AMSTETTEN, Austria — Carefree children in alpine costumes danced around a maypole, and parents crowded a churchyard to snap photos of sons and daughters making their first communion.
But an unmistakable melancholy settled Thursday over this town where police say Josef Fritzl imprisoned his daughter for 24 years and fathered seven children with her in a windowless, soundproofed cell.
As the sheer monstrosity of his alleged atrocities sank in — less than two years after a young woman escaped her tormentor in another high-profile case — anguished Austrians questioned whether their clannish society and cherished privacy have steered them horribly wrong.
"Without question, this entire experience shows the system isn't working," said Wolfgang Bachmayer, who has been scrambling as one of the nation's chief image consultants to do some damage control.
"It's a question of having a functional society," said Bachmayer, who heads the Austrian Institute for Marketing. "The authorities can't train their eyes everywhere and peer into every bedroom. We can only hope our politicians make the right decisions."
Some can't help but wonder whether more sinister forces are at play.
Natascha Kampusch, a freckle-faced 10-year-old when she was kidnapped on her way to school in 1998 and held in a dungeon for nearly eight years, told the British Broadcasting Corp. in an interview aired Thursday she thinks Austria's past complicity with the Nazis is at least partly to blame.
Abuse exists worldwide, she said, "but I think it's also a ramification of the Second World War."
During the Nazi era, "the suppression of women was propagated ... an authoritarian education was very important," said the 19-year-old Kampusch, whose dramatic flight to freedom in August 2006 captured the world's attention.
Did the Nazis influence Fritzl?
There has been widespread speculation that Fritzl, 73, may have been traumatized by the war.
He was only 3 when the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938. Yet he was an impressionable pre-teen when Amstetten — strategically situated on a key railway linking Vienna and the western city of Linz — sustained heavy Allied bombing.
Austria is still taking stock of the long-term effects of WWII, and only recently has it begun to break with decades of silence, denial and repression to confront its Nazi past.
In yet another bizarre twist to a fast-developing case, investigators disclosed Thursday that Fritzl repeatedly warned his captives that poisonous gas would be released if they were to attack him in a bid to escape.
The Nazis gassed to death millions of Jews in concentrations camps — including the Mauthausen camp not far from Amstetten. It was unclear whether Fritzl had actually rigged the cellar to release toxic gas.
Police allege that Fritzl confessed to taking his daughter Elisabeth — now 42 — captive when she was 18, repeatedly raping her, fathering seven children with her and tossing into a furnace the body of one of their offspring after it died in infancy.
Authorities say DNA tests confirm Fritzl is the biological father of the six surviving children, three of whom he and his wife adopted and raised upstairs. The other three, along with Elisabeth, were held in the cell and never saw daylight until — aged 19, 18 and 5 — they finally gained their freedom last Saturday.
Trying to regain equilibrium
Amstetten, reflecting shock and shame felt across Austria, since has struggled to regain some kind of equilibrium.
In a poignant reflection of how life goes on, bulletin boards displayed wedding engagements, the local soccer club's scores and photos of firefighters burning a barn in a training exercise. Tacked to a door just around the corner from the Fritzls' gray concrete apartment complex, a gaily painted poster proclaimed: "Hip Hip Hooray! Stella Turns 4 Today!"
But the mood was somber on Amstetten's tidy main square, where clusters of candles laid on the cobblestones during an evening vigil held earlier this week still flickered amid a pool of sticky wax.
Resident Maria Scheuch said she's convinced that Austria's closed society — a time-honored mind your own business, live and let live approach — will simply have to change.
"We like to say we are so child-friendly. But we must ask ourselves how child-friendly we really are," she said.
Privacy is almost sacrosanct in Austria, where it's not unusual for families living on the same street for many years to have little or no contact beyond a curt greeting exchanged on the street.
'These things happen'
Witnesses since have come forward to claim they saw or heard unusual activity, such as Fritzl allegedly struggling under cover of darkness to bring large quantities of food and water into his home through a rear entrance.
Why, many Austrians now want to know, didn't they blow the whistle years ago?
"This could happen anywhere, but the country's image is taking a real hit. Everyone's saying: 'Austria, Land of Dungeons,'" said Karin Cwrtila. "After the Kampusch affair, we didn't think it could get worse."
Experts contend Fritzl may have been a criminal genius who simply outsmarted neighbors and police.
"To organize so many births, supply so many alibis and create an atmosphere where no one dared ask questions, he had to be very lucid and intelligent indeed," said Reinhard Haller, a leading Austrian psychologist.
Walter Wendl, an Amstetten native who spent nearly four decades living and working in Britain until he returned here in 2000, lashed out at Austria's critics in Belgium. That country is home to Marc Dutroux, the notorious serial pedophile sentenced to life imprisonment in 2004 for raping, imprisoning and killing young girls in a homemade dungeon.
"They should keep it shut!" he said Thursday. "These things happen. You can't blame all the people."
Yet Austria's obsession with secrecy and privacy apparently extends to its law enforcement and judicial systems.
Legal experts say postwar Austria distanced itself from the Nazi legacy by enacting laws — some of which still form the backbone of the nation's modern criminal code — which effectively stripped police of much of their past authority to keep close tabs on citizens.
Both Franz Polzer, the regional police official leading the investigation, and prosecutor Gerhard Sedlacek confirmed an unusual practice: Austria, they say, destroys criminal records after a certain period — generally 15 years — when the statute of limitations is deemed to have erased old offenses.
"When such a crime has been atoned for, it's been atoned for," Polzer told the German weekly Der Spiegel this week.
Later, pressed by reporters about how the local authorities could have missed clues that might have alerted them to Fritzl's hidden chamber of horrors many years ago, Polzer became defensive.
"If you don't want to believe that a man is capable of this," he said, "then you can't believe there is deception on our Earth."
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