Unless they have been ... er ... locked in a cellar for the past week, readers will have heard the gruesome tale of Josef Fritzl. Fritzl, 73, of Amstetten, Austria, held his daughter prisoner in a cramped cellar for twenty-four years, repeatedly beating and raping her. He fathered seven children by her, three of whom were also kept in the cellar. The Times reports on the physical damage to the children, the psychological damage being as yet unimaginable:
While three of the six children to survive from Mr Fritzl's incestuous relationship with his daughter Elisabeth were brought up as part of normal Austrian society, the others lived their lives without daylight in rooms 1.7 metres (5ft 6in) high.
The Austrian authorities revealed that all the imprisoned children have emerged with defective immune systems and suffering from vitamin D deficiency.
None of them had ever seen a doctor or a dentist before their release and the oldest, at the age of 19, has already lost most of her teeth.
The height of their prison ceilings has left them each with a cramped physical posture and all three are anaemic.
One of the children is being tested to see if his sight and hearing have been impaired by 18 years of confinement
Experts said that the psychological problems resulting from being the child of an incestuous relationship – and of living in a claustrophobic bolthole – are unique.
Of course, evil on this scale is not uniquely Austrian. Think, in Britain alone, of Fred West, Harold Shipman, Brady and Hindley, and Victoria Climbié. At least Fritzl's children/grandchildren are still alive. But, like Richard Morrison of The Times, I picked up on two "seemingly incidental" aspects of the case that, if not distinctly Austrian, are distinctly Teutonic:
The first is that [Fritzl] built the underground cells for his benighted (grand)children with such chilling Teutonic ingenuity and efficiency. Plumbing, wiring, soundproofing, camouflage - all apparently installed without the neighbours suspecting a thing. Now, what does that remind you of?
Obvious? Not to Österreich, one of Austria's leading newspapers, which gave me a second jolt by calling Fritzl's deeds "the worst crime of all time". Further evidence, surely, that the land of snow flakes and strudel and schnitzel with noodles is still gripped by a very creepy historical amnesia.
Talking of snow flakes, my old history teacher insisted on referring to Germany's "annexation" of Austria as the "An-slush". Unwittingly she hinted at a fluidity in the relationship that the original obscures: it was less an annexation than a melding together.
I have been to Austria. It's too pretty by half. At least Fred West's cellar was squalid.