Oberwart in the Burgenland:
Ethnic & Religious Frictions in Rural Austria

Oberwart is a town in the Burgenland, fairly far down south in Austria′s eastern-most province. Oberwart has approximately 7,000 residents, which makes it the largest community in the area - beyond that, Oberwart is a county town (Bezirkshauptstadt). This makes it an important administrative, economic and educational centre.

Oberwart has the rank of a city and an ethnically mixed population: 73 percent of the residents are German-speaking (this is the Austrian way of avoiding to call them "German"), 17.5 percent of the residents are Austrian Hungarians, the rest comprises mostly of Burgenlandkroaten (the Croatian minority) and Roma (also known as gypsies before the invention of political correctness).

All three ethnicities - Hungarians, Croatians and Roma - are officially acknowledged minorities in Austria and enjoy certain privileges, such as access to schools that offer education in their mother tongue and representation in the national broadcast. Oberwart therefore has several names (like many places in the Burgenland): Felsöör in Hungarian, Gornja Borta in Croatian and Erba in Roman.

Oberwart was first mentioned as a border post in 1327. It was under Hungarian administration until 1921. In 1939, Oberwart was elevated to the rank of a city. The city is a good base for exploring the "Road of Castles" or literally diving into the spa resorts of the "Thermenwelt Burgenland".

The Oberwart Killing of 1995

Outside of the Burgenland, Oberwart is mostly known for the racist killing of four Roma in 1995: A bomb exploded and killed four men; attached to the bomb, police forces found a message stating: "Roma back to India" ("Roma zurück nach Indien"). This comment referred to the historic region of origin of the Roma people - a combination of bad education and violent racism.

The Oberwart bombing was one incident in a series that shocked Austria in the mid-1990ies. The culprit - a strange loner named Franz Fuchs - sent several letter bombs and caused 15 people partly very serious injuries in addition to the four murdered Roma men before he could be arrested in 1997. The letter bombs had been sent in six waves. Franz Fuchs was sentenced to life imprisonment; he committed suicide in a prison in 2000.

Sightseeing & History of Oberwart

The Austrian writer and Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek dealt with the Oberwart killings in her play "Stecken, Stab und Stangl". The case drew the attention of many Austrians to the Roma cause for the first time - those Roma who had survived Nazi persecution often lived in separate settlements outside of Eastern Austrian villages. Their economic situation was not necessarily disastrous (at least not compared to contemporary Roma settlements in Eastern Slovakia, Romania or Bulgaria), but clearly shaped by distrust and segregation.

In terms of sightseeing attractions, note that Oberwart has the only surviving (?) Jewish cemetery in the Burgenland with tombstones that are consistently labelled in German instead of Hebrew. It is the legacy from a vibrant Jewish community that has prospered in Oberwart until 1938. Note also the oldest protestant church of Austria - built in 1770, ten years BEFORE the "Toleranzpatent" of Emperor Joseph II allowed the erection of non-Catholic churches in Habsburg lands.

This was due to the many Calvinist "pilgrims" from Ottoman areas that found refuge in Oberwart. A synagogue, by the way, was built in 1902. Oberwart even had its own Rabbi until the Anschluss - which was preceded by Nazi congregations that drew up to 14,000 people to Oberwart.

Back to "Burgenland Sightseeing Guide"

Sightseeing by Austrian Province

Bregenz and Vorarlberg - Innsbruck and Tyrol - Salzburg - Salzkammergut - Graz and Styria - Klagenfurt and Carinthia - Wachau and Lower Austria - Vienna - Burgenland

Further Reading

Official Website of Oberwart

German Wikipedia on Oberwart (with pics)

Official Website of the Burgenland