Der SPIEGEL

Der SPIEGEL

05/05/2008 12:58 PM

Constructing Hell

How Josef Fritzl Created his Regime of Terror

For 24 years Josef Fritzl led a double life: Above ground, he played the upstanding family man, while in the basement he imprisoned and raped his daughter. Details are slowly emerging of how he ruthlessly planned his terrible crime.

It seems Josef Fritzl methodically planned the imprisonment of his daughter, Elisabeth.
REUTERS/ Polizei

It seems Josef Fritzl methodically planned the imprisonment of his daughter, Elisabeth.

On the happiest day of her life, little Lisa was lying in a cardboard box in front of a house door in Amstetten in Lower Austria. She weighed only 5.5 kilograms (12 lbs.) and was 61 centimeters (24 inches) tall. The only other thing in the box was a letter. There was no envelope and no return address, just the signature of "Elisabeth," a daughter who had disappeared. "Dear parents," she wrote in her delicate, feminine handwriting, "I am leaving you my little daughter Lisa. Take good care of my little girl."

It was May 19, 1993, and it was the happiest day in the life of little Lisa Fritzl because it was the first time she had ever seen the light of day. She had been born almost nine months earlier.

The only light she had seen since birth was the light of an underworld, the never-changing, cold, artificial light of a basement. It was the only light that her mother, Elisabeth, had seen in the years leading up to Lisa's birth, the years her father had kept her locked in that basement. It was also the only light Lisa's brother, Michael, would ever see. He died in the basement only a few days after his birth.

That basement in which little Lisa spent close to nine months of her life has now become front-page news around the world: as a concrete cavern, a hell on earth, the horrific dungeon of Amstetten. It was a claustrophobic space with no view of the outside world, and it offered no hope of life beyond its walls. And it was the scene of a crime so unimaginable that it is still incomprehensible, even in today's hardened Internet age where all of the horrors of the world are just a click away.

Perhaps we should have long become accustomed to the idea that students can go on killing sprees, that people can make arrangements to engage in cannibalism and that, in fact, every conceivable satisfaction of a monstrous drive is not just being imagined, but is being enacted somewhere, at some time and by someone.

But what kind of a person even comes up with this kind of idea? A constantly growing family, the product of incest, vegetating in a dungeon for decades, under the stern control of a despotic patriarch, tucked away in the midst of ordinary, small-town life? And all of this happening in a house on a busy street, under the noses of neighbors, tenants and friends of the family, people who had no idea of the existence of this abyss or, for that matter, of the chasms in this man's mind? According to Reinhard Haller, a forensic psychiatrist from the Austrian city of Innsbruck, there are "no comparable cases worldwide," not even that of Natascha Kampusch, who was kidnapped by a stranger and spent eight years in an underground prison.

Josef Fritzl, now 73, kept his daughter Elisabeth, 42, imprisoned in his basement for 24 years, all the while claiming that she had run away from home and joined a sect. Meanwhile, Fritzl lived upstairs with his wife Rosemarie and their six other children. Down in the basement, he subjected his own daughter to half a lifetime of rape. He controlled her, owned her and fathered another seven children with her. Only when space began running out in his dungeon for the products of his omnipotence, when children started falling ill in his family vault, did he release three of them to a life above, into his own house, into his other family and into a seemingly normal life. Lisa was one of the three when she was supposedly left at his doorstep in 1993.

Phenomenon or Isolated Act?

It was Fritzl's own daughter Elisabeth who provided the necessary cover. He forced her to write the letters that were included with the supposedly abandoned children, letters that were both perfect deceptions and documentation of the lunacy of the crime and the sick genius of its perpetrator. "I hope that you are all healthy," the letter that came with Lisa read. "I will contact you again later, and I beg you not to look for me, because I am doing well."

Fritzl took the letter to the authorities so that he could adopt Lisa, and to ward off even the slightest hint of suspicion, he told the police, on that May 19, 1993, that he happened to have a few of his daughter Elisabeth's old school notebooks. He said that he wanted to give the notebooks and the letter to a handwriting expert so that he and his wife, as the grandparents, could be completely certain that the child they were adopting was indeed their flesh and blood.

The immense impact the Amstetten crime has had on the public consciousness explains in part the need for explanations that would make a phenomenon out of this isolated case. The public's questions are certainly justified. How is it possible that the neighbors and tenants in Fritzl's building never noticed anything unusual? Could it have had something to do with a loss of social connection, even in a small provincial city? And does some of the fault lie with the Austrian authorities, because they were too trusting and gullible, even blind, down the years, despite the foundlings that kept turning up on Josef Fritzl's doorstep, as if they had been dropped from the sky?

The answers to all of these questions are important, as they could help to explain the crime. And they are not offensive, despite Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer's complaints about how the international media are portraying this as the latest blemish to his country's name and his insistence that it is "not an Austrian phenomenon."

Nevertheless, this crime remains both the crime of an individual and an isolated act. If there is truly a question that takes us to the core of this crime, it is this: What does this isolated case have in common with other isolated cases, and what does the perpetrator, Josef Fritzl, have in common with other perpetrators? Is there in fact some aspect of the psyche of these people that explains why they commit the most abhorrent crimes with the kind of discipline, dedication and perfection that others might apply to assembling a model railway? Is there something other than their will that drives them to commit these crimes, as many neuroscientists believe? Or do they voluntarily commit acts that others could not even be forced to do?

Carefully Planning a Place to Commit his Crimes

Josef Stefan Fritzl was born in Amstetten -- today a town with 23,000 inhabitants -- in 1935. His parents were Josef and Maria Fritzl, he was raised Roman Catholic and he attended school in Amstetten. A photograph depicts him with his class of 1951, a boy wearing a traditional Austrian knit jacket, looking into the camera from a serious, narrow and withdrawn face. "He grew up without a father, and his mother raised him with her fist, beating him until he was black and blue almost every day," says Fritzl's sister-in-law, Christine R.

At 21 he married Rosemarie, the woman with whom he would spend the next 51 years. She was 17, poorly educated, trained as a kitchen help, and he was all she had. Fritzl, an electrical engineer, was highly intelligent, as some would later say. But it was precisely his intelligence and resourcefulness that prevented him from taking his wife seriously. He was the one who was completely in control in their marriage. She had to put up with his solo vacations to Thailand's budget sex paradise, Pattaya. She accepted it when, as her sister recalled in an interview with the Austrian newspaper Österreich, he stopped having sex with her. She also said nothing about his constantly disappearing into the basement, where he told her he did not wish to be disturbed, because he was supposedly drawing machine plans there. Who else but this woman would have been so submissive?

When Fritzl went down to his basement, "Rosi wasn't even allowed to bring him coffee," claims the sister-in-law. "Rosi," in other words, was the ideal wife for Fritzl, the ideal first wife, that is. She was a woman accustomed to knowing nothing. She was mother to seven children. She was a housewife and sometimes ran a guesthouse. She was the wife for the part of the house that could be opened up to outsiders without arousing any suspicion that there were also dark chambers in the house and in the soul of its owner.

As little as this first wife was a match for Fritzl, she was just as incapable of satisfying his needs. In the fall of 1967, after Rosemarie had already given him four children, Fritzl allegedly raped a woman in the northern Austrian city of Linz. He had apparently attempted to rape another woman earlier. He is believed to have spent one and a half years in prison, but his sentence was purged from the police record after 15 years.

An aerial view of the house on Ybbsstrasse.
DPA

An aerial view of the house on Ybbsstrasse.

After that, Fritzl never again attracted attention for his hidden obsessions, but not because he had learned to control them, as everyone believed. A man used to tinkering and DIY, he had apparently decided that his future attempts to find a second wife, one who would be at his mercy at all times, and who would submit to his moods and his desires, had to be more carefully planned. His new approach was more circumspect, precise and intended for the long term. He realized that all he had to do was to properly design the environment in which he would commit his crimes, minimize the potential sources of error and make the necessary arrangements for supplies -- food and beverages, at first, followed by diapers.

"It's the kind of thing he would do," says Franz Haider, 58, who worked next to Fritzl for three months in 1969 at a local cement and building supply company, Zehetner Baustoffhandel und Betonwerk. Although Haider insists that he would never have believed a crime like Fritzl's to be possible in Amstetten, now that it has occurred, he says, he can't imagine anyone more capable of concealing it for 24 years.

When Fritzl was working with Haider, their department was developing a machine to pour concrete pipes, such as those used in sewage systems. It was a large and complicated construction, five meters tall, three meters wide and three meters deep. Fritzl, the technical director of the project, had already spent months developing it. Haider joined the project as an assistant, and all that he learned from Fritzl, other than the status of the machine, was that his boss was married. Other than that, Fritzl remained tight-lipped about his private life. He never had any personal phone calls and there were no family photos on his desk. He didn't even tell Haider that he had children. Haider is convinced that Fritzl was the kind of man capable of keeping a secret for years, even a monstrous one. Haider also says that Fritzl would have been well able to build the kind of basement dungeon where he kept his daughter imprisoned. "Concrete technology was Fritzl's specialty. He could have built anything himself."

But first he had to find the woman who was to obey him and submit to his wishes, and he found her in the place where the risk of being discovered was the lowest for sex offenders like him -- in his own family. He chose Elisabeth.

She was still a girl at the time, and he raped her. But even when she was questioned just over a week ago, Elisabeth was still unable to talk about how and where she was first raped, except that it happened in 1977, or possibly 1978. She was only 11 or 12 at the time, and she told no one. She was unable to defend herself, nor could anyone else have defended her. Even her older siblings were powerless against Fritzl.

Nothing but His Flesh and Blood

When he came home from work, the children's friends had to leave the house immediately, and the children were required to remain silent when he walked into a room. If they failed to comply, or if they forgot to say "please" or "thank you," he would hit them so that they would continue to toe the line. But Elisabeth had to do more than merely toe the line. She was afraid of the days when he came to her, when he would mercilessly take possession of her because, in his eyes, she was nothing but his flesh and his blood.

In 1972, Fritzl and his wife purchased an inn and an adjacent campsite on Mondsee Lake in Upper Austria. He had decided to enter the hospitality -- and possibly the insurance fraud -- business. There were two fires at the inn, but it was never proven that Fritzl was involved. Later on, he sold real estate and ran a mail-order lingerie business. But the application for a building permit that he submitted in 1978, shortly after he had raped Elisabeth for the first time, was not for the inn, but for an "extension with basement" to the Fritzl family's new home in Amstetten. Five years later, he reported that he had completed the work, and when the building inspectors came to the site, they confirmed that Fritzl had indeed build the new extension in accordance with the permits he had been issued.

The police now believe that he managed to conceal the rooms he had built for the dungeon from the authorities. Presumably, he excavated enough space to accommodate a much larger basement but then built walls to conceal the dungeon. Later on, he apparently dug a passageway to a forgotten basement under the main house, which he would later use to expand the dungeon to its current size.

There is one reason to suggest that he had already developed the idea for his incest dungeon early on. Time was running out for Fritzl, because his daughter was threatening to slip out of his control.

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