Book Review –  Jiří Hutečka, Men under Fire. Motivation, Morale and Masculinity among Czech Soldiers in the Great War, 1914–1918 (New York/Oxford: Berghahn, 2019)

Jiří Hutečka’s new interesting and novel new book explores the motivations that underpinned the morale of Czech soldiers fighting in the Austro-Hungarian Army during the Great War.

Soldiers of Czech nationality made were the third largest ethnic group in the Austrian Hungarian Empire, providing around 1.5m soldiers of the 7m to 8m that served.[1]

Hutečka wrote this book to correct the two broad perceptions of Czech soldier motivation centred on national identity; that motivated by Czech nationalism and a dislike of the supernational Austro-Hungarian state and therefore were unwilling, reluctant and non-co-operative soldiers.[2]

His approach is to focus on Czech soldiers as men and how their perception of their manhood and masculinity shaped their experience, motivate them to fight or not and mould their attitudes and opinions.[3] As a consequence, he views the motivation of Czech soldiers through the prism of gender and masculinity.

He says that ‘‘our analysis will be concerned primarily with …whether the social experience and construction of manhood had any bearing on the way in which men understood their plight’.[4] Masculinity becomes an analytical category for the examination of Czech soldiers.[5]

He argues that though many Czech soldiers fought for the Czechoslovak Legion fighting on the side of the Entente powers that sought a free and independent Bohemia Moravia during the war, 90% of Czech combatants fought in an Austro-Hungarian uniform.[6]

Most Czechs fought for the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy with varying degrees of enthusiasm with only a few individuals and units surrendering to Italian or Russian forces.[7]

Standard of the Supreme Commander in Chief, the Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary

Hutcheka explores the factors that underpinned this motivation in six chapters. The first looks at analysis of soldiers’ initial motivation to enlist and the initial experience of being in uniform. The next four chapters explores what sustained soldiers at the front during the war. Chapter 2 deals primarily with the most elementary factors of a soldier’ s material and physical existence, such as weather, fatigue, shelter, supply or sexuality. Chapter 3 explores military comradeship using German historian Thomas Kühne’s ideas that camaraderie was a gendered social concept ‘requiring a transformation of manliness for the men to be able to accommodate their close homosocial coexistence and emotionality into the framework of military primary groups, therefore maintaining control over their experience of masculinity’. Chapter 4 explores the relationship the average soldier had with the officer class and army as a whole, in particular the system of military discipline. The penultimate chapter explores the ‘various venues of manliness in which masculinity had to be performed in order to achieve or maintain hegemonic status’ and explores the importance of home for the men’ s ‘emotional survival’ and their gradual inability to perform their masculine roles both there and at the front, with the accompanying sense of losing power and control in both of those arenas, efforts to restore at least a semblance of normalcy notwithstanding.[8] The final chapter, Chapter 6, focuses on battle. Combat itself is analysed from the standpoint of masculine identity, and the various fears it brings about are connected to the soldiers’ perceptions of manliness.[9]

Hutečka argues that many factors underpinned the motivation of Czech soldiers. Primary group cohesion was ‘an all-important factor’ in sustaining in their morale and combat effectiveness.[10] Notions of Czech nationalism was also important in weakening their will to fight for the supernational Austro-Hungarian state as many Czechs had strong notions of their own identity and cultural superiority to other minorities within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.[11]

The most important factor which shapes many of these factors is the masculinity of the individual man and how their experiences either enhanced or degraded their personal notions of masculinity.

For example, when discussing the role of men who were primary groups, Hutečka, believes these groups were ‘a symbolic structuring of male bonding in such groups, redefined under the notion of wartime comradeship. Its primary purpose was to defend the men’ s masculinity from further destabilization caused by inherent tensions both in individual gender identity, and in the specific homosocial environment of military units in wartime. These tensions were often rooted in the conflict between the hegemonic discourse of masculinity and the reality (physical and emotional) that the individual soldiers experienced in the war, which produced fears of further unmanning through one’ s social feminization. To resolve this conflict, masculinity was transformed under the guise of comradeship, which in turn played an important role in sustaining the men’ s motivation and morale’.[12]

The use of a gendered approach is both the strength of this study but also is a weakness.

It places the actions of many men as being wholly or completely shaped by gendered motivations or their perception of their masculinity. For example, there is one part where Hutečka describes how some soldiers used to dress up in women’s clothing when they found it, for instance, in a deserted village. He ascribed this cross-dressing behaviour that it ‘enabled men, through the fantasy of a shared ‘comedy’, to escape from the emotionally exhausting world of war (and discursive masculinity) through what can be called a feminine myth, an idea of femininity otherwise feared and buried deep within oneself. In a liberating gesture, men put on dresses and, secure under the guise of a humorous act, they restabilize not only the gender order itself, but also their own individual masculinity by testing its rigid boundaries’.[13] The sources he quotes suggest that it may have been more about the comedy of the moment and how soldiers found it amusing rather than transgressing their gender roles. This latter interpretation is very much a 21st century one and it was probably unlikely that a Prague factory worker or Bohemian peasant was thinking about their gender in the way we assume when they were dressing up.

The strength of the book is in bringing the role of gender and ideas of masculinity into the debate about combat motivation and morale. This may seem contradictory to the point above. It is not my view that gender roles were irrelevant in shaping morale and motivation of soldiers, but I think the influence and dominance of these ideas are overstated in some cases in this book. There are other areas where ideas of masculinity and gender are present in the thinking of Czech soldiers. For example, Hutečka points out how the physical masculine qualities of officers were frequently used in descriptions of leaders, showing how many men regarded their superiors. For example, Jaroslav Křenek describes a ‘good, reasonable commander’ of the regimental depot of his unit in a very specific way: ‘Dark as resin, with piercing eyes and a chiselled jaw, sitting on black horse’.[14]

Overall, this book is excellent and important for two reasons. Firstly, it fills a massive void in the English language scholarship on the combat soldier of the Central Powers. Much of the interest in the Great War in Britain and the anglophone world is focused on the Western Front and the British and Dominion forces. This provides a new and fresh perspective.

Secondly, its focus on masculinity and gender is an important contribution to the debate on combat motivation and morale. While, I think the gender was an important motivator, I think this work is necessary reading for people interested in why motivates soldiers to fight and endure in war. At the time of writing (July 2021), I am currently producing my own study on the motivation of British soldiers in a single division and this study has made me reconsider my ideas of masculinity and the role of gender.


[1] Jiří Hutečka, Men under Fire. Motivation, Morale and Masculinity among Czech Soldiers in the Great War, 1914–1918 (New York/Oxford: Berghahn, 2019), p.1.

[2] Ibid., pp.2-3.

[3] Ibid., pp.5, 6.

[4] Ibid., p.6.

[5] Ibid., p.7.

[6] Ibid., p.3.

[7] Ibid., p.65.

[8] Ibid., p.13.

[9] Ibid., pp.13-14.

[10] Ibid., pp.133, 134.

[11] Ibid., pp.159-165, 165-166, 167.

[12] Ibid., p.136.

[13] Ibid., p.123.

[14] Ibid., p.158.