10) Profile: Marc Dutroux, BBC News, 17 June 2004

(11) Country in crisis, Daily Express, 30 April 2008

(12) Austria: ‘We have to ask what’s going wrong’, The Times (London), 29 April 2008

(13) Austria: ‘We have to ask what’s going wrong’, The Times (London), 29 April 2008

(14) Austria examines its conscience, BBC News, 30 April 2008

(15) Austria: ‘We have to ask what’s going wrong’, The Times (London), 29 April 2008

(16) Is a Fritzl horror happening in Britain?, Telegraph, 29 April 2008

(17) After the discovery of the Austrian dungeon, how can such evil live in our midst?, Daily Mail, 30 April 2008

(18) Man keeps daughter in cellar for 24 years, fathers seven children, by Anita V Robeson, 28 April 2008

(19) Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Age of Uncertainty, by Frank Furedi

(20) Austria examines its conscience, BBC News, 30 April 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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