Prague, Czech Republic – If you wander through the numerous gift and souvenir shops scattered around Prague’s Old Town you’ll find, alongside the traditional “I Love Prague” beer mugs and Kafka-themed items, another kind of souvenir.
Many memorabilia will feature the image of a funny little character, a small and fat soldier in a World War I uniform holding a tankard in his hand.
The Good Soldier Švejk, an iconic symbol of Czech identity
While these little figurines may puzzle foreign tourists, unaware of its name and significance, this laughable character may be among the most iconic and well-known to Czechs : this jolly face belongs to the Good Soldier Švejk, a fictional character that became, ever since the publication of The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War, a true and authentic symbol of Czech identity.
Within the long literary tradition of deeply philosophical, morally-tortured and tragic heroes stemming from the likes of Kafka or Kundera, Czechs also got deeply emotionally attached to the comical soldier Švejk who, in many ways, embodies the essence of Czech mentality.
Josef Švejk is originally the eponymous main character of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, a series of four books written from 1921 to 1923. Hašek’s character lives in Austria-Hungary in the early 20th century. Over the course of the first novel, Švejk becomes a soldier during the First World War – in his own, peculiar way: at the heart of on one of the past century’s most tragic events and deadliest wars in history, Švejk injects his jovial mind and unsettling gullibility.
For his main characteristic is neither military genius nor patriotic bravery, but an undeniable idiocy, tinged with naivety, ingenuity and honesty, which leads him into increasingly senseless, idiotic and absurd circumstances.
Švejk and the death of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand
From the very beginning, Švejk, living in a world restricted by his limited intelligence and narrow-minded knowledge, seems unable to dissociate his personal experience from the historical events that surround him. The novel’s incipit sets the tone with an utterly surrealistic scene: when announced that the Archduke Franz-Ferdinand has been killed, Švejk fails to understand who the person he his speaking to is talking about.
“And so they’ve killed our Ferdinand,’ the chairwoman tells Mr Švejk, who had left military service years before, after having finally been certified by an army medical board as an imbecile (at that time, he made his living by selling dogs — ugly, mongrel monstrosities whose pedigrees he cunningly forged).”
“Apart from this occupation, he suffered from rheumatism and was at this very moment rubbing his knees with some embrocation. ‘Which Ferdinand, Mrs Müller?’ he asked, going on with the massaging. ‘I know two Ferdinands. One is a messenger at Průša’s, the chemist’s, and once by mistake he drank a bottle of hair oil there. And the other is Ferdinand Kokoška who collects dog manure. Neither of them is any loss.’ ‘Oh no, sir, it’s his Imperial Highness, the Archduke Ferdinand, from Konopiště, the fat churchy one.”
The Good Soldier Švejk: world’s greatest imbecile or most brilliant man?
Although doomed by his inherent imbecility, Švejk declares: “I was discharged from the army for idiocy and officially certified by a special commission as an idiot. I’m an official idiot.”. Švejk eventually outlives the Great War thanks to his relentless innocence and optimism – or is it because of his imbecile and narrow mind, which shields him from great disappointments and dangerous situations?
The question whether Švejk is truly an idiot or just mimics one has often been debated. The fact remains that even in the worst circumstances, Švejk always finds a way to be, well, fine.
This extract might help you form your own opinion about whether Švejk is the world’s biggest idiot or wisest bugger:
“When Švejk subsequently described life in the lunatic asylum, he did so in exceptionally eulogistic terms: ‘I really don’t know why those loonies get so angry when they’re kept there. You can crawl naked on the floor, howl like a jackal, rage and bite. If anyone did this anywhere on the promenade people would be astonished, but there it’s the most common or garden thing to do. There’s a freedom there which not even Socialists have ever dreamed of”.
Passive resistance against foreign rule
The issue of Švejk’s attitude towards world’s events, political or military authority or the war in general is one of the main topics in the book – and that may be why Czechs were so eager to identify themselves with this comical fictional character.
Being originally from Prague, the Good Soldier Švejk is knee-deep in the uncertain and varied nebula of nationalities and ethnicities of the dual Austrian-Hungarian monarchy – and which, in the aftermath of World War I, contributed to its collapse.
From the beginning, Josef Švejk is introduced as an outsider and outcast: neither Austrian nor Hungarian, he stands out, during his whole journey, as the embodiment of the disadvantaged and marginalized ethnicities of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In that regard, Švejk symbolizes the attitude of some native Czechs, including Bohemians, towards the imported elites and foreign oppressors.
Švejk, the underdog hero of contemporary Czech revolt
Throughout the 20th century, the Czech nation suffered various rules and invasions of foreign countries – from Austria-Hungary to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union and members of the Warsaw Pact in 1968. Instead of responding by the arms, Czechs often chose the passive way – as Švejk. His idiocy is a form of resistance.
Czechs, with their humorous come backs and witty slogans, picked a hero just like them: they are the silver-tongued soldier sabotaging the army he is part of and using derision, irony and sarcasm to undermine any kind of authority which lacks legitimacy in their eyes.
Švejk is the epitome of a new kind of hero: far from the glorious knights of the medieval Czech legends, from their feats of arms and undying moral values, Švejk comes from a world of downtrodden for whom war is not a noble fight anymore, but a tragedy. Švejk is the hero chosen by a post-communist nation, Czechia, to embody the hope for a better future and a salutary behavior to adopt in the face of hardship.
The undying panache of the absurd
The Czech nation picked a literary hero to stand for themselves. This choice also informs us about the special tenderness they feel towards the imaginary world: Czechs have long been fond of non-existent figures and products of the imagination.
In a 2005 poll about the greatest Czechs of all time, they voted for Jára Cimrman. This completely fictional character may be considered as some kind of Švejk counterpart: hailed as the Czech Leonardo da Vinci, Cimrman is an extraordinary and genius inventor – in fact, all his ideas have already been realized, or he’s had to share the paternity with some other genius.
Cimrman, like the Good Soldier Švejk, is the hero of the disillusioned and discouraged. And Czechs decided to face reality in Švejk and Cimrman’s way: with derision and ridicule, and the undying panache of the absurd.
By Louise Ostermann Twardowski
A French student of Polish descent, Louise studies languages (Polish, Hungarian, Russian), linguistics and literature in Strasbourg, and is passionate about Central European history, culture and literature.