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George Breitman

Workers’ Bookshelf

The Good Soldier Schweik

(15 June 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 24, 15 June 1946, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Good Soldier Schweik
by Jaroslav Hasek
Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1930.

Everyone who likes a good book should read The Good Soldier Schweik, and World War II veterans especially. Written over 20 years ago, it still remains the best all-round satiric novel – and the most biting condemnation – of modern capitalist militarism available in English. And although it is about the Austrian Army in World War I, every American veteran of the more recent war will immediately recognize its incidents and characters, especially the officers.

Schweik was a Czech, drafted into the Austrian Army. Like the Sad Sack, Schweik was always getting into trouble, but unlike the Sad Sack and because he knew what military service was, he always managed somehow to escape the harsh fate meted out to his more careful companions. Schweik had been in the army in peacetime but had been discharged as an imbecile. Every once in a while you get to thinking that he really is an imbecile; but before long you begin to wonder, because one thing is sure – Schweik isn’t as crazy as the army is.

The author follows Schweik from his arrest at the beginning of the war as a suspicious character because of some innocent statements made in a saloon, through prison and an amazing psychiatric examination (one doctor asks: “Is radium heavier than lead?”) up to his induction into the army.

Because he has rheumatism, Schweik is sent to a hospital for malingerers and then detention barracks, reminiscent of the Lichfield guardhouse of more recent fame. Here the sergeant-major complains bitterly about having had to trample on some prisoner for 10 minutes before his ribs began to crack; and another non-com warns Schweik that if he is ever questioned during an inspection, he must stand at attention, salute and answer: “I beg to report, sir, no complaints, and I’m quite satisfied.”

Schweik is released from detention to become the orderly of a generally drunk chaplain fond of commanding, “Any of you who are dead must report themselves to headquarters within three days, so that their corpses can be consecrated.” But the chaplain loses Schweik to a lieutenant in a card game, and Schweik gets his new superior into trouble with their colonel, so both are shipped off to the front. At the end Schweik is captured – by soldiers of his own army.

The author, Hasek, was himself a Czech draftee in the Austrian Army and a prisoner of war of the Russians. There, I was told in Europe, he came under the influence of the Russian Revolution and became a supporter of the Bolsheviks. The Good Soldier Schweik was planned for six books; Hasek wrote only four before his death in 1923; a friend completed the other two along lines indicated in his notes. The American edition includes only the first three of Hasek’s books. A publisher who wants to do the public a good turn should print the whole work.

Early this year Penguin Books issued a 25 cent edition of the original American edition, but unfortunately it is abridged. The original edition is available in most public libraries.

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Last updated: 22 December 2018