The Austrian Syndrome (AKA The Keller Krazees)

Of course the world is abuzz with the latest Austrian kidnapping and imprisonment tragedy. I’ve received many email inquiries — and Austria seems to be debating — the “how” of the whole affair. How can a man who was well-regarded and thought of as totally upright by his village and peers turned out be be, in essence, a horrible monster named Josef F., who imprisoned and raped his own daughter in his own house, fathered seven of her children, and basically lived such a Jeckyl and Hide existence that not one soul suspected a thing despite the fact that he lived with a large family and rented to tenants in the same house.

Just as background, the thumbnail story is that the man imprisoned his young daughter, kept her there for two decades, fathered seven children, one of which died and some of which he brought out of the cellar, placed on his own doorstep and claimed they were the children of the imprisoned daughter, who he claimed had run away to join a religious cult.

It’s unbelievable, really. But I think I have one small piece of the puzzle. I’m not claiming to be an authority on the Austrian psyche, nor criminal psychology, nor anything else. However, I can remember a story that happened to me in Vienna back in 1991 that would probably explain a little bit about how nobody would suspect or, more accurately, allow themselves to believe this man could commit such crimes.

You’ll notice that in most of the news coverage, his neighbors, friend and associates all comment on what a good dresser Josef F. was, and how he was always responsible and authoritarian, and how he was a good business partner, a good consumer of their goods. Many called him “successful.” (In the US, it’s always “quiet” that neighbors say characterizes serial killers or other social miscreants, and in the US, that’s good: if you leave other people alone, you’re not perceived as a problem — but I digress).

When I was a student, I rented a room from an 83 year-old Austrian widow. I and two other students shared her 3 bedroom flat on the top floor of a slightly grimy part of Vienna’s Ninth District very near WUK. The owner of the apartment building was a lawyer with offices on the most-prestigious Stephansplatz in the First District.

The owner’s son, Peter, lived at the end of the hallway in a tiny one room flat. He had a hallway toilet and his bathtub stood in his kitchen. He wasn’t the cleanest fellow, because he was using his bathtub to grow pot. Our landlady warned us off of him, but, eventually, we became somewhat friendly — friendly enough for him to ask us for loans from time-to-time.

I could tell stories about this landlady for years, but one that really struck me happened in the middle of the night. It was about 2 AM, and I heard a loud knock at the door followed by what sounded like somebody falling into the door with all of his weight. I got out of bed and opened the doorways internal window to see what was going on, There stood a man in a business suit, tie sitting akimbo, hair a mess, alcohol vapors permeating every cubic centimeter of air between us. He saw me, and quickly said, in German, “who are you. What are you doing?”

I replied, in German, “excuse me?” He switched to English

“How many students live here!”

“Who are you?”

“I am the owner of this house,” he spit. “Where is Peter?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “But you should stop shouting, Everyone is asleep.”

“How many students do you have living here?”

I told him we had three, to which he replied, that he had not authorized so many and he was going to call the police. He then proceed to fall backwards into a pile of full plastic trash bags that Peter had accumulated in the hallway (he earned 50 Schillings/week from many of the old ladies in the building for taking their trash out, which seemed to be his only source of income). The man sputtered, quickly shuffled himself upright, and kicked the garbage bags all over the place. Then he picked up a broken tabletop that Peter had leaning against the wall, threw it down a flight stairs and stormed off into the darkened corridor.

Blinking in the half light, I locked the window and turned to see the twisted up, sour face of my landlady peering at me from behind her bedroom door.

“Scott,” she implored. “What was Peter doing?”

“It wasn’t Peter. It was Peter’s father.” I stumbled a little bit on my German there. I wasn’t really sure how to say “Peter’s father” in German, “Peters Vater? Der Vater des Peters?”

“Scott! What was Peter doing out there?”

“It wasn’t Peter. It was Peter’s father. Do you understand?” I wasn’t sure I was conveying the concept of father and Peter’s father to the old lady. She seemed to listen, but she wasn’t really getting it.

“Scott. That is nonsense,” she replied. “Peter’s father is a good man. He owns this house. He has an office on Stephansplatz and is a famous attorney.” She really did say that.

“Well, he was really drunk.”

“That’s not possible. It was Peter.”

Somewhere in Austrian society, there exist overt and covert hierarchies of humanity. In younger people, I haven’t noticed it so much or it is more good natured. For example, Austrians like to half-jokingly place Germans on the “bumpkin” level. But this is more good-spirited rivalry, a result of a very serious and long-standing intertwining of the nations and empires as well as a shared sense of tragedy as both empires were utterly destroyed in subsequent World Wars.

But if you chat with some of the older folks, you’ll see that there is a “does well/is well” dichotomy. A man who earns well can’t be anything but a “good man.” A son born into such and such family will no doubt be successful, morally upright and should be treated as such despite his merits. Quite simply, the stratification of society is very entrenched here, despite the extremely progressive social structure.

What’s more perplexing is that the other side of Austrian culture is the ever-watchful eye. Every visitor and resident of this country — especially in Vienna — can attest to the fact that everywhere you go, people are watching what you’re doing. You’ll be openly confronted for behaving outside of the social norms by, for example, putting your feet on the seat of the streetcar. I’ve been fussed at for pouring wine into a beer glass. Every time I take out my garbage, a man two floors up pulls back his curtains and susses out what I put in the bins. A neighbor left a note on my door telling my not to place my garbage bags in the hallway in preparation for bringing them downstairs. A friend of mine had her umbrella thrown into her apartment after leaving it just outside her doorway to dry. In short, behavior is observed and socially corrected everywhere around here. And yet, somehow, Josef F was given a pass. Nobody was peering over his walls, despite the fact that he allegedly fiercely protected access to it, because nobody was curious and nobody suspected a man so “successful” of doing anything at all. If he was seen working late into the night under his garage, it was probably seen as a sign of hard work. I’m sure few public officials ever once thought it strange that his daughter kept allegedly leaving children on his doorstep after disappearing into a cult. It simply wouldn’t occur to Austrians of a certain mindset that something could be wrong. And it’s probably indicative of the sexist nature of all humanity that the woman — a mother would automatically be assumed to blame, but that’s a topic for another post.

I’m not advocating spying on one’s neighbors because you think they might be up to something. I’m just pointing out that despite the extremely odd circumstances of this man’s life, he was given a pass because he was successful, a sharp dresser, a family man and an iron-fisted authoritarian.

I don’t mean to offend Austrians with my armchair analysis. And certainly what I’ve elaborated on here does not in any way scratch the surface of such a complex issue and horrific crime. It is just one of the small things one notices that is different. And now the debate explodes in every media outlet hungry for column inches and sensation. Is there “an Austrian syndrome” now that we’ve discovered two such cellar kidnapping and imprisonment incidents in the span of a few months?

4 Comments so far

  1. heder on April 29th, 2008 @ 2:56 pm

    Very interesting, I’ve been glued to this story here in Atlanta, GA. Thanks for the insight.


  2. melancolia (vie_elen) on April 30th, 2008 @ 8:14 am

    uhmm, interesting points. i agree that is is sometimes with the image you present in the public.
    during my first three years in austria i got comments every time i used my umbrella on a summer day. you see, Regenschirm, of course protection against rain. such small things written on the "protocol of how to behave."
    i also believe that it is the lack of communication among the neighbours here. people leave the place and they don’t know a thing about the families who live next door.


  3. till on April 30th, 2008 @ 9:42 am

    @Melancolia:
    Lack of communication between neighbors is not an Austrian syndrome though. It’s a "disease" of bigger cities and all metropolitan areas.

    I just moved from one place to another in Berlin and at the former place, I had been there for almost four years, yet I only knew maybe 5 parties of 20 living in the building. And none of them I really know well enough to give my keys to or go for a drink at night. It’s very casual.

    @Scott: Very interesting observation! Thanks for sharing it.


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