The international media has descended again on the country that spawned The Monster, on the scene where the monstrous crime was perpetrated and among the people who could not, or would not, prevent it. Journalists from around the world struggle to make sense of it. It's much the same for me, except that being Austrian myself, I will have to go on living here when it's all over.
The first question: how could it happen, won't be answered by this trial. The deeds of Josef Fritzl are, I hope, unique in Austrian, and perhaps even European, criminal history. Yet Austrian journalists themselves find it to difficult to grasp the real nature of this case. In a small but telling detail, most of the Austrian media speak of the "incest trial" as if the court was dealing chiefly with incest although it is the least significant of all the charges.
That a man rapes, imprisons and tortures his daughter was always going to turn this into a major international story. The coverage has nevertheless been fairly benign. Admittedly, paparazzi initially besieged the hospital where Elisabeth Fritzl and her children were taken. But they now live – and will hopefully continue to do so – anonymously with new names in a new place. Yet Austria is reacting with ever more bewilderment. Ostensibly to protect what is left of the privacy of the victims, the case is being heard virtually in camera, which, while a good thing in terms of victim protection, will hardly guarantee the sympathy and understanding of hundreds of international journalists.
As for opinion in Austria, sadly, nothing much has changed. The fear that for the next few years Austria will be synonymous with Fritzl, Kampusch and Jörg Haider, is widespread and frankly, justified. The question is how to respond. Unfortunately, we react as we always do. We slip back into an inferiority complex; we react in the way many Belgians reacted after the Dutroux case; we complain that the outside world is against us and is putting Austria itself on trial.
After the Fritzl case came to light, the former chancellor, Alfred Gusenbauer, said Austria would have to work hard on its image.
On day one of the Fritzl trial, the volume of international coverage is deeply uncomfortable for Austrians. That there is nothing typically Austrian about such a case is the only logic one can apply. So why do we hypocritically criticise the British and Germans while running Fritzl photos, interviews and reports with a strange mixture of revulsion and awe. Now that really is something to be ashamed of.
The writer is a commentator for the Austrian newspaper Die Presse