The Joker at the Funeral

The Joker at the Funeral

Where do great powers get the idea that some countries are unfit to survive? 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues a long tradition of major powers trampling on the sovereignty of the countries and peoples of Central and Eastern Europe. Before launching his war, Vladimir Putin claimed in speeches and essays that Ukraine was not a real country, and his ruling United Russia party introduced a bill in the State Duma to repeal Lithuania’s independence. China’s ambassador to France followed in 2023 by stating that countries liberated in 1991 from forcible absorption into the Soviet Union “don’t have effective status under international law [or] status as sovereign nations.” 

The most infamous example was conjured by the proud “appeasers” who led Great Britain and France in the run-up to World War II, Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier, who handed much of Czechoslovakia over to Hitler with high-minded ease in the Munich Agreement of 1938. Of course, Hitler was not appeased. 

Where do great powers get the idea that these countries are unfit to survive? It may be fed by the supposition that these smaller countries won’t fight, an idea Ukraine is refuting. But in Czecho-Slovakia’s case, it may have been inspired by literature, particularly The Good Soldier Švejk, a world-famous novel that observes the 100th anniversary of its publication and the death of its author, Jaroslav Hašek, this year. 

The “good soldier,” Josef Švejk, is an easy-going, seemingly idiotic, yet cleverly passive-aggressive soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Army in World War I when the Czechs and Slovaks were constituent peoples of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He mumbles and stumbles his way through the war, deploying a deft imbecility to exploit any shortfalls of military discipline and loopholes in army regulations in such a way as to avoid combat or any productive endeavor and to make his commanders look foolish. 

Published shortly after Czecho-Slovakia’s independence in 1918—and twenty years prior to Munich—one of the first of liberated Prague’s novels to reach a worldwide audience created an indelible stereotype of the archetype Czech or Czecho-Slovak personality, which exhibits weakness and passivity in the face of threats or aggression. 

Czech passivity is a myth, but it is a persistent one. In a 2006 travel guide, Culture and Customs of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, for instance, Princeton-educated author Craig Cravens says, “Rather than revolution, Czechs and Slovaks have repeatedly expressed their patriotism and opposition to foreign domination and rule through passive, small-scale resistance. Jaroslav Hašek demonstrated this typically Czech characteristic in his novel, The Fortunes of the Good Soldier Švejk in the Great War . . . They are a peaceful folk, fonder of cooling their heels in pubs instead of manning the barricades.” 

To this caricature, one can only respond with Czecho-Slovak history.

Before it came under Habsburg rule, Bohemia was a significant power that waged major wars against Hungary and Austria. Under the Habsburgs, Bohemians fought Prussian-German armies from 1740 to 1866 and also helped Austria-Hungary repel Ottoman invasions from 1529 to 1739, about which historian Peter H. Wilson said, “drawing money and troops from Bohemia is a major factor in the monarchy’s ability to fight Turkish incursions that remain well into the eighteenth century.”

Before Martin Luther nailed his complaints to a church door, Czech pastor Jan Hus condemned the Church but, unlike Luther, was burned at the stake in 1415. Hus’ followers—peasants led by the one-eyed Jan Žižka—erupted in a war that lasted seventeen years. Armed with heavily armored wagons, Žižka’s armies repeatedly defeated forces two or three times their size. Žižka lost his second eye, like his first, in battle. 

In a dispute with its Catholic Habsburg rulers, more than 100 Protestant Czechs burst into the Royal Palace in Prague in 1618 and threw two or three royal advisors from an upper window. This sparked the Thirty Years War, which killed as many as four million people. Two years later, a Czech army confronted Habsburg forces at the Battle of White Mountain, and 2,000 of them died, triple the Habsburg casualties. In defeat, twenty-seven of their leaders were executed; the heads of twelve were displayed on pikes.

Amid the 1848 revolutions that convulsed Europe, Czechs took to Prague’s streets, where their riots prompted a military reaction, including two artillery barrages. Historian A.J. P. Taylor wrote, “The street fighting in Prague was the first serious battle against the revolution.” Troops numbering 10,000 were fought by 1,200 civilians, two-thirds of them students. About sixty people were killed and hundreds wounded.

During World War I, 50,000-65,000 Czech and Slovak POWs in Russia defected to the Allies as the Czecho-Slovak Legion in return for promises of independence for their peoples. Crossing Siberia to exit Russia for the Western Front, the Legion became embroiled in the Russian Civil War. In 1918, defeating every Red Army unit it encountered, the Legion seized the entire 5,000-mile Trans-Siberian Railway, which gave the Legionnaires effective control of all five million square miles of Siberia. 

In “Operation Anthropoid,” Slovak and Czech paratroopers were dropped into Czecho-Slovakia in 1942 to ambush Prague’s Nazi dictator, Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich was killed, while seven conspirators fled to a church basement, where they held off an entire SS combat division for six hours before they were killed or took their own lives; their severed heads were put on spikes. Heydrich was the only senior Nazi official to be successfully targeted by clandestine agents during World War II.

In Slovakia, as many as 60,000 partisans and soldiers rose against German rule in August 1944 and, for two months, fought off battle-hardened German divisions. 

As Nazi rule collapsed in 1945, Czechs and Slovaks hunted down SS and Nazi party leaders, burning some alive and hanging others from lampposts. In May, Prague’s civilian population revolted, erecting 1,600-2,000 heavy street barricades manned by 30,000 civilians armed with—by one account—rakes and pistols. The Germans answered with bombers, artillery, and armored units, killing 1,700 to 2,000 people. 

When 250,000-500,000 Soviet troops invaded Czecho-Slovakia with tanks in 1968, an unarmed populace resisted with barricades, Molotov cocktails, riots, the sacking of the Aeroflot office, and a street battle outside the offices of Czecho-Slovak Radio in which fifteen protestors were killed. In all, 137 protestors died, with hundreds more were wounded. One student, Jan Palach, immolated himself the following January. 

And then there is The Good Soldier Švejk. Groundless stereotypes aside, there is little that was “good” in the making of this comedic work and its worldwide reputation. The novel was said to be based on Hašek’s experience in the Austro-Hungarian Army, as well as in the above-mentioned Czecho-Slovak Legion. Still, neither of these armies nor their fighting produced a real-life version of Švejk. Hašek had a life-long weakness for fighting, drinking, and pranks, but he was twice decorated in combat. Instead, Hašek’s multiple life-and-death betrayals of his fellow soldiers gave him a serious interest in making military authority look bad with his wily Švejk.

During his service with the Legion, while it fought its way out of Bolshevik Russia, Hašek engaged in a head-spinning series of betrayals of his comrades, exacerbating the hardships of combat in Siberia, fighting off Red Army forces on all sides, hardships sufficient to lead two Czecho-Slovak officers to commit suicide. Indeed, disloyalty was Hašek’s worst habit after drinking; the married writer took a second wife in Russia during his time there without divorcing his Czech wife back home.

Soon after joining the multi-national Austro-Hungarian Army on the Eastern Front, Hašek was jailed and demoted to kitchen duty for bad behavior. Placed into a unit that included former convicts and sent to the front in June, he was taken prisoner, joining scores of Czechs and Slovaks among the 2.3 million POWs inside Russia. When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 and exited the war, Hašek and thousands of other POWs joined the Czecho-Slovak Legion, aligned with the Allies and struggling to escape Russia to join the French and British on the Western Front. 

Hašek, however, fell in with increasingly hostile Bolshevik agitators and tried to undermine the Legion. Subsequently rejoining the Legion, he betrayed his comrades again and donned the uniform of the Red Army, then executed another about-face before again rejoining the Red Army, in which he was serving when Czecho-Slovakia proclaimed its independence in 1918, thanks in part to the Legion. Moscow then sent him home to aid in the establishment of the Czecho-Slovak Communist Party. 

It was German poet and playwright Bertold Brecht who made Hašek’s novel famous. In 1928, according to biographers Frederic Ewen and Ronald Heyman, a Brecht play based on the novel opened in Weimar Germany, and brought Švejk widespread attention. Indeed, Brecht called it one of the three best works of twentieth-century literature. However, this acclaim starts to whither with the discovery of the many uncanny and unsavory similarities among Brecht, Hašek, and Švejk, who shared serious character flaws that could only have endeared Brecht to the other two. 

All three figures were highly allergic to authority, for example. Brecht bragged of his early school years, “In nine years of being marinated in an Augsburg gymnasium [high school], I didn’t succeed in helping my teachers to make any real progress.” Hašek’s youth was a litany of drinking, vagrancy, rioting, vandalism, pranks, and all matters of efforts to make authorities look foolish, according to Hašek’s biographer, Cecil Parrott.