Remnants of Horror

Josef Fritzl pleads guilty, but the question remains: What’s wrong with Austria?

News | Eva Mansieva | April 2009

Defense Attorney Mayer answers to reporters (Photo: Eva Manasieva)

Sankt Pölten is quiet and sleepy again. The trial of the century is over. The international media circus is finally gone, and Josef Fritzl is preparing to spend the rest of his life in jail.

Now it is up to Austria to pick up the pieces.For over a week Sankt Pölten enjoyed unprecedented media attention - even if for all the wrong reasons. Townsfolk openly complained that the Fritzl circus was hurting the image of their community - while cashing in on free-spending international press who readily paid up to €200 per night in ho-hum hotels for a chance to cover the infamous "Dungeon Dad."

It was a long year for Austria since the discovery, a year ago that a father kept his own daughter a prisoner in a cellar for 24 years, abusing her, raping her repeatedly. The result: seven children with uneasy destiny. One of them died 66 hours after its birth, his father impartially observing the slow death. Three were adopted by Fritzl himself, and three were doomed to share the dungeon destiny of their mother for years, ‘til their inevitable release by Fritzl in Apr. 2008.

In fact, long before the Fritzl case, Austria has been repeatedly blamed and shamed. Since its most infamous son made Nazi history, the past has been haunting the Alpine country. Repeatedly over the past decades, just when it appeared safe to come up for a whiff of international air, new revelations gave new life to the "Ugly Austrian." Kurt Waldheim, and his hidden past with a World War II German unit connected to Balkan atrocities, Joerg Haider and his smears of Jews and foreigners, Wolfgang Prykopil, the man who held a young girl captive into womanhood - these infamous deeds were suddenly erased by Fritzl.

No wonder that being a journalist for international media in Amstetten was like walking around with a bad case of leprosy. Windows were shuttered, blinds drawn and shoulders were shrugged - the most frequent responses to questions from the press.

"The best thing would have been if this hadn’t happened at all. We don’t want to know about this trial, we don’t want to know about Fritzl. We are ignoring this whole story, we’ve had enough of it," explained Frederik A., an 84-years-old citizen of Amstetten while doing his shopping - one of the very few who agreed to say even a word to a journalist. And others just blamed it on the media, saying the small town welcomed the press people in 2008, gave them all they needed and they, in turn, proclaimed Amstetten the worst place on Earth.

But somehow, the question of how it happened still hangs over Austria like a black cloud. And somehow, the world has good reasons to keep asking. The Fritzl case broke out only two years after the Natascha Kampusch case - she was only 10-years-old when she was kidnapped on the way home from school and held captive in an underground cellar for nearly 9 years. She managed to escape in August 2006, and her abductor committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train. Only two years later the Fritzl case was revealed - a case 10 times bigger than that of Natascha Kampush.

And then there was Waldheim - who powered himself to the Austrian presidency, not in spite of hiding his World War II past, but because he held it up as a case of a man only doing his duty. And Haider, whose ugly statements helped his party win 27 percent of the vote in 1999 elections, resulting in power sharing in Austria’s federal government a year later, and unprecedented sanctions from the European Union.

The four-day trial of Josef Fritzl is now over and together with it the media fuss. It was meant to be a trial against one man who committed a horrible crime, but it was much more than that.

For four days activists have been camping outside the court in Sankt Pölten, pointing a finger at the Austrian government, blaming it for being careless when it comes to child abuse. Actors played bloody performances, showing to the world that people in the country think different. The exaggerated show outside the court was called "absurd." Still, in a way it made the wounds of the Austrian society even more obvious.

It attracted more that 200 journalists from around the world - all of them looking for a sensational story: all of them searching for breaking news, all of them pointing a finger at Austria.

"We are not prosecuting a town or an entire country," Judge Andrea Humer said in St. Pölten. Franz Cutka, Vice President of the St. Pölten Criminal Court, added, "We are not calling this trial ‘The Trial of the Century’." The media invented this term, exactly as they invented the "monster dad." For us, Josef Fritzl is a normal suspect, like any other suspect in a trial."

A position also shared by the Austrian government.

"We are glad it ended so quickly," Chancellor Werner Faymann said a day after the end of Fritzl’s four-day trial, hinting that his government was far from happy with the unprecedented media attention.

"I feel very well.  Why? Because I think that my client wants to make peace with the victims, he wants to make this small step, a gesture… what is possible for him, for the sake of the victims and for their better future," said Rudolf Mayer, the lawyer of Josef Fritzl after the verdict was pronounced.

Still, much of the world’s media did not buy that, with dozens of articles linking Fritzl to the Austrian soul and asking what’s wrong with this country?

Ironically, it was Fritzl who softened the latest blow to Austria’s dignity, by changing his plea to guilty on all counts. Still for some, his deeds have renewed the question: What’s wrong with Austria? What’s wrong with Austrians?

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