Dozens of Knight’s Cross recipients return Hungarian state award in protest

August 22, 2016

Augusztus 20. - Állami kitüntetések átadása
Anti-Semitic Fidesz publicist Zsolt Bayer, left, receiving the state honor from Minister János Lázár on Thursday

Within days of Fidesz publicist Zsolt Bayer receiving the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit, some 40 previous recipients of Hungary’s third-highest state honor have announced their intention to return the award . . . and their number is growing by the hour.

Hungarian news website has even installed a “returned order of merits counter” on its homepage.

According to the Office of the Prime Minister, Zsolt Bayer received his honor after a proposal by the community because he commemorated those who died in the Gulags.

“As a journalist, he gave a true and worthy account of prisoners and their lives in the Soviet labor camps as well as the Hungarian minority in Transylvania, making him a worthy receiver of the Knight’s Cross,” the Office of the Prime Minister wrote.

Calls to rescind

On the other hand, opposition politicians have called on Hungarian President János Áder to rescind Bayer’s award, saying his op-ed pieces in pro-government Magyar Hírlap are frequently belligerent, racist and obscene. Only a few months ago the Fidesz-controlled National Media and Infocommunications Authority felt compelled to fine Magyar Hírlap  HUF 250,000 (USD 912) for publishing an op-ed piece in which Bayer stated that every refugee over the age of 14 was a “potential killer”. The authority found that the piece incited hatred.

By the end of last week, other recipients of the prestigious award began posting messages on the internet, announcing their intention to return the order.

The first announcement came from Budapest city assemblyman and former parliamentary commissioner for minority rights Jenő Kaltenbach, who was later followed by dozens. (The full list can be seen here.)

András Heisler, the president of Hungary’s Alliance of Jewish Religious Organizations, delivered his message on Facebook:

“I consider diversity a merit, and tolerating each other’s opinion means the future for Hungary. But today, I have the same state honor as Zsolt Bayer. A man who is racist, anti-Semitic, who pollutes Hungary with flaming hatred against Roma and ideas destroying the nation. A man who is so vigilantly guarding the traditions of the Hungarian far-right, fear and hatred. I like diversity, but I don’t like destructive extremism. Not even virtually do I want to belong to the same community as Zsolt Bayer.”

Catherine Feidt, who received her Order of Merit as honorary French consul in 2012, followed his example.

“I cannot identify with xenophobic and anti-Semitic values and I don’t want be in the company of people who share them,” she wrote on her Facebook page.

Six sociologists – Mária Székelyi, Gábor Hegyesi, Katalin Tausz, Ágnes Darvas, Péter Somlai and Nikosz Fokasz – wrote to President Áder asking him to remove their names from the list of recipients. In their letter, published by Hungarian news website, they claimed that the honor filled them with joy and pride before, but “honoring Zsolt Bayer made enduring this joy and pride impossible”.

Actor Balázs Galkó posted he did not want to belong to the same group as Bayer, while mayor of Budaörs Tamás Wittinghof simply posted a picture of his award with the caption: “Now we say good-bye to each other.”

He deserved it

In spite of all the protests, the Office of the Prime Minister told Hungarian TV channel RTL Klub that it would not rescind the award. Minister Overseeing the Office of the Prime Minister János Lázár told the channel that his personal opinion was that the publicist deserved the Knight’s Cross.

“Of course, everybody’s career and life-work can be criticized and there are definitely mistakes,” Lázár said. “But in the life-work of Zsolt Bayer there are more things to be praised than mistakes.”

At a press conference, the leader of the parliamentary faction of Fidesz, János Halász, said he did not agree with everything the publicist has ever written, but his work has many merits and he received his award as a “literary man”.

“Giving awards back is also a way to express one’s opinion,” he added.

Terror House director Mária Schmidt posted the following words of support to her Facebook page on Friday:

“The Knight’s Cross was received by the Christian crusader who does not allow us to lose our values, traditions, sensibilities, and common sense!  I congratulate Zsolt Bayer on his Knight’s Cross!”

Political protests

A member of the presidium of opposition party Together (Együtt) called on Áder to withdraw Bayer’s award, claiming that the Orbán government has crossed yet another line by giving the honors to such an “undeserving figure”.

“It is disgraceful that a racist, xenophobic inciter of hatred like Zsolt Bayer can receive a state honor in Hungary,” he wrote.

The Hungarian Socialist Party (Magyar Szocialista Párt – MSZP) reacted to the news with only one word: “Shame!”.