Colonel Obvious

John Schindler argues that Woodrow Wilson’s insistence on breaking up Austria-Hungary led to multiple disasters, including the subjugation of Central Europe by Hitler and Stalin. There’s enough to be said in defense of the old Habsburg empire but I can’t help ogling it through the eyes of that Czech anarchist, Jaroslav Hašek. (Some of the higher-brow public might rely on Robert Musil’s Viennese optics.) Švejk is actually more sophisticated than I realized as a younger man but it’s cheerfully biased against a fairly large chunk of the old Empire, including, no doubt, its military commanders and senior officer corps.

One of Hašek’s favorites, Colonel von Zillergut, is described more or less as below. I used Pyotr Bogatyryov’s classic translation (1929-34) and the Czech original, freely available on on the web, to produce these translated extracts.

Colonel Friedrich Kraus, also called von Zillergut – from the name of the village near Salzburg his ancestors had guzzled away in the 18th century or so – was an outstanding moron. When he talked about something, he would state the obvious and ask if everyone understood the most basic expressions: “This is a window, gentlemen, yes. Do you know what a window is?”

Or this: “A road with ditches on both sides is called a highway. Indeed, gentlemen. Do you know what a ditch means? A ditch is an excavation dug out by many people. It is a trench. Yes. It is dug out with mattocks. Do you know what a mattock is?”

He was possessed of an explanatory mania and expounded on things with the enthusiasm of an inventor describing his work:

“A book, gentlemen, is a multitude of different sheets of paper cut in four, of various formats, which are printed and put together, bound and glued. Indeed. Do you know, gentlemen, what glue is? Glue is an adhesive.”

This sounds like a Soviet elementary military training textbook for high schools: every obvious thing received a definition and an abbreviation. “Generally, a spade consists of a blade and a handle. Army Spade Model One (AS-1) consists of an X by Y cm blade with a rounded edge and a wooden handle Z cm long and W cm in diameter made of birchwood,” that sort of tune.

Yet a Soviet officer who’d start quoting this stuff to his comrades would have become the butt of unpleasant jokes for the rest of his career. Unless he was a political education commissar, a type despised by default. Now, back to Colonel Kraus von Zillergut:

He was so stupendously dumb that officers avoided him from afar so as not to hear about the street consisting of the roadway and the sidewalk, and the latter being the raised strip along the facades of the houses. And the facade being the part of the house visible from the road or the sidewalk. For one cannot see the rear part of the houses from the sidewalk as one can easily ascertain by stepping back onto the road.

The colonel attempted this interesting experiment once but, fortunately, got run over. Since then, he has grown even more stupid…

It was mind-boggling how this blockhead moved up the career ladder relatively fast and had the support of influential people such as his corps commander… The colonel worked wonders during exercises: he was never on time anywhere and led his columns straight against machine-guns…

Thanks to the friendly relationship with the corps general and with other, no less thick-skulled, military mandarins of old Austria, he received various awards and medals and was extraordinarily proud of them; he believed himself to be the best soldier under the moon, the best strategy theorist and a master of all military wisdom…

He was uncommonly vindictive and destroyed subordinate officers he did not like for some reason…

The colonel missed half of his left ear, slashed off in his youth at a duel that happened because of a simple statement of the fact that Friedrich Kraus von Zillergut was an all-out idiot…

Once, at a reception at the officers’ club, colonel Friedrich Kraus von Zillergut declared all of a sudden, in the middle of a conversation about Schiller: “If I may, gentlemen, I saw a steam plow yesterday driven by a locomotive. Imagine, my good sirs, a locomotive: not one but two locomotives. I saw the smoke, walked up, and there was a locomotive and on the other side, one more. Tell me, gentlemen, is it not ridiculous? Two locomotives, as if one were not enough.”

He stopped for a moment and continued: “When the gasoline ran out, the car had to stop. That I saw yesterday, too. All this prattle about inertia, gentlemen! It’s not moving, it’s standing still, it’s not budging, no gasoline. Isn’t it ridiculous?”

For all his density, the colonel was exceptionally pious. He kept a domestic altar at home. He often went to confession at the St. Ignatius church; since the war began, he had been praying for the victory of German and Austrian arms…

Reading newspaper reports about new prisoners of war brought in made him furious.

“What’s the point of bringing POWs here?” he said. “Shoot them all. No mercy. Dance among the corpses, And burn the Serbian civilians, everybody to the last man. Bayonet the children!”

Enough of this gentleman for now. His is not the only portrait in the gallery.


  1. That’s hilarious. I’ve got a copy of Svejk, but for some reason I’ve never read it. Must rectify the omission.

    IMHO the Austro-Hungarian Empire, like the Ottoman, was a terminal case by 1914. Without the world war, it would maybe have struggled on another couple of decades max. Also, without wanting to get too deeply involved in a vexed subject, the A-H Empire shares a large part of the blame for starting the war in the first place.

    • It could have been partitioned in a different way and the transition could have been better managed – if Wilson had not been so bent on absolute, immediate national self-determination but had agreed to keep Austria-Hungary as a post-Habsburg confederation for a while. Perhaps.

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