Jaroslav Hašek’s satirical novel Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za svĕtové války (generally known in English as The Good Soldier Švejk) is probably the best-known work of modern Czech fiction. It follows the misadventures of a soldier from Prague, Josef Švejk (sometimes spelled “Schweik” in translation) serving in the Austro-Hungarian Army during the First World War. Throughout the novel, the hero faces his uncertain fate with an unperturbed air, recounting anecdotes to anyone who will listen. While Czechs often consider the deceptively foolish anti-hero Švejk to be a symbol of their national character, he also appeals to readers from other cultures through his ability to escape danger and punishment despite his often subversive behavior. The novel has been translated into English three times and has appeared in many other world languages.
Before the war, Hašek was an anarchist who frequented many of Prague’s pubs and cafés. He would often disappear from Prague for weeks at a time and wander as far as the Balkans, even after his marriage in 1912. In 1915, he joined the Austro-Hungarian army and was sent to the Russian front. Following brutal fighting there, he deserted from the Austro-Hungarian side and was taken as a political prisoner by the Russians, surviving the winter in the prison camp. In 1916, a group of Czech and Slovak prisoners joined to form the Czechoslovak Legions, which fought against Austria-Hungary under T.G. Masaryk’s leadership (they also later fought against the Red Army in the Russian Civil War.) Hašek joined them and wrote for the Legion’s Čechoslovan newspaper, based in Kiev. In 1917, however, when the Russian Revolution broke out, he went to Moscow to join the Red Army, served the Bolsheviks for over two years, and even became a commissar in the provinces. Thus within a space of three years, he served the Austrian Emperor, the nascent Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union. Upon his return to Prague in 1920, he renounced all political engagement, but was still seen by some as a traitor for his involvement with the Soviets. He died in early 1923, leaving his great novel unfinished.
The Good Soldier Švejk begins in Prague on the day of the Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo. In Part One, “Behind the Lines”, Švejk is arrested for treason by the secret policeman Bretschneider. He is caught up in the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy that sends him from police station to lunatic asylum and back home, then soon catches him again when he enlists in the army. After briefly serving the prison chaplain Otto Katz, he is gambled away and enters the service of Lieutenant Lukáš, who remains his commanding officer for much of the rest of the novel. In Part Two, “At the Front”, Švejk’s company is traveling by train to České Budĕjovice in south Bohemia, when he is separated from the rest of them and wanders on foot for several days before he is “found” (and nearly executed as a Russian spy). In Part Three, “The Glorious Licking”, the company moves across Hungary, stops in Budapest, and crosses present-day eastern Slovakia. This section ends with Švejk finding a Russian uniform, trying it on for size, and being captured by his own army. In Part Four, “The Glorious Licking Continued”, Švejk faces another round of imprisonments on the Galician front, before being freed and sent back to his company. At the end of the novel, Švejk has seen the aftermath of war, but he has not yet fought in battle.
After Hašek’s death, Karel Vanĕk was commissioned to complete Švejk, and he added an additional two parts which continued the good soldier’s journey east: “Švejk in Russian Captivity” and “Švejk in the Revolution” .These sections were published until World War II as an integral part of the novel; they were eliminated after the war because of Vanĕk’s perceived lack of sympathy toward the Soviet Union, and current critical opinion holds them as far inferior to Hašek’s original text.
The most direct satire in Švejk is aimed at the crumbling Austro-Hungarian army, but its anti-military tone also indirectly assails the heroism of the Czechoslovak Legions and their elevated social status in the First Republic. Thus while Švejk is often seen as a symbol of Czech resistance to Austro-Hungarian imperial oppression, this does not imply a straightforward allegiance to the new Czechoslovak Republic. Ironically, though the Red Army period of Hašek’s career enraged the political establishment, some of whom were former Legionnaires, his Soviet experience was undoubtedly what preserved his reputation as an accepted national author throughout the Communist period.
Almost since its inception, the popularity of The Good Soldier Švejk has been tied to its use of language. In Czech, the difference between the colloquial and literary language is considerably wider than in many other languages; spoken Czech had continued to evolve during the centuries of Austrian oppression, but the written form of the language as it was revived in the early nineteenth century consciously drew on archaic forms, creating a split between the two that remains distinct to this day. Much of Hašek’s comic style derives from his use of colloquial Czech and his parodies of the conventions of literary Czech. Nonetheless, the language of Švejk is not as simple as it may seem to the casual reader. Jindřich Chalupecký has described Hašek’s language as “a complex formation, a remarkable mixture of highly stylized literary language and the rudimentary, colloquial language of everyday speech” (147). By recreating the colloquial and often vulgar language of its urban and military settings, as well as its frequent use of foreign phrases, Hašek challenged the artificial norms of the Czech literary language. In his epilogue to the first part of the novel, Hašek defends himself vigorously from critics who had attacked him for “vulgarity”, saying that “this novel is neither a handbook of drawing-room refinement nor a teaching manual of expressions to be used in polite society. It is a historical picture of a certain period of time” (214). Scoffing at those who are “shocked” by strong language, Hašek concludes that “weaklings like that are the very people who cause most harm to culture and character”, by wanting “to see the nation grow up into a group of over-sensitive little people”.
Despite his polemical disagreements with the self-appointed “protectors” of the Czech language, Hašek criticizes the way that the Czech language was suppressed within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He introduces Lieutenant Lukáš, Švejk’s commanding officer, as a “kind of amphibian” who “spoke German in society, wrote German, read Czech books, and when he taught in the course for one-year volunteers, all of whom were Czechs, he told them in confidence: ‘Let’s be Czechs, but no one need know about it. I’m a Czech too’” (166). Lukáš, however, is generally portrayed sympathetically, while the most intolerably pompous character in the novel, Lieutenant Dub, is “a schoolmaster and teacher of Czech” in civilian life, with an “alacrity for expressing his loyalty to the crown on all possible occasions” (519). The contrast between the sensible but pragmatic Lukáš and the contemptible Dub shows that self-proclaimed loyalty to the Czech language does not necessarily relate to a stronger identification with the Czech nation.
Hašek’s language also reflects the reality of its highly multilingual setting. Naturally, the text has passages in German, which would have posed little problem to the average Czech reader of the 1920s (sometimes Hašek specifically indicates in footnotes whether the conversations between the Czech officers are taking place in German or Czech.) The Good Soldier Švejk also draws on the national rivalry between the Czechs and Hungarians, who had vied for secondary power under the Austrians. In Part II, Švejk “inadvertently” causes a major incident when trying to deliver a love letter from Lukáš to a married Hungarian woman. The ensuing conversation between Švejk, the woman’s maid, and her husband is carried out in comically broken German, suggesting how artificially these diverse nationalities had been held together by Austrian control. Švejk finally attempts to take the blame for the debacle, telling the Hungarian husband: “I wrote. Not lieutenant. The signature and name are false. I like your wife very much. Ich liebe ihre Frau. I’m up to the ears in love with your wife, as Vrchlický used to say. She’s a capital woman” (368). This comical reference, attributing a slang expression to the great nineteenth-century Czech poet and translator Jaroslav Vrchlický, nonetheless seems significant. At a moment when Švejk is under threat from both the German language and Hungarian aggression, he alludes to a writer who epitomizes a self-conscious pride in the Czech language. Another polyglot conversation takes place in a latrine in Budapest between Švejk and a Polish inspecting general who “knew a little Czech, although he pronounced it as though it were Polish and used Polish expressions” (536). The absurdity of this scene, in which the strategic incompetence of the Habsburg commanders is heightened by their inability to communicate properly, shows how Hašek uses language to tear away nostalgia for the fallen empire, just as he uses it to attack the hypocrisy of his critics in the new state.
Švejk's world, an almost entirely male setting of pubs, prisons, and army barracks, renders sexuality virtually irrelevant, except for meaningless visits to brothels, and the only genuine emotional bond in the novel is that between Švejk and Lieutenant Lukáš, whose exasperation gives way to a grudging affection toward the “good soldier”. In a rare reference to his own romantic past, Švejk shows Lukáš a letter from a former lover, who broke off relations with him out of jealousy:
You bloody bastard, you dirty murderer and blackguard! Corporal Kříž came to Prague on leave. . . and he told me that they say. . . that you’ve completely thrown me over. For your information I’m writing this letter in the rears on the board next to the hole. It’s all over between us. You former Božena. . . Yes, when you come home on leave you won’t find me among the living.
In his typical rambling style, Švejk further explains:
Of course. . .when I came on leave she was still among the living and very living they were!. . . Two soldiers of a foreign regiment were helping her to dress, and one of them was so very ‘living’ that he was quite publicly putting his hand under her bodice just as though, humbly report, sir, he wanted to pluck the bloom of her innocence, as [the author] Věnceslav Lužická says, or as a young girl of about sixteen once said with loud sobs to a schoolboy when he pinched her in the shoulder at dancing class: ‘Sir, you have rubbed off the bloom of my virginity.’ Of course everyone laughed and her mamma who was looking after her took her out into the passage and gave the stupid ninny a good kicking. However, I must say, sir, that I came to the conclusion that the country wenches are all the same more sincere than those worn-out young misses in the towns who go to dancing classes. When years ago we were in camp. . . [I] went around with a girl called Karla Veklová, but she didn’t like me very much, I’m afraid. One Sunday evening when I took her to the lake, we sat on the dam and when the sun was setting I asked her whether she loved me. Humbly report, sir, the air was so balmy, all the birds were singing and she replied with a horrible laugh: ‘I love you about as much as a piece of straw in my arse, because you’re such an idiot.’ And I really was an idiot. . . I kept on showing her all that cornucopia and, stupid ass that I was, all I did was tell that peasant wench that this was rye, that was wheat and that over there was oats. (628-29)
Švejk's ambivalence toward sexuality reflects his author’s frequent escapes from the bourgeois social expectations of marriage. Chalupecký is notable as one of the first Czech critics to suggest sexual identity, as well as social transformations, as a source of Hašek’s shifting political allegiances. He attributes Hašek’s “incoherent, discontinous, and confused life” to two main causes: the “uncertainty” of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in its “dying days”, and his own “peculiar psychological state”, i.e. his homosexuality. (139-40) Hašek’s position as a sexual outsider sheds new light on his ability to subvert the traditional image of masculine heroism and wartime gallantry. As Robert Pynsent has suggested, both Hašek’s bohemian lifestyle and his embrace of army discipline in the Red Army can be seen as a way of sublimating his same-sex desires, although they may seem to be completely opposite reactions to this inner conflict.
In his journey toward the Galician front, Švejk encounters a number of Jewish characters, and his view of them is sometimes tainted with stereotypical imagery of greed and opportunism, coming unsettlingly close to the traditional anti-Semitism that is ubiquitous in Central European history. However, it is worth pointing out that Hašek is equally if not more negative toward other nationalities, notably the Hungarians, and some of the Czech characters (especially Lieutenant Dub) come off worst of all. Hašek’s hatred of the Catholic Church is sharper than his antipathy toward any ethnicity or nationality. There are also moments in the journey eastward in which his loathing of war takes precedence over his earlier anti-Semitic or anticlerical satire. At the beginning of Part Four, Hašek satirizes Austrian attitudes toward Jews through a comical case of mistaken identity. Švejk is captured by the Austrian army and finds himself among a polyglot group of prisoners from the Russian side. The Austrian sergeant-major who is supposed to interpret for the Russian prisoners speaks only “broken Slovak”, but when Švejk volunteers that he knows both German and some Russian, the sergeant-major immediately assumes that he is Jewish: “Every single one of you prisoners who has known German has been a Jew and that’s that. What’s your name? Schweich? Now look, why do you deny it, when you’ve got such a Jewish name?” (673) The connection between language and national identity here takes on a new twist, as Švejk’s attempt to prove his “Austrian” identity through his (imperfect) knowledge of German only brands him as a doubly “foreign” Russian Jew. Švejk’s response to this situation is typical; he tells an off-color anecdote about an officer and his servant. The Austrian sergeant-major’s response is quite unusual for Hašek’s narrative, however: “You Jews have quite good stories, but I’m ready to bet that the discipline in your army isn’t as good as ours” (674). Hašek’s willingness to turn his protagonist (if only temporarily and mistakenly) into a German-speaking Jew is in striking contrast to some of the earlier passages which display a careless anti-Semitism. It is only in his journey to the underdeveloped border regions, where national identity has not yet taken a fully modern form, that Švejk finds himself on the other side of one of Central Europe’s deepest cultural divisions, and his quintessentially “Czech” anecdotes are taken for Jewish tales by the dominant German authority. Such a confusion of identities would not have been possible in the ethnically polarized territories of Prague or Vienna.
Ironically, the twentieth-century novel that can be said to represent “Czech” identity may largely owe its domestic and worldwide success to the early critical support of Prague Jewish-Germans. Despite the novel’s immediate popularity, Czech critics refused to take it seriously, considering it “light reading” (as many Czechs still consider it today). Yet for Max Brod, who also preserved and promoted the writings of Franz Kafka, “Something like a profound wisdom of the Czech national character, its unshakeable foundation, shines through all of Švejk’s conversation, jokingly enclosed within his limited horizons” (Chalupecký 151). Brod was influential in having the novel published in German, and Grete Reiner’s translation Die Abenteuer des braven Soldaten Schwejk (1925), which evokes the original colloquial Czech for the German reader by using “Bohemian German” dialect, was the basis for its theatrical dramatization in Germany by Erwin Piscator. This adaptation in turn inspired Bertolt Brecht to write his own satirical sequel, Schweyk in the Second World War (1943). Švejk’s subsequent popular success across Europe eventually led to its delayed acceptance by the Czech critical establishment.
The Communist writer Ivan Olbracht was the first Czech critic to call Švejk a “completely new type” in world literature, and described “Švejkism” as an outlook which “could not have been noticed earlier or with such clarity anywhere but in the Czech lands with their strange attitude toward state authority and the War” (Steiner 27). By the 1950s, Švejk had been officially accepted as a “socialist” classic and was widely read across all of Eastern Europe, even as the Communist governments banned and censored works whose criticism was far less radical. There have been hundreds of translations of the novel into world languages, including most of the major languages of the former Soviet Union. It has been the basis for several film versions, most notably the two-part Czech adaptation (1956-57) starring Rudolf Hrušínský. In the post-Communist era, Švejk has become a ubiquitous symbol of Prague alongside Kafka, with his image featured in numerous pubs and on countless souvenirs. Yet the ambiguity of Hašek’s behavior during the war, like that of his main character, defies both nationalist and socialist appropriation, illustrating the complexities at the heart of modern Czech history.
Jindřich Chalupecký, “The Tragic Comedy of Jaroslav Hašek”,
Cross Currents, no. 2 (1983), 137-53.
Jaroslav Hašek, The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War (New York: Crowell, 1974).
Robert Pynsent, “Jaroslav Hasek”, in European Writers: The Twentieth Century, ed. George Stade, Vol 9 (New York: Scribner, 1989), 1091-1118.
Peter Steiner, The Deserts of Bohemia: Czech Fiction and its Social Context (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000).
Citation: Sabatos, Charles. "Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 07 November 2015 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=35670, accessed 17 October 2021.]