Laidlaw Summer Project – Literary Interwar Czechoslovakia
By Adam Kollar, on 16 September 2018
As a student of Comparative Literature coming from Slovakia, I was looking at how to combine my passion for analyzing literature in its broader context with the opportunity to learn something new about the background I come from. As a result, I came up with the project “The Literary Climate of Czechoslovakia on the Eve of War: Karel Čapek’s ideology and its reception”.
I chose this project due to several reasons – firstly, I find the era of interwar Europe highly fascinating, for the way the first half of the 20th century shaped this continent influences us even today. Moreover, the interwar era has some parallels with today’s world in general – in 2018, we can see a lot of polarization between the left and the right, as well as the rise of some ideologies originating from the interwar era, such as neofascism or neo-Nazism. Most importantly, I had very little knowledge about the specific topic, which made it very exciting for me to research.
Nonetheless, I was aware of the fact that politics and literature were highly interconnected during the analyzed period of time, for basically, all the writers belong to one ideological group or another while openly voicing their opinions. Moreover, I chose the writer Karel Capek as the central figure for my research, for I knew that he was the most prominent writer in Czechoslovakia in that time. This was due to his political activities (manifested in his philosophical writings) as well due to the amounts and quality of his works (which were also highly recognized and translated abroad).
While planning my research, I thought it would be a good idea to also visit Prague in person, due to several reasons. I knew that it would allow me to visit the archives and work with primary sources while also having the opportunity to interview some scholars and experts in the field. After consulting this idea with my supervisor, Dr. Peter Zusi, I decided to split the research in half – spending three weeks in London and three weeks in Prague.
Hence, I decided to use the beginning of my research and the time in London to understand the problem from a broader context, preparing the ground for my research in the archives and upcoming interviews. For that, I began with watching several documentaries about Čapek as well as TV debates filmed by the Czech Television. In general, my knowledge of Czech allowed me to work with sources which I would not be able to work with otherwise, giving me the opportunity to indulge in a more in-depth research bringing more nuanced and researched arguments.
Afterward, I moved onto reading various literature, including research which has been done about Čapek and the period in general. This included, among others, the monography about Čapek by the Czech author Ivan Klíma (Karel Čapek: Life and Work) and Andrea Orzoff’s Battle for the Castle: The Myth of Czechoslovakia in Europe, 1914-1948. I have to say that during my research, I was not really looking at Čapek’s works specifically. This was mainly due to two reasons. Firstly, as he is a famous and widely-acclaimed writer, there has been a lot of research done regarding his works already, also in English. With my still limited skills of literary analysis, it would be hard, if not impossible, for me to analyze Čapek’s books in a new light.
Secondly, reading Čapek’s works was not a necessary bit for my research. As I was mostly interested in the interconnection between literature and politics, it was more important to see what the writers thought and how that was related to the bigger picture. For that, it was more necessary to see the political and ideological writings of Čapek, rather than his literary works. That said, it is true that numerous Čapek’s novels reflected his political ideas – but as said, this is already well established and famously known. For instance, nobody can doubt that War with the Newts is a novel aimed against the rise of fascism, or that The White Disease is an anti-war play.
As mentioned already, writers in that time were active intellectuals with clear political ideas which were publicized via newspaper articles. Hence, I went through many columns written by Čapek, concerning politics and the status quo of Czechoslovakia. From all that, I was then able to see the reception of his ideas by looking at the political writings of other writers during that time, who would react to Čapek’s ideas. This also included some heated arguments and affairs.
In Prague, I was able to deepen and substantiate such knowledge by continuing reading books related to the problematic, as well as primary sources. I visited the archives (Památník národního písemnictví – Museum of Czech Literature), where I was able to find the originals of discussed newspaper articles as well as manuscripts of Čapek’s works. On top of that, I met with several scholars, writers, and Čapek enthusiasts – there exists the Society of the Čapek brothers with which I worked a bit during my stay in Prague. Last but not least, I visited Čapek’s summer residence outside Prague which is now turned into a museum and open to the public.
More specifically, I interviewed these people:
- Ivan Klíma – an 87-year-old Czech writer who wrote a book about Čapek. Klíma is one of the most important Czech writers and he is a well-respected figure also for his background – as a child, he survived a concentration camp and during Communism, his works were banned.
- Jiří Pešička – a professor of Czech literature at the Charles University in Prague (the best university in the Czech Republic) with expertise in Karel Čapek
- Hasan Zahirović – a member of the Society of the Čapek brothers
- Kristina Váňová – the director of the Monument of Karel Čapek (transformed from his residence outside Prague)
- Bohuslava Bradbrook – a 96-year-old Czech-English writer and literary historian who wrote a monograph about Čapek. In 1952 she emigrated from communist Czechoslovakia but now she lives in Prague again.
- Olga Rohelová – a member of the Society of the Čapek brothers
I have to say that meeting these people was probably the biggest highlight of my summer project. Not only they are all extremely knowledgeable about this topic, it was also great to see the passion they have for something that interests them. This passion was a great motivation and driving tool for my research as well. Moreover, especially Ivan Klíma and Bohuslava Bradbrook are such well-respected figures that just meeting them in person was an incredible honor for me and I am really grateful for such an experience.
Lastly, I would like to touch a bit on visiting the Monument of Karel Čapek and the archives in Prague. The monument is a residence in the woods outside Prague where Čapek used to go when he wanted some break from the city life of Prague. It is an extremely peaceful and quiet place, now turned into a museum regarding the life and work of Karel Čapek, as well as his brother Josef. I am really grateful that its director also found the time to talk to me about my project and provide some great insights regarding the topic.
Regarding my visit to the archives – the Museum of Czech Literature is located in the beautiful Strahov Monastery, overlooking the whole city of Prague. This monastery was founded in 1143 and it is definitely a place worth visiting even if one is not doing any literary research. In the archives, I was able to request relevant original primary sources regarding my research. Afterward, I was able to work with them within the museum, but of course, I had to wear gloves to do so – damaging such valuable sources would be a huge issue. The sources I looked at were original newspaper articles, correspondence and Čapek’s manuscripts of his literary works – even though the last mentioned thing was not extremely relevant for my research, it was incredible to have the opportunity to flip the pages written by Čapek himself. Generally speaking, I have never been in an archive like this and it was a unique and very educational experience.
Moving on, I would like to discuss the findings of my research:
Regarding the findings of my research, it is firstly important to give the background regarding Czechoslovakia. It was a country founded on October 28, 1918, following the break-up of Austria-Hungary. The period discussed is also referred to as the First Republic, for between 1939 and 1945 the country was divided and occupied by Nazi Germany – among other things, an independent Slovak State existed during that time. The First Republic was a democratic state with its founding president being Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. He remained in office until 1935, when he was succeeded by Edvard Beneš. Most importantly for my research, it has to be said that the political situation was quite fragmented within the country. While there were people supporting the democracy, there was also the Left, represented by socialists or communists (calling for a revolution), as well as the Right, represented by Christians (calling for a bigger role of the church in running the country), nationalists and later on also Nazis or fascists.
Karel Čapek was a Czech writer born in 1890. Even though he died in 1938, being only 48 years old, he is basically the biggest Czech writer both within the country as well as worldwide. He was a very prolific writer with his works getting translated into many languages around the world. In the context of this research, it has to be said that Čapek was undoubtedly a supporter of liberal democracy and Masaryk while rejecting the communist and fascist ideologies.
Čapek’s rejection of Nazism/fascism and Communism can be spotted early on, especially in his journalistic works. Already in 1921, he left the team of The National Newspaper to join The People’s Newspaper. After the foundation of the First Republic, the writer disliked the nationalist twist to the former newspaper which was becoming more and more prominent. For that reason, he joined a new newspaper, one which was very openly supportive of Masaryk.
The writer basically never doubted the position and value of democracy. His main concern with such ideologies was that they claimed to have found ‘the only truth’ that would save the humanity and pursue it they were also favorable of killing, revolution or war. Čapek was convinced that for social development, the moral responsibility of each individual is important, instead of a collective conscience brought about by revolution. In 1924, Čapek wrote an essay “Why am I not a communist?” Among many reasons, he criticized the ideology’s hunger for power – even though it might have seemed like that the communists wanted to help the poor, Čapek disagreed. He did not see enough sincerity in this particular issue and did not understand why they first have to be in power and only then help the poor.
It is important to note that Čapek and Masaryk were close. Čapek, being a supporter of Masaryk and a prominent intellectual, managed to engage both in a professional and friendly relationship with the president. It is sometimes said that Čapek was Masaryk’s spokesperson, for he helped him in spreading his ideas among the public. The most prominent example of this is the book Talks with T. G. Masaryk, in which the writer interviewed the president about his life and his political ideas. This work then became wide-spread and popular. Generally speaking, it can definitely be said that Čapek was a representative of the Masaryk democracy.
This is where it can be understood how was Čapek’s ideology received from other writers. Reflecting the political fragmentation of the republic, Čapek was not viewed in a positive light by those groups of people who criticized the current state of affairs and who disliked Masaryk. As hinted, these groups included the communists, the Catholics, and the nationalists.
Generally speaking, Čapek was also criticized through his works. As mentioned, those often dealt with and reflected the undergoing current state of affairs. In that sense, the communist writers criticized him because they taught that Čapek dealt with bourgeois issues, while the Catholics, especially Jaroslav Durych – a big opponent of Čapek – felt that the writer focused on small problems. Possibly the biggest conflict Durych had with Čapek was about the Spanish Civil War. As both of them, due to their ideological backgrounds, supported different sides of the conflict (Čapek the Republicans and Durych the Nationalists), it ended up being a very heated affair, especially from Durych’s side. The Catholic writer accused Čapek of being a coward for not taking part in World War 1, even though Čapek was rightfully excused from service due to health reasons. This example shows how the reception of Čapek’s ideology by other writers sometimes even led to emotional and personal attacks. Importantly in this regard, in Čapek’s understanding, the church should not be powerful in the state at all and it should not have any power to control political matters. Obviously, this was very much disliked by the Catholics.
To conclude, it has to be said that the critique of Čapek escalated with time, especially from the right-wing. As the danger of Nazi Germany was getting more and more real, with Hitler’s unquestionable desire to break up Czechoslovakia and take control over it, the leftist writers stopped their critique of Čapek almost completely, for, at that point, their goals were the same – it was not about shaping the state of affairs in Czechoslovakia anymore, it was about stopping the right-wing extremism from taking over the country. Hence, on the other hand, between 1935 and 1938, when Čapek died, he was the victim of an escalated number of critiques from right-wing writers, for example from Václav Renč. In this context, it is crucial to note the Munich Agreement, signed on September 30, 1938, which led to the annexation of some lands of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany. This was extremely devastating for Čapek and he even lost all his optimism regarding the situation. He died in December, only 3 months after the agreement, due to an illness. Some scholars argue that it was even good, for he did not see all the other devastating political realities which were only to happen to Czechoslovakia when the rule of Nazis would only get stronger and stronger. Not only that, the Nazis would probably capture Čapek and most likely execute him as well. For instance, Čapek’s brother Josef was taken into a concentration camp, where he died. In this context, it has to be repeated that Karel Čapek was the most prominent writer, intellectual figure and supporter of democracy during that time. Hence, his faith under the Nazi rule would most likely be very tragic. After Čapek’s death, during World War 2, he was hated and criticized by the new political power in charge.