The Power of Language and its Subversion: Jaroslav Hasek’s Brave Soldier Svejk and As the Commander of the City of  Bugulma

Karin Beck, Columbia University


Jaroslav Hasek’s novel The Brave Soldier Svejk is often seen mainly as a satirical description of life in the Austrian army during World War I and as a parody of military life in general. In my presentation, I want to show, how this novel is subversive already in its very use of language — especially in its play with the use of the German language. By exposing the relation of language to power, the parodic character of the novel goes far beyond the realm of the military.

Already in his earlier work As the Commander of the City of Bugulma, Hasek showed his understanding of language as a tool of power. Here the hero uses orders to create what the narrator calls “Potemkin villages.” It is not the actions on the front that influence the orders from the center, but rather the reports. In postmodern terminology, military decisions in this text are based on simulacra.

In Švejk, German is the language of the military and Czech the language of the common man and common soldier. Such use of German as the military language underlines the impression that the war is a German affair and the Czechs are strangers in it. However, the border between Czech and German is not always clear, as German penetrates into the Czech language. The Czech soldiers use German terminology and Czechify it: the words slowly resemble Czech words more and more.  So for example kvér [German: Gewehr, Engl. gun] or fršlus [German Verschluß, Engl. lock]

In this context the official German terms turn into unofficial Czech slang, which has in general a tendency towards the use of Czechified German. I want to show how such displacement of words is one of the most powerful subversive means in the novel. The displacement across languages is only the most extreme example of it, it affects dialects and functional styles as well. This displacement exposes the degree to which the political and even military power depends on language and on the simulacra created through it. I understand this exposure of the power of language as one of the major reasons why the novel kept its appeal as a satire over the last eighty years and why it seemed so well fit to the socialist society. At the same time, this criticism of language is probably its greatest contribution to Czech literary history.