The Good Soldier Švejk

by Jaroslav Hašek

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Josef Švejk is one of the most enduring anti-war heroes of modern fiction. The picaresque character, temperamentally descended from Voltaire’s Candide, haplessly meanders through the Eastern European landscape, trying simply to stay alive as World War I ravages the continent. He was further immortalized by Bertholt Brecht as Schweik in the Second World War. Švejk’s lasting legacy goes beyond Europe, however, as an apparent influence on the reluctant American soldier Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and as an innocent abroad in Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump.

Švejk has no interest in joining the war effort; he does not envision himself a soldier at all, much less exhibit any desire to be a hero. In the end, he trades one uniform for another, suggesting that patriotism may be less important than survival. Lasting questions have addressed Jaroslav Hašek’s intentions regarding Švejk’s likely intellectual disabilities. Is Josef genuinely impaired? Is he faking in order to evade military service? Is he pulling the legs of his commanders in order to embarrass and humiliate them—perhaps in retribution for their mistreatment of him and others? Hašek remains noncommittal. In fact, because the projected complete book was intended to be many volumes long, there has been speculation that Švejk is not a single character, but rather every private ever conscripted into service.

In the military prison where Švejk is sent, he meets Otto Katz, a priest serving as the prison chaplain. Father Katz is an alcoholic who has lapsed away from properly performing his duties and possibly from his faith. Josef serves as Katz’s orderly, where his tasks are include altar boy. While Katz enjoys theological debates, he spends most of his time drinking and gambling.

Lieutenant Luká, an officer at the prison, spends most of his time pursuing sexual relationships with women. After winning Josef from Katz in a poker game, he deploys him to help with his affairs, but Josef invariably mixes things up. This confusion extends to pets: a dog he gives the lieutenant turns out to belong to a superior officer, Colonel Kraus. In retaliation, Kraus sends Luká and Švejk to the front lines and, when that does not work out, to the Russian front.

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