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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Knopfelmacher, Frank (1923–1995)

by Robert Manne

This article was published online in 2020

Frank Knopfelmacher (1923–1995), university lecturer and political activist, was born František Knopfelmacher on 3 February 1923 in Vienna, elder son of Pavel (Paul) Knopfelmacher, lawyer and businessman, and his wife Stepanka (Stefanie), née Hollander. Raised in a German-speaking ‘Jewish bourgeois’ Czech family, his childhood was spent in the Czechoslovakian province of Moravia. From the age of seven, he later claimed, he was ‘a fierce Czech nationalist’ (Knopfelmacher 1967, 17). His family went bankrupt in 1930, subsequently moving from his father’s home town of Kromeriz to Ostrava and then Brno, where František was educated at a Jewish school. In May 1938 he visited an exhibition in Brno of ‘fascist atrocities in the Spanish Civil War,’ later recalling that ‘suddenly I was saddled with the awareness of violence and death’ (Knopfelmacher 1967, 19).

After the German occupation of the Czech lands in March 1939, Knopfelmacher emigrated to Palestine alone, not as a Zionist but because of a premonition about what might befall the Jews in Nazi Europe. He served as a British policeman in Haifa before joining the Czechoslovak army-in-exile in May 1942 and seeing active service in World War II in units attached to British formations in North Africa (1942–43) and Normandy (1944–45). While in Palestine, he became a Marxist and from January 1942 a member of the Communist Party. In Britain in 1943, however, he encountered George Orwell’s Tribune column, ‘As I Please,’ and then in Normandy he read Arthur Koestler’s novel on the Stalin show trials, Darkness at Noon (1940). By 1944 he was a man of the left but no longer a communist.

On 22 August 1944 at the register office in Bridlington, England, Knopfelmacher married Czechoslovakian-born Jarmila Pickova. He later recalled that ‘both my own and my wife’s family were liquidated by the Nazis, mothers, brothers and all’ (Knopfelmacher 1967, 32). At war’s end, he had to choose to settle either in Palestine or Czechoslovakia, opting for the latter. As a consequence he was able to observe, under what he later described as ‘laboratory conditions,’ a gradual Communist Party takeover. This experience was his invaluable ‘political university’ (Knopfelmacher 1967, 26). He also enrolled at Charles University in Prague, where he studied psychology, philosophy, and English. After the Communist coup of February 1948, he fled Czechoslovakia for the second time. By now he was a fierce anti-communist.

Emigrating with his wife to Britain, Knopfelmacher studied philosophy and psychology at Bristol University (BA, 1950) with financial support from a refugee trust fund, and then experimental psychology at University College, London (PhD, 1953). Having adopted Frank as his first name, in 1955 he became a lecturer in psychology at the University of Melbourne. Almost immediately, he came to believe that his new university and new country were in danger of the kind of gradual communist takeover he had witnessed in Prague. An unfeigned double fear—of a Soviet Cold War victory over the United States of America and a communist victory in Australia—determined almost everything he did for the remainder of his life. When once he was described as a ‘threat expert’ (Knopfelmacher 1967, 30) he embraced the label with pride.

Knopfelmacher became the most significant intellectual influence on the university’s Australian Labor Party Club, where democratic socialism and fervent East European-inflected anti-communism combined. His frequent lunchtime lectures were rowdy affairs but well-attended. During the 1960s he was the university’s dominant political personality. He also conducted highly praised courses in social and political theory. David Armstrong, subsequently a professor of philosophy at the University of Sydney, attended a Knopfelmacher postgraduate seminar in 1963, remarking that it consisted of ‘some of the best lectures he had ever heard’ (Armstrong and Spann 1965, 540–41).

In the late 1950s a bitter conflict broke out inside the small social studies department at the University of Melbourne, between its head, Ruth Hoban, and Geoff Sharp, a member of the Communist Party of Australia. Knopfelmacher interpreted the conflict as part of a larger communist conspiracy. A dossier was compiled, most likely with the assistance of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, and entrusted to Knopfelmacher. He sent it to Richard Krygier, the chairman of the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, and James McAuley, the editor of its magazine, Quadrant, who in turn presented it to the Bulletin editor, Donald Horne. On 12 April 1961 the Bulletin published a letter written by Hoban’s husband, the influential professor of history, Max Crawford, who argued that he was now ‘unable to reject’ (Crawford 1961, 44) Knopfelmacher’s case about the communist threat at the university. A week later the Bulletin published a detailed article outlining the supposed conspiracy. The university conducted a quasi-judicial investigation and found the accusation baseless. Years later, in 1969, the Bulletin apologised to Sharp.

In 1964 the department of philosophy at the University of Sydney sought a political philosopher. The selection committee, which included Armstrong, chose Knopfelmacher in March 1965, but the professorial board rejected the committee’s recommendation after one of his enemies, the chair of electrical engineering Professor Wilbur Christiansen, read out passages from an inflammatory article Knopfelmacher had written on the communist conspiracy at the University of Melbourne. At a second meeting of the board on 12 April 1965, the numbers opposing Knopfelmacher’s appointment had grown. ‘The Knopfelmacher Case’ became a prominent, left-right, Cold War conflict.

Remaining at the University of Melbourne, Knopfelmacher worked closely with B. A. Santamaria’s National Civic Council during the 1960s and beyond. In 1966 he became deeply involved in a group called ‘Peace with Freedom,’ an organisation of Australia’s most significant anti-communists, chaired by McAuley and largely organised by the NCC, whose purpose was to defend Australian involvement in the Vietnam War and to contest the anti-war movement on university campuses. Knopfelmacher engaged left-wing speakers in debates about the Vietnam War at many university ‘teach-ins.’ His reputation as an expert on the threat of communism was enhanced in 1968, when he predicted the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1970 he visited the United States of America and was appalled by what he considered to be the capitulation of the anti-communist intelligentsia to student revolutionaries. The scathing articles he wrote on America for the Australian delighted his enemies and angered his friends.

Knopfelmacher had been naturalised in 1967. Widowed in 1969, he married Susan Joy Robinson, a teacher, in 1970. In the early 1970s he discovered another talent, as the free-wheeling, unpredictable, right-wing columnist for the left-liberal weekly Nation Review. With Orwell in mind, he wrote a column for Quadrant in the mid-1980s called ‘As I Please.’ He believed that student revolutionaries and their cowardly teachers were primarily responsible for America’s Vietnam defeat in what had been a just and winnable war. He became an uncompromising enemy of the diplomacy of détente, in particular the Nixon-Kissinger version. Although his conceptual framework might have allowed him to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union and its East European ‘satellites’—time and again he argued, presciently, that the Soviet system was unreformable and entirely lacked legitimacy—almost until the end he clung to the conviction that the Soviet Union would win the Cold War and that Australia was doomed. When the Soviet empire collapsed between 1989 and 1991, it afforded him little joy. Loneliness enveloped him, amplified by his retirement from the university in 1988.

Although Knopfelmacher wrote many hundreds of often brilliant and original magazine and newspaper articles, to his regret late in life he failed to produce any substantial work of scholarship. His only book, Intellectuals and Politics (1968), was an essay collection. Over four decades he spent almost every evening on the telephone trying to rouse and inform, with savage wit and unfailing intelligence, his often-exasperated political friends. His greatest legacy was as a teacher, including as a lecturer on political theory for the Council of Adult Education. Among those he influenced were the politician Michael Danby, the publicist Gerard Henderson, the journalist Greg Sheridan, the ideology-maker Ray Evans, the legal academic Martin Krygier, the philosopher Raimond Gaita, and the political historian and public intellectual Robert Manne.

Knopfelmacher never overcame the shock of the Holocaust and was critical of those who decades later sought to profit from it, either financially or politically, by peddling or commodifying guilt or victimhood: ‘The chase of superannuated German SS murderers by equally old, but not yet superannuated, Jewish Holocaust-profiteers, is an unedifying and futile enterprise. … Let my people sleep’ (Knopfelmacher 1985, 39). Survived by his wife and their two children, he died at Parkville on 17 May 1995 and was cremated. A few weeks earlier he had suffered injuries in a road accident after a meeting with the great Czech writer and statesman Vaclav Havel. His final days were rage-filled, and very dark.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Anderson, Fay. ‘Into the Night: Max Crawford, the Labyrinth of the Social Studies Enquiry and ASIO’s “Spoiling Operations.”’ Australian Historical Studies 36, no. 125 (2005): 60–80
  • Armstrong, D. M., and R. N. Spann. ‘Chronicle.’ Minerva 3, no. 4 (Summer 1965): 530–609
  • Buckley, Vincent. Cutting Green Hay: Friendships, Movements and Cultural Conflicts in Australia’s Great Decades. Melbourne: Penguin Books, 1983
  • Crawford, R. M. ‘Communism in Universities.’ Bulletin (Sydney), 12 April 1961, 44
  • Knopfelmacher, Frank. ‘Bitburg (A Very Personal Comment).’ Quadrant, June 1985, 38–39
  • Knopfelmacher, Frank. ‘My Political Education.’ Quadrant, July-August 1967, 17–33
  • Santamaria, B. A. ‘Frank Knopfelmacher.’ Quadrant, July-August 1995, 32–33
  • Scoble, Robert M. ‘The Knopfelmacher Case.’ Quadrant, October 1971, 72–82
  • Sharp, Nonie. ‘A Spoiling Operation: Cold War at the University of Melbourne.’ Arena Journal 47/48 (2017): 57–75

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Citation details

Robert Manne, 'Knopfelmacher, Frank (1923–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/knopfelmacher-frank-29637/text36602, published online 2020, accessed online 6 August 2020.

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