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The Good Soldier Švejk

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Jaroslav Hašek as graduate of the Czecho-Slavonic Commercial Academy in Prague, 1902

Jaroslav Hašek (30 April 1883 - 3 January 1923), author of the famous novel The Fates of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War (literal translation) and some 1,500 short stories, lived a short and extraordinarily turbulent life. He was born in Prague, then part of Austria-Hungary, son of Josef Hašek and Kateřina Hašková, née Jarešová. The parents were from South Bohemia, with a background from the so-called educated peasant classes. His father was an assistant teacher, later bank employee, but died already in 1896. After the father's death the family landed in economic difficulties and moved no less than fifteen times during the childhood and adolescence of young Jaroslav.

Despite the changing circumstances Hašek obtained a higher education but soon showed himself incapable of adapting (or unwilling to) to an orderly life. He had graduated at the Czecho-Slavonic commercial academy (1899 -1902) with good marks, and was soon employed by Banka Slavia. Here he was dismissed after less than six months after having been absent from work twice without permission. After that he became a creative and productive writer and journalist, despite his untidy way of life and increasing alcohol consumption. As early as 1901, still a student at the academy, he published his first stories in Národní listy, and one of his teachers recognised his literary talent and saw in him a “Czech Mark Twain”.

During the summers of 1899 through 1905 Hašek undertook long wanderings in Central Europe, and even on the Balkans, which provided rich material for his short stories and the later masterpiece Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války. During this travels he was often penniless, slept outside and partly travelled on foot. He got to see the society from its bottom perspective, something that was to strongly influence his writing and political views. The region he visited most frequently was Slovakia, but he also made trips to Bavaria, Switzerland, Italy, current Poland, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and Bulgaria. In addition he may well have set foot in modern Macedonia, Ukraine and Serbia.

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Even before writing The Good Soldier Švejk (1921-22) Jaroslav Hašek had a reputation as a prominent satirist, but was also viewed as controversial due to a period as an active anarchist. Hašek was also known for his many spoofs. In connection with parliamentary elections in 1911 he founded the "Party for moderate progress within the limits of the law", which was partly a forum for ridiculing the political elites, and partly founded to increase the turnover at the pub where the party meetings were held. Hašek had repeated conflicts with the police, some due to his involvement in the anarchist movement, but more frequently caused by drunkenness and public disorder.

As early as 1911 Hašek had thought up the good soldier Švejk. During the summer five stories about the soldier were published, although very different from the later novel in form and content. The stinging satire was lacking, Švejk tells no anecdotes, and the stories obviously lack the strong connection to reality that the author’s own experiences in the army later on lends to the novel.

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Jaroslav and Jarmila, Karlovo náměstí

In 1910 Hašek had finally married Jarmila Mayerová whom he had been courting since 1906. Her parents were vehemently opposed to the relationship because of Hašek's anarchist connection and his unorthodox lifestyle. In 1912 their son Richard was born but soon afterwards Hašek left the family, only to see them again in 1921. Family life had not suited him, and again he took up his bohemian way of life. After breaking with his family in 1912, he again started to travel, now locally in Bohemia, together with his friend Zdeněk Matěj Kuděj.

The outbreak of war in 1914 led to big changes in Hašek’s life. In February 1915 he was called up, sent to the front in Galicia in July, and was captured by the Russians in September. The time in the army provided rich material for the later novel about Švejk. Many geographical details and other circumstances show similarities between the author’s experiences and the contents of the novel. His time in the Austro-Hungarian Army had a profound influence on the novel, and is investigated in greater detail here.

In Russian captivity Hašek contracted typhus, a disease that killed thousands of his fellow prisoners. In June 1916 he volunteered for Czechoslovak Brigade (later a.k.a Legions) and was subsequently released. In the Legions he worked as a recruiter amongst prisoners of war. He was also a journalist at the tsar-loyalist weekly Čechoslovan in Kiev. During this period Hašek voiced strongly nationalist ideas and even supported the tsar regime which he saw as the strongest supporter of a future Czech state. After several episodes that embarrassed the Czech volunteers he was sent to the front as an ordinary soldier in May 1917. His satirical article The Czech Pickwick Club, led to further disciplinary measures. On 2 July Hašek took part in the battle of Zborów where the Czechoslovak volunteers for the first time faced their own compatriots as a unit.

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Jan Šípek, Jaroslav Hašek, Václav Menger. Berezne, Ukraine (autumn 1917).

The Russian October Revolution in 1917 and the ensuing peace treaty between the new Soviet state and the Central Powers made continuing the war from Russian soil impossible for the Legions. They were formally placed under French command, and it was decided to transfer them to the western front via Vladivostok. This was a decision that Jaroslav Hašek disagreed with. He preferred that his countrymen remain in Russia, presumably in the hope that the front against the Central Powers would be reopened. From the beginning of 1918 he also became increasingly influenced by Communist ideas. Witnessing the Bolshevik occupation of Kiev in February may have contributed to this shift. According to Josef Pospíšil he judged the Bolshevik leaders as very capable. He may also have been influenced by the young Communist Břetislav Hůla, his co-editor at Čechoslovan from November 1917. At this stage many left-wing groups disagreed with Lenin's Brest-Litovsk treaty, and it would have been natural for Hašek to align with those.

In March 1918 Hašek and Hůla travelled to Moscow and reported to the Czech social democrats (Communists), and in April Jaroslav Hašek put in writing that he left the Czech Army) (i.e. Legions), stating that he disagreed with their transfer to France. During the spring of 1918 the relationship between the Czechs and the Bolsheviks deteriorated, and at the end of May an armed rebellion broke out. This led Hašek in direct conflict with his former comrades. He and other Czech Communists were branded as traitors, and arrest orders for the more prominent of them were issued, with a particular emphasis on Hašek (Omsk 25 July 1918). By now all bridges had been burnt and from October Hašek worked directly for the Bolshevik’s 5th Army.

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Hašek announcing that he is leaving the Czech Army, disagreeing with the transfer to France (13 April 1918).

In Russia Hašek’s career made rapid progress. He worked for the political department of the 5th Army and he journeyed all the way to Irkutsk where he in 1920 even became a member of the city council (Soviet). Hašek was responsible for propaganda and recruitment among the many foreign prisoners of war who still remained in Russia. He published in Czech, Russian, German, Bashkir, Hungarian and Buryat. In Siberia he married again, Alexandra Lvova (Šura). This despite him not being formally divorced from Jarmila.

In the autumn of 1920 circumstances changed again. The Bolsheviks had won the Russian civil war, and the many foreigners in their service were surplus to requirements and deemed more useful as agitators in their home countries. Hašek and many others were sent back home by Komintern to help the local Communist movements. On 24 October Jaroslav Hašek left Irkutsk and appeared in Prague on 19 December. During the time in the Bolshevik 5th Army he was for the first time in permanent employment for more than six months, and he had also stopped drinking. Back in Prague he was soon back into his former habits, and he was of little use to the Communist movement thereafter. If Hašek was controversial in pre-war Prague, he was so even more now; there was the threat of legal proceedings because of bigamy and he was widely unpopular due to his Bolshevik past.

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Hašek back in his homeland (1921).

Around February 1921 he hit on the idea to re-kindle his Good Soldier Švejk, now in the form of a novel, and he started to write Švejk, a book that was planned in six parts. The first part and at least the first chapter of the second was completed in Žižkov, and was initially sold in instalments. It was an immediate success, and Hašek soon got a deal with the publisher Adolf Synek.

In August 1921 he moved to Lipnice nad Sázavou where he completed part two, wrote part three, and started on the fourth. Unfortunately his health took a downward turn, the hard life had taken its toll and he had also become dangerously overweight. Jaroslav Hašek never managed to complete the fourth part of his epic novel, and died from heart failure on 3 January 1923.

Jaroslav Hašek is the subject of a number of biographies, although most of them are available exclusively in Czech. Autobiographical material is almost non-existent, apart from those elements of his own life that he frequently mixed into his writing. This information should be viewed with scepticism, as Hašek was prone to mystification. Almost all that is known about him today is therefore based on the accounts from people who knew him, and material from various archives.

For the international reading public the best source of factual information is arguably The Bad Bohemian by Cecil Parrott, the man behind the second of the three English translations of Švejk. Parrott’s biography is to a degree based on Radko Pytlík’s de-facto standard Toulavé house (1971). Pytlík is generally regarded as the foremost living expert on Hašek and several of his books have been translated into foreign languages.

A rare but valuable book is Emanuel Frynta’s Hašek, the Creator of Švejk. It comes with many illustrations and has been competently translated into English. It focuses more on the artistic view of the author, rather than the biographical details other biographies lean towards.

There is also literature about Hašek in German, for instance the rather speculative but well documented Der Vater des braven Soldaten Schweik by Gustav Janouch.


© 2009 - 2018 Jomar Hønsi Last updated: 15/9-2018