In the English-speaking world, World War I gave rise to the poetry of Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon. It inspired Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun. In Germany, Erich Maria Remarque penned the novel (later turned into a classic film) titled All Quiet on the Western Front.
And in the newly created country of Czechoslovakia, a former soldier wrote his own novel: The Good Soldier Švejk.
Jaroslav Hašek was born in Prague on April 30, 1883. His father, Josef, was a math teacher of high-school students. Josef’s alcoholism and lack of funds led to his death when Jaroslav was only thirteen. Jaroslav’s mother, Kateřina, was left to raise Jaroslav, his younger brother Bohuslav, and an orphaned cousin (Maria) by herself. Hašek dropped out of school when he was fifteen, and went to work in a drugstore.
In the early years of the 20th century, Hašek became a freelance writer. In 1906, he joined an anarchist group. This brought him to the intense scrutiny of the still-existing Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hašek was often arrested and thrown into jail. At one point, he was accused of assaulting a police officer; the punishment was a month’s imprisonment. In 1911, Hašek founded a satirical political party with the name of The Party of Moderate Progress Within the Bounds of the Law.
Two significant events in Hašek’s life occurred in 1907: He became the editor of Komuna, an anarchist paper, and he fell in love with a young woman named Jarmila Mayerová. As is almost invariably the case in the biography of any major writer, her parents disapproved of the match. Hašek, desperately wanting to marry Jarmila, focused on his writing, and withdrew from his radical political activities. Meanwhile, Jarmila’s parents took her away from Prague, hoping that she would forget Hašek.
It didn’t work. Hašek did, indeed, focus more on his writing, and published one short story after another. He landed a job as editor of a paper titled The Animal World (in Czech, Svĕt Zvířat). This job was short-lived; Hašek was writing articles not about real animals, but about animals that came from his own imagination.
Hašek married Jarmila on May 23, 1910. The two would live together for less than a year, though they were never officially divorced. Jarmila grew weary of life with her husband very quickly, and returned to her parents in 1911.
Jaroslav Hašek was 31 when World War I broke out. He had occasionally shared lodging with artist Josef Lada, who would, years later, illustrate The Good Soldier Švejk. Hašek was drafted in December 1914. On February 17, 1915, he entered the Austro-Hungarian Army. In less than a month – on March 6 – he was taken to the hospital. The doctors discovered that their new soldier had rheumatism, as well as heart trouble. Although he remained in the army, he was relieved of regular duties. He was awarded a silver medal for bravery in the Battle of Sokal. Then, on September 24, 1915, he was captured by Russian troops.