The Amstetten Horror House: 8,516 Days in Darkness

Elisabeth Fritzl and her children, forced to live in a windowless basement for 24 years, vegetated away like the sole survivors of a nuclear holocaust. For them, the Cold War speculation over what it might be like for people who could never go outside again and return to the earth's surface was a reality.

The scene of the crime: Ybbstasse 40 in the Austrian city Amstetten
DPA

The scene of the crime: Ybbstasse 40 in the Austrian city Amstetten

Editor's note: This is the second half of a SPIEGEL cover story on the Amstetten tragedy. You can read the first half here.

At 15, Elisabeth entered a training program as a waitress at the "Rosenberger" highway rest stop on the A1 autobahn near Strengberg in eastern Austria. After the years of abuse, it must have felt liberating for her to get away. She and other girls in the program slept in a dormitory below the kitchen. For the first time, she felt safe from her father, safe from his greed and his lasciviousness.

On Jan. 28, 1983, Elisabeth ran away from home and, together with another girl from work, went to Vienna, where she lived -- in hiding -- in the city's 20th district.

But after three weeks the police picked her up and returned her to her parents. By attempting to escape and failing, Elisabeth helped provide her father with the story he would later use when he took her down to his basement and kept her imprisoned there. Now she was a runaway, a rascal, a troubled child. In the end, who would really care where she had gone and what had happened to her? Her father didn't touch her during the first few weeks, but then, as she says today, it started all over again. She decided to stick it out and endure for another year and a half, when her training program would be finished and she would be free. She completed the program in the late summer of 1984 and had a job prospect in the city of Linz in northern Austria. Just as she was on the verge of finally getting away from him, her father asked her for a favor. He wanted Elisabeth to help him carry a door into the basement. It was Aug. 28, 1984, and she would not see the sky again for 24 years.

Once they were in the basement, he raped Elisabeth and reportedly handcuffed her to a column, where he left her for two days. Later on, according to her testimony, he attached her to a leash so that she could go to the bathroom. Although Fritzl denies it, Elisabeth claims that he kept her attached to the leash for the next six months, perhaps even nine. Whichever version of the story is true, he now had her entirely to himself -- for good. From then on, he was completely in control of her in the basement dungeon, like some maniacal god. Elisabeth no longer remembers how often he raped her while she was on his leash.

In the world above, on the other hand, he was simply the inconspicuous Mr. Fritzl, carefully crafting his lies and red herrings, gauging their effects on the police and youth welfare agencies. Of course, it was also to his benefit that he lived in an environment, an entire country, in fact, that stubbornly remained a consensus society, despite the many radical changes of the day, a society with a tendency to avoid and cover up disputes.

Unforgotten are the 40,000 or so pornographic images found on the computers at a Roman Catholic seminary in St. Pölten west of Vienna, including child pornography and images of priests French-kissing trainee priests in front of the Christmas tree. Was it a scandal? Not for Bishop Kurt Krenn, who was in charge of the St. Pölten diocese and who, before resigning under pressure from the pope, only felt compelled to comment that the whole thing was nothing but a "childish prank" that was "of no concern" to the conference of bishops.

Unforgotten is also the 2006 case of Natascha Kampusch, another instance where no one paid attention, no one knew anything and no one even claimed to have suspected anything. And now a similar case has come to light once again in a country with a population of only 8.3 million.

If no one was interested in paying attention in those cases, why should anyone pay any heed to what this loner was up to next door in Amstetten? Gertrud Ramharter, a neighbor who lived across the street on Ybbsstrasse, says that she repeatedly heard hammering and construction noise coming from the Fritzl property. She did wonder what was going on, she says today. "What's he building? And how big is it going to be?" she would ask herself. And then there was Alfred Dubanovsky, one of about 100 tenants who rented rooms in Fritzl's house over the years and were told that their leases would be terminated without notice if they ever entered the garden or the basement. Dubanovsky still remembers the bags that Fritzl was always carrying down to the basement.

But where Germans would be more likely to call the police, preferably anonymously and often in connection with a long-standing dispute with a neighbor, Austrians have a tendency to look the other way. Given this mind-set, it isn't exactly surprising to hear Vienna criminologist Katharina Beclin say that of the estimated 25,000 cases of sexual abuse occurring in Austria each year, only about 500 are ever reported to the police.

On the day after Elisabeth's disappearance, Rosemarie Fritzl promptly -- and properly -- reported her daughter as "missing." A short time later, Josef Fritzl handed over a letter to the police, the first that Elisabeth was forced to write in captivity, dated Sept. 21, 1984 and postmarked at the post office in the nearby town of Braunau am Inn. According to the letter, she had had enough of living at home and was staying with a friend. She also warned her parents not to look for her, otherwise she would leave the country.

The letter was practically made-to-order for a quick decision by the relevant bureaucracies. Nowadays, perhaps, even officials at Austrian youth agencies would ask themselves why a girl who was considered well-adjusted and shy would run away from home twice. But, at the time, the letter conformed perfectly to the standard prejudice that runaways are little more than ungrateful brats who ought to be thinking about what they were doing to their poor, suffering parents. The authorities did what was expected of them, forwarding the missing child report to the Austrian Interior Ministry, the state financial authority and all state educational authorities, but that was where their involvement in the case ended.

Josef Fritzl had merely helped provide the authorities with an excuse for dropping the case when he told police that his daughter must have run off to join a sect. And yet no one even bothered to inquire with the officer in charge of sects at the St. Pölten diocese, Manfred Wohlfahrt. It was only a matter of weeks before investigators apparently gave up on Elisabeth Fritzl.

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