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Wiesel returns Hungarian award

June 21st, 2012

A right-wing columnist downplays the importance of Elie Wiesel’s decision to return the highest Hungarian state honour in protest against what he sees as the government’s efforts to restore anti-Semitic icons. A left-wing pundit, on the other hand, believes that the case will receive international attention and further harm the image of the Orbán government. A centrist commentator notes that the previous socialist-liberal coalitions did much less against anti-Semitism than the current Fidesz government.

Holocaust survivor and Nobel peace laureate Elie Wiesel has returned the highest Hungarian honour, the Order of Merit, Grand Cross, which he received in 2004. In a letter to House Speaker László Kövér, he refers to a series of recent events. The attempted reburial of the poet József Nyirő (see BudaPost through May 30), who was a member of Hungary’s Second World War Parliament, which was dominated by the Arrow Cross party, and the alleged revival of the cult of Miklos Horthy (see BudaPost through May 21), Wiesel  claims that the “Hungarian authorities are encouraging the whitewashing of tragic and criminal episodes in Hungary’s past.”

This passionate man has returned something that was awarded him not by the nation, but by his close friends. So nothing really important has happened,” László Szentesi Zöldi in Magyar Hírlap comments on Wiesel’s decision. The right-wing columnist suggests that Wiesel did not in any sense deserve the Grand Cross. Szentesi believes that Wiesel was honored by PM Gyurácsány’s government because the left-wing party “wanted to reward a kind of international sentiment, a spirit of eternal denial.”

As for his literary merits, Szentesi remarks that Wiesel’s works should not be considered part of the Hungarian national literary canon. “His dead boring stories from the middle of the past century are history for young Hungarians – or even for the previous generation. … We do not understand or value these stories. We are simply bored of them,” Szentesi continues. As a conclusion, he predicts that Nyirő’s heritage will long survive Wiesel’s in Hungarian literature.

Gábor Horváth in Népszabadság contends that Wiesel’s letter will cause a serious headache for the communication strategists, who are trying to polish the battered image of the Orbán government in the West. Horváth believes that the American experts helping the Orbán government must be fully aware of the international repercussions which the Nyirő reburial and local attempts to honour the memory of Horthy will have. He adds that Wiesel is a highly influential public figure, and so his letter will further erode what is still left of the Orbán government’s image in Washington. “Wiesel’s letter suggests that Orbán’s regime is beyond recovery,” Horvath contends.

It is regrettable that Wiesel has returned the award, but we do not think this is primarily the current government’s fault,” Véleményvezér writes. The centrist blogger points out that the government wanted to restore Nyirő’s image as a Transylvanian writer, and not as a politician associated with the Arrow Cross era. Véleményvezér also finds it an exaggeration to blame the revival of the Horthy cult on the government. The recently erected Horthy statues and memorials were the initiatives of local councils, and not of the government, Véleményvezér notes.

The liberal conservative blogger believes that it is the aim of the political elites which came of age in the late 1980s to perpetuate the ‘culture war’ and the framing of politics in a communist-fascist dichotomy. Véleményvezér notes that the former socialist-liberal coalitions did nothing to stop the emergence of radical right-wing movements, but instead hoped they could capitalize on the growing fear of a return of anti-Semitism. Unlike Fidesz, which banned the (far right paramilitary) Hungarian Guard and stood up against open anti-Semitism.

In an interview on Klubrádió, former State Secretary for Cultural Affairs Géza Szőcs said that with the benefit of hindsight, he would not now have recommended that the Hungarian state be represented at Nyírő’s funeral. Mr Szőcs is a poet, author of a poem on the Holocaust, and one of the speakers at the failed reburial ceremony, He has since resigned from his, to become an advisor to the Prime Minister. Mr Szőcs admitted to the left-wing radio that he was not aware of Nyírő’s wartime pro-Nazi stance until it was too late.

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