“Returning the award is an important protest in a country that is becoming increasingly fascist.” – Péter Rózsa, deputy editor-in-chief, Klubrádió
“A terrible atmosphere is starting to form in the country. In the West such speech is unequivocally unacceptable.” – Tamás Wittinghoff, mayor, Budaörs
“Please remove my name from the list of recipients. I ask my fellow recipients to do as their conscience demands.” – Jenő Kaltenbach, former parliamentary commissioner for the rights of national and ethnic minorities
Budaörs mayor Tamás Wittinghoff and Klubrádió deputy editor-in-chief Péter Rózsa were both awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit in 2008. They are among dozens of notable Hungarians returning the country’s third-highest state award to President János Áder in protest at the same honour being bestowed last Thursday on Fidesz publicist Zsolt Bayer.
Rózsa says he became physically ill upon learning the controversial journalist had received the award. Wittinghoff told the Beacon that giving the award to Bayer was a provocation, and he had no choice but to return his own.
Áder presented the Knight’s Cross to Bayer on the occasion of Hungary’s national day, August 20. A founding member of the ruling Fidesz party, Bayer is a highly controversial figure mostly known for penning belligerent op-ed pieces bordering on hate speech, especially when it comes to gypsies and Jews. In fact, on several occasions the Fidesz-controlled media authority has fined Magyar Hírlap, the pro-government newspaper owned by Fidesz oligarch Gábor Széles, for publishing Bayer’s hateful tirades.
The first Hungarian notable to return his award in protest was Jenő Kaltenbach, former parliamentary commissioner for the rights of national and ethnic minorities. In an open letter to President Áder, the Dialogue for Hungary (PM) politician wrote:
“Today you awarded this recognition to somebody whose activity has earned the disdain of every sensible person over the years. With this you rendered dishonorable and unacceptable both the award itself and the one bestowing it. How you hold yourself to account for this is your business. How I choose to live with this is mine. With great regret I feel that I cannot act as though nothing happened. I do not wish to be associated with your decision, and for this reason I request that you consider this as such that I return my previously received award. Please remove my name from the list of recipients. I ask my fellow recipients to do as their conscience demands.”
Many recipients followed Kaltenbach’s example. As of Tuesday evening some 47 had already returned the award according to online daily 444.hu, which is keeping count.
“No continuity between Third Republic and Orbán regime”
There are those who argue against returning the order. Széchenyi prize award winner Sándor Radnóti, who received the Knight’s Cross in 1998 and who cannot be accused of being a collaborator of the current government, wrote:
“Whoever returns the award received during under the Third Republic, he does so in the belief that there is continuity between the Third Republic and the Orbán system. But there is not.”
Editor and social policy expert János Joka Daróczi, who received the award in 2007, posted on his Facebook page:
“I am not returning my Order of merit of the Republic of Hungary award Knight’s cross! Zsolt Bayer should return his, the main inciter of hatred who has no place among us!”
While Rózsa said he respects Radnóti’s point of view and agrees “there really is no continuity between the Third Republic and the Orbán system”, he believes that everyone must react according to their conscience.
“I became physically ill and could not remain in the same space as the award,” Rózsa told the Budapest Beacon.
“If there isn’t a lowest common denominator that considers Bayer’s work to be unacceptable, then it is better to return the dishonored award,” said the Klubrádió deputy editor-in-chief.
Protesting encroaching fascism
Rózsa believes everyone must decide for himself what to do in such a situation. While acknowledging that “there are no obligatory gestures towards one another”, he believes that “returning the award is an important protest in a country that is becoming increasingly fascist”.
Budaörs mayor Wittinghoff saw things similarly. “Regardless of the issue of continuity, if the state judges that a writer who shall not be named is deserving of this, then it is necessary to react somehow,” he said. “I don’t want to appear on the same page as him [Bayer].”
Wittinghoff said: “[Bestowing the award on Bayer] was a provocation. I feel that morally I have no other choice than to return it. If the state considers such speech to be worthy of emulation, it is not possible to condone this. Rather, I have an obligation to oppose it.”
He said he will not judge those who do not return the award. “During the broadcast of the Olympic Games we were confronted with open incitements laden with lies. A terrible atmosphere is starting to form in the country. In the West such speech is unequivocally unacceptable.”