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J R Soc Med. 2001 June; 94(6): 315–316.
PMCID: PMC1281546

The Good Soldier Svejk syndrome

Jaroslav Blahos, President

The article by Professor Tyrer and his co-workers impels me to make some comments from my point of view as a compatriot as well as a physician and present the most prevailing Czech attitude to the personality, philosophy and activities of Josef Svejk.

At the time when Jaroslav Hasek prepared the manuscript of his Good Soldier Svejk, the Czech nation, as a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, suffered from oppression of all kinds (national, social, economic, religious and political). The Czechs were accustomed to the role of the oppressed for centuries. The intensity of the nation's reaction was inversely related to the pressure. The condition became fatal at the beginning of the war in 1914 when His Imperial Highness Franz Joseph I published the declaration To my Nations. Why should the oppressed Czech soldier, who did not consider Franz Joseph as ‘his’ emperor, die for a system which was thoroughly rotten and corrupt? The Czech feelings certainly did not correspond to the feelings of the Empire. Therefore, when Svejk's maid announced with horror that Ferdinand had been killed in Sarajevo, Svejk asked who from his comrades of the same name had been killed. This event marked the beginning of Svejk's role as a ‘good soldier’. He was absurdly obedient and his absurdity was destructive and in reality antimilitaristic. His philosophy toward the war was excellently described in the movie version: in a fierce battle, Svejk shouted, ‘For Heaven's sake, don't shoot: there are people here!’.

In the context of the war, Hasek described in masterly fashion the individual personalities, their philosophies (mostly ridiculous), their weaknesses, their questionable moral standards, their low level of education as well as their place in the social structure of the Austrian army. He was unmerciful to all military persons—including generals and even the Emperor. He made fun of all military nonsense, contraventions, demagogy. All this was well interpreted by a Czech citizen who felt the same but was unable or afraid to speak up. The imperial machinery was well aware of this socially pathogenic ideology but was defenceless. It was an antimilitaristic philosophy—a philosophy of absurdities against which all weapons only multiplied its hidden significance and impact. The popularity of Hasek's Svejk increased by the way how Svejk presented himself. He was certainly not a dimwitted soldier even though his role appeared in many conditions as such. An insignificant Czech citizen began to identify with Svejk, and accepted his philosophy with pleasure and humour even after the war ended.

Second to the antimilitaristic ideology Svejk became an ideal critic of all administrative absurdities, whether in war or in peace. He symbolized the contrast between a single-minded citizen with his lifestyle at the beginning of the century and the administrative hierarchy and state power. It is true that Svejk sometimes exceeds the conventional social algorithms but he does it with unexpected acts which make fun of the bombastic dignity of those in power.

Hasek had put a third accent on what was lacking in the literature of his time. It was a light humour, fully comprehensible to all readers and enabling them to take their fate more easily. ‘Nothing is basically important.’ His good-hearted simple-mindedness is deceptive. He knows how to penetrate the concealed problems of society and ‘lifts the way from even most closely guarded taboos’, writes one ‘Svejkologist’ Radko Pytlík.

Svejk's humour has been valid under both Nazism and communism. It is still valid today in conditions where common sense is lacking. Svejk is certainly not a psychotic person. His philosophy is most easy to understand in certain geopolitical structures. It is an ‘ism’. Not svejkosis but svejkism.

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press