Hašek in Galicia

In 1901, when Jaroslav Hašek wandered into Galicia, this remote province of the Habsburg monarchy was synonymous with poverty and backwardness for his countrymen, and also the embodiment of all Polish vices. Czech officials, who settled there from the first decades of the nineteenth century, regarded any work assignment in this region almost as a banishment. Not allowed to enter the houses of the nobility, they knew the country only from the perspective of a primitive rural serfdom and poor Jewish towns sinking in the mud. “Miserable highways, terrible inns, trouble with finding a decent horse team and the coachmen as if freshly imported from a barbarous country—such were mostly their first impressions—,” says an expert on the “Galician triangle.”“For visitors from Bohemia, the technical condition of roads and inns, land drainage systems (or rather the lack of them), cultivation techniques, standard of living— and not just of the privileged class—served as measures of advancement. Galicia assessed from this angle had to seem like an open-air museum of backwardness.”

Not only of material backwardness, let us add. The Czechs were outraged by the inhuman attitude of the nobility to the peasants, and denying the Ukrainians the right to national identity. Moreover, they themselves were treated with contempt, both by virtue of their plebeian origin and by serving the Austrian invaders. Even when they stressed (although they rarely did) that they regard themselves as Czechs and Slavs, they met with disregard for their national aspirations, or worse, with accusations of Russophilia. In general, however, they did not have a developed sense of national identity and even at home they spoke German (“because speaking Czech does not bring you bread”). Jan Matejko, Jan Styka, Leopold Staff and Karol Szajnocha descended from these families. Schoolmates and priests called them “Little Schwabs.”

It does not seem that Hašek knew anything about it. Despite the presence in Galicia of nine thousand Czech bureaucrats (and several times more colonists, mainly in Volhynia), the image of the province in the eyes of a visitor from Bohemia practically did not change for almost one hundred years. The protagonists of his sketches are peasants, the action generally takes place in the cottages, fields, meadows, inns. When traveling to Galicia, Hašek, like his countrymen, ignores the houses of the nobility, because he is not invited inside. “The noble world, for the Poles the world of the only true civilization in this region, by most Czech travelers could only be observed from a distance. Parks, gardens, stately mansions, and even the ‘modest but tidy’ manors constituted an inaccessible space.“ The space available for the Czech vagrant was formed by such distinctive public buildings as railway stations, jails and brothels. So we should not wax indignance at Hašek that when the Good Soldier Schweik revisits a brothel in Sanok after many years, its owners prove to be—tsk, tsk—“a Polish nobleman and noblewoman.”

The author of The Adventures of the Good Soldier Schweik for most of his adult life made his living from writing fees. He wrote for the best and most widely read newspapers, not needing to bother about their political orientation. His Galician essays came out in the daily Národní listy, a conservative-nationalist organ of the Czech bourgeoisie. And Tribuna, where in the spring of 1921 he published a sham journal of Marshal Józef Pilsudski, was not, as the title suggests, an organ of the Czech people, but a liberal and progressive newspaper, issued by the Prague Jewish Community. Its head was Ferdinand Peroutka, the most prominent Czech journalist and commentator of the twentieth century, close to the associates of presidents Masaryk and Beneš, and after the war, director of the Czechoslovakian section of Radio Free Europe. Peroutka was a political animal, but he also had an excellent literary sense. Tribuna published, for example, one of the first translations of Franz Kafka’s short stories into Czech, translated by Milena Jesenská.

Hašek’s lampooning of Piłsudski and the Poles was in line with the views of the Czech public. Our southern neighbors really wanted to “make politics in Central and Eastern Europe,” as we read in the alleged diary of the Marshal. “It would not hurt the Poles if they were slapped in the face—wrote Masaryk to Beneš on 20th December 1918—on the contrary, it would be beneficial, it would cool down the heads of the dangerous chauvinists.” The founder and four times the President of the Czechoslovakian Republic was convinced that the reborn Republic was an anachronistic relic, that it would be a classic seasonal country, torn apart by ethnic conflicts and having no chance of survival squeezed between Germany and Russia. “The reconstruction of historical Poland is a repeat of the errors of old Poland and an embryo of its collapse,” he wrote to Beneš in June 1919. “The Poles: their tactics will not save them,” he added in a letter to the leader of the National Demo crats, Karel Kramář. “They are confronted with great internal problems: landed estates—the Jews—fragmentation of the parties and orientations… Only an ethnically homogenous Poland can be strong.” Such an opinion was widespread among the Czechs, as was the belief in a specific historical mission that Providence had bestowed upon their nation: “It is the truest truth—the Czechoslovakian President wrote to his most trusted associate and successor—that only we are prepared and we can bring and maintain order (…) Our Poles prefer us, they are afraid to be in Poland, they are afraid that there will be no order there. The Germans from Bielsko, from Cieszyn, etc. ask us not give these cities to the Poles. They are afraid of the Polish mess.”

Much has been written about the reasons for the Polish-Czech animosity. There is something symbolic in the fact that in the same week when Jaroslav Hašek was born, on Monday, April 30, 1883, the Warsaw daily Word (Słowo) published the first episode of With Fire and Sword (Wednesday May 2, 1883). And that at the same time when in Prague, the dynamically evolving capital of the most industrialized province of the Habsburg monarchy, the future author of The Adventures of the Good Soldier Schweik was growing up, in Warsaw Henryk Sienkiewicz was writing subsequent episodes of his apology of the seventeenth-century nobility in order to “uplift hearts.”

Thanks to the “Trilogy,” this patriotic nonsense fed to the masses for generations, modern Poles identify more with Michał Wołodyjowski than with his nameless serfs, never mentioned in any volume of this work. And yet it is among these peasants, who in the times Sir Michał and his ilk were at best slapped in the face by the nobility, that a vast majority of us would find our ancestors. This is the power of myth; such was the hypnotic charm of the nineteenth-century Polish culture, to which not only Jews, Germans, Galician Czechs clung, but also the children of the Małopolska or Mazovia peasants who 150 years ago still regarded only the noblemen as Poles and they were addressing each other in the plural form (like the French vous), as Czechs do to this day. For the Czechs managed to get through the nineteenth century without nobility, which somehow did not prevent them from building the national identity in their plebeian classes and assimilating the majority of Jews and tens of thousands of the Galician, “Polish” peasants who in the late nineteenth century migrated to Zaolzie for work, and their descendants in general think of themselves as Czechs through and through.

Contrary to the wide-spread myths, the Czech lands still in the eighteenth century resembled in terms of social structure the lands which are the undisputed cradle of Polish culture, that is Wielkopolska, Mazovia and Małopolska. An overwhelming majority of the population were peasants, and in Bohemia and Moravia the native language of one third of them was German. Until the mid-nineteenth century the Germans dominated numerically in the majority of cities (just like the Jews in the Polish lands). This dominance in terms of wealth, capital, civilization and culture—though not politics—survived at least until 1918. Czech nobility was Germanized at the same time and for similar reasons that the Lithuanian or Ruthenian nobility was Polonized— all those Radziwiłłs, Sapiehas, Czartoryskis, Giedroycs and Miloszs, who permanently fixated the thinking of the Poles around the “East,” the “Borderlands,” in short, around the insane and impossible mission aimed at colonization of the Ukrainian, Belarusian and Lithuanian lands, the last episode of which was the genocide of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia in 1943–44.

Of course there is no reason to blame the Ruthenian and Lithuanian nobility that centuries ago it chose the Polish identity, as this allowed them to draw extensively on the achievements of the civilization of the Polish Republic and multiply their wealth, creating oligarchic states in the lands of the so-called Borderlands. But you cannot also, without being ridiculous, be surprised that representatives of the Ukrainian, Lithuanian—or Czech for that matter—political elites, generally stemming from plebeian and petty-bourgeois classes, and representing the vast majority of the local populations, said to the nobles: “Be gone!” This gesture of rejection of the exploiting classes, cutting themselves off from the parasitic nobility, was a milestone on the road to empowerment of the “rustics”and “louts”, “nouveau riche”and “shopkeepers”— on the road to their transformation into a modern nation. And by the way, are we aware of the origins of the numerous epithets derogatory to the dignity of working people in the Polish language? Greengrocer, prole, lout—they are all relics of our backwater nobility, with its apology of idleness and a grange-based attitude to reality. Grange-based, i.e. resulting from an instinctively adopted perspective of the owner of a grange (although there is no grange and perhaps never has been). Perhaps it is not surprising that this galaxy of class-based invective has its counterpart in Czech (and probably also in the Ukrainian and Lithuanian) in numerous offensive descriptions of the nobility. Now we are closer to understanding why a little less than a hundred years ago, no Polish writer could possibly write such an iconoclastic, anti-heroic, anti-political, egalitarian and thoroughly democratic book as The Adventures of the Good Soldier Schweik. We are heirs of an anachronistic culture of the nobility and romanticism, which prevents us from understanding the simplest things. Such as the fact that war—every war—is pure slaughter with someone making money off it. We are always trying to find some sense in war, we harness theology and martyrdom to it, getting what Schweik called “idiocy to the power of two.” In Poland, after all, it is impossible to die stupidly. The Pole is killed on the field of glory, even if he died in a plane crash.

Of course, the Czechs have also been fed various foolish things. As a child Jaroslav Hašek listened to stories about the Hussites, the fifteenth-century “God’s warriors” allegedly striking fear into the hearts of half of Europe— and heard them from the lips of no other than Alois Jirásek, who was his teacher. It is largely due to this eminent novelist, called “the Czech Sienkiewicz” by his contemporaries, and to the national ideology promoted in his novels, that the Czechs rejected Catholicism, which in the times of Hašek was still professed by more than 90 (ninety!) percent of them. They believed that Jan Hus invented Protestantism a whole century before Martin Luther, though in fact this famous preacher was a better Catholic, and certainly a better Christian, than the Pope then (or rather the three popes exercising the papal ministry at the same time)—and this is why in 1415 he was burned at the stake in Constance. Jirásek also persuaded his countrymen that Germany was their eternal enemy, although in reality the Czechs owe their relatively privileged position of the most advanced civilization among the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to their very durable, centuries-old ties with Germany. The price for the development was the loss of the inefficient feudal state in the first half of the seventeenth century, after the Battle of White Mountain, and the subsequent national apostasy of the native nobility, who chose the “German option.” “None of them is to be regretted,” as Schweik would put it; upon hearing of the death of the heir to the throne, Prince Ferdinand, in a terrorist attack in Sarajevo, he asked which Ferdinand was killed, because he knew two: One was a helper at the druggist, and another collected dog turds.

In Hašek’s youth, at the end of the nineteenth century, the Czechs were an ambitious nation of townspeople, petty bourgeoisie and wealthy peasants, generally professing beliefs held at the time in the Polish lands by supporters of national democracy. As a child Hašek was a witness and victim of a drunken downfall of his father, a teacher of mathematics; hence, among other things, his aversion to the petty bourgeoisie and its ideology—integral nationalism, hostile to Germans and Jews. At the age of twenty he became the editor of an anarchist newspaper— anarchism was popular among many of his peers, not having family ties with the metropolitan working class, at that time already supporting the dynamic social democratic party. He supported himself by writing humorous sketches and short stories, enjoyed himself with friends in pubs, for five years wandered around Bohemia, Slovakia, Hungary and Galicia in search of adventure. He wrote the first story about the adventures of Schweik in the Austrian barracks in 1911. A few years later he saw them (the barracks) personally. In the summer of 1915 he found himself on the Eastern Front, and in the autumn of the same year he was captured by the Russians.

Contrary to the myths disseminated at the beginning of the war by the German propaganda— and after the war sustained, for other reasons, by the Czechoslovakian propaganda— it is not true that Czech soldiers voluntarily, in whole units, went to the Russian side. In general, they ended in captivity as a result of errors in command, made by Austrian officers. This was the case of Hašek, who remembered the year in Russian captivity as the worst experience of his entire life. Infectious diseases and famine decimated the POWs regardless of their nationality; the author of Schweik caught tuberculosis in the camp, which over time, along with alcoholism, most contributed to his premature death.

The Russians changed their attitude to the Slavs in the Austrian uniforms only in the autumn of 1916. Because of war failures they allowed the creation of Czechoslovakian Legions, which soon reached 60,000 soldiers. Hašek was editor of a Legions’ newspaper in Kiev, he wrote patriotic agitprop and humorous sketches. At the news of the abolition of religious holidays by the “Government of People’s Commissaries in St. Petersburg” he replied with a mocking essay entitled “How the Bolsheviks liquidated Christmas.” He noted there quite soberly that among the many things that the Bolsheviks revoked “you could find only one thing they did not revoke, namely the promise made by Lenin to Emperor William that Russia would mess things up in a big way.” So he was not a naive virgin, as you can see. Despite that, a few months later he defected from the Legion and having reached—not without hiccups—Moscow he volunteered for the Red Army. Soon, appointed political commissar of the Bolshevik Fifth Army, he found himself in Samara on the Volga, one of the key cities along the Trans-Siberian railway line. There, in June of 1918, fate brought him back in touch with his compatriots.

For the Czechoslovakian Legion stuck in Russia for good. It would seem that after the Treaty of Brest the Czechs and Slovaks did not have anything more to do there. Initially, the Allies intended to transfer them on the Western front as quickly as possible, in part through Arkhangelsk, in part through Vladivostok. And so it would have been if not for the idiotic orders of Trotsky, who ordered them to disarm. The Czechs had behind them soldiering in the Austrian army and rotting in Russian captivity; they were tough and they wanted to return to their home country at any price. At that time they were the strongest and best-equipped armed force between the Volga River and the Pacific Ocean. They easily drove out the innumerous and poorly armed Red Army, at the end of May took Penza and Omsk, and in early June, virtually without a fight, they captured Samara. Hašek then fled from the city disguised as a woman, narrowly avoiding death, as the sentence for desertion was still hanging over him.

Following the “Battle of Samara” the legionaries were embroiled in the civil war in Russia against their will. Most returned to their home country only in 1920. And what was Hašek doing then? As always he wrote about his exploits with gusto: “At that time I edited (…) near Yamburg a magazine in the Tatar-Bashkirian dialect for two savage divisions of Bashkirs and other thugs who fought with the White Troops of the Estonian Republic.” We will not track his sins here, or attempt to trace determinable facts. We will just add for the record that after escaping from Samara he came to Irkutsk, where he became a member of the local Party Committee, remarried, and probably wanted to settle on the Baikal. Fortunately he was reclaimed by History, impatient that her Chosen One, instead of finally writing the greatest Czech novel of all time, was wasting his time among the Buryats and Yakuts (the knowledge of whom he probably drew from the classic Russian-language works by Wacław Sieroszewski).

In August 1920, the Bolsheviks stood on the outskirts of Warsaw. Their cavalry ravaged the Galician small towns, where less than twenty years before Hašek wandered in search of adventure. It seemed that in a few months, if not weeks, the Cossacks of Budyonny would water their horses in the Vltava River and remind the Prague waiters how the word bistro had found its way to gastronomy. So our hero, with his wife and a commission from the Party in his pocket, struck out for his homeland in order to inflame the revolutionary instincts of the local working class, which allegedly groaned under the yoke of Masaryk and no longer had anything to lose, except for dumplings. However, when after several months of travel he reached Prague, he quickly lost his enthusiasm for underground work.

He was suspected of the worst offenses, even crimes, allegedly perpetrated during the civil war in Russia. He reacted to defamatory articles with a “sincere confession before the Czech society,” in which he admitted that he was “not only such a wretch and villain” as described, but a “much worse swine.”

Here is a (short) list of his transgressions:

“Even through my coming into the world I brought a great displeasure to my mother, who did not sleep for a few days and nights.”

“When I was six months old, I ate my elder brother and stole the holy images from his coffin.”

“When I was a one-year-old, there was in Prague not a single cat whom I would not have picked an eye out or cut the tail off.”

“When I went for a walk with a nursemaid, all dogs gave me a wide berth. The nursemaid did not walk for long with me, however, because when I was eighteen months old, I took her to the barracks at the Charles Square, where for two packs of tobacco I left her at the mercy of the soldiers.”

When a comrade from the legions, the writer Rudolf Medek, met him in an inn and accused him that, as a Bolshevik commissar, he was executing legionnaires, and therefore was a murderer and a bandit, Hašek exclaimed proudly: “Sure I am. And I’m not ashamed of it! I ordered them to be shot by the dozen. I took particular delight in ripping their guts out and hanging them on the city gates to scare off those who allowed themselves to be stupefied by your patriotic doggerel. I committed worse atrocities than the famous Asian Genghis Khan.”

In the end, however, he moved from Prague to the countryside. In the spring of 1921 he settled in Lipnice nad Sázavou and there he wrote the first volume of The Adventures of the Good Soldier Schweik. He died on 3 January 1923. The inn where he dictated his masterpiece almost to the end of his life is still functioning.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, former deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel or Bohumil Hrabal. He won Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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