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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter III. Literary representations of the “national character”

The good soldier Švejk

Jaroslav Hašek
Traduction de Cecil Parrott

Texte intégral

1Title: Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války (The good soldier Švejk and his fortunes in the World War)

2Original published: as a series of popular readings in Prague during 1921– 1923

3Language: Czech

4The excerpts used are from: The Good Soldier Švejk and his Fortunes in the World War. Translated from Czech by Cecil Parrott (Middlesex: Penguin Books with W. Heinemann, 1983), pp. 67–73.

About the author

5Jaroslav Hašek [1883, Prague – 1923, Lipnice near Německý Brod (after 1945 Havlíčkův Brod) (Ger. Deutschbrod)]: journalist and writer. Born into the family of a high school teacher, he studied at a commercial academy, and later led a bohemian and vagrant life wandering through Bohemia, Hungary and Galicia. He was jailed briefly for alleged anarchist activities in 1907. Later he worked as the editor in several special-interest journals such as Ženský obzor (Women’s horizon) or Svět zvířat (Animal world), and simultaneously he published stories and interviews from the Prague underworld in various anarchist journals. Throughout his life he wrote several hundred humorous stories published in various journals and newspapers. In 1911, he founded the ‘Party of Moderate Progress in the Limits of Law’, a parody of party politics and the election process. In 1915, Hašek was mobilized and sent to the Galician front, let himself be captured and entered the Czechoslovak legions in Russia. In 1918, though, he entered the Bolshevik Party and joined the Red Army as a political commissioner. After coming back to Prague in December 1920, he again devoted his energy to writing short-stories, feuilletons, humoresques, theatre sketches and so on. He was a master of mystification games merging the realities of life, including his own, and literature. There are a number of legends, myths and nonconfirmed stories about Hašek, to the fabrication of which he supposedly contributed a great deal. His most important piece of work, the one that made him world famous, is the Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka. It became not only part of the Western literary canon, but an indispensable part of Czech cultural memory. Hašek became a legend after his death. The communists, in particular, tried to appropriate his legacy after the Second World War and turn him into a true revolutionary, which, however, proved unsuccessful due to his essentially non-conformist, bohemian and deeply sarcastic personality and writings. Beyond the national horizon, his work is considered to be highly representative of the turn-of-the-century deep existential irony and ‘black humor’ symbolizing the peculiar Central European cultural code of the time.

6Main works: Trampoty pana Tenkráta [Troubles of Mr. Then] (1912); Dobrý voják Švejk a jiné podivné historky [The good soldier Švejk and other queer stories] (1912); Průvodčí cizinců a jiné satiry z cest i domova [Foreigners’ guide and other satires from travels and home] (1913); Můj obchod se psy a jiné humoresky [My dogstore and other humoresques] (1915); Dobrý voják Švejk v zajetí [The good soldier Švejk in captivity] (1917); Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války [The good soldier Švejk and his fortunes in the World War] (1921–1923); Črty, povídky a humoresky z cest [Sketches, stories and humoresques from travels] (1955); Dějiny strany mírného pokroku v mezích zákona [History of the party of moderate progress in the limits of law] (1963), Dekameron humoru a satiry [The decameron of humor and satire] (1972).


7In the first years after 1918, war became one of the main themes in the arts and culture all over Europe. In the Czech case, an important part of the literature about the war was the ‘legionary novel’ (most notably those by Rudolf Medek, Josef Kopta, and František Langer) that depicted the Czechoslovak legions formed mainly from deserters and prisoners of war that fought against Germany and Austria-Hungary on the side of the Entente. The number of Czechoslovak legionaries and above all their significance in the fight against the Bolshevik revolution, especially after they occupied major parts of the trans-Siberian railway, contributed considerably to the international recognition of the idea of an independent Czechoslovak state during and after the war. As such they attracted much respect in the first Republic and, consequently, the officially supported ‘legionary literature’, looking backwards, appropriated their legacy and depicted them in a favorable way as patriotic fighters contributing to the founding of the state. In contrast to this type of writing, there were alternative ways of depicting the war, such as those of Jaromír John or Jaroslav Hašek. Generally they contrasted the two basic levels of the war. The first was the official one pertinent to the state apparatus, the dynasty and war-machinery that was depicted with irony and as a burlesque. The other was the level of the ordinary man, dealing with his emotions, feelings and ability to find his own way in the chaos of the war.

8Hašek’s experiences of the war and revolutionary Russia corroborated his deep mistrust of all great ideas that overreach the simple, everyday life. In his refusal of the ‘higher order of things’ projected in European culture throughout the centuries, and in his entertaining frivolousness, he was close to the Dadaist movement emerging during the same period. The figure of Švejk also reminds the reader of the literary type of the ‘cunning, simple man’ rooted in picaresque novels such as the figures of Eulenspiegel, Simplicissimus or Sancho Panza. From a different perspective some aspects of the book’s style are comparable to contemporaneous realism, expressionism or neoprimitivism. The truth is, however, that Hašek did not care much about high literature or recent literary trends after the war. It was Prague’s proletarian Žižkov district with its pubs and small circle of bohemian artists and drunkards that was the matrix and immediate audience of Hašek’s last years of writing.

9Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka is a four-volume, unfinished novel-chronicle of strictly epic character. It has no central theme or continuous plot. The novel is constructed as a free series of scenes, conversations, and storytelling connected just by the central figure of Švejk. It is set first in Prague, then south Bohemia, Hungary and in the end, near the front-line in Galicia. One of the comic elements of the book is the use of language. Especially in dialogues, Hašek uses colloquial Czech including vulgarisms and slang neologisms, bureaucratic and military jargon, Austrian German, Hungarian, Polish as well as the language of academic writing and popular literature (almanacs). The other comic element is of course the figure of the earthly, unsophisticated Švejk himself. Sometimes he seems sly, sometimes dimwitted. With his unmatched zeal and absolute even-mindedness he often enrages his superiors and authorities. However, his destructive behavior vis-à-vis the war-machinery or state apparatus is rather involuntary and unconscious. From the literary point of view, Švejk is a hyperbolized, artistic construction. His character is never rendered in detail, his age and emotions are unknown and his opinions are sketched only very roughly.

10Osudy was at first published in a series of popular readings that many book-sellers as well as literary critics rejected as too vulgar and simple. Among the first to appreciate the novel were writers such as the Czech Ivan Olbracht or the Prague Germans Alfred Fuchs and Max Brod. The latter introduced Hašek’s novel to the German speaking world, which led to its later popularity throughout Europe. Švejk and other figures from the novel (the police agent Brettschneider, the innkeeper Palivec, the army priest Katz, the first lieutenant Lukáš and so forth) as well as many of the novel’s scenes became a part of the Czech cultural idiom that was evoked in arts and culture as well as in everyday life. A significant, though controversial example might be the verb švejkovat (to act like Švejk), which, in an interesting contrast to the real literary figure, means to shirk or to make oneself silly out of passive resistance. Similarly controversial is, however, the very legacy of Hašek’s Švejk in Czech identity and literary canons. For many, Osudy is a first-class example of anti-war and anti-military literature (thus in line with authors such as Barbusse or Remarque) which reveals and denounces its anti-human character by ridiculing the war-machinery with all its bestialities. For others, Hašek’s book trivializes the war and introduces a literature of ‘pub stories’ and a frivolous and exaggerated story-telling, without any inherent anti-war sentiment or humanist engagement. But, Švejk and švejkovština (Švejkness) triggered numerous clashes about the ‘Czech national character’ and its representation abroad. Here again quite independently of the literary model itself, Švejk stands for the ‘typical Czech foxy pragmatism’ allegedly neglecting higher ethical values or moral persuasions and thus Hašek has been criticized from all possible positions (including nationalist, liberal, socialist, Marxist, Roman Catholic). Others either defended the supposed ‘Švejk’s pragmatism’ as the only possible way out of the awkward or paradoxical situation (Czechs fighting for the ‘hated’ Austria against a ‘friendly Slavic nation’, namely the Russians), or rejected altogether the reification of Švejk as irrelevant to the literary canon and to Czech reality.


The good soldier Švejk and his fortunes in the World War

12[…] The time for the doctor’s afternoon round approached. Dr Grünstein went from bed to bed, followed by the medical orderly officer with his notebook.



15“Enema and aspirin. Pokorný?”


17“Stomach pump and quinine! Kovařík?”


19“Enema and aspirin! Koťátko?”


21“Stomach pump and quinine!”

22And so it went on, one after the other, mercilessly, mechanically, briskly.



25Dr Grünstein looked at the new acquisition.

26“What’s the matter with you?”

27“Humbly report, I’ve got rheumatism!”

28In the course of his practice Dr Grünstein had grown accustomed to be gently ironic, which was much more effective than shouting.

29“Aha, rheumatism,” he said to Švejk. “Then you’ve got a jolly serious illness. It’s really a coincidence getting rheumatism just at a time when there is a world war on and you’ve got to go to the front. I think that you must be awfully sorry.”

30“Humbly report, sir, I am awfully sorry.”

31“Well, there you are, you see, he’s awfully sorry. It’s really awfully nice of you that with your rheumatism you’ve not forgotten us just at this particular moment. In peacetime a poor chap like him runs about like a young goat, but as soon as war breaks out he immediately gets rheumatism and suddenly his knees don’t work. Your knees hurt, I suppose?”

32”Humbly report, they do, sir.”

  • 1 A famous spa in Slovakia for the treatment of rheumatism.

33“And you can’t sleep a wink the whole night, can you? Rheumatism’s very dangerous, painful and grave illness. We’ve already had good experience with rheumatics here. Strict diet and other treatment of ours have proved very effective. Here you’ll be fit quicker than in Piešťany1 and you’ll march to the front like greased lightning.”

34Turning to the hospital orderly he said:

35“Write this down: Švejk, strict diet, stomach pump twice a day, enema once a day, and we’ll see how it goes after that. For the time being take him to the consulting room, pump his stomach and when he comes to, give him and enema, but a real good one, until he screams blue murder and his rheumatism gets frightened and runs away.”

36Then turning to all the beds the doctor made a speech full on noble and rational moral maxims: “Don’t imagine that I’m just a bloody halfwit who swallows all your bull. Your tricks don’t rattle me in the least. I know you’re all malingerers and you want to desert from the war. And I’ll treat you as such. I’ve survived hundreds and hundreds of soldiers like you. Masses of people have lain on beds here who had nothing wrong with them at all except that they hadn’t got a soldier’s guts. While their comrades were fighting on the battlefield they thought they’d lounge about in bed, get hospital rations and wait until the war flew by. But they all found they’d made a bloody mistake, and all of you’ll find you’ve made a bloody mistake too. In twenty years time you’ll be still screaming in your sleep, when you dream of how you tried it on with me.”

37“Humbly report, sir,” came a gentle voice from the bed at the window, “I’m well again. I notice in the night that my asthma’s gone.”

38“Your name?”

39“Kovařík. Humbly report, I have to have an enema.”

40“Good, you’ll still get an enema for the road,” Dr Grünstein decided, “so that you don’t complain that we didn’t give you treatment here. Now, all the patients whose names I’ve read out, fall in and follow the orderly, so that each can get what’s due to him.”

41And each one got a handsome dose of what had been prescribed. And if any of them tried to work on those who were executing the orders by means of prayers of threats that they might too once join the medical corps and the executioners might fall into their hands, Švejk at least bore himself with steadfastness.

42“Don’t spare me,” he invited the myrmidon who was giving him the enema. “Remember your oath. Even if it was your father or your own brother who was lying here, give him an enema without batting an eyelid. Try hard to think that Austria rests on these enemas and victory is ours.”

43The next day on his round Dr Grünstein asked Švejk how he was enjoying being in the military hospital.

44Švejk answered that it was a fair and high-minded institution. In reward he received the same as the day before plus aspirin and three quinine powders which they dissolved into water so that he should drink them at once.

45And not even Socrates drank his hemlock bowl with such composure as did Švejk his quinine, when Dr Grünstein was trying out on him all his various degrees of torture.

46When they wrapped Švejk up in a wet sheet in the presence of the doctor his answer to the question how he liked it now was: “Humbly report, sir, it’s like being in a swimming pool or at the seaside.”

47“Have you still got rheumatism?”

48“Humbly report, sir, it doesn’t seem to want to get better.”

49Švejk was subjected to new tortures.

50At that time the widow of the infantry general, Baroness von Botzenheim, took great pains to find that soldier about whom Bohemie had recently published a report that, cripple as he was, he had had himself pushed in a bath chair shouting: “To Belgrade!”; which patriotic pronouncement induced the editorial staff of Bohemie to invite their reader to organize collections in aid of the loyal and heroic cripple.

51Finally, after inquiries at police headquarters it was ascertained that the man in question was Švejk and after that it was easy to make a search for him. Baroness von Botzenheim went to the Hradčany taking with her her lady companion and her footman with a hamper.

52The poor baroness had no idea what it meant for someone to be lying in the hospital of the garrison gaol. Her visiting card opened the prison door for her, in the office they were awfully nice to her, and in five minutes she learnt that “the good soldier Švejk,” whom she was looking for, lay in the third hut, bed number seventeen. She was accompanied by Dr Grünstein himself, who was quite flabbergasted by it. […]

53“Everybody in bed! An archduchess is coming here. Don’t anyone dare show his dirty legs outside the bed.”

54And not even an archduchess could have entered the ward with such dignity as did Baroness von Botzenheim. After her the whole suite poured in, including even the quartermaster sergeant-major of the hospital who saw in all this the mysterious hand of Accounts Control, which was going to tear him away from his fat feeding trough at the base and deliver him to the tender mercies of the shrapnel somewhere under the barbed wire posts.

55He was pale, but Dr Grünstein was even paler. Before his eyes there danced the old baroness’s small visiting card with her title, “Widow of a general,” and everything which could be associated with it like connections, protection, complaints, transfer to the front and other frightful things.

56“Here you have Švejk,” he said, endeavoring to preserve an artificial composure and leading the Baroness von Botzenheim to Švejk’s bed. “He behaves with great patience.”

57Baroness von Botzheim sat down on the chair prepared for her at Švejk’s bed and said: “Tshech zoldier, goot zoldier, krippl—zoldier iss brafe zoldier. I lof fery moch Tshech Austrian.”

58At that she stroked Švejk on his unshaven cheeks and went on:

59“I reat eferyzink in ze newspapers, I brink you yum yum, zomzink to bite, to shmoke, to zuck, Tshech zoldier, goot zoldier. Johann, come here!”

60Her footman, whose bristly side-whiskers recalled the notorious killer Babinský, dragged a voluminous hamper to the bed, while the old baroness’s companion, a tall lady with a tearful face, sat down on Švejk’s bed and smoothed out his straw pillow under his back with the fixed idea that this was what ought to be done for sick heroes.

  • 2 May God punish England.

61In the meantime the baroness drew presents out of the hamper: a dozen roast chickens wrapped up in pink silk paper and tied with a yellow and black silk ribbon, two bottles of a war liqueur with the label: “Gott strafe England2 On the back of the label was a picture of Franz Joseph and Wilhelm clasping hands as though they were going to play the nursery game: “Bunny sat alone in his hole. Poor little bunny, what’s wrong with you that you can’t hop!”

62Then she took out of the hamper three bottles of wine for the convalescent and two boxes of cigarettes. She set out everything elegantly on the empty bed next to Švejk’s, where she also put a beautifully bound book, Stories from the life of our Monarch, which had been written by the present meritorious chief editor of our official Czechoslovak Republic who doted on old Franz. Packets of chocolate with the same inscription, “Gott strafe England,” and again with pictures of the Austrian and German emperors, found their way to the bed. On the chocolate they were no longer clasping hands; each was acting on his own and turning his back to the other. There was a beautiful toothbrush with two rows of bristles and the inscription “Viribus unitis,” so that anyone who cleaned his teeth should remember Austria. An elegant and extremely useful little gift for the front and the trenches was a manicure set. On the case was a picture showing shrapnel bursting and a man in a steel helmet rushing forward with fixed bayonet. And underneath it was written in German: “For God, Emperor and Fatherland!” There was a tin of biscuits without a picture on it but with a verse in German instead, together with a Czech translation on the back:

Austria, thou noble house,
Thy banners wide unfurl!
Thy flags shall flutter proud on high.
Austria shall never die!

63The last gift was a white hyacinth in a flower—pot.

64When all of this lay unpacked on the bed the Baroness von Botzenheim could not restrain her tears for emotion. Several famished malingerers felt their mouths water. The baroness’s companion propped up the seated Švejk and wept too. There was a silence of the grave which was suddenly broken by Švejk who said with his hands clasped in prayer:

65“Our father, which art in heaven, hallow be Thy name. Thy kingdom come … Pardon me, your ladyship, it’s not right. I mean to say: O God our father in heaven, bless for us these gifts that we may enjoy them thanks to Thy goodness. Amen.”

66After these words he took a chicken from the bed and starting to devour it under the horrified gaze of Dr Grünstein.

67“Ach, how he enjoys it, poor soldier,” the old baroness whispered enthusiastically to Dr Grünstein. “He’s certainly well again and can go to the battlefield. I’m really very glad that my gifts stand him in such good stead.”

68Then she walked from bed to bed, distributing cigarettes and chocolate creams. When she came back again to Švejk after her promenade, she stroked his hair, said in German: “God protect you all!” and went out of the door with her whole escort.

69Before Dr Grünstein could return from below, where he had gone see the baroness out, Švejk had distributed the chickens. They were bolted by the patients so quickly that Dr Grünstein found only a heap of bones gnawed cleanly, as though the chickens had fallen alive into a nest of vultures and the sun had been beating down on their gnawed bones for several months.

70The war liqueur and the three bottles of wine had also disappeared. The packets of chocolate and the box of biscuits were likewise lost in the patients’ stomachs. Someone had even drunk up the bottle of nail-polish which was in the manicure set and eaten the toothpaste which had been enclosed with the toothbrush.

71Translated by Cecil Parrott in Jaroslav Hašek: The Good Soldier Švejk and his Fortunes in the World War (Penguin Books with W. Heinemann, 1983), pp. 67–73.


1 A famous spa in Slovakia for the treatment of rheumatism.

2 May God punish England.


Cecil Parrott (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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