Karel Čapek and Czechoslovak Exile Propaganda

Karel Čapek (1890-1938) belongs to the modern canon of literature as one of rather few Czech authors. He wrote his major plays and novels (R.U.R, War with the Newts, The White Disease or Krakatit) during the First Czechoslovak Republic. His legacy, however, played a vital role during the Second World War as well.

It is not only, however, his contribution to the science fiction genre (he is famous for introducing the word “robot” to the world) or his strikingly prophetic anticipation of the fascist threat in the late 1930’s that makes him an extremely  important protagonist of the 20th century Central European chronicle. Čapek was also a close friend of the first Czechoslovak president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, who regularly participated in the “Friday debates” organized by Čapek in his house in Prague district Vinohrady (the group is known as “Friday Men / Pátečníci[1]).

Karel Čapek and Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk

Karel Čapek and Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (Source: Wikimedia)

The relationship was sealed by their joint work on a book which summarized Masaryk’s worldview as well as his various reflections on his life. The Talks with T.G. Masaryk were first published in 1931. In 2018, a much-acclaimed movie, bearing the name of the book, reconstructed their talks at the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the independent Czechoslovak state.[2]

Čapek was also a regular contributor to the newspaper Lidové noviny, which was nicknamed the Czechoslovak Le Monde as most of the time it represented opinions of the “Castle” (the seat of the Czech kings became the seat of the Czechoslovak presidents after 1918).[3] It is, therefore, not only the Czechoslovak cultural sphere where Čapek was shining. His views to a large extent mirror the views of the Czechoslovakia’s founders and vice versa.

Karel Čapek died in December 1938, three months after the break-up of the republic, which according to his friend Ferdinand Peroutka broke his heart. In his very last article in Lidové noviny he expresses his wish for reconciliation of the European nations.[4] The deep humanist appeal, which is penetrating his whole work, speaks for the last time through his illustrations of the “red house with an old man and a young girl in the garden”, which he had seen once from the window while travelling by train in rural Kent, and the traditional Swabian pub. The self-confessed idealization of the countries was helping him to not get overwhelmed by the general contempt felt at the time for both Britain and Germany.

Counting the references to Čapek in the media of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, it could seem that in 1938 he just left Prague and, together with many prominent democratic politicians and public figures, moved to London to fight with his pen for the democratic values with the same zeal and ardour as before the war. His works were first on the lists of the books to be ordered from the weekly Čechoslovák. His plays were performed in theatres around Britain and reviewed in both British and Czechoslovak media.

The reason why Karel Čapek and his work were chosen to be significant means of the exile cultural diplomacy is that he managed to establish a close relationship with the English readership as well as the elites before he died. He was an active member of the PEN Club, founded by Catherine May Dawson-Scott and John Galsworthy. He even had a chance to host the latter one in Prague. He was corresponding with H.G.Wells and G.B.Shaw for years. Shaw called Čapek’s death in his obituary “absurd” and expressed a wish to leave instead of him as he should have had at least 40 more years in front of him to give so much to the world.[5]

H.G.Wells as drawn by Karel Čapek in the Letters from England

H.G.Wells as drawn by Karel Čapek in the Letters from England (Source: Wikimedia)

As a lifelong anglophile, Čapek published a travelogue Letters from England[6] in which he vividly captured his impressions from travelling around Britain in 1924. The book had been translated into many languages since then, including English. The critic Desmond MacCarthy, commenting on Čapek’s reputation in Britain, did not hesitate to say that: “[He] understood English nation better than any other foreigner.”[7]

The exile government used Čapek’s legacy as one of the main pillars of its propaganda as, given the quality and variety of his work, he could not be considered its protégé. At the same time, the values he depicted in his immortal novels and plays were exactly those, which Beneš’s circle wanted to present as the cornerstones of the First Republic.

The exile journal Čechoslovák repeatedly cited from Letters from England as well as from Talks with T.G.Masaryk. It also published letters from readers reminiscing the writer’s genius and lamenting his premature death. In January 1940, the PEN Club organized a special lunch on the occasion of the second anniversary of his death. The event was attended by both Edvard Beneš and the son of the late president Jan Masaryk. Čechoslovák’s editor afterwards commented in a line with the general pathos, which surrounded the famous writer during the war years: “The dead Čapek is still at work in England on the sacred task of the liberation of his nation.”[8]

 

 

[1] Friday Men was a group of writers, artists and politicians, who regularly met at Karel Čapek’s home, and discussed current issues as well as topics from the world of art. Among them we could find for example Čapek’s brother Josef, politicians Edvard Beneš and Jan Masaryk or journalists Ferdinand Peroutka, Eduard Bass and Karel Poláček.

[2] Hovory s TGM. Dir. Jakub Červenka. Bontonfilm, 2018.

[3] More in Orzoff, Andrea., “Battle for the Castle: The Myth of Czechoslovakia in Europe, 1914-1948” University Press, 2009.

[4] Čapek, Karel. “Pozdravy” Lidové noviny, 25 Dec. 1938.

[5] Cited in Bradbrooková, Bohuslava. „Karel Čapek – Hledání pravdy, poctivosti a pokory“ Academia, 2006, pp. 252.

[6] Čapek, Karel. „Anglické listy” Leda, 2009.

[7] „P.E.N. CLUB Karlu Čapkovi” Čechoslovák v Anglii, 12 Jan. 1940, pp. 5.

[8] Ibid.


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