Red Professor, the cold war life of Fred Rose

Red Professor

The cold war life of Fred Rose

Red Professor
The cold war life of Fred Rose

Peter Monteath
Valerie Munt


This fascinating book traces the life of Frederick Rose, his passion for anthropology, communism and the treatment of Aborigines. No matter the cost to his family, his career or his life, he would live and die with them. Born on 22 March 1915 in England it soon became clear that he possessed a considerable intellect and was not shy of speaking his mind.

He was witty, erudite and energetic. What he, or his parents, did not possess was money. After finally gaining a scholarship he started his studies in October 1933 at Cambridge University. He studied science and mathematics but also developed a taste for geology, rugby, cigars, politics and women.

His first holidays in 1934 were spend cycling in Europe and he was in Germany during the infamous Night of the long Knives. By 1935 he got to know German born Edith Linde and was seeing her regularly. After gaining only second class honours for his geology he turned to anthropology with a special interest in Australia and the Australian Aborigines. After graduating he left Cambridge in 1936 and worked for the Telegraph Construction Company to save money for a one-way ticket to Australia. He left London on 7 January and arrived in Sydney in April 1937.

To improve his chances for a job up north he commenced studying meteorology in Melbourne and indeed was posted to Darwin in September. With a population of just 2000 the town was said to be a place of sin, sorrow, sore-eyes, sand and syphilis. His girlfriend Edith arrived from Germany in 1938. After some months in Darwin Rose was posted to Groote Eylandt to take control of the Meteorological Office. In his spare time Rose hoped to do fieldwork in a region where white civilisation had not yet made its mark.

Once on the island, he was able to do lots of fieldwork. There was also a reunion with Edith and Fred decided to take a job as meteorological officer at Broome. Fred and Edith were married in Perth on 3 March 1939. In April 1940 Edith left Broome for the University of Sydney to study tropical medicine and languages, topics which would complement Fred’s anthropological interests.

In 1941 they had a son and named him Kim, after the Kimberleys. Eventually they were to have four children. During that year he made his views about Missions and missionaries, and the work they did among Aborigines, clear to the editor of the local newspaper. After another fieldtrip to Groote he wrote a 400 page report for publication, which was rejected. While in Perth he joined the Communist Party of Australia. His sponsor was Katherine Prichard, author and founding member of the CPA in 1920. More than any other injustice, it was the abuse of Aborigines which made him join this party.

When the Second World War was finished Rose tried a change of career. This time it had to be academic anthropology. He applied for a research fellowship at the Australian National University but was knocked back on ‘ideological grounds’. This was followed by many others rejections. However he was successful in gaining an appointment as Senior Research Officer in the Regional Planning Division of the Department of Post-War Reconstruction.

During the next few years he was a dedicated Canberra Public Servant ensuring the smooth running of the country. Public servant or not, he remained also a dedicated Communist itching to get back to anthropological fieldwork and Groote Eylandt. His chance came in 1948 when he was able to join Mountford’s expedition to Northern Australia, which was largely financed by the American Smithsonian Institute, the National Geographical Society and the Australian Government.

The then Labor government saw great public relations potential in the showcase of United States-Australian collaboration. Rose had a great influence in the expedition’s planning and ultimate success. A start was made at Groote and Rose was one of the first to arrive and start the work. When the official expedition’s account was published though, his name was almost completely absent from its pages.

With the Cold War and the leakage of intelligence through Australian hands to the Soviets, ASIO was established on 16 March 1949. Naturally all members of the CPA were watched, including Fred Rose. ASIO’s director was Charles Spry who attempted to rid Australia of the Communist scourge with a passion ‘that bordered on paranoia’. When Rose applied in 1951 for a job as an anthropologist in Papua New Guinea his application was rejected as he might be a security risk. ASIO tried hard to establish that he was spying for the Soviets but was never able to do so.

Having endured years of harassment and pushing by ASIO Rose was transferred to the Bureau of Census which it hoped he would reject. Rose did and decided to become a farmer. He took his accumulated long service and other leave and with the help of friends bought a property on King Island in Bass Strait. On 28 March 1954 he resigned and officially became a farmer leaving ASIO wondering what this was all about and what would happen next.

When the Petrovs defected, ASIO’s interest in Rose became even more noticeable. Rose was well aware of it and wrote to his wife and daughters, who were on a visit to Germany to remain there for the time being. For the next 18 months it was hard labour, first on the farm, which was not a success, and then as a member of the Waterside Workers Federation as a warfie. All of it strengthened his devotion to the Communist cause which could not and would not be shaken.

Finally in 1956 Rose was able to leave Australia and was reunited with his wife and daughters who were still 'on holidays in Germany'. His son Kim was in England finishing his education. This time Fred was successful in gaining an academic post at the Humboldt University of Berlin and in 1959 he became Professor Rose. When his thesis on the Australian Aborigines was published it attracted world-wide attention. Sadly for Rose, Australia, who could have benefitted from it most, ignored it.

Although his German language skills were rather poor, he proved to be an excellent teacher and was liked and respected by his students. He was soon recognised as the expert on Australia and Australian Aborigines. In 1962 he was back in Australia for more research and fieldwork. Unfortunately Professor Rose was still persona non grata to the Menzies government which relied heavily on the views of ASIO.

His plans came to nought due to ASIO’s interference and the non-cooperation of most government departments. Running out of time and money Rose decided to conduct his work not on government land but from private property. The place decided on was Angas Downs. His work gave him insights into the struggles faced by Aborigines as they adapted to a new economic order. That same year his book The wind of change in Central Australia was published, which recorded his findings and was supported with mountains of evidence. It was well received.

Back in East Berlin Rose was approached by the Stasi, East German’s Secret Police, who would like as much information about the West as possible. Rose still had his English passport and was able to travel on both sides of the wall. He willingly cooperated and became an official informer. During his many meetings with Stasi he informed them on anything and everything they might have been interested in. This included his friends and even his own wife and children.

In 1965 he again visited Australia, this time to investigate the Aborigines’ struggle for emancipation and equality. He made sure everyone knew about his visit and even staged a formal conference in the Sydney office of the CPA. It was largely attended, including the media and naturally ASIO. He made it quite clear that Australia did not stand very high in world opinion because of her unjust treatment of Aborigines.

Wherever he went ASIO was not far behind. As part of his fact-finding mission he travelled far and wide and even managed to get a permit to visit Groote. In his spare time he called on many of his old friends in the CPA. The outcome of his research resulted in the publication of three books. Aborigines, Kangaroos and Jetliners in 1966, Australia Revisited; the Aboriginal story from Stone Age to Space Age in 1968 and The Aborigines of Australia; Society and Art in 1969.

During these busy years at the university, his travels, research, teaching and meetings with the Stasi he still found time to have a string of extra-marital relationships. In 1964 he had a son, Frederick, not by his wife Edith but with Petra Vogler. This was followed by a relationship with post graduate student in anthropology Hannah Middleton.

After several other encounters Rose proposed to Edith that they divorce, which was granted on 30 March 1976. Seven years later he again became a father of another Frederick. This time by Anna Wittman, some 45 years his junior. As late as 1989, at the age of 74, he had a 25 year old lover while still living with his former wife Edith.

By the late 1960s Rose became frustrated with the state of anthropology at Humboldt and in East Germany. According to Rose little headway had been made and anthropology was not being used as a weapon in the struggle against imperialism. At one stage he even threatened to return to Australia.

When Whitlam was elected Prime Minister of Australia Rose hoped for big changes, especially in Aboriginal Affairs. He visited Australia twice during the Whitlam years. Rose got all he ever had wanted when he was appointed to the Leipzig Museum as a researcher. A position answerable to no-one.

When the Berlin Wall finally came down it was difficult for Rose to fathom. Having devoted his life to the Communist cause since 1942 he could at best observe the many changes with alarm. He would play little part in the changes but still remained a dedicated communist to the end. His health though declined rapidly and he died on 14 January 1991.

Authors Monteath and Munt have researched and documented this most unusual man from records gathered from around the world which has resulted in a remarkably informative and at the same time easy to read biography. To quote Humphrey McQueen ‘The result is unputdownable for its sweep of events while causing us to reflect on how someone can be heroic and horrendous, appalling and admirable’. Everyone interested in recent world and Australian history should have a copy.

Review by Nic Klaassen

Red Professor by Peter Monteath and Valerie Munt,
PB, 374 pp, with extensive notes, bibliography,
index and photographs, is available at $39.95, from
Wakefield Press

Telephone 08 8352 4455


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