Cultural Values and the “Amstetten case”: what the International and Austrian Media are Saying About Josef Fritzl

May 16, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

To have one incident involving children locked up in a basement may be regarded as a misfortune, but to have two just seems like carelessness. Or evidence of a troubling undercurrent in Austrian society, depending on which newspaper you read. Indeed, some coverage has pointed to a national psyche that is fertile ground for these types of incidents, simmering under Austria’s elegant façade. So how are the Austrians interpreting the case of Josef Fritzl, who kidnapped his daughter 24 years ago an kept her in a soundproof basement, fathering seven children with her?

From outside Austria, people are quick to describe this as a uniquely ‘Austrian’ crime, attributed to a cultural failing that would cause and allow this type of thing to go on. Swiss papers have pointed to a culture of denial (which is a bit rich considering their banking policy,) Spain’s El Pais has described the case as “perversion and sickness becoming visible” and The Times labelled the country “indifferent.” Nigel Jones in the Daily Telegraph says “any foreigner who has lived there for any length of time will say there is something ‘odd’ about the Austrians”, which is a terrible generalisation to make. As someone who lived both in Austria (for 17 years) and Britain (for eight) I can write a list of ‘odd’ things about both countries, as well as any other I have visited.

And who are the “Austrians” who share this macabre cultural identity? The country has only been in its present form since the end of World War One, before which the empire stretched to Yugoslavia and beyond, with discrete regions defining themselves from each other. The capital, Vienna, is closer to Slovakian Bratislava than Germanic Salzburg. The current borders are like a (strangely-shaped) hoop that was allowed to fall at random on central Europe, gathering a disparate bunch of nations together and proclaiming them, for better or worse, countrymen. Look in an Austrian phone book and you will find just as many eastern European names like Vidlak and Mareschek as the German Schneider and Bauer. In a country that has so many sources of identity, it does not make sense to talk about a collective cultural psyche, if it ever does. It is equally unfair, tempting though it is, to say that all British people behave badly on holiday because they never got over losing the empire.

Culture of Blame

It would be inaccurate to state that it is only the “international” press that has pointed out the role Austria’s “shameful past” may have played a part in Fritzl’s psychosis – the Austrian press has dealt with it at length. Contrary to popular opinion, Austrians are all too aware of their country’s role in 20th century history. They are just as shocked and disgusted as anyone abroad as to how this could have happened and concede that certain “psychocultural” elements of their society may have played a role.

Fritzl has said he got a respect of control and authority from an upbringing under Nazi-controlled Austria. Yet he has also admitted to having incestuous fantasies about his mother. He is clearly a deeply disturbed individual whose issues manifested themselves early in his life, and while they were probably compounded by the anomic wartime society in which he spent his formative years, they are not solely to blame. Natascha Kampusch, the girl who escaped from her kidnapper in 2006, has also said, on Newsnight, that the wartime values that governed the parenting at the time of Fritzl’s boyhood may be partly to blame for this incident.

Blaming Fritzl’s psychoses on his own unfortunate circumstances is one thing, but it is destructive for media commentators to hijack his mention of the Nazis as a piece of evidence that an entire country is inextricably tied to a shameful past which accounts for a population’s collective ills. Using Austria’s historical ties with Nazism as symptomatic of a troubled society at large, ignores the new generations that have grown up in the 60 years since the end of the war. I am not ignoring the fact that Hitler was welcomed by the Austrians in 1933, nor that many high-level Nazis were Austrians – and probably not all exclusively of the German-identified west of the country. Hitler, for example, was from Braunau near the German border, an area which considered itself German and set itself apart from the Slavic east of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Austria has largely managed to escape from the brow-beating “Vergangenheitsbewaltigung” (coming to terms with its past) that Germany still practices. In Austria as in all other countries, racism is still a huge concern. But painting it as an underground Nazi haven is destructive and inaccurate. At the age of 73, Josef Fritzl may be the one of the last remnants of the old generation of suppressor and victims. Most parents alive now did not experience life under Nazism at all – in fact the post-war generations are brought up to believe that racism of any kind is abhorrent, but of course it still occurs, in the more subtle provincial xenophobia and the Neo-nazi movement (which, let us not forget, counts some supporters in Britain too).

From the Inside

So for all the analysis, what is Austria saying? The Austrian coverage of the Amstetten case has also been quick to wring its hands, asking if it happened because of historical practices of denial and burial manifested itself in personality. Fritzl may attribute his own upbringing to Nazism, but drawing a line directly from Nazi crimes to Amstetten does not make sense. Much of the commentary places the blame on ‘looking away,’ which is a facet of modern life in many countries but, while it does happen there, is fundamentally at odds with traditional Austrian values. Once removed from the anonymity of larger cities, in the country and even in the suburbs of Vienna, Austria is still a land of small communities where everyone knows each other. As a long-time resident of a northwest suburb of Vienna, I can attest to this. As a modern phenomenon, the obsession with privacy is cited as an example of traditional social ties breaking down and traditional values being eroded, rather than as a practice that is culturally ingrained.

In a country that is cosmopolitan and forward in some layers of society, but still holds some provincial traditional values, incidents like this are often explained by the domestic media as evidence of a lack of social cohesion caused in part by rapid changes.

Some international press attention has identified Austria’s geography as a factor in contributing to this national sickness of privacy, as symbolised by the shadows of the Alps and the elegant and almost obsessively clean streets of Vienna. Geography has shaped this small central European country, but because as a gateway to both east and west, it has a diverse ethnic population and is historically a hub of Europe. Ascribing an outwardly pleasant appearance as covering some kind of collective subconscious evil is too simplistic.

Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek, 2004’s Nobel Prize for Literature winner, has always been affectionately satirical towards her home country for its traditional patriarchal values. Broadly decribed as a Marxist feminist, her novels have often dealt with the fabric of societies as ruled by the masculine male, painted as a beast in his private life who is outwardly respectable, propagating society’s values. Indeed there is something familiar to her writing of misogynist males in the Fritzl case, which resonates with her literary explorations of male power and how it feeds, and is fed by, capitalist society.

In one of her books she describes a married couple whose tranquil outer appearance conceals the daily acts of rape and violence the husband enacts on his spouse, on the very household objects it is her duty to clean in order to continue the appearance of respectability. On her website, Jelinek has suggested that it is a combination of Austrian society’s patriarchal values which respect the man in control of his woman, combined with the ‘looking away’ culture and society’s need for harmony, which has been responsible for allowing this man to enact his fantasies.

It is interesting that Jelinek has mentioned patriarchy, yet unsurprising, preoccupied as she is with the power struggles of domestic life. More interesting still is that Fritzl’s lawyer, Rudolf Meyer, said his client struck him as an archetypal ‘paterfamilias’ who loved his family, who was firm but just. Sociologists have pointed out the outdated values of the 1950s which still guides women’s expectations today, placing a woman as subordinate to a man, who should interpret all his flaws as her own failings as a wife or mother. This is provided as an explanation generally excusing a man who may sometimes be violent or abusive. The Standard newspaper ran an editorial discussing this when neighbours of Fritzl describes him a “a man’s man” who seemed highly virile and dominant. The argument ran that this type of man is still respected in Austria, a traditionally Catholic and patriarchal society. Another editorial in Die Presse has pointed to the country’s attitude to parenting and children, which places the ultimate authority on the man as head of the family, which can go some way to explaining how Fritzl was able to officially ‘adopt’ the children he fathered with his daughter.

The Cultural and the Personal

It is tempting to ascribe to personal behaviour in cases like this a national explanation as we try to understand the myriad causes of something that is almost unthinkable. Explanations that focus on a national or cultural set of neuroses, such as have abounded in the media discussion of the Austrian cases, are pop psychology that will only go so far to explain things. Far beyond the gleeful Freudian interpretations this man will attract, the truth will lie in several explanations, including the more relevant point of Frizl’s private history – like Natascha Kampusch’s captor, Wolfgang Priklopil, Fritzl had an overbearing mother figure whom he idealized.

That said, one of the genuine tragedies of this case is failings of the state in the adoption process, and of course the “looking away” factor, which is a modern but by no means uniquely Austrian phenomenon. Nobody expects their neighbours (then again, maybe they will now) to be harbouring a second incestuous family in their cellar, so even if things seemed suspicious you might be even less, not more, inclined to investigate. Not knowing what one’s neighbours are up to, or even their first names, is the norm.

It is tempting to try and understand the causes of incidents by attributing broader cultural causes to individuals’ behaviour. School shootings in the US have a place in our consciousness as an ‘American’ type of crime, but intelligent coverage was mostly concerned, and rightly so, with the issue of gun control, rather than blaming Marilyn Manson or an American mindset. It would also have been tempting to explain the case of Armin Meiwes, who ate another man after finding a willing volunteer on the internet, as a uniquely German crime because it could hint at sordid tastes caused perhaps by the country’s outward reputation for order and efficiency – but this would also have obscured the real issues.

Criminal psychologists working on the case say that, for the sake of the victims, we need to understand why things like this happen, and ascribing a Landesmentalitaet (country mentality) will hinder this understanding and obscures important issues, like preventing these types of things from happening again.

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This post was written by Alexa Van Sickle

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