The Good Soldier Švejk, also spelled Schweik or Schwejk, is the abbreviated title of a unfinished satirical/dark comedy novel by Jaroslav Hašek. It was illustrated by Josef Lada and George Grosz after Hašek’s death; recently also by Petr Urban. The original Czech title of the work is Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války, literally The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War. He has become the Czech national personification.
The novel is set during World War I in Austria-Hungary, a multi-ethnic empire full of long-standing tensions. Fifteen million people died in the War, one million of them Austro-Hungarian soldiers of whom around 140,000 were Czechs. Jaroslav Hašek participated in this conflict and examined it in The Good Soldier Švejk. Many of the situations and characters seem to have been inspired, at least in part, by Hašek’s service in the 91st Infantry Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian Army. However, the novel also deals with broader anti-war themes: essentially a series of absurdly comic episodes, it explores both the pointlessness and futility of conflict in general and of military discipline, specifically Austrian military discipline, in particular. Many of its characters, especially the Czechs, are participating in a conflict they do not understand on behalf of a country to which they have no loyalty. The character of Josef Švejk is a development of this theme. Through possibly-feigned idiocy or incompetence he repeatedly manages to frustrate military authority and expose its stupidity in a form of passive resistance: the reader is left unclear, however, as to whether Švejk is genuinely incompetent, or acting quite deliberately with dumb insolence. These absurd events reach a climax when Švejk, wearing a Russian uniform, is mistakenly taken prisoner by his own troops. In addition to satirising Habsburg authority, Hašek repeatedly sets out corruption and hypocrisy attributed to priests of the Catholic Church.
The story begins in Prague with news of the assassination in Sarajevo that precipitates World War I. 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. However, he is arrested by a member of the secret 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. Švejk gets his charwoman to wheel him (he claims to be suffering from rheumatism) to the recruitment offices in Prague, where his apparent zeal causes a minor sensation. Unfortunately, he is transferred to a hospital for malingerers because of his rheumatism. He finally joins the army as batman to army chaplain Otto Katz; Katz loses him at cards to Lieutenant Lukáš, whose batman he then becomes. Lukáš is posted with his march battalion to barracks in České Budějovice, in Southern Bohemia, preparatory to being sent to the front. After missing the train 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. He is then promoted to company orderly. The unit embarks on a long train journey towards Galicia and the Eastern Front. Stopping in a town on the border between Austria and Hungary, in which 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. After a further long journey and 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. Narrowly avoiding execution, he manages to rejoin his unit. The unfinished novel breaks off abruptly before Švejk has a chance to be involved in any combat or enter the trenches, though it appears Hašek may have conceived that the characters would have continued the war in a POW camp, much as he had done. The book also includes a very large number of anecdotes told by Švejk (usually either to deflect the attentions of an authority figure, or to insult them in a concealed manner) which are not directly related to the plot.
Josef Švejk – The novel’s hero: in civilian life a dealer in stolen dogs.
Palivec – The foul-mouthed landlord of Švejk’s local pub – the “U Kalicha” on Na Bojišti street, Prague. Palivec is eventually arrested by Bretschneider after commenting that flies **** on the pub’s portrait of Franz Joseph I of Austria.
Bretschneider – A secret policeman for the Austro-Hungarian government, who repeatedly tries to catch Švejk and others out on their anti-monarchist views. Is eventually eaten by his own dogs, after buying a succession of animals from Švejk in an attempt to incriminate him.
Staff Warder Slavík – A cruel and corrupt prison official (revealed to have himself ended up in prison under the Republic of Czechoslovakia).
Chaplain Otto Katz – Katz is an army chaplain with a fondness for drinking, especially good communion wine, and gambling. A convert to Catholicism, many aspects of Katz’s character are something of an anti-semitic caricature. Švejk seems fond of Katz, but the latter loses the services of Švejk to Lieutenant Lukáš in a game of cards.
Lieutenant Lukáš – Švejk’s long-suffering company commander. A Czech from South Bohemia, Lukáš is something of a womanizer but is depicted in a broadly sympathetic manner by Hašek . Though Švejk’s actions eventually lead to Lukáš being labelled as a notorious philanderer in the Hungarian national press, he starts to miss Švejk after the latter is promoted to company orderly.
Colonel Friedrich Kraus von Zillergut – An idiotic Austrian officer with a penchant for giving his colleagues long-winded, moronic explanations of everyday objects (such as thermometers and postage stamps) and situations; run over by a cart while attempting to demonstrate what a pavement is. Kraus’s dog is stolen by Švejk as a gift to Lukáš; the enraged colonel subsequently arranges Lukáš’s transfer to the front.
Captain Sagner – One of the regiment’s professional officers and commander of Švejk’s march battalion; an ambitious careerist, he is later revealed to have been a closet Czech patriot in his youth. A Captain Sagner appears to have served in the 91st Regiment, where he was Hašek’s battalion commander.
Colonel Schröder – The bad-tempered colonel of Švejk’s regiment, and a caricature of the typical German-speaking senior officers of the Austro-Hungarian army.
Jurajda – The battalion’s spiritualist cook; before military service he had edited an “occultist” journal. Spends time attempting to avoid frontline service through letters he is writing to his wife, in which he details meals he is intending to cook for senior officers.
2nd Lieutenant Dub – Dub is a Czech schoolmaster, officer of the reserve, and commander of the battalion’s 3rd company: he has strongly monarchist views. As a conservative, pro-Habsburg Czech, Dub is the subject of some of Hašek’s most vicious satire. Repeatedly placed in humiliating situations, such as being found drunk in a brothel or falling off a horse (in all Slavonic languages the word ‘dub’ (‘oak’) itself is a common synonym for a dull, idiotic person). Is said to have been based on a lieutenant of the reserve, Mechalek, who served in Hašek’s regiment.
Quartermaster Sergeant-Major Vaněk – Another recurring character, Vaněk (a chemist from Kralupy nad Vltavou in civilian life) is an example of an easy-going but self-serving senior NCO, whose main concern is to make his own existence as comfortable as possible.
Volunteer Marek – The character of one-year volunteer Marek is to some degree a self-portrait by the author, who was himself a one-year volunteer in the 91st. For example, Marek, like Hašek, was fired from the editorship of a natural history magazine after writing articles about imaginary animals. Is appointed the battalion historian by Sagner and occupies himself with devising memorable and heroic deaths in advance for his colleagues.
Vodička – A sapper friend of Švejk noted mainly for his extreme hatred of Hungarians, which leads to an unfortunate incident in Bruck an der Leitha.
Cadet Biegler – Biegler is a young junior officer with pretensions to nobility, despite being the middle-class son of a furrier. Biegler takes his military duties so seriously he is ridiculed even by his senior officers, and is mistakenly hospitalised as a “carrier of cholera germs” after medical staff misdiagnose (for army PR purposes) a cognac-induced hangover.
Captain Tayrle – The brigade adjutant and a particularly disgusting example of a headquarters officer, whose interests appear to lie mainly in crude jokes and sampling of local prostitutes.
General Fink von Finkenstein – An aristocratic, vicious and near-insane senior Austrian officer and commander of the garrison fort of Przemyśl, Fink treats his men with extreme brutality. Almost succeeds in having Švejk executed after the latter is taken prisoner by his own side.
Chaplain Martinec – A chaplain plagued by drink-induced spiritual doubts, whose attempt to provide spiritual consolation to Švejk ends in disaster.
Sergeant Teveles – A man in possession of a silver Military Merit Medal, purchased from a Bosnian, and claiming to be a Sergeant Teveles, who had previously disappeared along with the entire 6 March Company during fighting in Belgrade.
Baloun – A miller from Český Krumlov in civilian life, and Švejk’s successor as Lukáš’s batman, Baloun is a glutton and is regularly punished for stealing Lukáš’s food. Will eat raw dough, sausage skins, etc., when nothing else is available.