When talking about WWI we usually mean the Western Front: trenches, gas, tanks, Verdun, Somme, Passchendaele…However, it is also commonly assumed that the country which fared the worse in the war was Austria, quite away from the French and Flemish trenches.
The Dual Monarchy, the Austria-Hungary Empire, was populated by more than fifty million people of diverse origins and languages, and extended through vast extensions of Central-East Europe, covering at least in part the nowadays countries of Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine and Romania…even Italy. That was at the beginning of the conflict. At the end, it was decimated to a little republic of six and a half million inhabitants, mostly of German origin and language, so centered in the old capital Vienna that it alone had over a third of the whole population. No more Empires, no more Kingdoms, no more grandeur. Just a landlocked tiny remnant of what once was the dominant throne in Europe.
It is in this context that we must set “The adventures of the good soldier Svejk”, by Jaroslav Hasek. Hasek himself was a Bohemian, a Czech Nationalist and a soldier in the Emperor’s Army during the war. He was taken prisoner in Galitzia by the Russian army and after been released became a communist. Considering that the literary adventures of Svejk are but a reflection of the real life adventures of Hasek himself, we should give the book some credit as a faithful recreation of the era.
And, oh yes, the depiction is appalling. What we find inside this book is a crumbling building so proud of itself that it is absolutely unable to do the simplest thing to put and end to its decay. That building, of course, is the Austria-Hungary Empire, and its Army as a token. An army inconceivably outdated which reflects an Empire whose better times are long past. An Army full of rules, absurd or simply annoying; full of papier-mâché units and operetta officers, worried about medals and wearing the proper uniform, about attending the opera in fashion. A tinsel Army for a tinsel empire, pretending still to be almighty under the rule of a decrepit tyrant and dragging first, after the assassination of Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand half of Europe to war. Then because its own flaws, dragging its German allies to an unsustainable war effort.
Every possible mistake is reflected in the novel: poor leadership, bad tactics, inefficient logistics, exaggerated sense of self-importance, lack of initiative…the characteristics of the Army served as those of the entire Empire, fossilized in the old glorious times, vain, arrogant, obsolete…no surprise, then that the Army was so incapable of achieving victory over Serbs, Russians, Italians, despite the outstanding efforts and achievements of a small cadre of aware officers and most of the anonymous privates who were at the front, pulling the triggers. Hasek loses no time in niceties: from beginning to end, what he tells is the story of a well-deserved defeat.
The other great merit in this book, apart from showing us a reality often concealed by the horrors of the Western Front and the high culture and beauty of Vienna, is the creation of one of the most enjoyable characters of the European literature: Svejk.
Svejk, the star of the show, is a brother of those great characters of the Spanish Golden Age: Sancho Panza, Lazaro de Tormes, el Buscón. We cannot call him a scoundrel, nor a rogue, and we will possibly end up the reading without really known whether he is a genius or a complete idiot. Maybe both. He is good, or at least he thinks he is good (the good soldier Svejk) and tries to comply, usually to no avail. He is a man who loves peace albeit he is always amidst the most unbelievable troubles. He is even declared officially idiot by the army, yet serves as an officer valet. In the end Svejk represents, seems to me, the common man, dumbfounded and deceived by the higher classes (remember Hasek has declared for Bolshevism prior to his writing of “Svejk”) and the Government, and not knowingly (or fully aware, that’s probably the trick: get the others confused about the real intentions of oneself) taking little revenges in the petty affairs of everyday life.
Svejk is a good-humoured man yet quite ill-tempered and prone to fighting, even in civilian robes. He seems to be a unwitty lad but, somehow he is able to extricate himself of every new embroil with what, watched from the outside looks a lot like wit. In one occasion, Svejk is accused of looting, having stolen a hen from some local impoverished farmer whom he also has hurt in the eye. So he is arrested and sent to his unit where Lieutenant Lukas, the sufferer of some of Svejk’s “adventures” has to deal with it (and with the farmer and his wife, claiming for justice). So Svejk proposes a payment for the hen, other for the eye “ten florin is enough”, grabs again the hen and wrings its neck to Lukas puzzlement. That’s Svejk for you, a man quite obsessed with food in an Army that is constantly underfeeding its soldiers (yet asking of them supreme feats of endurance when in combat). Lukas gets quite mad at him asking what he deserves for his crimes. Svejk answer is brilliant: “an honourable death with bullets and gunpowder”
On goes the row, with Lukas, desperate, yelling abuse and proposing to hang the looter “you, scoundrel, have forgotten your oath” he says. At this point, Svejk begins to recite the oath, in standing position, thus provoking a new outburst from Lukas who threatens him with death again. So Svejk explains that is all a mistake: he, Svejk, was ordered by Lukas to go get some food, and not having found but bad meat (and that from horse, and hard donkey) so he went to next village and try to find something good for the Lieutenant in order to nurture him before combat. Found the hen, tried to paid (after grabbing it and being so questioned), quarrel with the owners, arrested…he’s been trying to explain the under-Lieutenant who arrested him all this, and that the hen was for Lieutenant Lukas, but…to Lukas amazement (and fear, so it was clear that seemingly Svejk was a looter acting on his orders), Svejk has an explanation for everything.
In the end, Lukas threatens again with hanging and pointing to the fact that Svejk is always entangled in affairs of that kind, suggests to do tie him “firmly, by the neck, in front of the cadre with all due Military honour”. Brilliantly, Svejk starts to recite the exact composition of the cadre, down to the level of companies, and is ousted by an exhausted Lukas who, at this point, all that wants is get rid of this pestering idiot who, somehow, always fare well.
And that is the soldier’s life: recruitment, even if you are an official idiot; instruction, often violent or lacking any real military purpose; bad food if any; long marches, trains delayed in every station; difficulties to have any kind of understanding with the locals, given the numerous languages and nationalities the Empire is made of. And, at the end of the line, a battlefield. And there, they are beaten, mauled and happy to scape with life. That, the ones who could do it. All along the way Svejk and his adventures and hilarious stories have shown the disastrous conducting of the war and that this could only lead to utter defeat. Yet again, all along officers and authorities have been so sure of victory and the superiority of the Empire forces that nothing has changed.
So, albeit not pretending to be a first person account of the war, Hasek summarises very well how was the war for the humble soldier, a long road with poor food, no leadership, and forlorn hopes. Yet Svejk was able to survive. Maybe Hasek, who suffered not only the pains of war but also the pains of being a prisoner of war and, as a Czech Nationalist, probably loathed every minute of it because it was risking life and limb for what he saw as a oppressive regime, was trying to say that war is such and absurdity that only the absurd, random behavior, is sure to get you out of it. So Svejk, the king of the absurd, reigns over a court of the most miserable, desperate and unpleasant characters.
If you want to understand how Empires crumble from the “micro” point of view, this would be a good reading. If you just want to laugh with the uncanny adventures of a fool, again a good reading. But behind the lines, sadness, suffering and the selfishness and stupidity of Mankind also await you. So beware, you who trespass the threshold of Svejk’s life. You could end up learning something transcendent…or an honourable death with bullets and gunpowder.