Leading article: Heinous crimes and national image

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The Independent Online

The truly appalling tale of Josef Fritzl, his daughter Elisabeth and the seven children she bore him has been held up – and not just by the British scandal sheets – as illustrative of another, much darker side of Austria. It is as though the world has suddenly remembered that, alongside Viennese balls, Strauss waltzes and the Alpine paradise of The Sound Of Music, Austria was also the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, a country where many hailed the Anschluss with enthusiasm, and the first member of the European Union to admit a far-right party to government.

To conclude from this, however, that Austria and Josef Fritzl were somehow uniquely made for each other takes an exercise in national stereotyping too far. Of course, if you consider the shocking case two years ago of Natascha Kampusch – a young girl kidnapped on her way to school and kept in a nearby basement for eight years – then Austria might seem to have more than its fair share of cruel and devious men with a penchant for a particular type of crime. And it might then be tempting to see the long-term imprisonment and sexual abuse of young women in concealed basements as somehow occupying an obscure recess of the national psyche.

We should know better. Regrettably, deep cellars and concealed rooms that are eventually forced to give up their repellent secrets are not unheard of in the dark world of torture and sexual deviance. We do not have to look beyond our shores to recall Fred West and the torture chamber he and his wife kept in their terraced house in Gloucester. It was coincidence, but a telling one, that the Fritzl case burst into the news as a 68-year-old man was arrested in connection with the discovery of concealed chambers and human remains at a former orphanage in Jersey. No nation has a monopoly on cruelty. Josef Fritzl's crime, with its sequence of premeditated capture, incest and so many resulting children, prompts more profound rumination than other crimes just because it is so rare. It is natural to want to try to interpret and explain. How could a man live this double life for so long? Was it really possible that his wife knew nothing of his illicit, subterranean family? And how much of a life will the daughter and her children have now?

Speculation has its place. It is, though, the more prosaic questions – about official record-keeping, administrative procedures and the understanding of good neighbourliness – that should be addressed before Austria descends in destructive introspection. It should not be possible for children to appear and disappear so easily as was possible in the town of Amstetten – and this is a lesson that not only Austria has to learn.