Hašek’s Reflects Postwar Disillusionment

As Czechs celebrated the birth of their republic after World War I, Jaroslav Hašek’s novel The Good Soldier Švejk reminded them of human folly in times of crisis.

Summary of Event

Jaroslav Hašek’s Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za svetove války (1921-1923), which was published in English first as The Good Soldier: Schweik in 1930 and in an authoritative translation as The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War in 1973, is the story of a wise fool, Josef Švejk, who refuses to fight for the Austro-Hungarian cause when he is drafted into the army during World War I. World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];literature Published over a two-year period, the novel was left unfinished when Hašek died suddenly in January, 1923; at that point, barely four volumes of his proposed six-volume story were complete. The novel was already a popular success in the newborn republic of Czechoslovakia, however. Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War, The (Hašek)[Good Soldier Svejk]
[kw]Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk Reflects Postwar Disillusionment (1921-1923)[Hašeks The Good Soldier Švejk Reflects Postwar Disillusionment (1921 1923)]
[kw]Good Soldier Švejk Reflects Postwar Disillusionment, Hašek’s The (1921-1923)
[kw]Postwar Disillusionment, Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk Reflects (1921-1923)
[kw]Disillusionment, Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk Reflects Postwar (1921-1923)
Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War, The (Hašek)[Good Soldier Svejk]
[g]Czechoslovakia;1921-1923: Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk Reflects Postwar Disillusionment[05340]
[c]Literature;1921-1923: Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk Reflects Postwar Disillusionment[05340]
Hašek, Jaroslav

The Good Soldier Švejk is a picaresque tale in substance and structure, and, at first glance, it appears to be artless in execution. Closer inspection reveals the opposite, however; the reader discovers that the fat, balding, middle-aged ex-soldier Švejk is a man of deceptive qualities.

Hašek leads Švejk through a series of carefully prepared scenes designed to satirize the officialdom of an empire being gradually torn apart by war. At each step, from Švejk’s arrest for making indiscreet remarks about the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand to his interrogation by civil and military authorities, to his enforced enlistment, to his postings as orderly to various officers, to his wanderings across the Central European landscape, the reader always confronts the same unruffled figure. The meaning of mighty events may elude him, but Švejk always understands the meaninglessness of the petty vanities and stupid decisions that swirl around him. Thus Hašek brilliantly carries off his double purpose as an entertainer and serious novelist. Readers relish seeing Hašek’s little man win out against the bullies who confront him even as they witness the author’s impassioned attack on militarism, religion, politics, and injustice.

The gestation of the novel occurred over at least a decade. In 1912, Hašek published a collection of short stories, some of which concerned a soldier named Švejk. Five years later, there followed a more ample set of tales about Švejk’s adventures as a prisoner of war in Russia. These stories, like the episodes in the novel, were partly autobiographical.

Like Švejk, Hašek came to soldiering almost as a last resort after a shiftless life. Born in 1883, he worked as a bank clerk before switching to journalism in Prague. A natural storyteller, he penned scores of anecdotal pieces for newspapers and magazines, all the while honing his skills by entertaining habitués of the city’s taverns over steins of ale. Politically, Hašek was an anarchist, but he was a harmless one, despite his run-ins with the police. After war broke out, he was drafted into the Austrian army in 1915.

Hašek joined the Ninety-first Infantry Regiment—the same unit as Švejk—and served in southern Bohemia before moving east to Hungary and then to the front in Galicia. He met few officers he admired; he detested most. In September, 1915, his unit was cut off as the result of a sudden Russian breakthrough; although there was a chance to escape, Hašek surrendered to the Russians. Why he did so is not clear—perhaps it was a political decision, or perhaps he was merely being an opportunist. Imprisoned in camps in the Ukraine and later in the Urals, he always tried to find ways to ingratiate himself with his captors. When news came of the formation of the Czechoslovak Legion—a volunteer force of Czechs and Slovaks in Russia, many of them former soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian armies—Hašek applied at once.

Soon he was active as a propagandist for the legion and other Czech organizations, but this nationalist phase was eventually succeeded by a communist one; he joined the Red Army and the Russian Bolshevik Party in 1918. Two years later, however, he returned to Prague and nationalist politics. It must have seemed to him then that his long peregrinations were over. Foolishly, however, he alienated sympathizers when he brought back a wife from Russia without having divorced his long-suffering first wife, Jarmila, whom he had married in 1910. Scorned and distrusted on all sides, Hašek had to fall back on his literary talents, and it was not long before the novel about his good soldier began to take shape.

Given these facts, it is easy to understand some of the glaring differences between Hašek and Švejk. Clearly, the author’s hard, physical life led to a premature death, but his frequent acts of opportunism—although often performed for reasons of survival—took their toll as well. By writing the novel, Hašek may have hoped to create a sympathetic image of himself and thereby justify the vagaries of his existence. On the other hand, Švejk is stolid and predictable; he only appears stupid as he pretends to agree with his superiors and follows their orders to the letter. Thus when Lieutenant Lukáš orders Švejk to take care of Lukáš’s mistress’s needs, no matter what, Švejk willingly obeys as she seduces him. When Švejk assists the drunken chaplain, Katz, in administering the Eucharist, or when he endures Lieutenant Dub’s badgering, his refusal to protest speaks volumes. He is a malingerer, as his enemies say, but this is his way of fighting his private war against the system.


The Good Soldier Švejk appeared when antiwar literature about World War I was still in its infancy. Antiwar literature;The Good Soldier Švejk (Hašek)[Good Soldier Svejk] Its popular success in Czechoslovakia can be accounted for easily enough: It was written in common Czech; the protagonist was regarded, tolerantly, as a buffoon, imagined more like the caricature figure he is in Josef Lada’s Lada, Josef series of cartoons illustrating the novel than as a rounded character; and Hašek’s jeering attitude toward the late empire was readily shared by the citizens of the proud young state. The fact that, initially, the literary establishment ignored or savaged the book and its author can also be explained easily: The book’s language was seen as “low” in style; Švejk was a lowbrow figure, suitable for the semiliterate mass readership of the Sunday supplements but hardly worthy of serious discussion; and Hašek’s devious career and personality discredited him as a representative of the young republic’s literature.

In any case, neither the average Czech nor the intellectual, perhaps, thought very much about Hašek’s antiwar theme, nor did people in the rest of the world, it would seem. In the aftermath of the worst war in history to that time, the sense of relief that the carnage was over was too great for people to be very concerned with antiwar writing. (A similar postwar reaction occurred after World War II, when a respite of several years was needed before interest in that war’s fiction arose.) Moreover, people and governments were preoccupied by the inevitable problems of the Versailles treaty, postwar economic recessions, the Red Scare, and the sensations of liberalized entertainments and mores.

Still, the antiwar movement had begun during the war. Henri Barbusse Barbusse, Henri published Le Feu: Journal d’une esconade (1916; Under Fire: The Story of a Squad, 1917), Under Fire (Barbusse) a novel that established the tone, theme, and structure of most antiwar literature of the next fifteen years. What is especially significant about Barbusse’s work is that it appears to present direct, personal experience of the war, it seems to provoke a mood of pity and disillusionment in the reader, and it employs a vigorous, realistic style. Like Barbusse, his literary followers were veterans of the war and determined antimilitarists. Among the most representative of these were Ernst Jünger, who wrote In Stahlgewittern (1920; The Storm of Steel, 1929); E. E. Cummings, who wrote The Enormous Room (1922); and Robert Graves, who wrote Goodbye to All That: An Autobiography (1929). The big year for antiwar fiction was 1929, when two of the genre’s most memorable novels appeared: Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929) and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

Hašek’s book is not an antiwar novel in the same way the above-noted works are, however. For the most part, The Good Soldier Švejk avoids direct presentation of frontline fighting and destruction, only alluding to the aftermath of battle in sarcastic asides. The prevailing mood is not pity, or even disillusionment, as Hašek’s satiric eye is already predisposed to view people and events in a jaundiced manner. What the novel does instead is focus on the behind-the-front milieu, tracing the experiences of a single soldier. The society of army life is Hašek’s subject, and he is both pitiless and amusing in his portrayal of it.

Švejk, at the center of this society, is an eiron, a kind of self-deprecating comic figure known to audiences and readers since ancient times. Because he sees life as it is, he is a mystery and a troublemaker to those who wish to manipulate others to their ends. Those in this latter group are the alazons, the self-important braggarts who are the necessary complement to the eiron. Švejk is a wise fool, knowing more than he lets on and thus appearing ingenuous to his tormentors.

The reader knows that Švejk is not a simpleton because of his habit of telling long-winded stories whenever an incident reminds him of something that happened elsewhere. Often these tales befuddle or bore the other characters, but they provide the reader with standards by which to judge the situations at hand. Moreover, although Švejk complies with orders, his very complacency reveals the senselessness of events. For example, when news comes that Austria is at war with Italy (thus beginning a war on two fronts, which every sensible leader in Europe wished to avoid), he says:

Now that we have one enemy more, now that we have a new front again, we’ll have to be economical with our munitions. “The more children there are in the family, the more the rods are used,” as grandpa Chovanec at Motol used to say.

The wisdom of Švejk emerges in passages such as this, but it is also clear that Švejk is not a leader and cannot extricate his hapless society from the mess it creates.

Most critics agree that Hašek’s place in the history of Czechoslovakian literature is secure. In fact, Hašek may be regarded as one of the founders of modern Czech writing. For much of European history, the lands of Czechoslovakia have been ruled by other states or ideologies. Only between the world wars of the twentieth century and since late 1989 have the Czechs and Slovaks been independent (in 1993, they formed two separate countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia). Whatever their political fortunes, however, Czechs have produced a distinctive literary tradition. Hašek helped forward that tradition when, along with his contemporaries Franz Kafka and Karel Čapek, he defended personal liberty and decried modern tyranny and conformity. A similar vein of protest occurred after 1948, when the country fell behind the Iron Curtain and a new group of writers, including Milan Kundera and Václav Havel, emerged as opponents of the Communist regime. From this perspective, Hašek’s little man has an honorable place. Švejk is not handsome or brilliant, but he is a free man and determined to remain so. Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War, The (Hašek)[Good Soldier Svejk]

Further Reading

  • Arden, Stuart. “The Good Soldier Schweik and His American Cartoon Counterparts.” Journal of Popular Culture 9 (Summer, 1975): 26-30. Amusing but finally misleading article seeks to compare Hašek’s character to a host of American cartoon characters, such as the Sad Sack, Willie and Joe, and Beetle Bailey, to which Švejk allegedly gave birth. Touches only briefly on the satiric purpose of Hašek compared with the comedic intent of cartoons.
  • Fiedler, Leslie A. “The Antiwar Novel and the Good Soldier Schweik.” Foreword to The Good Soldier: Schweik, by Jaroslav Hašek, translated by Paul Selver. 1930. Reprint. New York: New American Library, 1963. Outlines the heroic tradition in European literature and shows how Hašek’s novel is one of the pioneering works of the twentieth century antiheroic revolt. Also explores the work’s abundant humor, which makes it unusual among antiwar fiction.
  • Hašek, Jaroslav. The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War. Translated by Cecil Parrott. 1973. Reprint. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. The most authoritative version of the original novel in English (the 1930 edition, translated by Paul Selver, is a bowdlerized, abridged text only two-thirds of the original’s length). Includes an excellent biographical essay, many of Josef Lada’s original illustrations, and several useful maps of the region.
  • Klein, Holger, ed. The First World War in Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1977. Presents eighteen essays on the work of twenty-two writers of 1920’s war novels, including well-known novelists such as Hašek, Hemingway, and Remarque as well as lesser-known figures.
  • Nimchuk, Michael John. The Good Soldier Schweik. Toronto: Playwrights Canada, 1980. A play by a Canadian dramatist based on Hašek’s novel. Produced in Toronto in 1969, it was probably inspired by the short-lived Prague Spring of 1968. One of several theatrical and cinematic adaptations of the story that have appeared since the 1930’s.
  • Sadlon, Zenny K. “Švejk: A Hero for Our Time.” Paper presented at the Second Annual Czech and Slovak History and Culture Conference, “The Czech and Slovak 20th Century in Retrospect: 1918-1938,” March, 2001. National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library (Cedar Rapids, Iowa). http://zenny.com/svejk/NCSML.html. A reflection on the novel from the point of view of an individual who collaborated in the production of a new English translation. Offers several interesting observations on the work’s relevance to the world of the twenty-first century.
  • Škvorecky, Josef. “Czech Writers: Politicians in Spite of Themselves.” The New York Times Book Review, December 10, 1989, 1, 43-45. A reflection on the events of the so-called Velvet Revolution of December, 1989, when the Communist regime of Czechoslovakia fell and was replaced by a democratic government led by dramatist Václav Havel. Offers a sketch of the protest role Czech writers have played during times of autocracy since the Renaissance.
  • Stern, J. P. “War and the Comic Muse: The Good Soldier Schweik and Catch-22.” Comparative Literature 20 (Summer, 1968): 193-216. One of the best short studies of the novel available. Focuses in particular on Hašek’s satire of militarism, arguing that it is often backhanded, coarse, and even unfunny. Offers relevant comparisons between Hašek’s novel and Joseph Heller’s classic of American experience in World War II.

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