Imre Kerényi, the brains behind the “Table of the Basic Laws”

I read a line about Imre Kerényi, the man responsible for coming up with the idea of the "Table of the Basic Laws" that every public office will have to set up, which caught my imagination. Gusztáv Megyesi, a well known journalist, called Kerényi's life "practically a complete party history."

Who is the man who stands behind this latest brainstorm of the Orbán regime? Who are the men who accept such a bizarre idea from a man whose past is at best checkered and at worst shows mental instability?

The function of and future plans for this table are not worth dwelling on. It's enough to say that the idea serves to make a legal document part of a nationalistic and party ritual. The constitution becomes a kind of sacred text to be revered. That this is precisely what Kerényi had in mind is evident from his claim that if all goes well every school child will receive a pocketbook version of the new constitution, just like American children who then every morning "chant certain sentences from it." The verb "chant" is telling, even if Kerényi mixes up the constitution with the Pledge of Allegiance.

Imre Kerényi in an interview in Magyar Demokrata, a far-right weekly, talked about himself. How much can we believe from his stories? Most likely there will be some who will believe very little. Let's start with the facts. He was born in 1943; his father was apparently an elementary school teacher. The Kerényis had four children, and the family had close ties to the Catholic Church. One of his uncles was a well known cleric in Veszprém. Another uncle a priest in Venezuela. He remembers a communist demonstration against the family in 1950: in the middle of the night the family escaped to settle in a little house without water or electricity. The father didn't get a job for a long time and the family "grew up there in deep poverty."

Some of Kerényi's stories from his childhood border on the unbelievable. First they raised chickens but "the eagle took them." Then they tried raising geese but "the fox took them. They lived in "such a wild place." The wild place was Balatonalmádi! He attended high school at the Benedictine's, yet he had no difficulty being accepted at the College of Dramatic Art. He had to be a natural talent because, according to him, he saw two or three productions in Győr and about the same number in Budapest. Yet he was admitted on the first try.

He claims that he had a serious "nervous breakdown" while a college student. One of his professors gave him the assignment of analyzing Sophocles's Antigone on the basis of class warfare. If that happened in the mid-1950s I would be less skeptical about the whole story. But in the 1960s? It doesn't sound too realistic. In any case, because of his problems with Antigone "he escaped" from college and ended up in the Bakony Mountains from where in no time he reached the Danube to wash his hands. (It must have been a very long trip!) There the border guards arrested him, but it turned out that in Budapest they were already searching for him.

He joined the communist party while in college, but he "didn't even know what it was all about." Apparently he asked his parents, who in spite of their anti-regime political views encouraged him to join. From there on his career was assured. He received a telephone call announcing that György Aczél, who was in charge of cultural policy in Hungary, wanted to have him be the theater director at Szolnok. But he was supposed to "report." He didn't even know what they were talking about, but after two years he escaped from that job because he wanted to direct a play about how politics can deform a man's character but Aczél forbade the production and told him that "in this country only pro-government artists can succeed." 

End of the autobiography. In his story there are a few gaps. Most notably that after Kerényi finished the College of Dramatic Art in 1966 he became director at the Budapest Madách Theater. Two years later he began teaching at his alma mater, and it was only between 1978 and 1980 that he was the head of the Szolnok Theater. Aczél couldn't have been so angry with him, by the way, because the next year he was already working for the Hungarian Embassy in Moscow where he organized extravaganzas for the anniversary of the Great October Revolution. He also had similar jobs in Hungary for demonstrations on April 4, the day of Hungary's liberation by the Soviet army.

At the Madách Theater he was also the communist party secretary, but by 1989 he joined MDF. In 1990 he ran for a parliamentary seat but lost. For a while he supported MSZP and SZDSZ. The great change in his political views came in 2002 when Fidesz lost the elections. "His red star past" was no obstacle and he was employed by Viktor Orbán to organize spectacular demonstrations similar to the ones he created in Moscow and in Kádár's Budapest. He began his party career with the organization of Civic Circles (Polgári körök), and he had a hand in developing "the language of the revolution." In 2006 he declared "those who love their country must join the army of the civic circles. The goal is our dominance in the next eight to twelve years. If Fidesz doesn't win we will stage a revolution."

Fidesz lost the elections and Kerényi became one of the orators of the far-right anti-semitic crowd egged on by Fidesz on Kossuth Square. Perhaps his most famous sentence was "Fidesz is God's gift." 

In spite of all of the above or maybe because of it Viktor Orbán has complete trust in Kerényi. In 1950 on the first anniversary of the 1949 constitution the Rákosi regime staged an artistic exhibition. The organizers asked a number of well known artists, among them Pál Pátzay and Aurél Bernáth, to oversee the artistic side of the celebration. This time around, Orbán didn't bother with such niceties. He gave the whole job to Imre Kerényi, who is contemplating publishing a book that will contain reproductions of new creations in the style of nineteenth-century historical canvases which even at the end of the nineteenth century was passé. I read about one painting which shows Kálmán Széll, István Tisza, Albert Apponyi, and Sándor Wekerle, all well known Hungarian politicians before 1918, seated around a table in a pub in Óbuda. If only they were playing poker it could rise to the level of the ultimate in kitsch–the "Dogs Playing Poker" series.

Kerényi's Table is the embodiment of Hungarian culture Orbán style!


  1. According to a broadcast on Klub Radio, there will be a central “constitution table” in the palace. Surrounding the table will be paintings depicting important historical events of the last 20 years. One painter was permitted to choose between three topics: Orban’s speech at Imre Nagy’s reburial, the 2006 riots and the red mud disaster. He declined the commission, but knew others would accept it.

  2. M: “One painter was permitted to choose between three topics: Orban’s speech at Imre Nagy’s reburial, the 2006 riots and the red mud disaster. ”
    Maybe they should of also included in their selection, Orban’s kissing the hands of the pope or Schmitt slices bread among common people or happy girls and boys dancing around in Hungarian folk customs while Schmitt and Orban approvingly smiles with common people clapping their hands in the background or Hoffman visits a classroom as students in white shirts smilingly look up from their books with the new Hungarian flag waving outside the window. I like the red mud disaster idea.. only if we could also include Orban in a boat reaching out to save a cat (maybe Schmitt paddling), and the painting could be called Red Mud Pilot or sounds nicer in French Le pilote du Rouge Boue. Oh the beauty of art… Bravo!

  3. The examples of the less-than-mediocre paintings and the painfully bizarre constitution tables show that this fellow is dishing out nothing other than Socialist realist cum Hungarian nationalist kitsch. You have to go to North Korea or Belarus to find anything similar. The emergence of hagiographic paintings of the still-living, still-in-office Victor Orban is yet another sign that the Emperor is vain and naked as a jaybird. If it wasn’t all a painful distraction from the everyday sufferings of the ordinary Hungarian, it would be hilarious.

  4. It is actually quite funny.
    And perhaps that’s the answer – laugh at him. People like OV can never cope with being laughed at.

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