I have posted a lot on the First World War era, and in some literary and artistic works of that time. With one book in particular, I am constantly amazed when people interested in history don’t know it. Apart from being one of the really great books on war, it is also riotously funny. And no, the two parts of that sentence are not in contradiction. It also provides a nice context for our recent centennial of the end of that war.
I am referring to The Good Soldier Švejk (1923) by the Czech Jaroslav Hašek, a true bohemian and anarchist. It tells the story of a soldier in the Great War, who is, shall we say, beyond simple. The picture is of course founded on Hašek’s own experiences in the service, and as a POW of the Russians. Švejk is basically an idiot, and we see the war through his twisted eyes, which despise all authority, and in the process we see many acute visions of war and society. Everything you think you know about war, or heroism, or nationalism, or the military, is turned radically upside down. The book portrays the military experience in term of pervasive absurdity, and of comic incompetence, coupled with sadistic brutality: which is why it remains such a firm favorite with so many present and former soldiers. It makes Catch-22 or M*A*S*H look like recruiting posters sponsored by the Pentagon. The book portrays a gallery of officers, who are variously described as bullies, bigots, morons, perverts, careerists, or sots: all are closely modeled on the actual officers under whom Hašek served. Clergy and military chaplains come in for special contempt.
Švejk is an idiot in a world run by lunatics. And maybe the sanest person in a world at war.
Although a lengthy work, it remains unfinished, because Hašek himself died in 1923. Every page clamors for quotation, but let me offer the opening words. (I am here using the 1973 translation by Cecil Parrott, which is dated and a bit controversial, but I fear I don’t speak Czech). The cleaning lady rushes in to tell Švejk that they have killed our dear Ferdinand! From a hundred other books, we know the scene all too well, and we know what to expect. She is reporting the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, the death knell of the old world. Will the characters recognize the full tragic significance of the event? Um, no. Švejk is puzzled. Well, he says, I know two Ferdinands. One works at the pharmacist’s and he’s the one who accidentally drank a whole bottle of hair oil. The other is the guy who collects dog manure. Can’t think we’d miss either of those too much. Only gradually does he begin grasp the idea of who it is who actually has perished, and the potential consequences, although he doesn’t really care. That scene sets the tone for the whole, thoroughly bizarre, book.
Much of the book portrays Švejk’s hopeless attempts to find the war, or at least the army, or even his own side – or something. I quote a summary of what passes for a plot:
Švejk displays such enthusiasm about faithfully serving the Austrian Emperor in battle that no one can decide whether he is merely an imbecile or is craftily undermining the war effort. He is arrested by a member of the state police, Bretschneider, after making some politically sensitive remarks, and is sent to prison. After being certified insane he is transferred to a madhouse, before being ejected. ….
After missing all the trains to Budějovice, Švejk embarks on a long anabasis on foot around Southern Bohemia in a vain attempt to find Budějovice, before being arrested as a possible spy and deserter (a charge he strenuously denies) and escorted to his regiment. The regiment is soon transferred to … a town on the border between Austria and Hungary. Here, where relations between the two nationalities are somewhat sensitive, Švejk is again arrested, this time for causing an affray involving a respectable Hungarian citizen and engaging in a street fight. He is also promoted to company orderly. The unit embarks on a long train journey towards Galicia and the Eastern Front. Close to the front line, Švejk is taken prisoner by his own side as a suspected Russian deserter, after arriving at a lake and trying on an abandoned Russian uniform.
Why, if every soldier was as simple-hearted, simple-minded, and flagrantly incompetent as Švejk, nations just couldn’t fight wars any more! Which was exactly Hašek’s point.
If you try to talk about the First World War as it affected any country without knowing The Good Soldier Švejk, you are making a mistake. And maybe about any war. It also tells you all you need to know about the fine people of the Czech Republic that Švejk is, and has long been, their national hero.