Melanie McDonagh: A darkness where only the human spirit can survive

Austria's psyche has been scrutinised as Europe comes to terms with the awful power of life and death that Josef Fritzl wielded over his family. But while privacy laws may have helped a rapist to offend repeatedly, overall the crime rate is low
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Europe didn't sleep easily, did it, that night last week after we learned about the horrors of the cellar in Amstetten? It was the stuff of claustrophobic nightmares, those sunless corridoors where Elisabeth Fritzl could not walk upright for 24 years, the padded cell where she was raped by her father, the steel door that could only be operated by remote control with a code which only Josef Fritzl knew. Day by day, we heard more about that cellar and the four subterranean lives that were lived out within it: Elisabeth and her three children, one of whom, Kerstin, may die at any time. The darkest corner in the European imagination is no longer Bluebeard's chamber but the sealed cellar. In both cases, the woman of the house was forbidden to enter, and in the case of Rosemarie Fritzl, Elisabeth's mother, she obeyed.

Josef Fritzl, 73, the grandfather-father of Elisabeth's seven children, was a parody of patriarchy. His was the final perversion of the patria potestas, the old Roman idea that the father of the household has power of life and death over its members. His daughter told officers this week: "I don't know why it was so but my father simply chose me for himself." He raped her repeatedly from the age of 11.

Like so many other victims of abuse, she never told anyone – she tried to run away twice, only to be brought home to her father by the police. And then, at the age of 18, when she might have left home, met a boyfriend, earned her own living, he ensured that her childish vulnerability would continue in perpetuity. He drugged her with ether, dragged her into the cellar, handcuffing her to a metal pole. He kept her in the dark for the first few weeks. And thereafter, he perpetuated the lie that she had run away from home to join a religious cult.

In the cellar, he delivered their seven children. Like a version of Plato's allegory of the cave, where people see images of reality flickering on the walls, the prisoners saw the world through their television. Josef, meanwhile, would take holidays in Thailand where his nut-brown skin mocked the mushroom pallor of his captives. Now, he tells police: "Why should I be sorry? I always cared well for them. I saved Elisabeth from drugs." A caricature of paternalism. Rightly, feminists will make play with all this, though we should not forget that the last notorious case of child incarceration in Austria was by a woman lawyer who, after a nervous collapse, imprisoned three of her children in darkness for seven years. But certainly, feminists will consider the other woman under Josef Fritzl's control, his wife. Anyone seeking a reason why Rosemarie did not insist on seeing the supposed bomb shelter that her husband was constructing need only consider her sister, Christina's observation, that she had married him at the age of 17 and had no qualifications to work outside the home. That made for dependence, economic and emotional. Few contemporary Austrian women will be so vulnerable.

But, granted the compelling horror of the case, is there anything useful we can say – other than to deplore rape, incest, abduction and incarceration? Are there any lessons to be learnt? For several British broadcasters and newspapers, it was that you can't trust the Austrians. The Times's cartoon had Austria on the psychiatrist's couch, with Freud sitting by its side. Peter Millar, author of an oral history of Germany, pointed out in the Mail that only a 90- minute drive separates Amstetten from the house where Adolf Hitler was born. The BBC broadcast an interview with the psychiatrist, Max Friedrich, whose patient was Natascha Kampusch, a previous victim of extended incarceration, who declared that much of the case could be explained by Austria's past. Natascha Kampusch herself, in a Newsnight interview, also said that there was an association between "the ramifications of the Second World War" and the Fritzl case, though she preceded her remarks by saying that such things "exist worldwide".

In fact, at least at face value, the crime rate in Austria is relatively low. According to Interpol, the rape rate in Austria in 2001 was 7.12 per 100,000 people (the corresponding rate for the US was 31.77). The rate for aggravated assault the rate was 2.59 for Austria (318.55 for the US).

But there is an element of this case which is particular to Austria: its stringent legal provisions on privacy. It explains how Josef Fritzl was allowed to become the adoptive father of three children of Elisabeth's whom he left on the doorstep. He had a conviction for rape, of which his neighbours were well aware and there are reports of another conviction for arson. But because of the Austrian insistence that people convicted of a crime should be allowed to make a fresh start in life, the records of those convictions were expunged.

In Britain there is a similar provision, whereby anyone convicted of an offence carrying a prison term of less than three years can insist that there should, after 10 years, be no reference to the offence. However, at least in Britain, people who have committed rape will remain on the Sex Offenders Register. In Austria, these far graver offences are also dropped from the record. Josef Fritzl's clean slate meant that three children were subject to his authoritarian control despite the fact that he and his wife were visited regularly by social services.

Its draconian privacy laws have meant that Austrian politicians have shown increasing willingness to prosecute journalists who investigate their affairs. And strict data protection laws mean that Austrians are unable to find out the most simple details about public affairs – how and by whom planning permission is obtained, for instance. Privacy laws help to keep the darker aspects of public and private life away from light and air. There is also the related question of police competence, which has been powerfully evident in this affair. But police incompetence, alas, is not a phenomenon that can be linked to Austria's Nazi past.

Right now, the poor mushroom children born of incestuous rape are growing used to the sun, the moon, to other people, to life in three dimensions. If they can ever make anything like a normal life for themselves, the real lesson of this horror will be that the resilience of the human spirit is even greater than we thought.