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Europe

Austria Worries About Tarnished Image After Incest Case

Fears in Austria are growing about how the case of a man who locked his daughter in a cellar for 24 years and fathered seven children with her will impact the country's image. Police plan to revisit missing person cases.

An Amstetten town limits sign.

The events in the town of Amstetten have rocked Austria and the world

Several hundred journalists from all over the world are currently camped out in Amstetten, the town in eastern Austria where 73-year-old Josef F. perpetrated his crimes.

Austria's tourist industry is worried about the fall-out from the case. Many international commentators have interpreted it as a sign of something being rotten in the state of Austria -- that the case is a reflection of the state of the national psyche.

The nightmare scenario is that the country of mountains and lakes, of Mozart, Haydn and the Habsburg monarchy, will now be seen as "the land of dungeons," as one foreign newspaper has called it.

History repeating itself?

Picture of basement cellar

Part of the basement where F. incarcerated his daughter for almost 25 years

Part of the problem is that the case is not the first of its kind. In August 2006, 20-year-old Natascha Kampusch escaped her kidnapper after spending eight years locked up in a basement dungeon.

And there were others: a mother who locked her daughters in the house for years, and, in the 1990s, the case of Maria, a girl who was kept in a wooden box by her parents.

The press response has been harsh. Italy's La Stampa said perversion and serial killers are "naturally not exclusively Austrian but there they are tied up with waltzes, yodelers and cuckoo clocks." The paper wondered whether F.'s crimes were "uniquely Austrian."

Poland's Dziennik newspaper asked: "Why are such beasts born in Austria?" While the Swiss Tagesanzeiger looked for causes in the conservative, agricultural and "arch-Catholic" society of lower Austria where "words such as civil society and self-responsibility are still alien."

In Germany, a number of newspapers have drawn a parallel between the subterranean nature of these crimes and the country's tendency towards repression. For years, Austria depicted itself as the victim of the Nazi regime rather than a complicit accessory.

Some circles inside Austria share this opinion. According to Austrian writer Josef Haslinger, his country has a "fatal tradition" of "brushing things under the carpet." He told German radio that Austrians should not act as if the Amstetten incest case "has nothing to do with Austria, as if it could happen anywhere."

Heads of state defend country's honor

Clinic Mostviertel in Austria seen behind wire fence

F.'s daughter is currently being cared for in a clinic

State representatives beg to differ. The vehement criticism of Austria has prompted an official response from the highest quarters. Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer said in Vienna on Thursday, May 1, that citizens should not allow "the whole of Austria to be taken hostage by a single criminal, cruel perpetrator ... we have the reputation of our country to defend."

A day before, Austrian President Heinz Fischer also spoke up on behalf of the nation, saying in an interview that "there is nothing subtly Austrian about this case. The monstrousness that man is capable of can be revealed anywhere." This can be proven, he said, by looking at the "worldwide horror headlines of recent years."

Austria's leaders will be relieved to hear that some analysts believe the damage to the country's image will not be permanent.

Market researcher Wolfgang Bachmayer told the DPA news agency that the qualities normally associated with Austria -- tradition and coziness -- would eventually be restored in the public mind, while another market researcher, Karin Cwritila, said the Alpine country would win back its classic image as an "island of the blessed."

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