Czech Defeatism and Memory: Warriors in a Colonial Project

by Daniel Hernandez

A few weeks and several hundred pages of research ago I read Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. The focus of the story is obviously the American protagonist, but the setting—the Italian Front of WWI—was intriguing. Not only had I heard nothing about it, I had heard nothing about the opposing Austro-Hungarian army. So when presented with this project, to investigate some aspect of Eastern Europe in World War One, I had inspiration. And, here I am now. Not only do I have a story about the Austro-Hungarian Army, I have one about the Czechs who served in it. I chose this niche for a few reasons beyond my initial curiosity, not the least of which was wondering how ethnic dynamics played out. The final choice of focusing on Czechs was a matter of fortune—they’re just who I found the most on. This was a really interesting choice as it turned out, though. Czech’s had a qualitatively different experience than any other ethnicity, and indirectly, that’s what my project is about. Directly, mine is a story about how Czech soldiers experienced the Austro-Hungarian colonial project, ethnic dynamics and how that molded present perceptions and positions, but also how they remembered.



I want to start where my research began in earnest, with The Great War’s Forgotten Front. This is a summary of a Czech soldiers war diary, that is it was originally written by a solider, but his son summarized it. The subject of the diary, Jan Triska, was an artilleryman who served on the Italian front. Jan’s experience in the war, from his conscription onward, was heavily influenced by his ethnicity. He was trained originally to serve in a Landwehr unit—the Landwehr was essentially the Austrian national guard and it was created five decades earlier as part of a compromise to give the Hungarians their own national guard (the Honved). (You can read more about this history here) Jan lucked into training for and serving in a mountain artillery unit. Presumably throughout his whole experience, though it is only mentioned at the beginning, Jan served as a translator for the other Czechs in his unit. The Austro-Hungarian army was made up of many ethnicities speaking different languages, the primary of course being German. Indeed, Army Slav, a list of 90 or so German words and phrases used to command troops, is universally mentioned in anything that pays any mind to the ethnic heterogeneity of the Austro-Hungarian army. Jan had learned German from living in Prague for a few years prior to the war. Because of his language skills he was put in the unique position of basically being an NCO for far longer than he ever officially held that rank.

Language comes into play in another book I read, The Good Soldier Svejk. There is a particular scene in the novel when the titular character, again a Czech serving in the Austro-Hungarian army, insults a Hungarian in Czech (Hasek, 230). Of course, the Hungarian has no idea that he’s been insulted, but this scene ends up bringing up ethnic tensions with references to Czech defeatism and generally how the Czechs were looked down upon by the dominant ethnic groups. Czech defeatism is really what distinguishes the Czech experience from other ethnicities, it’s totally worth significant attention. In fact, I read an entire article that sought to set the record straight on so-called defeatism (Lein).

Defeatism is a very interesting phenomenon, and if any single thing sets the Czechs apart from the other ethnic minorities that served in the Austro-Hungarian army, it’s defeatism. The belief was— particularly among the high command and the Austrians and Magyars—that the Czechs sought to undermine the war effort by fighting poorly, giving up easily, etc (Lein, 518-19). There’s something to this, if only on its face. The other ethnicities all operated under significantly different conditions. The Austrians and Magyars were more-or-less co-dominant over the other ethnicities; the Croats and Slovenes did fight for their country—if the Austro-Hungarians lost, their land may have been ceded to Italy. The Poles fighting for Austro-Hungary were in a somewhat idiosyncratic position, their land having been colonized by two other countries, but it does seem that they preferred the Austro-Hungarians to the Russians or the Germans. As we talked about in class, Krakow and Galicia remain to this day the most “Polish” area in Poland because it was colonized by Austro-Hungary. I digress—in contrast to the other ethnicities, the Czechs did have a lot to gain from the disintegration of the Empire. And again, presumably for this reason Czech units and soldiers were often accused of defeatism.

This draws in another large issue: Czechs, though treated much better by the Austrians than, say, the Poles were by the Russians, they still were effectively second class citizens. This seems to be something consistent to the Austro-Hungarian experience e.g. the Honved which I referred to a few paragraphs back. Anyways, there was a definite lack of Czechs in the high command, something that Lein notes (521). Indeed, you can very well read Svejk to have commentary on this. Svejk and his lieutenant are both Czech, but all of the senior officers that Svejk encounters are Austrian. There seems to exist a glass ceiling.

Svejk is also very enlightening in how it depicts post-war memory of the war. While The Great War’s Forgotten Front contains elements of memory, it lacks the post-war point of view, it’s a more immediate view point. Svejk was a very subversive view on the war, particularly to elites. Though Svejk’s officer was very competent and according to the Wikipedia page, “long suffering,” the senior officers that appear in the book are nearly as incompetent as Svejk or borderline sociopathic. In one particularly colorful episode (I guess the book is a series of colorful episodes) Svejk accidentally arouses the ire of a Major General who proceeds to scream him out the cabin. The narrator mentions that he was the most fearsome inspector general in the army and that he takes outspoken pleasure when an officer kills themselves following his inspections (Hasek, 221). To bring this back to the story I’m constructing, Hasek very clearly did not have a flattering view of the high command, even if he respected his commanding officer(s).

Wawro adds to this, writing from a very different, very serious academic perspective. Wawro’s book, A Mad Catastrophe, is a top-down view of the war from an Austro-Hugarian perspective, and he spends a considerable amount of time dealing with how incompetent the k.u.k. high command was. Indeed, all the articles I read for this—“Steamrollered in Galicia” by John Schindler, “The Military Conduct of the Austro-Hungarian Czechs in the First World War” by Richard Lein, and “The Austro-Hungarian Campaign Against Serbia in 1914” by Gunther Rothenberg—at some point address this. Svejk, then, is a part of this memory. Svejk is a foot soldier’s memory of these big events and people and how they had very immediate effects, like the death of Hasek’s comrades. Svejk also gets at irony of the Austro-Hungarian situation and how the elites simultaneously glorified themselves while being horrible at running their country.

An illustration from the book of the man himself. link:

An illustration from the book of the man himself.

The continuing reception of Svejk is telling as well. This Telegraph article, for example, talks about how the book was suppressed in interwar Europe—first in Czechoslovakia of course. This same article talks about how Svejk also came to a brief moment of prominence following the Prague spring. How similar to another on this site about the importance of humor in civil disobedience that contributed to the disintegration of the Soviet bloc! There is something very threatening about Svejk. On a discrete level, the book and the character are great satires of war, the empire and the grandiose airs the latter put on the former. Yet, its banning was not for the same reason across the board; the aforementioned satire may have caused its banning in Poland, Germany, and Bulgaria, but it doesn’t adequately explain Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia was not a bellicose state that needed war to be glorified in the eyes of the nation. Rather, I think that Svejk (or Svejk, if you prefer) brought defeatism up in a way that was embarrassing to the nascent Czechoslovak nation-state. Svejk is an enigmatic character, there’s debate about whether his overwhelming ineptitude is genuine or if he’s really quite intelligent and feigning it all. Regardless, Svejk/Hasek’s memorialization of the war, this book, was threatening to the popular attitude and memory of the war that it was suppressed. Make no mistake: this was a potent memory.

To go full circle, Hasek’s memorialization of World War I diverges profoundly from Hemingway’s take on the same phenomenon. Hemingway can recount the war from an American point of view without the narrative collapsing under its own pomp. Because of the unique circumstances that Hasek and other Czechs faced—the incompetency of the empire, yet its insistence on its own grandeur; the resentment of the Czechs despite their very real sacrifice; the second-class status afforded to the Czechs yet the expectation of their equanimity—all these contradictions prevent a serious narrative from being told. The Good Soldier Svejk is the compilation of a people’s experiences in a cataclysmic event.

Chilton, Martin. “Remembering the Good Soldier Svejk.” Last Modified January 3, 2013.

First World “Primary Documents: Treaty of London, 26 April 1915.” Last Modified August 22, 2009.

Hasek, Jaroslav. The Good Soldier Svejk. Prague: A. Synek Publishers, 1923.

Kamusella, Tomasz. “Central Europe in the Distorting Mirror of Maps, Languages, and Ideas.” The Polish Review 57 no. 1 (2012): 33-94.

Lein, Richard. “The Military Conduct of the Austro-Hungarian Czechs in the First World War.” The Historian (2014): 518-549.

Rothenberg, Gunther E. “The Austro-Hungarian Campaign Against Serbia in 1914.” The Journal of Military History, 53 No. 2 (April 1989): 127-146.

Triska, Jan. The Great War’s Forgotten Front: A soldier’s Diary and a Son’s Reflections. East European Monographs, 1998.

Wandycz, Piotr S. The Price of Freedom: A History of Eastern Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present. London: Routledge, 1992.

Wawro, Geoffrey. A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire. Philadelphia: Perseus, 2014.