The Fascination of Evil Ruthless Criticism

Incest drama in Austria:

The Fascination of Evil

[Translated from broadcast by Gegenargumente Vienna, May 6, 2008.]

[Note: The Fritzl case emerged in April 2008 when a 42-year-old woman, Elisabeth Fritzl, stated to police in the town of Amstetten in Austria that she had been held captive for 24 years in a concealed part of the basement of the family home by her father, Josef Fritzl, and that he had physically assaulted, sexually abused, and raped her numerous times during her imprisonment. The incestuous relationship forced upon her by her father had resulted in the birth of seven children and one miscarriage. Three of the children had been imprisoned along with their mother for the whole of their lives. One child had died of respiratory problems three days after birth, having been deprived of medical help; his body was incinerated by Josef Fritzl on his property. The three other children were raised by Fritzl and his wife Rosemarie in the upstairs home. Fritzl had engineered the appearance of these children as foundlings discovered outside his house.]

Something truly fascinating is reported from an Austrian province for once. The world press descends on this small town in the Mostviertel to interview everything that doesn't run away fast enough, sniffing and staring at every bit of dirt within reach, in order to supply the global community of decent people with all the material they desire for moral voyeurism. The world looks at Amstetten and sees with disgust and interest something it has not seen for a long time: a father raped his own daughter, not once but over and over again for 24 years; for this he locked his darling in a dungeon that he discretely constructed in the basement of their house. The jailer establishes with his prisoner a second, secret, subterranean family and gives her children. Over the years, he moves some of them into the official, accessible part of his family house, adopting the children from his own blood with the blessing of the authorities. One does not even know whether there are enough laws for all the crimes the bastard has committed. Incomprehensible! Someone who does something like this is not human: the monster, the devil, the beast of Amstetten becomes ever more interesting: how did he manage to build his high-security wing, and all by himself? How could he have provided all the extra supplies over the years for his unofficial family without arousing anyone's suspicion? And nobody really noticed anything? Can it be? This calls for the creeps: pure evil in our midst – unrecognized. One is pleasurably shocked. How can the decent be recognized, if someone passes in the guise of an upright citizen? Moral vigilance and a detective's eye are needed to see through pretended decency. Amstetten completely blames itself because it has not seen the family man Fritzl's double existence right in front of its nose. Every detail would have been important – what the small town missed seeing closely enough is now doubly and triply made up for by world public opinion.

Certainly not because one wants to explain the deed and the guy who committed it, but because it's so nice to compare one's own decency to this monster and to see that there's nothing to compare. The monster is the complete opposite of everything that makes us human: no understanding whatsoever for the beast, no understanding of his act! It is incomprehensible; there can and ought to be no reasons or motives which make it understandable and thereby in some way commensurable with the world of the good. The decent have figured out enough when they figure out that there is nothing to figure out; there is only disgust and horror to be expressed, perhaps supplemented by a little prayer: Lord, I thank thee that I am not like that!

The community of decent people does not let its self-righteousness be shaken by minor challenges. After all, it is heard from his neighbors that Mr. Fritzl had really been a downright family tyrant. But does that explain anything? Aren't there a lot of them, but who don't turn their hobby cellar into a sex dungeon? One can't be misled by the statistics which show they are not so far removed from the singularity of the “incomprehensible” act, so one also obviously cannot grant that the crime has some connection with that exemplary form of life, the family. “It is estimated that every third to fifth girl is a victim of sexual abuse in the family” (Austrian Public Broadcasting). So what? Then rapists in marriage and abusers of daughters are just smaller monsters of that sort which Mr. Fritzl is a bigger version of. All that has nothing to do with the institution in which these monstrosities take place. The moral judgments keep to the monstrous excesses which took place, making sure of the distance from the normality of family life – and save themselves any thoughts about what they are really an excess of.

Fritzl, the beast

The media guardians of decency find it particularly outrageous that Mr Fritzl justifies his crimes with the motives of the family father. “It really is true: I always wanted to be a good husband and father” (Fritzl, News, No. 19, May 8). The defense plea is flatly rejected as an affront which does not deserve serious attention: the jailer and rapist a good father? The bigamist a good husband with his own daughter? A mockery! “Absurd explanations for something for which there can be in truth no explanation.” (ibid.)

Now, nothing is easier than to see that the perpetrator of Amstetten is in no case a normal father and husband. Not even the man of good intentions himself would claim he has succeeded in being a good father and husband. But all this doesn't rule out that the gone-bonkers father and husband didn't make a lot of transitions from the morality of family life, and indeed precisely because of the psychological yield of happiness which others also expect in and from this social institution.

There is, on the one hand, the matter of the permanent bond which the involved parties promise themselves from the transformation of their love affair into a legally sanctioned, perhaps also even church-blessed marriage – or a “common law” equivalent. The desire for the longevity of a love relationship is as a rule as strong as the feeling which two people feel for each other; this goes without saying; but usually they don't leave it at that. Happiness in love in modern society is much too loaded with compensation claims: it is the center of private life; and this is the special sphere in which the person does not simply enjoy life, but stands before the big task and challenge of correctly organizing a purpose in life which outshines all the miseries of earning money, all the hardships of competition – to get a job and on the job – all the demands of the everyday “struggle to survive” which free-enterprise civil society holds ready for its inhabitants. Here, because it is for sure nowhere else, life must be worth it. There the enjoyment which two people find in each other has a lot to endure and to compensate for. However, the experience remains spared to nobody, that this pleasure is not suited for this purpose. The feeling inevitably suffers from the function of compensation which unavoidably plays a role. And the next step becomes due, which, everybody also knows this, leads quite directly to a nasty claims attitude toward the beloved partner: to the point of view that he or she would have to be responsible for one's own striving for satisfaction in life and – the next escalation step – would personally be to blame for it if it is missing. Once it has gone this far, then of all things the cozy home in which happiness should happen holds the hardest disappointments ready, more bitter than most, for what the person in his existence outside the home has to endure, swallow and “overcome” as a dutiful competition participant; and the next transition takes place. It leads to the familiar, boring, yet always painful versions of “marital strife,” the stereotypical path of conflict, reconciliation and resignation – and, on balance, to exactly the kind of mutual claims and harassments and compulsory staying together which the bourgeois state puts under its special legal protection and not only has the strength of a social custom, but also enjoys widespread recognition as a moral community.

But with this, one is still far away from the machinations of Mr. Fritzl and his cellar dungeon for an incestuous second marriage; that would be a stretch. But in the sphere where the demanding cohabitation of the partners is charged with bitterness and is inclined to assaults on the recalcitrant will of the other or also to revenge for their stubbornness – all this moves within the sphere of marriage or civil unions in the broad average. It is then no longer an extreme exception if especially members of the “stronger gender” energetically take their right to satisfaction, which they themselves acquire through steadfast living together with their “old lady” and often even formally through marriage, by removing out of their way that obstacle of the other will with superior physical strength and greater propensity to violence. The bourgeois constitutional state anyhow constantly calculates such lapses in its sober way in its “special protection” of marriage and makes every effort, with prohibitions right up to bold legal distinctions between a right to “enforcement of marital obligations” and “conjugal rape,” to regulate the loving couple's granted sphere of private freedom. The success can be seen in, among other things, the increase in women's shelters and their never-ending replenishment: the transition to the rule of force is always implicit in the customs of intimate happiness. In that respect, the “Monster of Amstetten” basically stands out by the consequence and circumspection with which the man extended his rule of force to his own subterranean sphere of rights – and by the long years in which he executed his claim to a married life completely to his taste and desires.

In addition to husband, Mr Fritzl wanted to be a good father, so he had his ideas about the responsibilities of a head of family, as well as what he can do and what is entitled to him. He can first of all refer to the state authorization of having parental authority: outwardly, parents are liable for the conduct of the still irrational will of their children; inwardly, they steer and determine it. Until recently, legislation termed this correctional supervision of the child's will as what it is: “parental authority.” The parenting father (ditto the mother) makes his will towards the child the law; tells him what is good and what bad, what to do and what not to: “I know what is good for you!” This includes whatever they want. The little darlings are subjected not only to the moral opinions and the respective self-image of the parents, but also what they should become educationally, professionally and generally as humans follows the desires and plans of the parents. If they care for the underage child “for its own good,” they fulfill at the same time a great desire for themselves. Children, it is said, are a great, if not the greatest, happiness which parents can bring themselves: the father and mother realize and perpetuate themselves in them, they behold and relish in their rejuvenated image their own excellence. So the necessary rebuke of the stupid kid goes hand in hand with the domesticating and the forming of the little personalities according to the needs of their procreators. To the degree that the child grows up and forms his own will, the upbringing becomes a power struggle between the young person who can't be told what to do and the parental authority who still wants to have his financial support and human care remunerated with obedience, even if the offspring are long grown up. Not always, but again and again the thing runs out of control: the defied master of the house no longer distinguishes whether the life plan which he chooses and enforces on behalf of the young child is actually jeopardized – and not even if it is in the interest of the adolescent – but defends himself as the father (or mother), i.e. he defends the family relationship of rule itself. His right to bear responsibility for the child, to make decisions for it, in short the supremacy of his will, the parent does not generally call into question: “As long as you put your feet under my table and live here, I call the shots!” The direct confrontation of the wills of the parents and the young, this small war which every family knows, ends as a rule with the defeat of the parents. The child breaks away from the family and goes his own way.

Not so with Mr. Fritzl. He wins this war, and he does not allow his daughter even after reaching the age of adulthood to slip away from his care. Her own ways, which she goes, is per se astray, because she escapes him. “I always brought her back home, but she always eluded me again. So I had to make sure to create a place where I could someday possibly keep Elisabeth by force from the outside world.” And he knew where: “The basement of my house was mine, mine alone, it was my empire that was only available to me.” (News, No. 19, May 8)

The crazy father even wants the imprisonment of the young woman to be understood as an exercise of parental responsibility: “I have always put a lot of value on decorum and good behavior, I admit.” (ibid.) Elisabeth's misconduct, in doing 24 years ago what 18-year-olds do – disco, alcohol, cigarettes, bad company, refusal to work – left him no choice. So that his Elisabeth cannot do the bad things which she would do in freedom, she's sent to the dungeon where the good father does the bad things with her to which he feels entitled. He takes the saying that parents breed in their children good luck charms exceedingly literally: the fresh version of his old lady tempts the man and the claim to obedience and docility of the daughter entitles the father. The fact that the daughter does not want this makes precautions necessary: Fritzl realizes the dream of family happiness in the homemade prison, protects it with an insurmountable lock system and death threats. He makes the coveted daughter his slave and reserves her contact with people completely solely to himself, the father and master. He has secretly established a second world in which the unconditional authority of the family manager still counts for something and earns its self-centered bearer the satisfaction he searches for. For this guy, power fantasies and sexual desire, which he satisfies in the daughter, have coalesced into a peculiar image of happiness.

The exceptional thing about him is the extreme combination, as well as the methodical and systematic execution of various notorious lapses, that belong to bourgeois sexual and family life: the tyrant makes his family a prison for the wife and children not in a metaphorical sense, but really establishes one. He does not fall in unbridled desire on the daughter, but he plans with a cool mind and he creates a permanent situation of her absolute availability. He is not getting violent with family members in the heat of the moment, but establishing a dominion over them, which sets not at all on the morality and obedience of the next of kin, but relies solely on its insurmountability.

“Amstetten is everywhere”

Talk shows and newspaper articles enthusiastically immerse themselves in the extraordinariness and bizarreness of the crime, to fat underline its singularity – and can recognize no connection to the social institution in which all good people search for happiness. Something so abnormal can have nothing to do with our lifestyle! However, the equally prompt call for political action speaks a different language. After all, harsher penalties and more or more effective state control, which hopefully can prevent such incidents, are indeed not quite logical in view of a completely unique disgrace. What the bourgeois world rejects in theory, however, the state assumes in the practice of family policy. The responsible Minister in Vienna announces all the things that she is going to change so that the “incest drama of Amstetten” remains an isolated case, and in her way informs how family life is arranged in bourgeois society. In any case, she does not narrowly restrict the transition of good family morals into evil to 4 Ybbsstrasse in Amstetten [Fritzl's address]:

“In the area of criminal justice, the Minister plans a new criminal offense against persistent violence, in order to apprehend those situations in which for instance women were subjected to years of violence by their husbands, but also violent relations in orphanages and nursing homes or kidnap victims. 'The whole history of the victim's suffering should find expression in the criminal trial', whereas previously the focus was on the single act of violence, as the last bodily injury. Various acts of violence, such as physical violence, coercion or insults, should be punishable with an appropriately severe punishment in their totality. Public prosecutors are being specially trained for it. Already since January 2008, there are special departments on violence in social relationships; as soon as this year, there will be custom-made training opportunities. Berger [the Minister] also wants to standardize and tighten the reporting requirements for certain professions such as doctors, psychologists – whereby a balance between the prosecution and the best interests of the child is to be found, as Berger pointed out ... On top of that, in progress is also an expert center for victim assistance, which the victim's hotline that has existed since July 2007 is going to be part of.” (

As a matter of course, psychologists immediately doubt the effectiveness of the announced stricter punishments, which indeed cannot deter “sex offenders.” That does not detract from the good cause, however: in demands for punishment, the paternal state is all the same called on as a perhaps inadequate, but nevertheless protective authority against the brutal extremes of precisely that form of cohabitation between the sexes and generations which it establishes and promotes in law.