130th anniversary of birth of great interwar writer Karel Čapek

Karel Čapek, photo: archive of Czech Radio

Thursday is the 130th anniversary of the birth of the Czech novelist, dramatic and journalist Karel Čapek. Seen as one of the greatest literary figures of Czechoslovakia’s First Republic, the science-fiction pioneer is perhaps best-known today for having given the world the word “robot”.

Karel Čapek,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
Karel Čapek was very popular in interwar Czechoslovakia for novels, stories and plays that combined humour, satire and a humanist vision.

Toward the end of his life, Radio Prague’s Oswald Bamborough reported on his latest work The White Disease, a 1937 play sending up Nazi Germany.

“The theme of the play is this. A terrible unknown malady, a kind of white leprosy, has attacked humanity. The only medical man in the world to find a remedy for the disease has a profound hatred for warfare. He refuses to part with the secret of his discovery unless the nations of the world agree to perpetual peace.”

However, Čapek, who was also a prolific journalist, is perhaps best-known today for giving the world the word “robot”. It first appeared in his 1920 drama R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots).

Karel Čapek with his brother Josef,  photo: archive of Faculty of Social Sciences,  Charles University in Prague
His other major works include the 1936 satirical sci-fi novel War with the Newts and the early 1920s play The Makropulos Affair, later turned into an opera by Leoš Janáček.

In an interview from Radio Prague’s archives, novelist Ivan Klíma outlines the unusual political position Karel Čapek held in the First Republic.

“It’s the fate of all writers that they couldn’t be accepted by the whole nation. He was probably most accepted by democrats in our country, by intellectuals. But not by Communists and not Catholics – and he was terribly attacked. He never became a member of the left or right wing groups of writers. It was like a sickness of Czech intellectuals – everybody became left oriented. He was, I can say, the leader of a very small group of writers who defended democracy.”

The September 1938 Munich Agreement came as a terrible blow to the author, who had suffered poor health for many years.

Nevertheless, he did try to maintain a positive outlook in the final period of his life, says Zdeněk Vacek, head of the Karel Čapek Memorial.

'R.U.R.'  (1929),  photo: Tobias Higbie,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
“If you read his post-Munich works, and recollections of him, it is clear he took a positive approach to everything. He continued to believe it was worth looking for positives and making an effort, that the nation had a future, that mankind had a future. I’m fascinated by the ability of this outwardly fragile person to resist all the demons that had been unleashed.”

Karel Čapek died in December 1938. His older brother, the famous painter Josef Čapek, perished in a Nazi death camp just weeks before the end of the war.