From Hradec Králové to Robots and Reflections: Karel Čapek's Enduring Legacy

Karel Čapek

Known for introducing the word ‘robot’ to the world through his literature, Karel Čapek is one of the most famous Czech writers internationally – and one of the most loved at home. The author of ‘War with the Newts’ and ‘R.U.R.’ lived in several parts of the country throughout his life – but his childhood was spent in what is today the Hradec Králové Region.

Karel Čapek  | Photo: Obecní knihovna Žernov

Karel Čapek was born the youngest of three children in the village of Malé Svatoňovice in 1890, only a few kilometres from the Polish border. Zdeněk Vacek, the director of the Čapek memorial in Stará Huť near Dobříš in the Central Bohemian Region – formerly the Čapek family’s summer residence where the writer spent much of the last three years of his life – says that Čapek’s childhood was very much shaped by growing up in the foothills of the Bohemian mountains.

Zdeněk Vacek | Photo: René Volfík,  Karel Čapek Memorial

“I think it’s fair to say that Karel Čapek’s childhood and even the rest of his life is most connected with today’s Hradec Králové Region, then to a lesser extent with Prague, and in the later years of his life, the Central Bohemian Region. But the Hradec Králové Region is what connects him with his brother, the painter and writer Josef Čapek, and his sister Helena Čapková, because that’s where they were all born.”

Karel Čapek’s father, Antonín, was a local doctor, and would travel through the mountainous terrain visiting patients, sometimes on foot, sometimes in a horse-drawn carriage. His father’s work made a great impression on the young Karel as a child, an impression that was carried over into his adult life and influenced his writing.

“The children often accompanied their father from one village to another as he went to visit patients on his rounds. Karel saw how people looked up to his father, how they respected him because of his profession. He also saw how his father was sometimes able to miraculously save people, and how sometimes it wasn’t possible to help them anymore and he would instead help them come to terms with death. In waiting rooms in doctor’s offices at the time, there were very often real skeletons as a kind of memento mori. That was all very important for Čapek, and he said many times later in life that if any profession really influenced him, then it was the medical profession. It can be seen in many of his works, like The White Plague, for example.”

Karel Čapek  (top left) with his family | Photo: Obecní knihovna Žernov

Malé Svatoňovice was, and still is, a spa town, but it also had a functioning coal mine, so Antonín Čapek’s patients were from all walks of life – not only spa visitors and locals, but also miners. (As an interesting aside, Vacek mentions that he thinks the current Czech President Petr Pavel’s grandfather was himself a miner in Malé Svatoňovice.)

Gymnázium J. K. Tyla,  where Karel Čapek went to secondary school | Photo: Milan Baják,  Czech Radio

Other towns in the Hradec Králové Region were also important for the young Karel Čapek – he was christened and went to primary school in Úpice, and spent holidays with his siblings and grandparents in Hronov. He later moved with his grandmother to Hradec Králové, the region’s namesake and largest city, so he could go to grammar school there. Zdeněk Vacek again.

“It’s said that he was expelled from the school, but that’s not quite true – he wasn’t expelled, he was an excellent student. But it was during the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and he was part of an underground student group – not exactly a resistance group against Austria-Hungary, but a kind of progressive discussion group – so the management recommended that he go to a different school. So he finished his secondary school education outside the Hradec Králové Region, in Brno.”

The War with the Newts,  1965 | Photo: SNKLU

Nowadays, Čapek is perhaps best known for his science fiction works, including his novel War with the Newts (1936) and his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots, 1920), which introduced the word ‘robot’ into Czech, and from there, to many other languages (although, ever-humble and ever-honest, Čapek publicly named his brother, the painter and poet Josef Čapek, as its actual inventor).

But he was a remarkably versatile writer. As well as plays, fairy tales and novels, he also penned newspaper articles and political and philosophical essays. He was a notable and vocal opponent of both Fascism and Communism, and clearly elucidated his reasons for being so in a newspaper article simply titled ‘Why I am not a communist’:

Karel and Josef Čapek | Photo: archive of Karel Čapek Memorial

"The article came about because Čapek and his friends, who were more left-leaning than right-leaning politically, were of the mind that although social justice was certainly desirable, Bolshevism, with all the violence and Marxist ideology that brought with it, was certainly not. But because many of their friends passionately defended communism, they decided they should also formulate and make public their reasons for not being communists.

“In his article, Čapek said that the violence the communists used as a matter of course and the way they presented themselves as acting in the best interests of all while in reality running a totalitarian dictatorship, made him certain that communism was something he absolutely did not want. It was precisely because he wanted to help people and to achieve social justice that he could not be a communist."

Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,  Czech Radio

Čapek was above all a democrat and a humanist. He believed that democracy is worth fighting for, that totalitarian regimes should be opposed, and that we have a moral obligation to help those fleeing them. He lived to see the Sudetenland – which included the area where he had grown up – taken over by the Nazis, but died a few months before the full invasion of Czechoslovakia, so, perhaps mercifully, he didn’t live to see the ravages that the two political ideologies he most fervently opposed, Fascism and later Communism, wrought on his country.

German troops at Prague Castle,  March 15,  1939 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

Although greatly saddened by the 1938 Munich Agreement, Vacek says his reaction to it is a perfect exemplar of his belief that one should remain rational and compassionate towards others, even in moments when nationalist passions are running high – and of his own ability to practice what he preached.

“Many in Czechoslovakia saw the Munich Agreement as a betrayal by Britain and France. But Čapek, although upset and crushed by the incident, wrote an article where he said: it was politicians that did this, not ordinary people. It went something like:

Photo: Tomáš Černý,  Czech Radio

“‘When I think of Britain, I think of that little house in Kent. When I think of France, I see this and that and I remember such and such person. When I think of Italy, I remember how I travelled by train and a labourer sat on the seat opposite me and offered me some cheese. When I think of Germany, I don’t think of Hitler – I think of the small pub where I drank and chatted with the locals.’”

“It’s incredible that in such a situation, Čapek managed to remain so generous and broadminded, and his humanity and love for people and commitment to objectivity remained. There was something that was said about Masaryk when he died, but I think it also applies to Karel Čapek – that he managed to be a patriot, without being a chauvinist. They don’t have to be the same thing – you can be a patriot without hating other nations and people.”

Karel Čapek | Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

Given his clear and forthright rejection of communism it is hardly surprising that Čapek’s work was subject to strict censorship under the Czechoslovak communist regime. However, it wasn’t the case that his work was banned entirely, says Zdeněk Vacek:

Photo: Barbora Kvapilová,  Czech Radio

"Čapek was pushed into the background by the communist regime at first, but then at the start of the 1950s, an academic from the Soviet Union published a book about him, and of course, his supporters here took advantage of that. They used it as a kind of springboard to say, 'well, if Karel Čapek is acknowledged and admired in the Soviet Union, which we supposedly model ourselves on, then nobody here has the right to ban him.' So that was a way to kind of bring Čapek back.

"But in the same way that the communists appropriated Jan Hus and Masaryk, by saying things like ‘if Jan Hus were alive now, he would be a communist’, they also tried to claim Karel Čapek as one of their own. So his work was published, but it was subject to strict censorship. It was clear what could be published and what couldn't. His anti-fascist works, fairy tales - things which either didn't touch on politics or which could be interpreted as being consistent with communist ideology - those were allowed. And the others were suppressed.”

Photo: Karel Čapek,  Kateřina Čupová,  'RUR'/Argo

Although Čapek was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature seven times between 1932 and his death in 1938, he never won. But his legacy still lives on today, with his plays still being performed, his books still being read, and the word ‘robot’ being used now more than ever.

Vacek says that not only did Čapek introduce the word ‘robot’ to the world – he also had surprising foresight about the way in which robots would be created.

Čapek Brothers Memorial,  Náměstí Míru,  Prague | Photo: Juan Pablo Bertazza,  Radio Prague International

"His robots were created in the way that robots will likely be created in the future. Not like some monster, a Frankenstein or a Golem, that will only follow commands from its creator, but mass-produced in factories so that everyone will be able to afford them. Just like everyone can afford a mobile phone nowadays, ordinary people in the future will be able to afford a robot that will save them toil and drudgery.

"In fact, since we have mobile phones nowadays that contain free apps with a million different functions: navigation, translation, bank transfers, whatever we might think of – we might even say that these free or cheap artificial beings that help us and save us work are in some sense already a reality."

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