At the end of August came the news that the new director-general of the Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum (Petőfi Literary Museum) will be Gergely Prőhle, who is best known as a diplomat. He began his diplomatic career in 1998, and by 2000 he served as Hungary’s ambassador to Berlin. Fidesz’s loss of the election in 2002 didn’t put an end to Prőhle’s career. In 2003, during the Medgyessy administration, he was named ambassador to Switzerland. He left the diplomatic service only in 2006. The socialists were certainly nicer to him after 2002 than Péter Szijjártó was in 2014, who as the new minister of foreign affairs unceremoniously fired him from his job as assistant undersecretary in the foreign ministry, together with about 300 career diplomats who were not considered to be faithful enough servants of the Orbán regime. Prőhle, the father of four, was apparently desperate. His career was so closely intertwined with the Orbán regime that it was difficult to imagine what he could possibly do outside of this charmed circle.
But, as is well known, Orbán is good to those people who were once useful, faithful servants of his regime but who for one reason or another become outcasts. So, in the last minute, Prőhle was offered a job in the ministry of human resources as assistant undersecretary in charge of “international and European Union affairs.” It looks as if the position was created specifically for Prőhle. The ministry has two undersecretaries: the “administrative undersecretary,” who can be compared to Britain’s “permanent undersecretary,” and the “parliamentary undersecretary,” who normally represents the minister in parliament. The parliamentary undersecretary is in fact the deputy minister. For some strange reason, the position created for Prőhle was placed directly under the parliamentary undersecretary, although the two positions had nothing to do with one another. In fact, it was difficult to figure out exactly what Prőhle did in this ministry. In any case, now that he is becoming a museum director, the ministry decided to change the structure. Prőhle’s successor, who is coming from Századvég, will report to the undersecretary in charge of family and youth.
The move from undersecretary to museum director was a simple procedure considering that Zoltán Balog, Prőhle’s boss in the ministry, is also in charge of the Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum. It was on his recommendation that the committee picked Prőhle. The museum, which was established in 1954, has become the most important depository of material related to Hungarian literature. For the past ten years it was headed by Csilla E. Csorba, who has written extensively on literary history and the history of art. In literary circles Prőhle’s appointment created quite a stir. What does he know about literature?
Actually, Prőhle has a degree in German and Hungarian literature, but then he moved on to Corvinus University to became a student of international relations and diplomacy. He was director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation between 1992 and 1998, but he has no other experience running a large institution with well over a hundred employees. But, I guess, one can always learn, as he has already begun to do. Although he will start his new assignment only on January 1, 2017, he is spending the coming months getting acquainted with the work of the museum.
What are the museum’s plans for the coming years? The staff is already working on a large exhibit on the life and art of János Arany (1817-1882), for which Prőhle expects the help of the current director. But he himself has a couple of new ideas, which he apparently outlined in his application for the job. One is an exhibit on Albert Wass (1908-1998), the other on Lajos Kassák (1887-1967). An interesting juxtaposition of political and literary careers. The former is a nationalistic, anti-Semitic writer who is considered to be a literary mediocrity. The latter is a poet, novelist, painter, essayist, editor, and theoretician of the avant-garde. He was one of the first genuine working-class writers in Hungarian literature, closely associated with the socialist movement.
Prőhle’s plan for an Albert Wass exhibit raised quite a few eyebrows, given the man’s controversial reputation. But the newly appointed director defended his choice with the following spurious justification: “If a writer has so many statues in the country, we will have to do something with the phenomenon.” He wants to know why Wass has such a cult in Hungary. “Why doesn’t Dezső Kosztolányi have 200 statues and why does Wass?” For those unfamiliar with Hungarian literature, Dezső Kosztolányi (1885-1936) is one of the mainstays of twentieth-century Hungarian literature, a writer of both poetry and prose. The question Prőhle poses doesn’t belong to the world of literary inquiries. It is clearly political and sociological.
András Bozóki, minister of culture in the first Gyurcsány government, would love to see more characters of the Orbán regime “in museums.” Péter Krasztev, a literary historian, described Prőhle as a “party soldier” who serves where he is placed. István Kerékgyártó, a writer, sarcastically noted that “actually we can be grateful for this appointment because this government could just as easily have decided to close the museum altogether because they are not interested in literature. After all, it is not a place where too much money can be found to steal.”
Finally, C. György Kálmán, a literary historian, wrote an opinion piece on Prőhle’s appointment titled “Jóindulat” (Good will), the upshot of which is that he is trying not to be suspicious and hopes that Prőhle will be satisfied sitting in his office and will not interfere with the work of professionals who know something about literature. He is also hoping, although he has some fears, that the planned exhibition on Wass will be a balanced evaluation of Wass’s work, which Kálmán considers ”abominable and junk.” It is possible that Prőhle wants to stage “problem exhibits.” In this case, the “director doesn’t want to celebrate Wass but wants to reveal the phenomenon, the cult, the damage that cult inflicts on society or perhaps the possible virtues of the writer.” But, he adds, “we have every reason to suppose that the exhibit will not deal with the Wass problem but with Wass’s celebration.”