Austria’s Conscience

Between Shock, Disbelief, and Mutual Reassurance

Opinion | Anneliese Rohrer | June 2008

The candles of the vigil on Monday night in the small town of Amstetten are out. Soon the hordes of international journalists will pack up their cameras and tape recorders and leave Austria again.

The family of Josef Fritzl, the father/grandfather who kept his own daughter in the dungeon for 24 years, will have to deal with their broken lives. The town, the region, the country and all of the authorities will have to begin intense soul-searching.

The vigil, it seems, was not only an act of solidarity with Mr Fritzl’s children and his wife but also an act of contrition by the people of Amstetten.

Questions: Where were they looking for more than two decades? Why didn’t anybody know? And what about all those neighbours who now voice longstanding suspicions? Where have they been?

One hears growing concerns about the international image of the country. Why did the police, or the members of the social services who had visited the family 21 times, not see what must have been in front of their eyes? Why didn’t a single person connect the dots when Josef Fritzl found three babies on his doorstep at suspiciously close intervals?

These are the questions everybody will be left with. At the moment the country vacillates between shock, disbelief and mutual reassurance that no-one could have done anything about such an elaborate crime. How can anyone raise suspicion about something that they could not imagine being possible?

The police and the social services are quick to point out that there was no fault on their part. Lawyers by the dozens are cited saying that everything was done according to the book.

This is the usual reflex, not only in Austria but in other countries as well. Privacy and interference.Politicians by the dozen now issue appeals to the public not to look the other way in the future. The assumption that there is anything specifically Austrian about this crime is passionately rejected.Similar appeals have been made in all the other three cases since 1996 where girls have been found in confinement, in a coffin, in a closet and - in the case of Natascha Kampusch - in a dungeon for eight years.

The public seems to be confused at the moment about where to draw the line between undue interference in somebody else’s affairs and heightened sensibility to possible abuse and crime in the neighbourhood.

Perhaps Austrians, in rejecting the practice of denunciation that flourished under the Nazis, have become too ready to look the other way?

The police and the social services also seem to be confused about the measures that will have to be put in place now, the laws that should be changed.

The horror of the Fritzl case, confirmed by Josef Fritzl’s confession and DNA testing, the unique dimension of his deceit, are sometimes taken as an excuse. How could anybody have picked up the right signals? Within the last few hours the public was informed that a fire inspection of the bunker had taken place not so long ago. No sign of hidden rooms even then!

Character assassination? With Josef Fritzl in prison and the family in medical and psychological care, the authorities consider the case more or less closed. The only aspect for further investigation is the possible involvement of other persons in the construction of the bunker and the delivery of supplies to Elisabeth Fritzl and her children. Talking to people now, one hears growing concerns about the international image of the country. The assumption that there is anything specifically Austrian about this crime is passionately rejected. The candles in Amstetten were also lit for that purpose, probably.

The public announcement by politicians on Wednesday, that a character-assassination of Austria will not be tolerated, most certainly was.

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    the vienna review June 2008