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Secrets in the Cellar
A True Story of the Austrian Incest Case that Shocked the World
By John Glatt
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 John Glatt
All rights reserved.
A Nazi Childhood
Josef Stefan Fritzl was born in Amstetten, Lower Austria, on April 9, 1935, amidst the early rumblings of political upheaval from the rise of Nazism in neighboring Germany. His mother, Maria, a devout Roman Catholic, ruled the family, totally dominating his father, Josef Sr., a poor laborer with few ambitions.
The highly intelligent only child grew up in a climate of cruel uncertainty and discipline, both inside the Fritzl home and out.
Although the scenic mountainous region was settled in the Stone Age, the first known written mention of Amstetten was in 1111. The most notable event in its thin history was the Battle of Amstetten in November 1805, when Napoleon's army overran the town, killing hundreds of Austrian soldiers. Then in 1858, the railroad came to Amstetten, linking it to the rest of the Austria–Hungarian Empire.
Today's Amstetten is a small nondescript market town, lying midway between Vienna and Linz. It reclines in a valley of rolling green hills, noted for its apple cider and pear perry, with picturesque mountains and ancient fairy-tale castles towering in the distance. Indeed, the good climate and scenic views conjure up idyllic images of The Sound of Music, something the Austrian tourist board still trades on.
But when Josef Fritzl was growing up there in the late 1930s, there were dark clouds on the horizon that would help shape his later life.
On March 13, 1938, less than a month before his third birthday, the Austrian Nazi Party proclaimed the Anschluss, or union, were inviting the new German Chancellor Adolf Hitler to occupy Austria. The next day the Führer, who had been born less than ninety miles from Amstetten, made a triumphant visit to the small town, to the ecstatic cheers of the adoring townspeople.
Maria Fritzl and her little son Josef were among the delighted throng saluting Hitler as he ceremoniously drove around the main square in an open car.
"The crowd were screaming and waving," read a report in a local history book.
Later, Hitler personally thanked Amstetten in a letter, writing how his visit had "filled him with great pleasure," and thanking the city council for making him an honorary citizen.
One year later, Maria Fritzl threw her husband out of their small apartment for philandering, eventually divorcing him. Josef Sr. was reportedly killed in the war years later, fighting as a Nazi storm trooper, his name inscribed on a war memorial in the town square.
Little Josef grew up despising his father, considering him a "loser," though he idolized his mother, feeling she was the embodiment of the perfect woman. But Maria Fritzl was by all accounts an eccentric and strange woman, valuing discipline above everything else, in line with the ideology of the Third Reich. She reportedly encouraged her son to join the Hitler Youth movement after the war began, to make a man of him.
It was a violent childhood for little Josef, and he would be beaten regularly by his mother, whom he would later accuse of waiting years to have him treated for a painful urinary-tract infection.
"He grew up without a father," said his future sister-in-law Christine R., "and his mother raised him with her fist, beating him until he was black and blue almost every day."
Years later, he would speak about his mother's extreme brutality.
"She used to beat me," he remembered, "hit me until I was lying in a pool of blood on the floor. It left me feeling totally humiliated and weak. I never had a kiss from her ... she kept insulting me and told me I was a Satan, a criminal, a no-good. The only thing she ever did with me was to go to the church."
Life for both the Fritzls was filled with hardship. In those days, divorce in the ultra-conservative Roman Catholic town was scandalous. And they were so poor, they often relied on the charity of neighbors so they wouldn't starve.
In June 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Amstetten became a vital strategic railhead for German troops leaving to fight on the eastern front, and 6-year-old Josef grew accustomed to seeing German soldiers walking through the streets, or waiting for train connections. There were thousands of SS troops stationed there, enthusiastically patronizing the local bars and brothels, where they were welcomed like heroes.
Years later Josef Fritzl would admit that this early exposure to Nazism exerted a strong and lasting influence on him, instilling a lifelong respect for control and authority.
Soon after the war started, he enrolled at the local elementary school in Amstetten, immediately impressing teachers with his keen intelligence and ordered mind. He was always well-behaved and popular with his school friends, who nicknamed him "Sepp" ("Pepper").
Throughout the war, Amstetten would be a strategic target for the Allies. So the little boy spent many nights with his mother in a shelter, as RAF planes repeatedly bombed the main railway line linking Vienna and Linz. Later there would be much speculation that Maria Fritzl had sexually molested her young son over this turbulent period, as bombs were falling over Amstetten. Perhaps he had felt trapped and disempowered, as his controlling mother crossed the boundaries into incest. Whatever happened between them sexually would scar the little boy for life, with disastrous results.
Just a short walk from their tiny one-room apartment was the Mauer clinic, part of the notorious Mauthausen–Gusen concentration camp network. The Nazis had built the stately camp in Amstetten at the outbreak of war, ultimately killing hundreds of patients in line with the Third Reich's euthanasia laws.
A further eight hundred men and women worked railroad construction at the main Amstetten terminus, before being transported to other camps for execution.
After the war, the Amstetten town council commissioned a book entitled Amstetten 1938–1945, which included a chapter on the war time atrocities committed at the Mauer clinic against "unworthy lives." It listed 346 cases of patients being executed as part of the Mauer's 1941 euthanasia program, mainly concentrating on psychiatric and elderly patients.
"The first step to eliminating inherited and mental diseases was sterilization," the book states. "The last was euthanasia."
At the end of the war, the notoriously sadistic Nazi psychiatrist Dr. Emil Gelny visited the clinic. A fanatical member of the Nazi Party since 1933, Dr. Gelny had invented "electro-executions," a barbaric procedure where four electrodes were attached to the patient's hands and feet. Then a high voltage current was run through them until they died in agony — which could take up to ten minutes.
During his 1944 visit, Dr. Gelny amused himself by selecting thirty-nine "unnecessary mouths," then killing them with various drugs, including morphine, Veronal and Luminal. After the war, he escaped to Syria and then Iraq, where he practiced medicine in Baghdad until his death in 1961.
The evil Mauer death camp permeated Amstetten during the war, and little Sepp Fritzl knew it well. He grew up in its shadow, seeing inmates wearing their distinctive uniforms lined up at the terminus every day on his way to school.
The little boy was intrigued by the Mauer camp, which held a strange fascination for him.
In May 1945, a month after Fritzl's tenth birthday, U.S. troops liberated Amstetten. Soon the Soviet Red Army would follow in their wake, occupying Austria for the next decade. Sepp Fritzl would have witnessed the communist invasion first-hand, living through the extended occupation, notorious for the many rapes of Austrian women.
The war took a terrible toll on Amstetten, which had almost been destroyed by Allied attacks. It was a dangerous place, with many unexploded bombs, especially around the train station. Sepp Fritzl and his friends often played soccer in the streets among the bombed-out ruins.
He and his mother lived in a poor neighborhood, and soccer was considered the only escape. It was said that whoever owned a leather football ruled the street like a kaiser, with the ragged neighborhood children prizing dribbling skills above everything else.
But in these years, Sepp Fritzl was something of a loner, possessing few soccer skills. Although he was handsome, with jet-black hair and piercing blue eyes, he hardly stood out from the other boys, who often shunned him.
Years later he would claim to have survived his miserable childhood by reading any books he could lay his hands on. It was at this time that he realized he was highly intelligent, and found confidence.
In 1947, Josef Fritzl started at Amstetten Secondary Sports School, where he would spend the next four years. Former classmates still remember the 12-year-old as "slightly different," with an "unfashionable haircut" that his mother had given him to save money.
Andreas P., who grew up on the same street as the Fritzls, remembers Maria Fritzl as a "mysterious" woman, unable to tolerate daylight.
"She always put her hands over her forehead and eyes," he said. "She was very sensitive to light."
By his own admission, Fritzl worshiped his mother, who had by this time found a job, somewhat raising their standard of living. He later lauded her as "the best woman in the world," who'd taught him the values he would live by.
Even though she often beat him mercilessly, he believed it was for his own good and a necessary preparation for adult life.
Years later he would describe himself as an "alibi child," claiming his mother only had him to prove to his father that she was not sterile. He would also talk of having an "evil streak" that he was born with and fought against his entire life.
Josef Fritzl would also deny any sexual relationship with his mother, although he would admit harboring unfulfilled sexual fantasies toward her. He would talk of loving her "across all boundaries," strangely congratulating himself for resisting his strong urges to consummate their relationship.
"It's complete rubbish to say my mother sexually abused me," he would tell an Austrian newspaper in 2008. "I suppose you could describe me as her man, sort of ... She was the boss at home and I was the only man in the house."
At Amstetten Secondary Sports School, Fritzl initially had difficulties with his studies, but his work improved drastically after a teacher praised him and began taking an interest in the intelligent boy. He gained the reputation of a good student who never got into trouble.
On June 11, 1951, his class, 4B, went on a school trip to the Hellbrunn Residence, a few miles outside Salzburg. The class spent the day touring the stately 16th-century country residence of Prince-Archbishop Markus Sitticus.
Later, the handsome 16-year-old, dressed in traditional short pants and knickerbockers, was photographed with his classmates, posing by a statue for a souvenir picture. Josef Fritzl wore a blank enigmatic stare, his mouth registering neither a frown nor a smile. It is a youthful face bursting with strange dark secrets, way beyond its years.CHAPTER 2
Starting a Family
A few weeks later, Josef Fritzl graduated from school, enrolling at a polytechnic for a one-year electrical engineering course. Then, after sailing through his final exams, he found a good job in Linz, 40 miles west of Amstetten, moving there with his mother.
The third largest city in Austria, Linz was far less parochial than Amstetten. The provincial capital of Upper Austria, it had been a thriving port on the Danube River during the Middle Ages. In the early 20 century, when the first Austrian railroad was built, Linz prospered from being a port on a direct rail line linking the Adriatic and Baltic Seas.
Adolf Hitler spent most of his childhood in Linz, studying at the Realschule. During his rise to power, he had envisioned it as an important cultural center for the Third Reich, and, a few hours after his 1938 Amstetten visit, had delivered a stirring speech from the Linz town hall, proclaiming the glorious union of Austria and Germany.
That same year the Fuhrer initiated a program to industrialize Linz, by moving in blast furnaces and steel factories from Czechoslovakia. The Hermann Göring Werke, or the VOEST company, manufactured steel, driving the Nazi war machine. After defeat in 1946, it became known as the United Austrian Iron and Steelworks, before being nationalized.
In 1951, 16-year-old Josef Fritzl started his first job at VOEST, soon gaining a reputation as a hard-working and brilliant engineer. Over the next several years, Fritzl spent his days working at the factory, before returning home to his mother.
As he entered his twenties, he was becoming something of a dandy, with a perfectly manicured mustache and expensive clothes. He frequented bars, and was popular with the girls, although he rarely went out with any, fearing his mother's disapproval.
It was around this time that he began exposing himself to women around the woods of Linz, finding a perverse thrill in the power it gave him over them. Late at night he would pedal his bicycle around the streets, spying on women, satisfying something growing deep inside him that he would later describe as "a volcano" he could barely control.
Over the next few years, the young exhibitionist would start attracting the attention of the Linz police with his unusual late-night activities.
In 1956, 21-year-old Josef Fritzl moved back to Amstetten, laying down the foundations of a new life that he could control completely. He selected a pretty 17--year-old local girl named Rosemarie for marriage. A barely educated, naïve girl who was nowhere near his intellectual match, Rosemarie, he felt, would be perfect to allow him to live the dissolute life he had in mind.
He had cunningly chosen her for her submissiveness and his ability to control her in the relationship — the total opposite of his manipulative mother.
Rosemarie, in turn, was attracted by some powerful quality she saw in him, for she would remain with him for more than half a century, allowing herself to be ruthlessly dominated without complaint.
Fritzl immediately announced his intention to raise a large family, for the power and prestige he felt it would give him. His naturally nurturing new wife was only too happy to oblige.
Soon after they married, Rosemarie became pregnant. In 1958, their daughter Ulrike was born, the first of seven children Rosemarie would bear him over the next thirteen years. Josef would make his young wife bring them up, doing nothing except disciplining them with his fist.
From the beginning, Rosemarie's family distrusted Josef Fritzl, believing he was cruel and exploitative.
"I always hated him," said her younger sister Christine. "When Rosemarie married Josef, she was only seventeen. She was at his mercy."
One year later, the new father was arrested after a Linz woman complained that he had exposed himself to her.
"We recorded Fritzl as an exhibitionist," who'd already acquired a police record by this time, recalled now-retired Linz Police Chief Gerhard Marwan. A local newspaper report at the time described Fritzl as being "no stranger to the Linz police," with "two other relevant offenses, once for exhibitionism, and the other time for attempted rape."
But his arrest for indecency did not appear to bother Rosemarie, by now pregnant with their second child Rosemarie who was born in 1960.
There are few records of Josef Fritzl's life over the next several years, but he would later boast of leaving his wife and children behind in Amstetten, while he spent three years in Ghana, working on radio installations.
"I had various short flings with women in Ghana," he would later boast. "Nothing serious. I was worried about sexually transmitted diseases. I always chose nice girls, no prostitutes, for that reason."
By early 1963, he was back in Amstetten with Rosemarie, who later that year gave birth to their first son Harald. Josef was also commuting to Linz, where he had been rehired at the VOEST steelworks.
Most work nights, Fritzl slept over at the Linz home of Rosemarie's parents, Franz and Rosa, often arriving home in the early hours of the morning after spending the night spying on women. The mere act of exposing himself no longer satisfied his growing dark sexual fantasies.
"He was a voyeur," one of his unfortunate victims would later tell police. "He used to ride around on his bicycle and watch everyone."
Excerpted from Secrets in the Cellar by John Glatt. Copyright © 2009 John Glatt. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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