Josef Fritzl: The making of a monster
For the past week the world has been transfixed by the appalling crimes committed in Amstetten. But now it has emerged that Josef Fritzl was the victim of brutal abuse at the hands of his mother. Could this explain the man he became?
Josef Fritzl has been depicted as one of the most evil monsters Europe has ever known. The world has reacted in horror as the full extent has been revealed of the torment to which he exposed his daughter for almost a quarter of a century, raping her and fathering her seven children.
But yesterday there was a hint of different and more complex picture – one of the monster as victim, brutally abused almost daily by his own mother as he was growing up in what was then part of the Nazi-controlled Third Reich.
The revelations about 73-year-old Fritzl's childhood came almost a week after the former electrical engineer confessed to committing Austria's worst incest and child abuse crime, which led to three of the children he fathered spending their entire lives underground without ever seeing daylight.
However, new evidence about Fritzl's past appeared to offer at least the beginnings of a plausible psychological explanation for his monstrous crimes of multiple rape, incest and child abuse which continued for 24 years.
In an interview, the sister of Fritzl's wife, Rosemarie, a woman identified as 56-year-old Christine R said that Fritzl had been brought up by a single mother with an explosive temper who resorted to violence to control her child.
"Josef grew up without a father. His mother raised him with her fists," Mrs R said. "She used to beat him black and blue almost every day. Something must have been broken in him because of that. He was unable to feel any kind of sympathy for other people. He humiliated my sister for most of her life."
Fritzl was born in 1935 and would have been four years old at the start of the Second World War. It was not clear whether he lost his father during the war, but, when the war ended, he would, as a nine-year-old, have experienced first hand the invasion of Austria by the Soviet Red Army in 1945. Reports in the Austrian media have claimed that as a child he "suffered badly" during this post-war occupation which was notorious for the high incidence of rape perpetrated by Russian soldiers on civilian German and Austrian women.
Doctors have already provided an initial assessment of Fritzl's personality. Reinhard Haller, an Austrian psychiatrist whose analysis of defendants is used by the courts, has suggested that Fritzl suffers from a power complex that may have resulted from his being abused by his mother.
Sigrun Rossmanith, another Austrian court psychiatrist, concludes that Fritzl developed two personalities, one of which was dominated by the need to exert total control over others.
His own daughter, whom he held in his cellar from the age of 18 onwards was the victim of his power complex: "She was a slave that he could use at any moment of his choosing," she said, "He made her submissive and used her according to his needs. He exercised absolute control over her."
Fritzl's double personality is even reflected in the design and build of his (at first sight) ordinary looking two-storey house in Amstetten's Ybbsstrasse. The light grey facade of the building which looks out on to the main street is a normal turn-of-the-century provincial townhouse with net curtains hanging in the front windows.
However the back of the house which was extended out to include Fritzl's notorious cellar, looks not unlike the kind of massive Second World War above-ground bunkers that were built by the Nazis to withstand air raids. Passers-by are confronted with solid windowless concrete walls at ground level, the only windows at the back of the building are on the top floors, and the garden is hidden behind a row of evergreen trees.
Wolf Gruber, one of Fritzl's neighbours said last week: "Much has been made of the neighbours failing to notice anything funny going on, but the fact is that you can't see anything that's going on in the Fritzl house from the outside. Everything is concealed."
Yesterday more acquaintances of "Sepp" Fritzl provided further evidence of the duplicitous side of his character. Leopold Stütz, the deputy mayor of the town of Lasberg in Upper Austria who knew the Fritzls well and even went on joint holidays with the family, said; "I always had the impression that Sepp was an intelligent and successful man. He always liked to talk about his perfect family, but he was very hard on his children," he said.
Mr Stütz, who only learnt this week that his friend kept his own daughter Elisabeth, or Liesel, in his cellar and used her as a sex slave for 24 years, had assumed Fritzl's story that his daughter had run away to join a religious sect was true. "Whenever we asked him about Liesel, he used to say that Interpol was looking for her," Mr Stütz said. "He said that he was so worried that he even went to a fortune teller to try and learn what had happened to her."
All the time, of course, Liesl Fritzl and her children were being held as prisoners in Fritzl's underground bunker. Whatever abuse Josef Fritzl suffered from his single parent mother as a child, he appears to have made sure that it was passed on more than a hundredfold to his own daughter and the three of her children who spent their whole lives underground with her.
Professor Max Friedrich, the psychiatrist who presided over the treatment of Natascha Kampusch, who was held captive in a cellar for eight years, said yesterday that Elisabeth Fritzl, 42, her daughter Kerstin, 19, and her sons, Stefan, 18, and Felix, 5, would require between four and eight years of intensive therapy to achieve any form of recovery. Other psychiatrists have concluded that none of Fritzl's victims will ever be able to live normal lives. "It is too late for that," one said last week.
Doctors reunited the members of the Fritzl family earlier this week. Elisabeth Fritzl's three other children – two girls aged 16 and 15 and a 12-year-old boy who were allowed to live normal lives upstairs – saw their mother and their other siblings for the first time. The upstairs children were " adopted" by Fritzl when they were only a few months old.
Dr Berhard Kepplinger, the director of the Amstetten clinic where the family is being cared for, said that Elisabeth Fritzl and her mother Rosemarie hugged each other for a long time when they saw each other. "It is astonishing how well the reunion went," he said.
However there are still massive psychological hurdles to overcome. Commentators have compared the case of the Fritzl cellar children to the early 19th century case of Kaspar Hauser, the boy who suddenly appeared in the German city of Nuremberg in 1812 at the age of 16, having spent the whole of his life locked away. Nowadays, the Kaspar Hauser syndrome is a recognised psychiatric term for social isolation.
Kerstin Fritzl, who is suffering from a form of epilepsy that is linked to incest is on a respirator and has been put into a clinically induced coma. Doctors say her condition has stabilised. Elisabeth Fritzl's two other cellar children, Stefan and Felix, are gradually learning to talk without grunts with the help of their "normal" brothers and sisters.
But for both boys, coping with open space after a life underground in a confined bunker is proving difficult. Doctors have installed a windowless container next to their hospital accommodation to enable them to retreat into closed space if they feel the need to.
When police released Felix from the cellar last Sunday he saw daylight for the first time in his life. Pointing to the sky, he asked one of the officers "Is God up there?"