Josef Fritzl, the Austrian who held his daughter captive for 24 years and fathered her seven children through multiple rape, threatened to kill all of them by turning the sealed underground bunker in which they were held prisoner into a gas chamber, police said yesterday.
Mr Polzer said Fritzl behaved like a military overseer in the cellar and had managed to intimidate his daughter and her children so heavily that they never considered trying to escape. "The door to the cellar is made of thick steel and it has an electric combination lock," Mr Polzer said. "Fritzl told them that if they ever tried anything, he would keep the whole cellar locked up and then fill it with gas pumped in from the outside. Then there would be no escape."
I do not believe any particular nation has a monopoly on pathology. But certainly pathologies seem to manifest themselves in peculiarly consistent ways within cultures. British journalist F. A. Voigt noted that "only the countries where grand opera flourishes have produced Fascism." Certainly there is a reason some countries are more prone to acquiescing to dictators than others. Literary critic George Steiner pithily observed the unlikeliness of British fascism when he remarked, "It is my conviction that had the infinite rhetorical genius of Adolf Hitler been tested at Hyde Park Corner, people would have said, 'Ah, come off it', and walked away." Of course Germany, Italy, Japan and other countries formerly considered hopelessly authoritarian (and in the case of Italy, ungovernable without authoritarianism) have now achieved success as Western-style democracies. A cataclysmic war can do a lot to reshape a national psyche. Yet perhaps a concept developed by that second-most famous Austrian of all time bears mentioning here: sublimation. Roughly sublimation is "the refocusing of psychic energy away from negative outlets, toward positive." So the Japanese who in another lifetime would have been been a kamikaze warrior to honour his family, now commits suicide if he fails his family in business. The astounding post-war economic rebounds of Japan and Germany are perhaps not as astounding if the concept of sublimation of martial energies toward economic ends is employed. But some psychic energes are too perverse to be so easily sublimated...
The present case in Austria is undoubtedly an isolated, horrifically unusual incident. Most Austrians are perfectly pleasant people. Most Germans before 1938 were perfectly pleasant people too, as were most Yugoslavians before their most recent incident of mutual ethnic destruction. Yet within every national psyche is a latent pathology that, with the right dictator or ideology, can cause the Josef Fritzls to emerge by the thousands and sublimate their personal perversions toward national genocides. Are there these kinds of people within every nation? Certainly. Human evil is a universal. That being said, I'd rather be a swarthy foreigner in Denmark than a swarthy foreigner in Russia. There are no doubt those liberals who would argue that belief in such a thing as a "national psyche" predisposed to group hatred is crypto-Nazism in reverse. Most Jews in pre-war Germany were assimilated liberals who likely felt the same thing. They were generally excluded from the crowd, so they did not know what effect the crowd mentality has on a group of people seemingly moderate and rational when met with individually. Individuals, however, are not the main problem. Individuals will produce horrific incidents like the recent rape-incest-imprisonment case, but they cannot produce deaths in the millions. That takes a crowd, a crowd either eager to live out its secret pathologies in the name of a greater good, or willing to silently look the other way in the name of a greater good. Let us be thankful that the Josef Fritzls of Mitteleuropa no longer have a greater good to commit even greater evils for.