What Austria's 'grand daddy of incest' story tells us

Matt Gardner - Online Columnist

You know, until recently, Austria didn't seem to be that interesting. It was only famous for an Archduke's assassination leading to the First World War, the Anschluss precursor to the Second World War, Viennese waltzes and as the birthplace of Adolf Hitler.

And then the cameras came in 2006. Natascha Kampusch, abducted at the age of 10 by Wolfgang Priklopil, escaped her kidnapper after eight years of being locked up in a small cellar under the garage of her captor's house. In a story practically made for a Five Extraordinary Lives documentary to follow The Girls with Too Much Skin and Half Man Half Tree (I kid you not), Kampusch's story ended up selling for  ‚¬290 per minute of interview footage to more than 120 countries.

After the media frenzy died down, Austria returned to its usual Schrammelmusik, Apfelstrudel and Roman Catholic ways.

That was, of course, until yesterday, when a saga I can only refer to as Kampusch Times Ten unfolded before the media's eyes.

Here's the story, summarised to the best of my abilities. Josef Fritzl, 73, turned himself in to police in his home town of Amstetten, 80 miles west of the capital Vienna. More than 23 years ago on 28 August 1984, he lured his 18-year-old daughter Elisabeth into the cellar of his home, drugged and handcuffed the teenager before locking her up behind an electronic door to which only he had the code.

The cellar's chambers - which were divided into a kitchen, bathroom and sleeping quarters - were soundproofed and windowless.

And so it began.

To cover his tracks, he made his daughter write a letter stating that she had run away. Until his arrest, he sexually abused his daughter, resulting in seven children - one of which, a twin, died shortly after childbirth. Josef disposed of the body in an incinerator.

Elisabeth and three of the children stayed in the  'dungeon' and never saw daylight. The other three were mysteriously left by  'Elisabeth' at the door of the family home and later cared for by Josef, his apparently unknowing wife Rosemarie, and the seven other children the couple had. Seriously.

It all came to an end when Kerstin, the first-born 19-year-old daughter who remained in the cellar her entire life, was admitted to hospital on 19 April 2008 due to a critical illness which currently holds her in a coma. On the same day, the police issued a statement to search for her mother, who was still widely believed to be elsewhere in Austria.

And then Josef gave up - but not without another lie first, telling his wife that his daughter had  'returned home', with her three other children in tow. On Saturday 26, the police picked Josef and Elisabeth up, with Josef arrested the day after and Elisabeth's children all placed into care, as well as Elisabeth herself.

So the authorities failed, right? Wrong. How could they have ever known? I do, however, firmly disbelieve the claims of Rosemarie Fritzl, who was  'completely unaware' of what happened. It reminded me of John  "dead but not dead" Darwin's wife, Anne, who denied six charges of deception even though there was a photo of the pair in Panama during John's  'dead years'. And British serial killers Fred and Rosemary West.

Still, the crimes of Fritzl are utterly loathsome and, above all, simply scary to think of in any detail. Josef showed evil ingenuity and cunning. As much as the designs he drew upon his 18-year-old daughter are beyond comprehensible. He was almost military, for which Austria is famed, in his level of planning.

His cellar, as small as it was, had all the facilities needed and was actually decorated (which, again, could not have gone under Rosemarie's radar). The walls were soundproof, he was the only one who knew the code to the electronic doors, and although he certainly didn't (want to) consider contraception, he was able to deliver the babies inside the house and relocate half of them with a suitable alibi.

I don't know if Stockholm Syndrome applies to this situation yet, if at all (particularly given it was a family member that did it), but it certainly can't have been easy for anybody involved at any point. The worst thing is that it may be less merciful for the cellar children to have survived. I don't think medicine, psychology or cultural re-education could ever help the unfortunate ones back into society.

If anything, Josef Fritzl could be considered a serial killer without ever having murdered anybody. His actions reach deeper into his victims, the community, the country and the world at large. The survivors will have to live with the psychological and physical misery that he inflicted upon them.

In a world filled with copycat crimes, trends and anti-hero idolisation, it makes one wonder if something similar, if not worse, is currently going on somewhere else - perhaps closer to home.

And even after the shock of Kampusch's eight-year ordeal, not even Austria was prepared for something like this. Sadly, I think it has made many more people live in fear of something to outdo the newest addition to Austria's Greatest Criminals.