Joseph Fritzl, Austria, and the Ghosts of Nazis Past
In late April 2008 when the story of Joseph Fritzl's hideous crimes broke, the world stood stunned and outraged. An elderly Austrian electrician who had incarcerated his 18 year old daughter Elisabeth for 24 years in a dank, windowless, and unbelievably squalid underground dungeon built beneath his Amstetten house. Who had systematically beaten her and raped her. Who had fathered seven incestuous offspring upon her, three of whom he kept imprisoned with their mother, and another of whom died in infancy due to his refusal to seek medical help.
Last week, in a short three and half day trial commencing on Monday, March 16th 2009, Fritzl changed his plea to guilty on all counts including the murder by neglect of the infant son - named by his mother Michael - whom he allowed to die at 66 hours of age in April 1996 as well as to the enslavement and 'massive coercion' by repeated death threats made to Elisabeth and her captive children. Predictably, 73 year old Fritzl has been sentenced to life imprisonment in a secure psychiatric hospital. It has been widely reported that Fritzl's change of plea came about following eleven hours of harrowing video taped evidence given by Elisabeth, plus her unexpected - and exceedingly brave - decision to appear in person in the Sankt Poelten courtroom (together with her also incarcerated 20 year old daughter Kerstin, and her 46 year old brother Harald) during the first and second days of Fritzl's trial.
Elisabeth's evidence was heard in camera, but a great deal of her testimony had been previously leaked to the press prior to the trial start. And a truly dreadful tale in all its excruciating detail it is too, notwithstanding that the basic facts had already been known for almost a year. To go over that again now would not add anything new, and would simply be a further excursion of ghoulish voyeurism into that truly courageous lady's all but shattered privacy. Likewise too, the press had found it necessary to reveal a few days before the start of Fritzl's trial the exact location of the supposed secret safe house where Elisabeth and her six surviving children are now living. The show is over now, and more than anything else Elisabeth and her children now need to be left quite alone to hopefully – sincerely hopefully – rebuild at least a part of their denigrated lives.
A more general point however, which the British media and press in particular have been harping back to over and over again, is the supposed connection between the evil Joseph Fritzl and his unimaginable crimes, and the attitude of the Austrian population as a whole in regard to Austria's 'hidden' Nazi past. There has to be some connection, the press keep insisting. Yet this claim has never been backed up by any meaningful factual statements.
Austria: A small Alpine nation of eye-watering natural beauty: Of Mozart and Strauss: Of snowy white mountains, and verdant green valleys: Of ski slopes and tinkling cow bells: Etc., etc. Yet also a nation possessing some supposed 'dark underbelly' of neighbours who don't ask too many questions. And civil institutions who don't enquire too deeply into Austrian citizen's private lives. And a justice system that expunges crimes such as rape after just ten years. A land indeed that would 'permit' a crime as horrible as Fritzl's to go unnoticed for almost a quarter of a century. And all this because of its Nazi past. 'Evil Amstetten' is a phrase coined by at least one tabloid.
And is it really relevant that we need to know that during the latter part of World War II the 'small, sleepy Austrian town of Amstetten' was once the location of two satellite camps of the notorious Maulthausen concentration camp situated approximately 25 miles away? Apparently so, trumpets another certain newspaper!
Austria welcomed the Nazis, we are told. Amstetten was a 'hotbed' of pro-Nazi sympathy. Joseph Fritzl - a native of Amstetten from birth - sat on his father's shoulders and cheered when Adolph Hitler visited the town in 1938 ... or so we are reliably told. So Fritzl was a Nazi then?
But is any of this relevant to the here and now, and specifically to this man's crimes?
Media answer yes! Because it goes yet further still. The psychiatric expert who conducted six private interviews with Fritzl whilst he was being held in Sankt Poelten prison awaiting trial, and who also gave expert evidence to the court – Adelheid Kastner – has a tale to tell too. Fritzl, a self pitying delusionist who throughout the past year and certainly up until the the third morning of his trial sought by all means possible to portray himself as some kind of victim of society, had talked at some length to her about the war years. His mother, he claimed, didn't like him very much. And during Allied air raids on the town she refused to go to the public shelter, instead remaining in her house and sending the young Joseph down into the cellar. It seems he didn't like it down there. And he worried that his mother – 'the person at the centre of my world' - might not still be alive when the raids ended. Which explains what exactly?
So what then are the historical facts concerning Austria and the Nazis, and Joseph Fritzl and his 'Nazi past' in particular?
The actual date of the 'Anschluss' which was the incorporation, or 'union', of Austria into the greater German state, was 12th March 1938. The time of it, and the topic, forms the background to the 1965 musical film 'The Sound of Music'. It was a political coup d'etat, although German troops crossed into Austrian territory that morning. Virtually everywhere they were welcomed by cheering Austrians waving swastika flags, giving 'Sieg Heil!' salutes, and flinging spring flowers onto the roads. Indeed, the German army named the events Blumenkrieg or 'War of the Flowers'. Hitler personally entered Austria that morning at Braunau (his birth place) and arrived in the city of Linz that same evening. After that his progression though Austria became a triumphal motorcade. Hitler passed through the town of Amstetten on 14th March 1938, and was made an honorary citizen of the town for which he later wrote a personal letter of thanks to the town mayor. Hitler entered Vienna some while later, and there on 2nd April 1938 in the Heldenplatz (Square of Heroes) proclaimed the Austrian Anschluss to an estimated crowd of 200,000 cheering Viennese.
Austria certainly did welcome the Nazis in 1938 by and large, and significant numbers of SS personnel and concentration camp commandants were Austrian citizens. However Lower Austria as a whole, and the town of Amstetten specifically, were no different to other places in respect of that at the time. And at the time of Hitler's passage through Amstetten Joseph Fritzl was one month short of three years of age. If he did indeed witness Hitler's very brief visit he could have had no proper understanding of what he was seeing.
The Maulthausen concentration camp has a very complex history, and it is believed that as many as 320,000 persons died there. Essentially a labour camp as opposed to a death camp such as Auschwitz, its function was to provide slave labour for various war industries – chiefly armament manufacture – set up in the region. As was the case with other such camps it was not confined to one geographical location, but was essentially a wide ranging series of sub-camps spread over a wide area. Thus Ternberg, Dipoldsau and Passau – power stations, Hinterbruhl – aircraft manufacture, Linz I and III - armaments, Steyer – tanks, Wiener-Neustadt – ammunition, etc. The two sub-camps established at Amstetten in 1943 were named Bahnbau I and II, and their chief purpose was railway building and maintenance. Amstetten was at that time an important railway junction and rail communication centre. Bahnbau I held approximately 2,000 male slave labourers, whilst the much smaller Bahnbau II situated alongside the main railway station in Amstetten town held just 500 female prisoners. In the latter stages of the war these persons, including the women, were additionally employed in clearing up after air raids.
There were numerous Allied air raids over the general area commencing from around August 1943 onwards. However, Amstetten was directly targeted by a heavy raid on just one single occasion - 20th March 1945 - close to the war's end.
On 20th March 1945 approximately 760 heavy bombers of the United States Air Force 301st Bombardment Group – Boeing B 17 Fortresses and Consolidated B 24 Liberators – with an escort of Republican P.51 'Mustang' fighters set off on a bombing mission which was a part of the 'Oil Campaign' designed to destroy German fuel manufacturing capacity (including the production of 'synthetic petrol') and also to further disrupt fuel oil distribution by hitting the railway infrastructure. The primary targets of this particular raid were the Korgenburg and Kagran oil refineries, although smaller formations of bombers peeled off from the main stream to attack the railway marshalling yards at Wels, Sankt Poelten, Wiener-Neustadt, and Amstetten.
In Amstetten the air raid sirens began their eerie, modulating wail at around two in the afternoon. The incoming bombers were ineffectually engaged by some 88 mm and a few 128 mm anti-aircraft guns manned for the most part by elderly army reservists and teenagers. The marshalling yards along with the station and the immediately surrounding areas of Amstetten were heavily hit, with significant casualties occuring on the ground including 34 of the female prisoners belonging to the Bahnbau II sub-camp. (As a consequence of which the SS removed the rest back to the main Maulthausen camp two days later on 23rd March 1945.)
Joseph Fritzl, a month short of ten years old at the time, presumably experienced this air raid.
Amstetten was captured by U.S. forces (elements of the 11th Armoured Division and 26th Infantry Division) on 7th May 1945. There was no battle for the town. The Americans simply walked in to find white sheets hanging from virtually every window – a scenario repeated countless times over during the final weeks of the war in Europe. On 28th July 1945 the American forces pulled out to be replaced by Soviet army units in accordance with the division of Austria as agreed by the major powers at the Potsdam Conference. The area which included Amstetten was to remain within the Soviet sector of occupation until 27th July 1955, with the final pull out of all foreign troops from Austrian soil taking place on 25th October 1955. 26th October - Declaration of Neutrality Day - has ever since been a national holiday in Austria.
During the early years of Soviet military occupation - in 1946 in particular - the civilian population suffered greatly at the hands of the Soviet soldiery with looting, murder, and the widespread raping of Austrian and German women being commonplace. Fritzl would have been just twenty when this occupation ended.
It has also been speculated upon that Fritzl may have belonged to the Hitler Youth. Unlikely given his young age at the time, but in any case all records were destroyed at the war's end.
Can there really be any actual connection? I think it doubtful. Austria's Nazi past, like the war, is history. And it has been so for a long time now. The truly sickening crimes of Joseph Fritzl are uniquely his own. And maybe he himself will soon enough be consigned to history too.
As to the present, we can only marvel at the outstanding courage, steadfast love, dignity and pride of a truly remarkable lady, Elisabeth. And for one last time say: 'God bless you Elisabeth!' before leaving her and her children to try and recover from all the evil that has inflicted upon them in the privacy and peace which they so greatly desire, and which they so greatly deserve.
Copyright Terence Hugh Hazelton, 2009
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