House of Čapek brothers in Prague 10, Vinohrady
Early life and education
Karel Čapek was born in 1890 in the Bohemian mountain village of Malé Svatoňovice. However, six months after his birth, the Čapek family moved to their own house in Úpice. His father, Antonín Čapek, worked as a doctor at the local textile factory. Antonín was a very energetic person; apart from his work as a doctor, he also co-funded the local museum and was a member of the town council. Despite opposing his father's materialist and positivist views, Karel Čapek loved and admired his father, later calling him “a good example... of the generation of national awakeners.” Karel's mother, Božena Čapková, was a homemaker. Unlike her husband she did not like life in the country and she suffered from long-term depressions. Despite that, she assiduously collected and recorded local folklore, such as legends, songs or stories. Karel was the youngest of three siblings. He would maintain an especially close relationship with his brother Josef, a highly successful painter, living and working with him throughout his adult life. His sister, Helena, was a talented pianist who later become a writer and published several memoirs about Karel and Josef.
After finishing elementary school in Úpice, he moved with his grandmother to Hradec Králové, where he attended high school. Two years later, he was expelled for taking part in an illegal students' club. Čapek later described the club as a “very non-murderous anarchist society.” After this incident he moved to Brno with his sister and attempted to finish high school there, but two years later he moved again, to Prague, where he finished high school at the Academic Grammar School in 1909. During his teenage years Čapek became enamored with the visual arts, especially Cubism, which influenced his later writing. After graduating from high school, he studied philosophy and aesthetics in Prague at Charles University, but he also spent some time at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin and at the Sorbonne in Paris. While he was still a university student, he wrote some works on contemporary art and literature. He graduated with a doctorate of philosophy in 1915.
World War I and Interwar period
Exempted from military service due to the spinal problems that would haunt him his whole life, Čapek observed World War I from Prague. His political views were strongly affected by the war, and as a budding journalist he began to write on topics like nationalism, totalitarianism and consumerism. Through social circles, the young author developed close relationships with many of the political leaders of the nascent Czechoslovak state, including Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Czechoslovak patriot and the first President of Czechoslovakia, and his son Jan, who would later become foreign secretary. T. G. Masaryk was a regular guest at Čapek's "Friday Men" garden parties for leading Czech intellectuals. Čapek was also a member of Masaryk's Hrad political network. Their frequent conversations on various topics later served as the basis for Čapek's Talks with T. G. Masaryk.
Tomb of Karel Čapek and Olga Scheinpflugová at Vyšehrad cemetery
Čapek began his writing career as a journalist. With his brother Josef, he worked as an editor for the Czech paper Národní listy (The National Newspaper) from October 1917 to April 1921. Upon leaving, he and Josef joined the staff of Lidové noviny (The People's Paper) in April 1921.
Čapek's early attempts at fiction were short stories and plays for the most part written with his brother Josef. Čapek's first international success was R.U.R., a dystopian work about a bad day at a factory populated with sentient androids. The play was translated into English in 1922, and was being performed in the UK and America by 1923. Throughout the 1920s, Čapek worked in many writing genres, producing both fiction and non-fiction, but worked primarily as a journalist. In the 1930s, Čapek's work focused on the threat of brutal national socialist and fascist dictatorships; by the mid-1930s, Čapek had become "an outspoken anti-fascist". He also became a member of International PEN and established, and was the first president of, the Czechoslovak PEN Club.
Late life and death
In 1935 Karel Čapek married actress Olga Scheinpflugová, after a long acquaintance. In 1938 it became clear that the Western allies, namely France and the United Kingdom, would fail to fulfil the pre-war agreements, and they refused to defend Czechoslovakia against Nazi Germany. Although offered the chance to go to exile in England, Čapek refused to leave his country – even though the Nazi Gestapo had named him "public enemy number two". While repairing flood damage to his family's summer house in Stará Huť, he contracted a common cold. As he had suffered all his life from spondyloarthritis and was also a heavy smoker, Karel Čapek died of pneumonia, on 25 December 1938.
Surprisingly, the Gestapo was not aware of his death. Several months later, just after the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, Nazi agents came to the Čapek family house in Prague to arrest him. Upon discovering that he had already been dead for some time, they arrested and interrogated his wife Olga. His brother Josef was arrested in September and eventually died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945. Karel Čapek and his wife are buried at the Vyšehrad cemetery in Prague. The inscription on the tombstone reads: "Here would have been buried Josef Čapek, painter and poet. Grave far away."