This year, the human rights award of the Tonhalle Düsseldorf is bestowed on the American businessman and philanthropist George Soros who has been fighting for freedom and civil rights in Europe and around the world for many years.
Soros dedicates billions of dollars to education programmes, international scholarships and non-governmental organisations that stand for democracy and the protection of human rights.
During his renowned appearances at the World Economic Forum in Davos and at countless other occasions, he does not tire of warning about the political dangers that put the freedom of human kind in jeopardy.
With the award for Mr. Soros, we want to make an important political and social statement. Recently, George Soros has been ever more viciously attacked and personally assaulted by enemies of democracy and freedom. It is our duty to show our solidarity with him.
With this award, we also want to reiterate that we have to fight continuously for the values of our democracy if we do not want to lose it. If you have travelled to Hungary recently, you will know I am talking about. Already on the drive from the airport, huge posters can be seen in the style of the 'Stürmer', an anti-Semitic newspaper published during the Nazi regime, with a portrait of Soros and a line underneath that he will soon stop laughing. In his country of birth (as well as in other East-European countries), he has been marked as the public enemy number one. Such racially motivated campaigns have not been seen there since the Third Reich. In this official propaganda that is orchestrated and financed by the government, Soros is presented as the head of a secret and international conspiracy whose aim it is to bring millions of Muslims into the country and to displace and repress the local population. Sadly, this propaganda proves to be effective. In recent weeks, there have been several incidents in Hungary, where locals have called the police due to the mere sight of foreign tourists because they thought they were 'illegal immigrants sent by Soros'.
I have to stress the huge threat that the strengthening of the nationalist-populist powers presents for European ideals and why we cannot underestimate this danger.
The method of all populists, fuelling hatred against minorities and galvanising people with racist slogans in order to distract them from their own problems and to channel their anger, is not new. These raised emotions are usually also in danger of quickly getting out of control. In the search for a scapegoat, this racist hatred can easily be steered towards minorities. Today it may be all Muslim immigrants, tomorrow the local, national and ethnic minorities. And in regards to those minorities, Eastern Europe has always been a ticking time bomb.
In 2020, it is the 100th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty of Trianon that divided the Hungarian half of the Habsburg empire into national states after the first world war. The borders were drawn in such a way that ethnic minorities were created in several of the new countries causing conflicts until today. There are hostilities and hatred among neighbours on all sides. Two months ago, the then acting Rumanian prime minister Tudose tried to increase his popularity by threatening the ethnic Hungarians living in Rumania with the gallows: if they raised their flag on a public building, they would be hanged next to it. In Hungary, there are rightwing websites that only print the name Slovakia in quotation marks because they still consider Slovakia to be a province of Hungary and not a sovereign country.
In turn, in Slovakia people are punched openly on the streets only because they speak Hungarian. Not to mention the widespread hatred against the Roma in all East European countries. If the racist feelings of hatred raised by the anti Soros campaign are directed against neighbouring countries or minorities of any kind and if they strengthen the already established resentments in those countries, then this can lead to a catastrophe.
On the one hand, there is certainly not a very serious threat of violent clashes between ethnic groups in East Europe today (yet) but, on the other hand, the smouldering resentment must not be belittled either. If we do not take the nationalist extremists, who dream of redrawing national borders, seriously now, we should only remember Yugoslavia.
At the time, the effect of the nationalist-populist politics inciting pure hate was grossly underestimated as well.
I am convinced that nationalist-populist tendencies present the greatest threat to democracy and freedom in Europa today.
If we do not stop those powers quickly and vigorously, then the liberal Europe is in danger. This is why we have to do everything possible to strengthen the immune system of our free societies to fight off the ever expanding poison of illiberal populism.
Our award for George Soros intends to make a statement. I think Mr. Soros' dedication and commitment is exemplary. May he long continue his outstanding work! We need him!