Crimes most foul

2009-05-07 00:00

Some psychopathic criminals — the American serial killer Ted Bundy was one — are able at will to exude a special charisma and charm: they can be irresistible. Most, though, are emotionally stunted beings, absorbed in themselves to the exclusion of all else: when it comes to what they want, charm comes low down on the agenda. One such is Josef Fritzl, the Austrian father of seven who kidnapped one of his daughters, immured her in a cellar beneath his large house, raped and abused her for 24 years — in the process fathering seven more offspring — and was discovered last year only because one of the cellar children had become mortally ill.

This book was, of course, a rush job, hustled into print before Fritzl went on trial this year. Factually, therefore, it’s a bit thin, though what’s there is undoubtedly accurate: Allan Hall is an established Berlin-based foreign correspondent, has covered central Europe for the past decade and has written some 20 books on crime and history. His cataloguing of events seems authentic, and he’s done his best to provide information about the Fritzl family, including plump, curly-haired hausfrau Rosemarie Fritzl, genuinely unaware of the appalling things her husband was doing literally beneath her feet. We’re not able to meet any of the members of either family, however, and have to be content with bare personal details and a lot of stuff about the construction of the underground labyrinth (astonishing, though the schematic diagram is incomprehensible). Hall does paint a grim picture of the life of the imprisoned Elisabeth, in virtual solitary confinement for the first years, toothless and white-haired from malnutrition, forced to give birth alone seven times, and a courageous and devoted mother to the three children she was allowed to keep in such squalid, windowless and airless conditions.

The most interesting part of the book, though, is based on Hall’s understanding of central Europe and the Austrian character, so that he’s convincingly able to discuss the social climate that makes such crimes possible. Fritzl, only son of an over-strict mother, a lonely child bearing the stigma of illegitimacy, witnessed the ecstatic welcome Austria accorded the Germans under Hitler in 1938 after the Anschluss, and, lacking any other role model, made the Nazi principles of order, discipline and obedience central to his life. He trained and worked as an artisan, and married dutiful, biddable Rosemarie. But this did not satisfy the self-involved, sexually rapacious Fritzl’s needs. He was convicted early of a sexual offence — it’s now thought there may have been more than one, and even some murders — and routinely frequented brothels. Yet no one appears to have thought him in any way remarkable or suspicious, or to have disbelieved his story that Elisabeth had run away to join a sect and was there producing unwanted children. Thus, neighbours turned a blind eye to his disposal of barrow-loads of soil, and failed to report the stench when he incinerated the body of a deceased cellar infant. They knew — as did local social workers — that three children had materialised on the doorstep, but never questioned Fritzl’s version of their origins.

Referring back to other Austrian cases, including that of Natascha Kampusch, who was kidnapped and kept prisoner by Wolfgang Priklopil for over eight years, Hall suggests that it is the Austrian way to ignore aberrant activities in order to preserve for themselves and the outside world the delightful stereotype of waltzes and dirndls, lederhosen, Apfelstrudel and Mozart. This deliberate refusal to face reality, he suggests, is what enabled them to welcome Hitler, to participate eagerly in the “Final Solution”, to condone, with smiles, the brutalisation and mass murder involved in ethnic cleansing. It meant that instead of confronting and atoning for this hideous past, they simply wallpapered over it. And this determined national habit or policy of keeping up appearances no matter what gives carte blanche to monsters such as Fritzl and Priklopil, allowing them to commit frightful crimes, especially crimes involving the enslavement of the vulnerable in order to satisfy a pathological lust for power.

This book is worth reading, not so much for the account of Fritzl’s wicked quarter-century-long ego trip, as for this perceptive glimpse into a disturbing national psyche. Hall must hope it will open to public view a subject urgently requiring serious study.

Stephanie Alexander

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