Perspectives on World History and Current Events

The Nine Lives of Frank Knopfelmacher

Frank Knopfelmacher (1923-1995) was one of the most influential and courageous Australian intellectuals of the Cold War. This talk was given by Frank's son Andrew Knopfelmacher at the Retreat Hotel, Melbourne, on 21st March 2002, to an audience which included some of Frank's former colleagues and students.

Nine Lives Had my father lived longer he would have entitled his autobiography, "Nine Lives", hence the title of my talk tonight. This title reflected the fact that Dad saw himself as a "rare event" - he was a Central European Jew, born in the 1920s, who survived Hitler's genocide and committed the rest of his life to the fight against totalitarianism. Due to the time limitations of this talk, I shall focus on Dad's work as a political theorist and activist. Because my father made a considerable political and intellectual contribution to this country to which he migrated, I believe that his legacy warrants attention. Although this talk, out of necessity, will omit areas of Dad's life, I believe that it will still provide a perspective that does justice to what Dad believed in and fought for.
Formative Experiences In order to gain a perspective of Dad's Australian political activities, it is appropriate that I give a brief biographical account of my father's life. This is because it would be difficult to understand the context in which Dad fought against totalitarianism in Australia without understanding the formative experiences of his life. Dad was born in Vienna in February 1923, as he used to recall in a tone not without irony, at the height of Austria's hyper-inflation. He was born into an upper middle class Czech Jewish family, which often spoke German. His childhood in the Czech republic, to quote him, was that of a "typical, pampered middle class" boy. This happy upbringing came crashing down with the German takeover of Austria – the Anschluss – in March 1938, because members of his family that were living in Austria suffered at the hands of the Nazis, three of them committing suicide.
One of Dad's strong intellectual points was his intuitive understanding of the totalitarian mentality. This first manifested itself when Dad realised that the Nazis intended to liquidate European Jews before the systematic extermination process commenced in 1941/42. Therefore Dad realised the importance of leaving the German occupied Czech lands in November 1939 with a Zionist youth group, the Aliyay. Sadly my father never saw his family again, as they perished at the hands of the Germans.
Dad took refuge in British administered Palestine, where he worked in various jobs until 1942, when he joined a Czech regiment in the British army that was based in Palestine. Due to the Nazi menace, Dad became a Communist Party member in January 1942. He saw action in North Africa, France and in Belgium. Denied the right to settle in Britain at the war's end, Dad returned to Czechoslovakia and settled in Prague. There he studied philosophy at Charles University and observed the techniques that the communists employed in subverting Czech democracy. This personal experience in observing communist tactics was invaluable for my father and he became disillusioned with communism. The experience provided him with "laboratory conditions for observing and analysing totalitarian behaviour". As a university student my father was part of the only section of society that actively opposed the communist takeover of the country in February 1948. Having lived under totalitarianism for six months, my father and his first wife, Jarka, departed for England, by resorting to bribery in the purchase of an exit visa.
Academic Life Dad studied at Bristol and London universities and by the time he and Jarka came to Australia in 1955, he had obtained a double first in Philosophy and Psychology and a doctorate in experimental Psychology. Although Dad was a refugee from Central European Stalinism, he was taken aback to discover that at the Psychology Department at Melbourne University members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and their fellow travelers exercised a disproportionate influence. This was evidenced by the fact that Lysenkoism was the predominant school of thought amongst the Department's academics. Lysenkoism was a fraudulent biological doctrine that maintained that there was a possibility of inheriting environmentally acquired characteristics. Even by the time that Dad had arrived in Australia, Lysenkoism had been discredited in the Soviet bloc, yet it was the orthodoxy for some Australian academics.
My father subsequently endeavoured to establish a counter educational course at Melbourne University which encompassed the social sciences. My father's teachings operated under the principle of objective intellectual inquiry and objective truth. This approach was the antithesis of the subjective - and totalitarian - Stalinoid academics. In undertaking this vocational crusade Dad had to fight the university's administration in order to obtain accreditation for his courses. My father did not limit his activities to the lecture theatre, but also to the extra-curricular field. Accordingly Dad helped found the ALP Club in 1959 which he could not have done without the help of Richard Krieger of the Congress for Cultural Freedom.
The ALP Club my father founded was not a political club for hacks, but rather an intellectual forum in which Dad could lecture without interference from political restrictions. A major attraction of the Club's activities was my father's lecturing style. As an anti-communist non-conformist Dad's lecturing style was lucid, informative and blunt spiced with wit and irony. By focussing on objective truth my father actually educated Club members and equipped them with the critical capacity to think for themselves. He had a genius for communicating complex ideas in a simple, understandable form. This was also reflected in my father's writings. Although the ALP Club was ostensibly a social democratic operation, it was a tribute to his intellectual impact that current New Right operatives such as Ray Evans actually received their initial political formation and inspiration from Dad's lectures. His reputation was such that Dad also was a guest lecturer in political and social theory at Monash and La Trobe Universities.
Dad also lectured at the Council of Adult Education (CAE) from the 1960s until his formal retirement in 1991. This CAE course covered western political theory from the ancient Greeks through to twentieth century totalitarianism and everything in between.
Intellectual Life Because my father was an intense and passionate person of strong convictions people often overlooked the fact that he was actually a fair minded person who was always open to reason and argument. In this respect Dad practiced what he preached, because he elaborated the point that totalitarianism was essentially a mechanism by which the state attempted to mold truth to its own ends. The essence of my father's teachings regarding the theory and practice of totalitarianism was that it was an attempt by the state to control every aspect of society. The totalitarian ambition for the state to control includes everything from economy to culture, communications to sexual morality. Dad therefore appreciated that totalitarianism blurred the distinction between the private and public realms.
As an intellectual activist Dad became involved in Australian public life, particularly in the context of the Cold War, because he identified the former Soviet Union as the major threat to Western Civilisation. Therefore Dad unambiguously supported the United States as the major bulwark against Soviet totalitarian imperialism. In this context Dad supported America's involvement in the Vietnam War. This stance was particularly brave because it meant opposing the might of the 'anti-war' movement that had targeted universities as a base from which to launch their operations. Dad's understanding of the totalitarian mentality enabled him to predict that Dubchek's 'Prague Spring' would be crushed by a Soviet invasion. In this respect he proved wrong the CPA hacks, such as Bernie Taft, who asserted that the Soviets would never invade Czechoslovakia.
As the token 'fascist' who wrote a column for the Nation Review, Dad took the opportunity to attack the Whitlam government's hostility towards Vietnamese refugees fleeing communist repression. He also attacked the Whitlam government's de jure recognition of the Soviet Union's takeover of the Baltic states. (Australia was the only western country at this time which sanctioned this takeover). Dad also condemned Lionel Murphy's March 1973 raid on ASIO headquarters and his hostility towards Australia's Croatian community.
During the 1980s Dad also attacked Australian war crimes legislation by questioning the motives of some of its proponents, such as Mark Aarons, because he saw it as means by which anti-communist refugees from Central and Eastern Europe could be discredited. He also questioned the use of documents that were to be supplied by the Soviet Union to be used as evidence in such cases. He deeply resented and rejected any inference that he was defending the actions of mass murderers and torturers. Not only had he lost his entire family at the hands of the Nazis (against whom he had fought against in the Second World War) but as a man who had dedicated his life to the fight against totalitarianism, he found any inference that he condoned genocide to be totally abhorrent. As person Dad was totally opposed to racism in any form and in later life he was saddened by the rise in anti-gypsy sentiment in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s.
Dad was far from being an uncritical supporter of Israel but was deeply committed to Israel's existence as a Jewish state. This support for Israel was reflective of Dad's support for small nations that were threatened by totalitarian-backed powers. In this respect Dad's support for Israel was consistent with his support for Czechoslovakia and South Vietnam. Although Dad never supported a particular party line, he generally preferred the Israeli Labour Party over Likud. I have no doubt that Dad would have been very distressed by Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in 1995.
With the end of the Cold War and the subsequent discrediting of Marxist-Leninism Dad also appreciated that post-totalitarianism* would live on through political correctness. In this context Dad was wary of the so–called 'radical' feminist and environmental lobby groups that have gained prominence. Dad therefore appreciated that a shift has been made from the traditional Marxist approach of focusing on the downtrodden proletariat, to instead projecting angst onto minority groups. * The term post-totalitarianism is used here as Vaclav Havel used it in The Power of the Powerless - it describes a society in which every individual from greengrocer to president serves ritualised ideology.
Directly Active in Politics Dad not only involved himself in public affairs by lecturing, teaching and writing, but also by taking direct action. In this context Dad's intervention in vocally supporting for the re–affiliation of the "Grouper" unions into the ALP in 1984 was very important because it was crucially important in countering those who attempted to sabotage their re-entry. Although Dad was averse to being politically labelled, he was in essence a social democrat, because he believed that free trade unions were crucial to the survival of a liberal democracy. As such it can be said that Dad belonged to the social democratic component within the tripartite alliance of conservatives, liberals and social democrats that were once associated with Quadrant magazine. While Dad, as a social democrat, was probably to the left of those who were involved with Quadrant, it was he who took the ethically correct step of resigning from the Association of Cultural Freedom after the magazine publicly apologised for previously receiving CIA funding.* * That is, as a protest against the apology.
In Conclusion Having experienced the ill effects of totalitarianism, Dad applied his intellect to understanding the nature of this beast. As such Dad refused to conform to popular trends or to give way to pressure in modifying his views. Dad's intellectual and personal integrity was not negotiable. He was therefore prepared to pay a high price for standing up for his beliefs and principles. Although he consequently often came across as harsh, his steadfastness was actually a reflection of his compassionate nature. While Dad made a valuable contribution in being able to convey lateral ideas very simply, his greatest legacy was that he set an example of personal integrity by standing by his beliefs no matter what the cost.

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Copyright ©2002 Andrew Knopfelmacher