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Knopfelmacher, Frank (1923–1995)

by Norman Abjorensen

The insular Australia of the 1950s was not ready for the intellectually uncompromising figure of Frank Knopfelmacher, who died on Wednesday, aged 72.

Knopfelmacher emerged straight out of the heady and brooding ferment of post-war Europe as a man whose ideas had been shaped by the Nazi horror and the communist terror.

He quickly became known as Austria's most prominent anti-communist.

The derivative intellectual climate in which he found himself in his adopted land was one still basking in the rosy glow of post-war reconstruction socialism and the perception of the mass murderer Stalin as benign Uncle Joe.

There were few powerful voices on the academic non-left, and Dr Knopfelmacher was not slow to fill the void, quickly clashing with his superiors at Melbourne University whom he accused, not entirely without justification, of being fellow travellers.

As he put it last year: "Now, when I came to the university here, I found that life in the flesh and the management of the university was — and I was a bit of an expert on this — controlled by the Soviets, the local party officials. Well, I had either to piss off or stay and fight."

The only other comparable figure on the political right was Bob Santamaria who said of Knopfelmacher in 1988: "He changed and deepened my understanding of politics ... what changed was not merely an intellectual conviction, but a course of practical action."

When he was denied an academic appointment at Sydney University, it became a cause celebre, debated in parliament and the press.

To the end of his teaching days, he was denied the chair which he so fervently desired, retiring as Reader in Psychology at Melbourne University in 1988.

However, it was in other areas that he was to make his mark, determined to spread the word that communism was another form of totalitarian terror, and he lectured and wrote widely.

To be a friend of Frank Knopfelmacher was an unusual and often gruelling experience; few, it seemed, could stay the distance.

Not only did he have a mind that had to question everything, but he assumed that most people lived and thought as he did. So, at whatever hour of the day or night he read something that he found interesting, he would be moved to share it by telephone.

"Hello, this is Frank," he would drawl in that thick Czech accent that never thinned, launching without pause into whatever it was that was on his mind. It was often a monologue, but always a most enlightening and entertaining one.

Knopfelmacher's fondness for hyperbole enraged both friend and foe alike, and when he held an opinion, he held it and defended it with unusual ferocity and bluntness.

A radio interviewer, for instance, was taken aback a few years ago when German reunification was announced and Knopfelmacher was called for a comment.

What will it mean?

"It will mean simply that the holocaust and everything else will happen all over again," came the response.

There was also droll humour, albeit of a very central European and Jewish acerbity.

A long-time feuding partner, Isi Leibler, decided to overlook differences and try to enlist the help of Knopfelmacher at the time when Israel appeared threatened by the Gulf War.

It was time, he said, for Jews to mobilise.

Knopfelmacher was unimpressed, commenting drily: "And who appointed you head of air command for North Caulfield?"

He lived in a state of permanent polemic: retirement from academic life meant only that he could devote himself entirely to argument which he did with a passion.

An indefatigable book reviewer, he would also engage simultaneously in all sorts of written debates all over the place, both here and overseas.

His house was full of books, articles and letters — all with the appearance of being read simultaneously. I once went into his kitchen in search of a glass and books, all flagged and marked, tumbled from the glass cupboard; in the sink, where I attempted to fill the glass, books and letters lay stacked in a heap.

Knopfelmacher applied stern tests to people, especially friends. They were tests that constantly probed at belief, intellectual inclinations and cultural beliefs. It was wearing at best.

He was not for a moment a snob, but he stored great belief in cultural affinities, refusing, for instance, to take Paul Keating seriously because he had never outgrown a passion for the music of Mahler.

One of the issues that split him from fellow Jews was his reservation about multiculturalism, describing it as a racket, an industry scrambling for government grants.

He added: "I don't think it matters what sort of person comes to Australia, just so long as they are prepared to become Australians."

His last months, while suffering from worsening diabetes and complications from a car accident, were spent dictating his memoirs into a tape recorder.

It is to be hoped they find a publisher.

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Citation details

Norman Abjorensen, 'Knopfelmacher, Frank (1923–1995)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/knopfelmacher-frank-29637/text37066, accessed 16 December 2019.

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