Austria is eager to move on after trial

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Kole writes for the Associated Press.

Long before Josef Fritzl and the horrendous crimes in his dungeon, Austria was maligned for its Nazi past, its right-wing politics and another high-profile abduction case.

Now that Fritzl has been sentenced to life in a psychiatric ward, the nation, wounded by another dark episode, is eager to move on.

“We are glad it ended so quickly,” Chancellor Werner Faymann said Friday of Fritzl’s four-day trial.


But to those who portrayed Fritzl as the monstrous product of a country blemished by its complicity with the Nazis, Faymann had a stern message.

“We will always defend ourselves against general prejudices and historical circumstances,” he said.

Fritzl, 73, was convicted of homicide, rape, incest and other charges Thursday. He was sentenced to life in a psychiatric ward for enslaving his daughter Elisabeth, raping her more than 3,000 times over 24 years, fathering her seven children and letting a newborn son die in captivity.

Austrians like Josef Leitner, who rented a room in the house in Amstetten where Fritzl built his basement prison, want to put it all behind them.

“On the day I heard what happened to Elisabeth, my breath stood still. Today I can breathe normally for the first time again,” he said.

Many Austrians were scandalized by foreign coverage of the case. British tabloids and other newspapers ran salacious headlines about Fritzl’s crimes in the “Nazi nation,” putting many Austrians on the defensive.


Hitler, who was born in Austria, annexed the country in 1938. Although Austrians have made strides in acknowledging their nation’s role in Nazi-era war crimes and the Holocaust, it remains a sore spot.

“Vicious attack on our Austria!” the newspaper Heute said in a front-page headline this week. “Half the world is aiming at us.”

The Fritzl case broke less than two years after the dramatic escape of Natascha Kampusch, who had been confined to a windowless underground cell for nearly 9 years.

Kampusch was a 10-year-old walking to school when Wolfgang Priklopil seized her off a Vienna street and imprisoned her in the cell he had built beneath his suburban home.

She escaped in August 2006, and Priklopil committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train.

Austrian politics has also hurt the country’s image. The late President Kurt Waldheim, who served as head of the United Nations from 1972 to 1981, was barred for two decades from entering the U.S. after it became known he had belonged to a German army unit that committed atrocities in World War II.


More recently, far-right leader Joerg Haider, who died last year in a car accident, was the country’s best-known politician -- for all the wrong reasons. He praised aspects of Hitler’s labor policies and made statements viewed as anti-Semitic.

When his right-wing Freedom Party won 27% of the vote in 1999 elections and joined Austria’s coalition government early in 2000, the European Union slapped the country with months of diplomatic sanctions.

When the details of Fritzl’s case emerged, he became a household name and a symbol -- however unwanted -- of his homeland. The trial this week drew more than 200 journalists, including some from Brazil, Russia and the U.S.

“We are not prosecuting a town or an entire country,” Judge Andrea Humer said in St. Poelten, where the trial was held.

Some Austrians took it in stride, flashing a bit of the nation’s sardonic humor. Restaurants in St. Poelten served up “Fritzl schnitzel” until city hall apparently convinced them it wasn’t a good idea.

Only time will erase the stigma of the case, said Leitner, the former tenant of Fritzl.

“People say that time heals all wounds, but for sure it will take a while,” he said.