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Josef Fritzl sentenced to life in a psychiatric ward...

VIENNA – Long before Josef Fritzl and the horrendous crimes in his dungeon, Austria was maligned for its Nazi past, its right-wing politics and another high-profile abduction case.

Now that Fritzl has been sentenced to life in a psychiatric ward, a nation wearied and wounded by yet another dark episode seems desperate to move on.

"We are glad it ended so quickly," Chancellor Werner Faymann said Friday of Fritzl's four-day trial.

To those who portrayed the 73-year-old Fritzl as the monstrous product of a country blemished by its complicity with the Nazis, Faymann had a stern message.

"We will always defend ourselves against general prejudices and historical circumstances," he said.

Fritzl was convicted of homicide, rape, incest and other charges Thursday. He was sentenced to life in a psychiatric ward for enslaving his daughter Elisabeth, raping her more than 3,000 times over 24 years, fathering her seven children, and letting a newborn son die in captivity.

Austrians like Josef Leitner, who rented a room in the same house in Amstetten where Fritzl built his basement prison, want to put it all behind them.

"On the day I heard what happened to Elisabeth, my breath stood still. Today I can breathe normally for the first time again," he said.

Many Austrians were scandalized by foreign media coverage of the case. British tabloids and other newspapers ran salacious headlines about Fritzl's crimes in the "Nazi nation," putting many Austrians on the defensive.

Hitler, who was born in Austria, annexed the country in 1938. Although Austrians have made big strides in acknowledging their nation's role in Nazi-era war crimes and the Holocaust, it remains a sore spot.

"Vicious attack on our Austria!" the newspaper Heute wrote in a front-page headline this week. "Half the world is aiming at us."

To be sure, there are reasons why the world sees more than Alpine meadows and Mozart sonatas when it sizes up Austria.

The Fritzl case broke less than two years after the dramatic escape of Natascha Kampusch, who had been confined to a windowless underground cell for more than 8 1/2 years.

Kampusch was a freckle-faced 10-year-old walking to school when Wolfgang Priklopil seized her off a Vienna street and imprisoned her in the cell he had built beneath his suburban home.

She escaped in August 2006, and Priklopil committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train.

Around the world, people mindful of the Kampusch case struggled to make sense of the revelations about Fritzl, and some couldn't help wondering if something was wrong with Austria.

Then there is Austria's politics. The late President Kurt Waldheim, who served as U.N. chief from 1972-81, was barred for two decades from entering the U.S. after it became known he had belonged to a German army unit that committed atrocities in World War II.

More recently, far-right leader Joerg Haider, who died last year in a car crash, was the country's best-known politician — for all the wrong reasons.

Haider praised aspects of Hitler's labor policies and made statements that sounded anti-Semitic. When his right-wing Freedom Party won 27 percent of the vote in 1999 elections and joined Austria's coalition government early in 2000, the European Union slapped the country with months of diplomatic sanctions.

When the details of the Fritzl case became known, he became a household name and a symbol — however unwanted — of his homeland virtually overnight. The four-day trial this week drew more than 200 journalists, including some from Brazil, Russia and the United States.

"We are not prosecuting a town or an entire country," judge Andrea Humer said in St. Poelten, west of Vienna, where the trial was held.

A few Austrians took it in stride, flashing a bit of the nation's sardonic and self-deprecating humor. Restaurants in St. Poelten served up "Fritzl schnitzel" until city hall apparently convinced them that maybe it wasn't such a good idea.

Only the passage of time will help erase what happened in people's memories, said Leitner, the former Fritzl tenant.

"People say that time heals all wounds, but for sure it will take a while," he said. "The media will pull back, everything will calm down slowly here in Amstetten, and I hope we will return to everyday life soon."

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Mar/20/2009, 1:52 pm Link to this post  
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Re: Josef Fritzl sentenced to life in a psychiatric ward...

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