Soukie's Place

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Czech Heroes (Considered) Fictional

Josef Švejk, Jan Welzl, Jára Cimrman. These are three distinct heroes of the Czech past. Two of them are fictional, one has often been incorrectly regarded as such, and one of them was prominent in the poll for the greatest Czech person ever.

If the hero manages to be fictional, he’s on the fast track to the hall of fame.

Not that Czechs would have a shortage of “regular” national heroes—there are Charles IV, Hus, Comenius, Dvořák, Kafka, Wichterle, Forman or Jágr (not to mention Pilsner Urquell, because beer almost does qualify here)—but the Czech mentality often prefers heroes of a not-so-international stardom and more-of-an-average abilities with non-standard achievements (a “Joe the Hero” who is best in something I don’t care about). And if on top of that the hero manages to be fictional or to become famous against his will, he’s on the fast track to the hall of fame.

Let’s have a look at the three examples without commenting on their claim on historicity: Josef Švejk gained popularity for his resistence when serving in the Austro-Hungarian army (at the time when Czech people were under this empire). Rather than taking a hostile stance, Švejk was eroding the fabric of the hated empire by frustrating its officials with his incompetency and intentional, literal (mis-)interpretation of the orders.

Jára Cimrman was a 19th century universal thinker, whose life and work were almost lost to obscurity. In the second half of the 20th century, a thorough investigation discovered several plays he wrote, an incomplete opera, correspondence with prominent authors and scientists of the era, as well as some scientific inventions.

Jan Welzl

Jan Welzl, known as Eskymo Welzl or Arctic Bismark, also served in the Austro-Hungarian army (an experience he disliked even more than the numerous hardships he would endure later), and went on to become an Inuit chieftan. His adventures include traversing the Siberia, deportation by the US after his ship sank close to the US coast (because his country of birth did not exist any longer, and his place of residence was a Russian territory) and an audience with the first Czechoslovak president.

If you were unfamiliar with the names, here are the results: Švejk is the hero of the anti-war satirical novel by Jaroslav Hašek; Cimrman is the invention of Jaroslav Svěrák and Ladislav SmoljakSmoljak and Svěrák are also the creative force behind many Czech comedy movies. Svěrák’s screenplays won one Academy Award and two nominations for Best Foreign Language Films., and the fictitious author of their plays; and Welzl is a real explorer who, after the deportation, sold the rights to his life story to Czech journalists to get the money to return to his beloved Golden North. Unfortunately he was never allowed beyond Dawson, Yukon Territory where he died in 1948 at the age of eighty years. His exaggerated stories led many to believe he was an invention of Karel Čapek (who wrote the foreword to a book about his adventures).

These three heroes share some similarities. They are primarily entertainers who enjoy telling captivating stories, and bearers of the trademark Czech sense of humor; and all three are identifiable by their strong idiolectA way of speaking unique to the individual. It includes frequent vocabulary, phrases and grammar.. To answer the last question, it was Cimrman who was ahead in the poll mentioned at the outset (a Czech adaptation of the 100 Greatest Britons show) before being disqualified, and the most frequent and favorable explanation for his support was, predictably, approaching the poll with humor.


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dazimon, August 14, 2009:

“. . . it is with a great relief and pleasure that we are hereby dutifully reporting that Book Two and Book(s) Three&Four of our new translation of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War are available for sale as paperbacks at

We hope this announcement finds you in good health and disposition and hungry for more adventures of the good soldier … after all these years.”

More information on the Svejk phenomenon at

Also, Svejk is on FaceBook now:

WebCreationUK, August 27, 2010:

I like Kafka, had not clue he was a Czech. :)

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