The Good Soldier Schwejk: Review Part Two

Schwejk made his first outing in 1911 in a short story called Schwejk Stands Against Italy.  In the same year The Good Soldier Schwejk and Other Strange Stories appeared in pamphlet form.
In 1912 Hasek wrote him into a sketch for the Prague Cabaret and later a play, The Good Soldier Schwejk in Captivity.

The first edition of the novel The Good Soldier Schwejk and His Adventures in the First World War was published in instalments in 1923.  Then, in 1924 it appeared as The Good Soldier Schwejk, with Josef Ladas’ distinctive illustrations, which are as readily identifiable with Hasek’s text as Phiz’s with Dickens’ novels.

The first silent, black and white film of Schwejk was made in 1926 by Czech director, Karel Lamac.  From then on numerous attempts were made to bring Schwejk to the stage and the screen by Erwin Piscator, Bertolt Brecht and Lamac in Germany and the USA, which foundered on the rocks of artistic difference and reluctance on the part of potential producers to offend the German government.  However, Lamac succeeded eventually in 1943 with Schwejk’s New Adventures, a comedy film made in England starring Richard Attenborough.

In 1939 Joan Littlewood made her first stage production of Schwejk in Manchester, which she rewrote with Jerry Raffles for the Theatre Royal in Stratford in 1954 and later became a West-End hit.  It was to provide the inspiration for her most well-known work Oh What a Lovely War. Brecht’s play finally made it onto the Berlin stage in 1956, a year after his death.

Since then there have been interpretations for cinema, theatre, opera, radio and TV in Britain, Germany, France, the US, the Ukraine and Finland. Schwejk has even appeared as a puppetoon (go on, guess) in his country of origin, where he was banned during the German occupation until he ascended finally in 1948 to the cult status he enjoys today in The Czech Republic.

Clearly Jaraslav Hasek has spoken to generations of European and American artists since he created Schwejk and the evolution of his protagonist through their work has been just as syncopated as the trajectory of his own life.

Hasek was born in 1883 in Prague into the repressive regime of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  He grew into a wild, restless boy who tried out a number of careers in compliance with his family’s wishes.  But, as a prankster with a taste for revolution and a love of tramping, he was never going to tread a conventional path through life.  In 1905, like Schwejk, he was dismissed from the army for incompetence, after just three weeks of service.  Again, like Schwejk, he set up a dodgy business dealing in the sale of mongrel dogs disguised as pure breeds, which were sold on to unfortunate dupes who received forged certifications guaranteeing the authenticity of their pedigree.

In 1912 he drifted toward the Prague Cabaret where he was free to express subversive ideas without interference from the state.  These artistic endeavours were interrupted by the First World War, when his second career as a soldier proved as chequered as Schwejk’s.

In 1917 with the coming of the Revolution, he defected from the Czech Legion to the political department of the Russian Fifth Army, which made him officer in charge of producing a daily newspaper aimed at stirring revolutionary fervour among the many prisoners of war captured by the Red Army.

Back in Prague, after the war, he found himself in a compromised position both as a deserter and bigamist.  While he was editor of the Russian newspaper, he had married Alexandra Lvova, but neglected to divorce his first wife, Jarmila Mayerova, who had left him in 1912 taking their son Richard with her, unable to tolerate his drinking and wanderings any longer.

Despite these difficulties, in 1921 he succeeded in establishing the publishing house which would go on to publish the instalments of Schwejk between 1922-23.  Although Hasek had given up drinking during his spell in the Russian army, he took it up again in 1920 and by 1923 had drunk himself to death.
Why should we care today about another film telling the story of an insignificant, fictional soldier adrift in a theatre of war we don’t know much about, written by a crazy bohemian dead of alcoholism by the age of forty?

Well, I hope we are not as dismissive now of the interests and history of the Czech people as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlaine who, in his attempt to appease Germany before the Second World War, described the annexation of their homeland by Hitler as a as a quarrel between a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing, but after seeing The Good Soldier Schwejk, I realised just how little I have remembered about the involvement of Central Europe in the First World War since sitting “O” Level history in the 1970’s.

We all know that the War to End All Wars was triggered by the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, but then what?

The Central Powers deployed a force including troops drawn from states all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which lost one and a half million men and, overall, they sacrificed four million – military losses every bit as devastating as those sustained in Western Europe.

But anyone observing media coverage of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice in November, could be forgiven for believing that the entire First World War was fought on the battle fields of Belgium and Northern France.  The Good Soldier Schwejk, at the very least, reminds us that this was not so.

I found it refreshing to see something with an unequivocal anti-war message, while the mainstream carefully avoided raising the question of whether any cause could justify the destruction of human life on a scale never witnessed before in the history of the world.

I do understand that many men who went to war did so willingly and gave their lives without hesitation.  The historian David Crane1 has also argued that, no matter how disillusioned war poets like Wilfred Owen became, they did not turn to pacifism.  However, I still find it hard to see how even the most Blimpish of individuals could contemplate a work like Shrouds of The Somme2, and feel nothing but national pride at the loss of 79,326 British and Commonwealth soldiers never recovered from the battle ground, whose names are engraved on the Thiepval Memorial in Picardie.

And so, I believe there will be an audience out there for The Good Soldier Schwejk, especially among those of us who would argue that commemoration should teach us to keep on asking questions about the morality of going to war, as well as honouring the war dead.

1. David Crane’s review of Max Egremont’s Some Desperate Glory: the First World War the Poets Knew appears here:

2. The story of Robert Heard’s Shrouds of the Somme can be found on this website:

Information about the history of the publication of the Good Soldier Schwejk, its various interpretations and the life of Jaraslav Hasek appear in the programme for the commemoration of the Armistice Centenary 1st to 15th November 2018

Jane McChrystal © 2018.