Last week journalist Roger Boyes wrote in The Australian newspaper that Austria’s incest dungeon case was a product of an unusually extreme “look-away society” created by Austria’s Nazi past. Boyes’ link between this criminal tragedy, where a man, Josef Fritzl, kept his daughter imprisoned for 24 years and fathered her seven children, and Austria’s past is a tenuous one. To suggest that this man’s crime means that Austria is more of a look-away society than other Western nations is foolish.
By Boyes’ reasoning the recent increase in the number of child killers and schoolyard assaults in Britain could be the result of Britain’s imperial past, and the root cause of Harold Shipman’s serial killing may be traced back to the host of trophy skulls taken by Britain’s colonial administrators. Australia’s backpacker murderers Bradley Murdoch and Ivan Milat, and mass killer Martin Bryant may, according to Boyes’ theory, be symptomatic of a nation whose convict heritage has led them to prey on outsiders.
Boyes is perplexed that no one noticed that the Austrian perpetrator, Josef Fritzl, acquired food and baby clothes for people who did not officially exist. How would this be supervised? Surely Boyes isn’t suggesting a return to Stasi style policing or a franchise operation for the old KGB? Communist totalitarianism doesn’t fit well with Western style liberalism.
The line between neighbourly alertness and intrusive behaviour is often very blurred. A recent post on a Viennese website asks for advice on alerting the authorities about a neighbour’s daughter who has been “studying out of town” for the last few years. Another potential cellar dweller? We should all cut 100 keys to our front doors and run weekly neighbourhood inspections - Boyes can host the trial run.
Boyes, referring to Austria’s Nazi history, says that “Austria is a society that nurtures its secrets, that suppresses its history, that blocks out uncomfortable biographies”. Perhaps Austria’s past isn’t for celebration. Except that Holocaust denial is a criminal offence in Austria. Austria has a national fund for victims of the Nazi regime. Every child learns about the Holocaust in school and all must visit a former concentration camp. These acts won’t heal wounds but they are a symbol of recognition for past wrongs.
Australian schoolchildren on the other hand are neither forced nor encouraged to visit sites where atrocities against Indigenous Australians were committed, such as in Myall Creek. And while the Australian Government recently apologised to the Stolen Generation, financial reparations for their suffering are not being considered.
Is Austria unique as a look-away society? No. Per capita murder rates are significantly higher in the UK and Australia than in Austria. Britain missed a whole group of terrorists living in its midst while planning terror attacks on London’s transport system.
The alleged physical and sexual abuse of more than 100 inhabitants of a children’s home in Jersey went unnoticed for more than 20 years.
In Australia there is still ongoing rampant sexual abuse of Australia’s Indigenous children and a 17-year life expectancy gap between Australia’s Indigenous population and their fellow Australians.
Matthias, a well educated Austrian professional in his early 30s agrees that there are flaws in Austria’s child protection system. He wonders how Fritzl, allegedly a convicted rapist, was able to adopt three children without authorities attempting to locate their mother. Every nation has its systemic government failures - think of the ongoing blunders by Australia’s Department of Child Services - “but others should still sweep in front of their own front door, instead of always blaming everything on Austria’s Nazis”, Matthias says.
In the heartbreaking Fritzl case it is natural to look to apportion blame and parts of Austria’s government will need to accept some of it. Most of the blame must however go to the individual Josef Fritzl. To say that a whole society and its past are uniquely to blame is a long stretch of Boyes’ imagination.
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