The police are calling it the “worst and most shocking case of incest in Austrian criminal history,” said Ulrike Weiser in Austria’s Die Presse. This week, Josef Fritzl, 73, was arrested for the imprisonment and rape of his daughter Elisabeth, 42. He began raping Elisabeth when she was 11. By the time she was 18, he had imprisoned her in a basement fallout shelter and reported her as a runaway. Soon, he began fathering babies with her. Three of the children, now ages 19, 18, and 5, have spent their whole lives locked underground with their mother; they’d never seen daylight. Three others, ages 15, 14, and 12, lived upstairs, with the Fritzls. One baby died in infancy, and Fritzl burned the body in the furnace. Fritzl was only caught because Elisabeth’s eldest daughter became seriously ill, and he allowed Elisabeth to accompany her to the hospital—the first time she had left her dungeon in 24 years. She told the doctors of her ordeal, and her father was arrested.
How was it possible that such a “ghastly crime” could go unnoticed for so long? asked Petra Stuiber in Austria’s Der Standard. Nobody—apparently, not even his wife—knew of Fritzl’s double life. Relatives, neighbors, and teachers all missed the clues that a woman and children were being held captive in a suburban home. Worse still, the child-welfare authorities who monitored the family reported nothing amiss. Social workers visited yearly because the Fritzls had adopted one of Elisabeth’s children and were official foster parents for two more. (Fritzl told his gullible wife and the equally credulous authorities that Elisabeth had joined a cult and occasionally left babies on his doorstep.) Yet no one saw. No one wanted to see. “The entire country must ask itself what has gone so fundamentally wrong with our society.”
Austria has asked that question before, said Cathrin Kahlweit in Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung. Just two years ago, the country learned of another girl-in-a-cellar horror. That was the story of Natascha Kampusch, kidnapped by a stranger at age 10 and held in a basement for eight years. In that case, too, the neighbors suspected nothing—or were happy to look away. Just a few months ago, it emerged that the cycle of denial continued even after Kampusch’s 2006 escape. The government, it turns out, “covered up evidence” that the kidnapper had been identified as a top suspect in Kampusch’s disappearance early on but was never brought in for questioning.
Clearly, something is amiss in Austrian culture, said Roger Boyes in the London Times. “Austria is a society that nurtures its secrets, that suppresses its history, that blocks out uncomfortable biographies.” Unlike neighboring Germany, Austria prefers to pretend its Nazi past never happened. Averse to facing anything unpleasant, Austrians are brought up to be “incurious” about their own communities. No wonder they could blindly “accept the probability of three children being left on the doorstep” without searching long and hard for the mother. Fritzl’s crime was enabled by a “society that is inclined to look away rather than experience discomfort.”
That’s not fair, said Katharina Schmidt in Austria’s Wiener Zeitung. Fritzl is not the first master criminal to deceive everyone with his “confidence, lies, and feints.” His kind can lurk in any society. It’s easy to say that Austrians should have been suspicious. But let’s not forget: “Hindsight is always 20/20.”