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Frank Knopfelmacher (Vienna, 3 February 1923 – Melbourne, 17 May 1995), was a Czech Jew who migrated to Australia in 1955 and became a psychology lecturer and anti-communist political commentator at the University of Melbourne. He was embroiled in virulent political controversies during the Vietnam War era of the 1960s and 1970s.
He was born into an upper middle class Czech Jewish family in Vienna, and enjoyed a happy childhood until the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. Realising the personal danger, he fled the country in November 1939 with other members of a Zionist youth group to join a kibbutz in Palestine. In January 1942 he joined the Communist Party and spent the remainder of World War II as a member of the Free Czech Forces attached to the British Army. The family he had left in Vienna all perished in the Holocaust. Once Prague (to which he had returned in 1945) had been taken over by those Communists on whom reading Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon had soured him, he used money from his family estate to bribe officials into letting him flee to England. He thereafter detested the Soviet Union while continuing to revere Marx the man (whom as late as July 1983 he defended in a Quadrant article).
Knopfelmacher completed a doctorate in philosophy and psychology at the University of Bristol. In 1955 he moved to Melbourne, taking up a lectureship at University of Melbourne's Psychology Department.
Few outside professional circles had heard of him until 1965, when he applied and was approved for a post in Political Philosophy at the University of Sydney, but had his appointment blocked – in what became a front-page cause célèbre – by the University Senate.
The Senate considered Knopfelmacher's published criticisms of Moscow and its apologists to be unduly strong meat. He had written of Melbourne leftists that "like rats, they wish to operate in the dark" (Twentieth Century magazine, Volume 18, 1964). Those firmly supporting him included Sydney philosopher David Malet Armstrong, who called Knopfelmacher "a man fatally ahead of his time by a few years. A short time afterwards academic rebels were saying pretty much anything they liked, how they liked, about their opponents. If anyone tried to censure them or impede their careers as a result of this, the shouts that their academic freedom had been violated were deafening. To Knopfelmacher, however ... Saki's saying applied: it is the first Christian martyr who gets the hungriest lion."
Association with right-wing figures
During the late 1960s Knopfelmacher (still lecturing at Melbourne University) became de facto academic leader of those – usually associated with the Santamaria-controlled Peace With Freedom group – who favoured continuing Australian military involvement in the Vietnam War. He became a strong proponent of controversial drive for Australian conscription, and the method of conscription by lottery.
When the last Australian troops came home in 1972, Knopfelmacher's long-standing intellectual unpredictability became more pronounced. He turned vehemently against Santamaria; in The Age on 7 April 1984, he likened Santamaria's treatment of trade-union opponents to Joseph Stalin's treatment of Trotskyists. The previous year (Quadrant, October 1983) he had directed some of his most sarcastic prose against Santamaria's supporters among conservative Catholic activists.
Nor did his self-contradictions end there. In 1977 he had proclaimed (via an article in the short-lived Sydney magazine Nation Review) that "Australia is a deeply racist nation", and lauded Indo-Chinese refugee arrivals, viewing their acceptance by the immigration authorities as a debt of honour which Australia owed to its defeated allies. Within five years he executed a complete volte-face: condemning multiculturalism in sharp terms, calling it an "ethnic cauldron" (The Bulletin, 24 March 1981) and "a banana republic of squabbling and mutually resentful expatriated mini-cultures, each with its own special bunch of ethnic ... führers" (Robert Manne [ed.], The New Conservatism in Australia, St Lucia, Queensland, 1982). From 1979 he denounced (notably in letters to Britain's Encounter magazine) John Bennett, secretary of the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties, for disseminating Holocaust denial literature. Yet by 1989 he was exchanging vituperation with those Jews in public life who publicly advocated a national war crimes statute
For all his admiration of Koestler and George Orwell, Knopfelmacher wrote far less than either man: his hardcover bibliography amounted to one 1968 reflection, Intellectuals and Politics. (A promised full-length memoir remains in manuscript, though a brief account of his political education appeared in the 1981 anthology Twenty-Five Years of 'Quadrant'.) His protracted, usually free-wheeling, invariably slanderous late-night telephone monologues – visited alike upon associates and, more often, antagonists – retained a mythic status for decades among Australian intellectuals, not least by their superabundant four-letter words, which evoked the heyday of Kenneth Tynan and Berkeley's Filthy Speech Movement. (These monologues, if attempted today, would now be actionable under the State of Victoria's anti-stalking laws.)
Having in his old age revived his long-defunct friendship with Santamaria (who from the early 1990s deliberately sought reconciliations with ex-Cabinet Minister Clyde Cameron and other erstwhile foes), Knopfelmacher died after incurring severe injuries in a road accident following a meeting with Václav Havel. Obituarists likened him to Primo Levi and to Dr. Johnson.
His first wife – fellow refugee Jarmila "Jacka" Pick, whom he had married in 1944 – succumbed in 1968 to an especially cruel and protracted form of multiple sclerosis. In 1970 Knopfelmacher wed Australian teacher Susan Robinson; the couple had two children.