When I moved to Austria last September to research a book on the Fritzl case I found a flat in Vienna’s Judenplatz, where Rachel Whiteread’s imposing monument dedicated to the Jewish victims of Austrian fascism was unveiled in 2000.
The air in Vienna was clear; the traffic hardly audible. The old baroque cafés were the ideal place to work or read. Coming from London, with its grimy streets and clusters of delinquent teenagers, I could understand why the poet W. H. Auden had chosen to buy a country house in Austria. In its healthcare system, its social housing, even its weather, it is the very opposite to Britain.
I had been to Austria many times before. In 2006 I was sent there by The Times to investigate the case of Natascha Kampusch, the “girl in the cellar”, whose plight would bear many resemblances to that of Elisabeth Fritzl. In the course of that investigation we hit obstacle after obstacle. I listened to the police inspector in charge of the investigation give his views on the British Freedom of Information Act. The same things could never happen in Austria, he told me. The country prides itself on its privacy laws to such an extent that it can be impossible to find out even the author of a small ad in a paper.
“Natascha and I have become very good friends,” he announced, by which he meant that it was neither Ms Kampusch’s wish, nor in the interests of the police, that the details of her case be made public.
Since the case closed it has slowly emerged that Wolfgang Priklopil, Ms Kampusch’s abductor, was involved in paedophile rings and that the police botched the initial search by ignoring what turned out to be an accurate sighting of Natascha, aged 10, getting into Priklopil’s van. She also did not live underground for eight years, as was claimed. She spent much of her time above ground, even going on the occasional ski trip. Not much about the handling of the case makes sense.
The Kampusch story was regarded in Austria as unique. Less than two years later it emerged that Josef Fritzl had been keeping his daughter in a cellar. Far from examining the similarities, the authorities exaggerated the differences — “two one-offs”.
The real scandal is that not only was Fritzl’s crime preventable but also that it could have been stopped many times. The Austrian Government is quick to cite privacy but I suspect that the contents of its official files would give Elisabeth Fritzl far too many grounds to sue the State.
Conversation among Austrians will often drift in an unpleasant direction, in particular among the country’s elite. This was especially the case during the elections last year.
We would be sitting in some beautiful café and out it would come, Tourette-like: “The Moroccans are only here to sell drugs; the Serbians all carry knives.”
“I don’t want to worry you,” the manager of a spa told me, “but one of our masseurs is black.”A third of the population voted either for Jörg Haider’s Alliance for the Future of Austria party or Heinz-Christian Strache’s Freedom Party — parties led by hard-line nationalists with a reputation for racism.
For all the appealing aspects of Austrian culture there is a darker side: the defensive reaction among Austrians when it was revealed that Kurt Waldheim, their former President, forgot his role in wartime atrocities. The illogical optimism: until the Fritzl case, the criminal records of all sex offenders were automatically deleted by law after 20 years. The Government continues what it insists is a dignified silence about a crime that, if Josef Fritzl were to start his life over in 2009, would have every chance of repeating itself.
Amid all the talk of the dark side of Austrian culture – “racism”, “hard-line nationalists” and the “Jewish victims of Austrian fascism” – one critical fact is ommitted. It has barely been mentioned in any of the mainstream media reports on Josef Fritzl’s crimes and it’s notable by absence in the above report.
In itself it may mean nothing but for the fact that the mainstream media is at pains to avoid mentioning it. Nonetheless the fact remains that Josef Fritzel is a Jewish name and the walls of his dungeon were decorated with the Star of David.
From which we may conclude that Fritzel himself was Jewish although you would never guess from reading the above. With its obligatory mention of the “Jewish victims of Austrian fascism”, the above is no more than diversion masquerading as “news”.