DURING THE FIRST World War, unenthusiastic enlistees would fake disability to avoid dying in a muddy trench. That's how the "war hero" of Jaroslav Hasek's classic novel The Good Soldier Svejk winds up in an army hospital a couple of chapters in. There, Svejk (pronounced Sh-vake) is joined by other Czech conscripts shamming illness or injury. The men are subjected to a sadistic regime of medicalized torture aimed at forcing them to admit their fakery and declare themselves fit for military service.
While recovering between "treatments," the malingerers, malcontents, and jailbirds of the Austro-Hungarian Empire ("the K & K," to borrow the era's German shorthand) compare notes on faking disability. One insists that insanity is the way to go, referring to his own phony religious mania. Another mentions a midwife who dislocates legs for the modest price of 20 crowns. A third says that he had his leg dislocated for a mere 10 crowns and three glasses of beer.
The bravest endure all five steps of the hospital's brutal treatment program, dying in a sick bed rather than admitting defeat and rejoining the regular army. Less stout-hearted soldiers, the narrator laments, give up after being threatened by the prospect of an enema with soapy water and glycerine.
In an alternate universe, The Good Soldier Svejk might have become a libertarian classic. (The novel was a favorite of rebel psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, who wrote to wide acclaim about how allegations of mental illness were used as an illegitimate excuse for oppression.) As it stands, the famous Czech satire is a hilarious and penetrating depiction of World War I's forgotten Eastern Front. It remains a touchstone today in Eastern Europe, with real-life statues commemorating the exploits of the protagonist in Poland and Ukraine. A Budapest-to-Prague rail line also bears Hasek's name, a tribute to his fictional avatar's long wartime detour into Hungary.
That character's long-lasting status as a folk hero says a lot about how much Eastern Europeans have come to reject the glamorization of war. The First World War inspired plenty of anti-war literature, but few books depict the average soldier's experience quite like Svejk. To Hasek, a former conscript himself, the conflict's real heroes were not the ones rushing off to die in the trenches.
Svejk also offers an intriguing look at how anti-authoritarian sentiments manifested themselves in the culture and politics of interwar Eastern Europe, a region that has rarely been favorable terrain for classical liberal ideas.