Austria And Evil

by Theodore Dalrymple (May 2008)

The case of Josef Fritzl has evoked many lively, one might even say enthusiastic and joyful, animadversions on the Austrian national character. It was no coincidence, said the finger-pointers, that it should be in Austria, land of Die Fledermaus, Mozart-kugeln and Gemutlichkeit in general, in which so extraordinary a case should have occurred.

Fritzl, a 73 year-old retired electronic engineer, imprisoned his own daughter, Elisabeth, in a specially-constructed cellar of his house for 24 years, raped her repeatedly and had seven children by her, all born in there without medical assistance. One of them died very young. Three of them, aged 5, 18 and 19, had never in their lives left the cellar, their only contact with the outside world being through television – perhaps the only service that television has rendered humanity.

The other three children had been delivered to the doorstep of Herr Fritzl’s house, as foundlings of old were once delivered to orphanages, by Herr Fritzl himself, accompanied by a note written in Elisabeth’s hand (she supposedly having left the parental household a long time before) to the effect that, having had two children already, she could not cope with any more, and asking her parents to look after them and bring them up.

Had the oldest of the children kept in the cellar not suffered from a mysterious illness requiring hospital care – she was delivered to the hospital unconscious, with a note attached to her body asking that she be looked after – and had she not been visited in the hospital by Herr Fritzl and his daughter posing as his wife, the situation could have continued indefinitely, at least until Herr Fritzl’s death.

The Austrian police were soon convinced that Frau Fritzl – the real Frau Fritzl, that is – knew nothing of what had been going on, and neither did any of the neighbours or townsfolk of the small and prosperous town of Amstetten where all this took place (Austria is nothing if  not prosperous).

It was inevitable, I suppose, that the ignorance both of Frau Fritzl and of the townspeople of the evil taking place under the very eyes, as it were, or in the midst of their placid, well-ordered and comfortable existence, should have been taken as a real-life metaphor for Austria’s attitude to its own past: for, in fact, no one really believes in his heart that either Frau Fritzl or the people of Amstetten could have been genuinely and totally ignorant of what had been going there on for so long. No, they both knew and did not know, or rather chose not to know: and choosing not to know something implies a degree of knowledge of it. Their ignorance, if such it can be called, of Herr Fritzl and his cellar was culpable.

This ambiguity, or (to put it less kindly) dishonesty, if it really exists, replicates in symbolic fashion the attitude of Austria to its historical record in the 1930s and 40s. Officially, Austria was a victim of Nazi aggression; in reality, it was an enthusiastic participant in Nazi crimes. But whatever crimes Austrians as individuals committed during the war, they committed them as Germans, not as Austrians. They were responding only to force majeure; the Austrian state was not implicated.

Suspicion of Austria runs deep, and with good reason. Everyone thinks (though it cannot be proved or disproved) that Kurt Waldheim, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, was elected president of the country not in spite of his Nazi past, but because of it. The Austrians claim that they insisted on voting for him because they resented the hypocritical reaction of the outside world to his candidature – surely, they said, powers with the combined intelligence resources of the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France must have known of his Nazi past when they accepted him as Secretary-General, so why should the Austrians themselves not accept him as President? Once again the Austrians were able to conceive of themselves as the injured party in the whole business.

Even the Austrian prohibition of Holocaust denial, under which the British Nazi-supporting historian David Irving was (in my view wrongfully) imprisoned until he recanted, or at least pretended to recant, is ambiguous. On the one hand, of course, it is a recognition of the moral monstrosity of what the Nazis did, and of the Austrians’ special responsibility for it; but on the other, it implies a deep mistrust of the Austrian people, who (it must have been feared by those who framed the law) might recant their anti-Nazism if they could.

Of course, there have been Austrians who were deeply disgusted by their countrymen. The greatest Austrian writer of the post-war period, Thomas Bernhard, inserted a famous clause in his will that repays reflection. He ordered that, for the duration of his legal copyright after his death, nothing he had ever written, including his plays, should ever be published or performed:

   within the borders of the Austrian state, however that state 
   describes itself. I categorically emphasize that I want to have

   nothing to do with the Austrian state and I safeguard myself
   concerning my person and my work not only against every
interference but also against every approach by this Austrian
state to my person and my work for all time to come.

‘For all time to come:’ that is a pretty strong injunction, implying as it does that the Austrian soul, or whatever you want to call it, is so tainted by its original sin, or sins, that it is irrecoverably and irremediably evil. And Austria’s recent Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Elfriede Jellinek, does not seem to have a much higher opinion of Austria than did Bernhard.

Whatever the justice or injustice of these speculations, I think it wrong complacently to suppose that such horrors as the Fritzl case can occur only in countries other than the one in which one happens to live. I have seen enough of human evil, in many different countries, to know that evil is not neatly confined to borders. For example, I was once consulted by the police in a case in Britain that was, in its own way, as terrible as the one in Austria.

A couple had set up a sexual torture chamber in their own small house in a small and otherwise unremarkable town in Britain, where they proceeded to rape their own naked children, suspended upside down from the ceiling, while filming it on video. It was the man who filmed and the woman, herself naked, beat and raped the children; they sold the videos of these appalling proceedings, which continued for years unbeknown to the neighbours or to any authorities, at great profit to themselves. In order to protect his partner in the business, the man claimed that he had drugged the woman with opiates, to make her do his bidding; I was asked to give an opinion as to whether this made pharmacological sense. Of course it did not.  

I do not think it is possible to say whether all this was worse than the Fritzl case: but even if it were, I should be reluctant to do so, because men often excuse their evil by claiming that at least it is not so bad as some other evil they could mention. This is not a way of thinking that should be encouraged. And yet one cannot help thinking about such cases.

A journalist acquaintance of mine asked me recently why this should be so, why evil fascinates in a way that good rarely does. To this question I do not have a definitive answer. Is the interest morbid? Maybe, but it is inescapable for creatures constituted as we are. You might as well pass a law to prohibit gossip as inveigh against our interest in the outer reaches of human conduct.

Although I think that most people are capable of evil under certain circumstances, I do not believe that many, as a proportion of the population, have any inclination to behave in the way that Fritzl or the two parents behaved. Vicarious wish fulfilment is not, therefore, the explanation of our fascination with radical evil.

I think that such cases bring into sharp focus our continual but continually failing attempts to understand ourselves and our place in nature. It is odd that we should have been equipped by satisfactorily that nature with a desire that (in my opinion) can never be fulfilled.

Of course, there has been a lot of propaganda recently to the effect that, thanks to a combination of Darwinian theory and neuroscience, we are about to understand ourselves in a radically better way than we have ever understood ourselves before. This seems to me to be nonsense: the latest post-religious attempt, after the failure of Marxism and Freudianism, to find an explanation of everything human. As for religion, it doesn’t satisfy me either.

In other words, the only honest way to live is with a sense of mystery. It is not merely that no particular explanation satisfies me, I cannot conceive of what an entirely satisfactory explanation of ourselves would be like. (I also fear such an explanation, were it possible, because it would give enormous power to him who possessed it. But would he understand his own motives and behaviour in making use of it? By definition he would have to do so; he would have to have also a completely coherent, consistent and true ethical theory, such as no one has yet found.)

A case such as that of Fritzl confronts us with a question in the following form: ‘At what point are we able to say to ourselves, ah, now we understand, that is to say truly understand, why he behaved like that?’ How much of his genetic endowment, his early life history, his neuroanatomy and chemistry, his social position, his cultural inheritance, will we need to know before we can say that no mystery remains for us?

I think the answer is obvious. We will never reach that point. Our understanding of ourselves will remain largely at the periphery of our lives. We will be able to perform all kinds of technological miracles – we will make the blind see, the deaf hear and so forth – but we shall never understand our own subjectivity, or be able to connect it conceptually to the physical ground of our being. When Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that they will not so easily ‘pluck out the heart of his mystery,’ he was, in effect, speaking for all mankind. We are all of us mysterious not only to others but to ourselves, and will remain so.

Because of this, our ability to control events will always be very limited. Those who claim that human self-understanding has marvellously increased of late, and the search for it is all over bar the shouting, have been remarkably unable to predict the future or tell us how to live. Their explanations of human conduct are all ex post facto and provide no guidance as to what we should do next, in the way that (for example) medical science sometimes tells us what to do next when we have such and such an illness.

No doubt there will be a lot of official activity in Austria in the wake of the Fritzl case: first recriminations and then proposals to ensure that nothing like it ever happens again (everything that happens in the modern world being an opportunity to increase bureaucratic interference in lives). If only enough good procedures are put in place, nothing untoward will ever occur to disturb our illusion of control.

From what I know of the infinite variety of human self-destructiveness, which is itself an expression of the Dostoyevskian urge to depart from the dictatorship of good sense, I should say that the disturbers of the peace will always be able to outwit the keepers of the peace. Political wisdom consists of knowing what is predictable and what is unpredictable, what is controllable and what is uncontrollable, and all the gradations in between. If you waste your time in thinking that everything is predictable and controllable, you will miss what is there to be seen. 


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