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Austria's Father from Hell
|by Mehru Jaffer|
"When she got into puberty she stopped obeying any rules... I was forced to act and do something about it. I had to create a place where I could keep Elisabeth separated from that world, and I was ready to use force."
This is what Josef Fritzl, 73, had to say when he was arrested last month for kidnapping his own daughter, Elisabeth, and then torturing, beating and repeatedly raping her for close to a quarter of a century.
These words of Fritzl not only provided an insight into the psyche of the "dungeon dad" but have prompted experts to take a look at the reasons behind incestuous abuse, which is said to be a regular occurrence in Austrian families.
Fritzl allegedly drugged, handcuffed and locked Elisabeth up in the windowless basement of the family home, when she was 18. For 24 years, Elisabeth lived through a nightmare in which she was repeatedly raped by her father, giving birth to seven children fathered by her own father.
Franz Polzer, head of the police investigation team, told the Austrian news agency, Austria Presse Agentur, that for the first nine years of Elisabeth's imprisonment, the cellar had just one room, implying that acts of incest were committed before the couple's young children. Gradually, the living premises - behind two heavily reinforced concrete doors that were fitted with electric locks - were enlarged.
It was in August 1984, that Elisabeth, now 42, was reported missing from Amstetten, a picture postcard town a few kilometers west of Vienna. Word went around that she had run away from home to join a sect. Meanwhile, in the cellar she gave birth to seven children - without any medical care or assistance. While three children were brought up by the 'grandparents' - after they were 'left on the doorstep with a note written by Elisabeth that she was unable to care for them' - the other three remained in the cellar with their mother. In fact, they had never even seen daylight until they were rescued from their horrific existence. Police says Fritzl confessed to burning the body of a seventh child shortly after it died in infancy.
The crime came to light only when Kerstin, 19, Elisabeth's eldest child fell seriously ill and was rushed to hospital on April 19. Fritzl's neighbors and acquaintances had expressed shock at the allegations saying that he treated his grandchildren affectionately and appeared to be a good grandfather. Even former colleagues described him as hard working and polite.
But Ernst Berger, a Vienna-based psychiatrist told reporters, criminals like Fritzl often show no sign of their psychological disturbance. They can appear to be quite normal. Fritzl aroused little suspicion, as he seemed no different to most Austrian men.
According to Professor Claus Tieber at the Institute of Theatre, Film and Media Studies, University of Vienna, "Fritzl is an extreme case but he is still the product of a society that remains largely authoritarian. In this incident, sexuality is used only as an excuse to exert power and control by a man over a woman."
Natasha Kampusch, 21, who was abducted by a man at the age of 10 and imprisoned in a similar way - in a cellar - for eight years before her miraculous escape two years ago, told BBC television that Austria's history plays a part in cases of abuse that occur in the country.
"I think this exists worldwide, but here (Austria) it's also a ramification of the Second World War and its connection to education. At the time of National Socialism, the suppression of women was propagated. An authoritarian education was very important," Kampusch explained, saying that her own traumatic experience and suffering will stay with her for the rest of her life.
The Austrian National Socialism was a Pan-Germanic movement formed at the beginning of the 20th century. Most of the followers and members became supporters of Hitler, and were one of the chief elements leading the pro-Nazi coup in 1938 that brought about the Anschluss - the annexation of Austria into Greater Germany by the Nazi regime.
"I grew up in Nazi times and that meant the need to be controlled and respect authority," said Fritzl. Elisabeth, he said, was a wild girl, constantly partying and mixing with the bad crowd. He saw his daughter as wayward and in need of discipline and so devised the ultimate punishment of making it impossible for her to escape.
"A lot has changed in Austria since medieval times but ours is not a very liberal or rebellious society. People here still worry about what the neighbors will say and obedience to authority is very much encouraged," says Dr Elke Mader, Professor of Cultural Anthropology.
Mader also feels that the Fritzl affair is a result of the tension of the changing equation of the traditional relationship between men and women. In most homes, children, including daughters, leave home when they are unable to get along with their parents and can be independent. "Elisabeth was one of those unlucky rebels who was unable to get away, feels Mader.
"To punish, to lockup in dark rooms and to physically and psychologically hurt women and children, particularly the 'disobedient' ones, is an old habit of the patriarch," adds Professor Tieber.
Perhaps Fritzl colleagues did not have the opportunity to notice his patriarchal streak as did former tenants, who described Fritzl as a strict father whose wife deferred to him in decision making. What may also reflect the unquestionable authority that he commanded in his house is the fact that all the while Fritzl's growing alternate family was suffering in the dungeons below, his wife and Elisabeth's mother, Rosemarie, "had no idea" of what was going on. Once the case was brought to light, Elisabeth's siblings told the police that Fritzl was an "authoritarian and domineering father" and controlling towards his wife.
Reactions to what has been described as one of the worst cases in Austria's criminal history have been many. "How can it happen here?" 'Die Presse', a popular Austrian daily asked.
"How is such a thing possible today, and how many people may still live in such circumstances? How can the authorities be duped so easily?" a citizen wrote to 'Wiener Zeitung', another daily.
"What has happened is horrible. It is terribly shocking and I find it hard to comment on something that leaves me speechless," says Sarah Habersack, a student of International Development at the Vienna University. But she feels that it's unfortunate that people wake up only after the media sensationalizes an incident like the Fritzl affair.
"Now everyone has an opinion to express. But while these things are happening around them people look the other way and none have the courage to find out more and to try and put a stop to similar crimes."
Social activists claim that incest and sexual abuse in Austrian families is widespread, but people often like to suppress uncomfortable truths. Charlotte Aykler of the NGO Prevention of Violence, that has an office in Amstetten, informed reporters that every sixth girl and every ninth boy has experienced sexual violence within their families. "But it is always connected to much, much shame, and children are simply not speaking about it," she said.
In Austria, the number of cases involving severe sexual abuse of minors rose to 296 in 2007, an increase of 20 per cent compared with the previous year, while there were 313 cases of sexual abuse of minors. That is only the number of cases that have been reported to the police. The real numbers could be drastically higher.
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