Great Books: Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk

Hailed as one of the first anti-war novels, Hašek’s trailblazing book still packs a punch and raises a smile more than a century after publication.

Poster for the play The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek, 1929. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.
Poster for the play The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek, 1929. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

There is a moment in Jaroslav Hašek’s comic masterpiece when the eponymous protagonist, that good soldier Švejk, falls foul of his short-tempered, long-suffering superior, Lieutenant Lukáš. ‘Švejk, Jesus Mary, Himmelherrgott, I’ll have you shot,’ fumes Lukáš, ‘you cattle, you oaf, you pig. Are you really such a half-wit?’ His batman gives a dutifully prompt reply: ‘Humbly report, sir, I am.’

But Hašek’s hero is no fool. He might have a simple mind but he is not a simpleton. He may be certified unfit for military service ‘on grounds of idiocy’ but he is not an idiot. And despite being a ‘little man’ caught up in the cogs of bureaucracy, he can make himself stand tall. Throughout his misadventures in a Prague pub, in prison, in hospital, in a lunatic asylum, and of course in the army, he blunders around yet remains in control, able to show up or cut down to size preposterous figures of authority.

Švejk began life in 1911, albeit as a shadow of his later self. Hašek, who was born in Prague in 1883, introduced him in stories published in the paper Karikatury. Ten years later, after serving on the Eastern front, working in Russia and returning to Czechoslovakia where he was labelled a traitor, a Bolshevik and a bigamist, Hašek set about developing his creation for a longer work of fiction. The first instalment of The Good Soldier Švejk appeared in 1921. Hašek had grand plans of his novel running to six-volumes, but he died in 1923 at the age of 39 after only producing four.

A century on and Hašek’s book still packs a punch and raises a smile. His character steals every scene, particularly when he is airing his singular points of view: ‘Not every man can have wisdom,’ Švejk pronounces. ‘Stupid people have to exist too, because if everyone were wise then there would be so much good sense in the world that every other person would be driven crazy by it.’

Švejk is equally captivating when he is ‘drivelling on’ and spinning one of the many yarns he has stored away in his compartmentalised mind. In a lesser writer’s hands, a character’s rambling stories or tall tales would take the form of digressive longueurs. Hašek keeps his reader invested by filling Švejk’s meandering anecdotes with lurid colour, ribald humour and giddy exuberance.

As if aware that this combination is not to everyone’s taste, Hašek interrupts his narrative at the end of part one to justify his bawdy scenes and coarse vernacular: ‘This novel is neither a handbook of drawing-room refinement nor a teaching manual of expressions to be used in polite society,’ he informs us. ‘It is a historical picture of a certain period of time.’ He continues by reproaching his critics: ‘Those who boggle at strong language are cowards, because it is real life which is shocking them, and weaklings like that are the very people who cause the most harm to culture and character.’

Sensitive souls who depart company from Hašek here miss out on a writer warming to his theme and sharpening his claws. As Švejk joins a march battalion and makes his way to the front, his picaresque scrapes and the mayhem around him help highlight both the futility and absurdity of war. There is a scene set at a railway station where soldiers — ‘candidates for suffering’ — recently discharged from military hospitals board passenger trains to take them into battle. ‘They were now going back to the front to get new wounds, mutilations and pains and to earn the reward of a simple wooden cross over their graves,’ Hašek writes. He then fast-forwards into the future, imagining a miserable carrion crow perched on a faded Austrian soldier’s cap with a rusty Imperial badge on a plain in East Galicia. Every now and then the bird remembers bygone days of feasting on ‘an unending table of human corpses and horse carcasses’ — and under the cap, ‘the daintiest morsels of all — human eyes.’

Such sobering descriptions are offset by Švejk’s farcical commentaries and skewed rationale. ‘That’s why we’re soldiers,’ he explains. ‘It was for that our mothers bore us — so that we could be made mincemeat of when we were put into uniform. And we do it gladly, because we know that our bones won’t rot in vain.’ When a member of his regiment loses at cards and owes his opponent his wages for half a year in advance, Švejk offers the following words of comfort: ‘If you have any luck you’ll fall in the first action and Marek won’t get any pay packet from you.’ When a private expresses fear, Švejk tells him every soldier should enjoy being shot at: ‘He must know that the more the enemy shoots the more ammunition he uses up.’

Needless to say, The Good Soldier Švejk has been hailed as one of the first anti-war novels. Joseph Heller admitted that he couldn’t have written Catch-22 without reading Hašek’s book. A key feature of all anti-war novels is the dehumanisation of the soldiers. In Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, published five years after Švejk, the troops become steadily ground down, to the point the narrator declares, ‘We have turned into human animals.’ Hašek does something better, with the reaction to a note instructing field-kitchens to collect bones and dispatch them to the division stores at the base: ‘It was rather vague because no one could know which bones were meant — the bones of human beings or of other slaughtered livestock.’

Hašek’s treatment of war was original but his brand of gutsy comedy and scathing satire is as old as the hills. Compatriot Max Brod, the man who saved Kafka’s works from the flames, regarded Hašek as ‘a humorist of the highest calibre’ and predicted ‘A later age will perhaps put him on a level with Cervantes and Rabelais.’ There is drollness at every turn in Hašek’s book: in Švejk’s thoughts and deeds; in the slapstick violence and foul-mouthed broadsides; in the rogues’ gallery of drunks, gluttons, scrimshankers and wastrels; in the relentless caustic swipes at Austro-Hungarian officialdom, particularly pompous and ineffectual military top brass; and in the catalogue of ludicrous scenarios — the most memorable when Švejk is taken prisoner by his own troops. Josef Lada’s illustrations enhance the fun: ruthlessly caricaturing the high and mighty and rendering Švejk a scruffy, stubbly, podgy, perky underdog worth rooting for.

In the book’s preface, Hašek sings Švejk’s praises and fantasises about his appeal: ‘In Austrian times his name was once on the lips of all the citizens of the Kingdom of Bohemia, and in the Republic his glory will not fade either.’ Since then, that glory has spread further afield. One hundred years after his creator’s death, Švejk lives on and continues to capture hearts and minds.


Malcolm Forbes