Ausgabe 19/2008

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?


© DER SPIEGEL 19/2008
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