Knopfelmacher: On the Right Side

In 1938, Neville Chamberlain described Hitler’s demands on the Sudetenland as: “A quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know little.” After taking the Sudetenland in 1938, Nazi Germany took the rest of Czechoslovakia in 1939. In 1944 Czechoslovakia was liberated, principally by the Red Army. In 1948 there was a communist takeover of government backed by the Soviets. In 1968, Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring of Alexander Dubcek. Not until the Velvet Revolution of 1989 did the long domination of Czech affairs by the Soviets and communists come to an end when the Eastern Bloc and ultimately communism collapsed.

If ever there were laboratory conditions to study the effects of totalitarianism it was Czechoslovakia. Frank Knopfelmacher (born in 1923) was on hand to witness the pivotal events of 1938 and 1948. And through him and other Czech emigres we in Australia came to know quite a bit about that faraway country, and quite a bit about the nature of communism.

Knopfelmacher was a Marxist when the Nazis came in. He got out to Palestine. He joined the Czech Army in the Middle East, saw action in North Africa and France. He lost his faith in Marxism. He went back to study in Prague after the war:

I still remember the shudder which I felt on seeing mongoloid, pock-marked, gun-toting red Army men—bandy legged, short and wiry—walking against the background of the St Nicholas Church in Prague, one of the treasures of the Czech baroque. The Russians were by that time as hated by the general population as the Germans.

Knopfelmacher got out again, this time to the UK. After completing his higher education, including a doctorate, he migrated to Australia and took up an academic post at the University of Melbourne in 1955.

The book that shattered the last of Knopfelmacher’s Marxist illusions was Darkness at Noon, written by Arthur Koestler in 1940. Koestler had been a Marxist and a propagandist for the Comintern. He compared his Marxist illusion to the biblical story of Jacob, who tried to win the beautiful Rachel as his wife from the hand of her father Laban. Laban cheated him by delivering her sister Leah instead. Said Koestler in The God That Failed (1949):

I served the Communist Party for seven years—the same length of time as Jacob tended Laban’s sheep to win Rachel his daughter. When the time was up, the bride was led into his dark tent; only the next morning did he discover that his ardours had been spent not on the lovely Rachel but on the ugly Leah. I wonder whether he ever recovered from the shock of having slept with an illusion.

The ex-communists with their illusions shattered, who had seen first-hand and sometimes participated in the ruthless, lying nature of the enterprise, always became the strongest anti-communists. Whittaker Chambers, nemesis of Alger Hiss, claimed the final battle would be between communists and ex-communists, as they were the only ones who truly understood the evil of the ideology.

People like Knopfelmacher, who had lived under both Big Moustache and Little Moustache (as Solzhenitsyn called them) and knew first-hand that those dictators had more in common than their claimed differences, felt a duty to rouse a flabby population to appreciate and defend their freedom. And in this regard Frank had significant impact on a generation in Australia.

In his entry for Frank Knopfelmacher in the Australian Dictionary of Biography in 2020, Robert Manne wrote:

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 historian and public intellectual Robert Manne.

So how did I come across Frank? Or more to the point, how did he come across me?

I was not a student in his courses. I was not even a student at his university. But in late 1976 I was elected the head of the Student Association at Monash University when we defeated the Left and various student communist groups which had controlled things from the days of Albert Langer.

These were the days before mobile phones. If you wanted to ring someone you rang them on a hard-wired phone at home. I was still living at home, and one night my mother took a call. She said there was a very peculiar man on the phone asking for me and saying I would know who he was. My poor mother. I don’t know what she thought I was getting into.

“Is Frank here,” said a voice in a strong Central European accent when I got to the phone. “You should see me in my office next Tuesday a two o’clock.” And then he hung up! Maybe he thought someone was listening in. I assumed this was tradecraft.

And so I attended his office at the appointed time and place, not knowing what to expect. He was a Jewish exile from Central Europe, I was a Protestant from Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. He was a tenured academic, I was a callow undergraduate. He had no reason to take an interest in me. But I realised the pro-communist Left was bad and was all about stifling contrary opinions, and I think he decided I had prospects—with a little bit of finishing-school education from him.

To me, Knopfelmacher was quite exotic. I had never before come across an academic quite like him. But he took an interest in undergraduates. You can see that from the essay in this volume, “The Situation at the University of Melbourne” (1964). It has internecine detail on faculty and undergraduate disputes of the time. In retrospect it was way too much. It was this article that was used against him when he was vetoed by the professorial board at Sydney University after being recommended for a lectureship in the Philosophy Department.

Over the years, I had many conversations, meals and meetings with him. What made him especially entertaining was his witticisms. To this day I can remember some of his jokes.

Karl Marx is buried in London in Highgate Cemetery. So too is Herbert Spencer, the Victorian philosopher and biologist widely credited with the theory of Social Darwinism. “You should see them,” he said, “Marx and Spencer.”

There are zingers woven into all the articles published in this book. Writing on “America the Bad Society” he says:

My own initial (wrong) theory was that Kissinger … was a Nixon variant of a Kennedy type of “dancing professor” whose main function was to keep the troublesome liberal professors happy by showing them that even under the presidency of the hated “Hiss killer” one can “make it”.

“Hiss-killer”! What a way to describe Nixon! But it was a searingly accurate description of the way the liberal academy viewed him. He goes on to describe Kissinger’s sidelining of the State Department as “perhaps the one and only development inside America in recent years from which her allies may derive some comfort”.

In another article, he remarks that a strict socialist kibbutz in Palestine “made Calvinism appear a doctrine for rakes”.

Knopfelmacher’s great cause was to warn and rouse opinion against communism and its fellow travellers, particularly in the Australian universities. It is important to understand this as a historical event. It is also important to understand that the “Long March through the Institutions” by people hostile to liberal democracy and individual freedom has been going on for generations. These days the activists don’t talk about the class war and the proletariat, they masquerade under Extinction Rebellion banners, anti-colonialist banners, Antifa banners, although ultimately their quarrel is with the market-based economy and Western democracy.

At the moment the issue galvanising the Left is Gaza and Palestine with the slogan demand: “From the river to the sea”. Knopfelmacher was not really a Zionist, but he anticipated that the establishment and defence of Israel would change everything for Jews. In his essay in this book, after the Six-Day War of 1967, titled “The Consequences of Israel”, he writes:

In losing their status as victims, as objects of patronizing generosity, the Jews will lose their status as pets of the left and of liberals … they have, furthermore, also committed the most unpardonable of crimes: they have won … There is nothing to be gained by Israel from the friendship of either the pro-Communist or the alienated left. The “hero” of Berkeley and the “hero” of the Sinai campaign are on different sides of the fence.

The “hero of Berkeley” he is talking about is the student Left. In Australian terms it is the students now camped out to “Free Palestine” on the front lawn at Sydney University. The pro-communist or alienated Left he is talking about, in Australia, is now encapsulated by the Greens political party. It is very clear that they and their associates are not friends of Israel.

At Frank’s funeral, B.A. Santamaria quoted the Gospel of John: “In my Father’s house are many rooms”. (I didn’t expect that. I don’t think Frank had much of an interest in the New Testament.) But Santamaria said that in one of those rooms he would love to continue to debate and engage in conversation with Frank. If I were to pass by—and if I could get a word in between the two of them—I would ask Frank what he makes of the current ruler of Russia—ex-KGB—and why it is that some on the American Right (such as Tucker Carlson and his ilk) have this admiration towards him. Have they learned nothing? Have they forgotten everything?

This is where you need the teachers who lived through totalitarianism to remind you of the past. It gives you a clearer way of looking at the present. That is the relevance of this book.

Selected Writings
by Frank Knopfelmacher, edited by Andrew Knopfelmacher

Connor Court, 2024, 280 pages, $34.95

The Hon. Peter Costello was Commonwealth Treasurer from 1996 to 2007. This is an edited version of the address he gave in Melbourne in April to launch Selected Writings

3 thoughts on “Knopfelmacher: On the Right Side

  • wdr says:

    Franta (as he was often known) was one of the best and most memorable conversationalists I have ever known. A great man, an asset to Australia, whose like may not be seen again.

    • Brian Boru says:

      Yes, I agree wdr. I was privileged to meet him and a couple of his Melbourne Uni ALP Club proteges at the Sydney Australian Congress for International Co-operation and Disarmament in 1964.
      I also got to meet Richard Krygier, James McAuley and many other anti-communists and journalists from diverse backgrounds. We worked to successfully
      and publicly show the Congress as a communist front. That time remains one of my great memories.

      • Sindri says:

        You got to meet the founders of Quadrant!
        I seem to recall that Dr Knopfelmacher had a weekly column in the leftie journal “Nation Review”, sort of “the view from the right”, that the readers could sneer and laugh at. They called him “Papa Knop”. What he wrote, of course, was eminent good sense, and he favoured words of one syllable where possible. He knew his audience’s attention span.
        Our former esteemed editor also wrote for that rather risible, but basically harmless journal. What a contrast to the bitter, intolerant publications of the hard left these days.

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