All of a sudden, nobody wants one of Hungary’s highest national honors

No, thanks.
No, thanks.
Image: Reuters/Karoly Arvai
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Last month, journalist Zsolt Bayer was awarded with the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit, one of Hungary’s highest state honors. Ever since, Hungarian mathematicians, artists, doctors, and other recipients have been returning their awards in droves. More than 100 past awardees (link in Hungarian) have rejected the honor since Bayer joined the club.

Bayer gained fame in Hungary for his xenophobic views and close ties with the rightwing party currently in power, Fidesz. He has called Jews “stinking excrement,” said that Roma children should be “run over by a car” (link in Hungarian), and decried the risk to “racial maintenance” that comes from hosting predominantly Muslim refugees, those “wildly foreign people who are impossible to integrate.” Hungary’s media watchdog has twice fined the newspaper that runs Bayer’s columns, Magyar Hírlap (link in Hungarian).

“He deserves censure, not honor, for his loathsome writings and speech” said Katrina Lantos Swett, the daughter of Hungarian-born Tom Lantos, a former US congressman in California. She had received the Knight’s Cross in 2009 for her work with minorities in both Hungary and the US. Tom Lantos, who received Hungary’s highest civilian honor (the Grand Cross), died in 2008. He was the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the US Congress.

The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC also condemned Bayer’s award, stressing that the medal is meant to recognize service to the country and “the promotion of universal human values.” In a statement, it called on Hungary to rescind Bayer’s award, adding:

Governments have a responsibility to combat hate speech that invites violence. This is especially true for countries like Hungary where systematic persecution and mass murder were carried out during the Holocaust with the active complicity of the Hungarian state.

Explaining the decision in the government gazette (pdf), Bayer was commended for “exemplary journalistic work,” especially by drawing attention to the fate of Hungarian prisoners in the Soviet Gulag prison system and the struggles of of ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania.

Regardless, a long and growing list of eminent Hungarians honored with the Knight’s Cross have returned their medals in protest, from Bálint Tóth (mathematician), Zsófia Kálmán (pediatrician), and Péter Kardos (chief rabbi) to Ádám Fischer (conductor), Erzsébet Szalai (sociologist) and János Megyik (artist). In all, around 1,500 people have been awarded the same honor as Bayer. For his part, Bayer said (link in Hungarian) he would only consider returning his medal if all 1,499 others did, too.