Karel Čapek was born January 9, 1890 in the mining village of Malé Svatoňovice, near the modern-day border with Poland. He came from a talented family; his older sister, Josef, was a painter. His older sister, Helena, was a pianist who turned to writing later in life.
He completed his high school studies in Prague in 1909. Afterwards, he studied at the Charles University, the Sorbonne in Paris, and the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin. He graduated in 1915.
Čapek suffered from problems with his spine, which made him ineligible for army service. He began working as a journalist, writing on such topics as totalitarianism and nationalism. He was one of the leading intellectuals of his day. He became friends with Tomáš Masaryk, who was working to form an independent Czechoslovak state, and Masaryk’s son Jan. Karel and Josef Čapek both joined a Czech newspaper, Národní listy, in 1917. In April, 1921, they left the paper to work for Lidové noviny. Karel began writing fiction during this time, and international success came with his play R.U.R. It was this work which introduced the word “robot” to audiences worldwide. One of his admirers was the young Arthur Miller, who read Čapek’s work in the 1930s, as a college student.
Čapek’s fictional works covered several genres. Science fiction was a favorite, but he also wrote plays, fairy tales, and detective stories. His works include The Mother (Matka), an antiwar play influenced by the Spanish Civil War; The Absolute at Large (Továrna na absolutno), a novel about a reactor that produces cheap energy, but also leads to extreme religious and national fervor, resulting in global war; The Gardener’s Year (Zahradníkův rok), a book on gardening illustrated by his brother Josef; Letters from Italy (Italské listy), a travel guide; and a children’s book, Dashenka, or the Life of a Puppy (Dášeňka čili Život štěněte). He was nominated for the Nobel Prize a startling seven times, but never received the award. He founded the Czechoslovak branch of International PEN, and was its first president.
In the 1930s, with a global depression and Hitler steadily rising to power, Čapek’s works increasingly criticized militarism and fascism. His anti-Communist stance meant that his works were viewed with suspicion by the authorities following the Czechoslovak Communist coup in 1948; however, these works were not banned. In 1938, Čapek and his wife, actress Olga Scheinpflugová, were given the chance to flee to England. Although the Gestapo had named Čapek “public enemy number two”, he refused to leave his homeland. He never did. He contracted a cold, which developed into pneumonia, and he died on December 25, 1938.
Surprisingly, the Gestapo remained unaware of his death until 1939, when they came to arrest him. Upon learning of Čapek’s death, they arrested Olga instead. Josef was also arrested; he died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945. Karel Čapek is buried with Olga in Vyšehrad Cemetery, with a marker commemorating Josef (whose grave is unknown). Čapek’s works are still widely read and admired.