Having been captured by enemy troops, Hašek was now traveling east. He was sent by train from Királyhida (now the town of Bruckneudorf in Austria) to Sambir (now in Ukraine). On July 11, Hašek, now a member of the Russian army, reached the front.
In June 1916, Hašek volunteered to join the Czechoslovak Legion, a unit that had negotiated with the Russians to fight on their side in the war, in the hopes of gaining Russian support for the creation of an independent Czechoslovak state. Hašek was kept busy in the Legion, working in various capacities (including as a journalist). When the Legion decided to return home via Vladivostok, a move that involved a great deal of battling over the Trans-Siberian Railway and necessitated making deals with the White Army, Hašek opted out. Instead, he joined the Red Army in October 1918 – the same month that his homeland became the new state of Czechoslovakia.
In December 1920, Jaroslav Hašek finally returned to Prague, and definitely not to a hero’s welcome. The news of his defection to the Red Army, as well as the knowledge that he had entered into a bigamous second marriage, made him highly unpopular.
Hašek, in his writings, returned to a character he had first created in 1912. This character was, of course, none other than the buffoonish soldier Švejk. Now, he had a more rounded character, and more definite supporting characters. The soldiers he met in the war formed the basis for several of the characters in his novel. Švejk himself is something of a mystery. Either he is a cheerful idiot, a man who ruins everything despite (or because of) his extreme enthusiasm for his cause, or he is a very crafty, calculating saboteur. Either way, he raises havoc wherever he goes. Various antiwar themes are found in the works. Hašek was pointing out the ludicrous nature of World War I, with so many soldiers being forced to fight for a government that is not their own. Furthermore, they do not understand the reason for the war. Austrian military discipline is also frequently lampooned.
The characters in the novel have very human failings. A chaplain has a drinking problem. A captain spends much of his time consorting with prostitutes. A sergeant-major is intent upon making things as comfortable as possible for himself. Švejk himself, before the war, supported himself by dealing in stolen dogs.
Hašek intended his work to amount to six volumes. Unfortunately – not only for him, but for Czech and world literature – his health was failing when he returned home. Unable to write, he was forced to dictate his most famous work while lying in bed in his residence in Lipnice nad Sázavou. On January 3, 1923, Jaroslav Hašek died at the age of 39.
Hašek’s novel has been translated more times than any other novel in Czech literature. Švejk and his cohorts became so popular that statues of the character can be seen in Poland, Ukraine, Russia, and Slovakia, in addition to the Czech Republic. The smiling, button-nosed drawing of Švejk from the books is seen on the signs of various Švejk-themed restaurants. And the character has been portrayed on screen multiple times since the first Švejk film was released in 1931. Truly, Švejk is a character with universal and timeless appeal.