RED, RED ROSE
Anthropologist, communist, informer. Fred Rose made his own choices, as a new biography makes clear, writes Nicolas Rothwell
The grainy, off-kilter photo tells its tale: two men caught in conversation, one goatee-bearded, wearing a hat, hands thrust deep into his jacket pockets, the other clutching a full leather briefcase. It is a surveillance image taken on April 5, 1962 by an undercover ASIO operative at Ellery Crescent on the campus of the Australian National University.
The first of the pair is instantly recognisable — the historian Manning Clark. And the second, the target of the spy agency’s attentions? Fred Rose, the notorious “red professor” of anthropology, a pioneer of remote-area Aboriginal field studies, a committed communist, a man whose complex path in life bore witness to the ideological wars of the mid-20th century.
Rose has been effectively written out of the intellectual history of Australia despite the emblematic nature of his fate. The anthropological establishment preserves practically no memory of his pioneering work on Groote Eylandt in the 1930s; the radical intelligentsia whose circles he once frequented have long since moved on from the concerns that shaped his life.
There is a reason for this neglect, a single, alldominating reason: the episode that lies at the heart of the subtle new biography of Rose by Flinders University history academics Valerie Munt and Peter Monteath. Rose was caught in the crosshairs of the 1954 Petrov royal commission, established in the wake of the sensational defection by an Australian-based Soviet intelligence officer at the height of the Cold War. Rose denied any involvement in espionage and maintained a lofty silence under questioning. Soon afterwards, his Australian prospects blighted, he moved to East Germany, achieved a measure of belated academic distinction and served for years as an active collaborator of the state security police.
This startling trajectory had a logic to it. Rose was shaped not only by his background but by the politics he absorbed: his map for understanding the forces at work in the world between the two great European wars. His social origins were modest. He grew up in “the smug oppressive atmosphere” of suburban outer London, went to Cambridge and came into contact with radical thought currents for the first time there. He met the young woman who would become his wife, Edith Linde, who was from a prominent, progressively inclined Berlin legal family. He fell under the influence of the octogenarian Alfred Cort Haddon, the pioneer of Torres Strait researches. He became an intellectual disciple of the Polish anthropological theorist Bronislaw Malinowski.
Rose longed to test these ideas in the field — in a new field: Australia. He made the long boat passage and arrived in Sydney on an overcast day in April 1937 with a suitcase and a secondhand trunk full of books and formal clothes. He went to see the pope of anthropology in Australia, AP Elkin, who dispatched him to observe Aboriginal life in La Perouse in southeastern Sydney. But Rose wanted the remote bush: he trained as a meteorologist and had himself posted to the north. Darwin was his transit point. It seemed charming at first, with its corrugated iron cottages and strange, stilt-mounted white bungalows, but soon the sweat and heat became oppressive and the true nature of the northern capital revealed itself to him: “Sin, sorrow, soreeyes, sand and syphilis.”
Rose spent his time frequenting the Aboriginal fringe camps and earned the hostility of the local white establishment. He found lodgings with the local stringer for Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph, who had gone troppo: from this landlord Rose inherited the task of proofing Capricornia for Xavier Herbert. The time came to head for his post at Emerald River on Groote. He was 23 years old and on the anthropological frontline at last. “With my rifle over my shoulder, case in either hand and my poplin suit, shoes and socks as a bundle under my arm, I struggled to the shore.” Rose’s seven months on Groote marked the beginning of two important friendships: with the Anindilyakwa people, whose familial structures he was able to record with great rigour; and with the swashbuckling white king of the mission settlement, Fred Gray.
The anthropology Rose embarked on at Emerald River was the foundation of all his later work and it retains a certain austere force today, as do the various memoirs and reminiscences he devoted to those first days in the remote indigenous north. On, next, to Broome and a new stage in his political journey. His son Kim, named for the Kimberley, was born there. He fell in with a doctor named Alec Jolly, who had a taste for Marxist thought. They worked together and wrote papers together. Their views were plain enough: policy towards Aboriginal people should be shaped, they felt, by anthropologists, not by “untrained missionaries or policemen, whose objects are almost invariably diametrically opposed to the wellbeing of the aboriginal: the one attempting to graft worthless forms of Christianity on to the shattered beliefs of the aboriginal, the other to enforce the white man’s law”.
By the time World War II was reaching its crescendo Rose had been shifted by the weather service once again, to Perth. He saw the conflict in stark fashion. He had spent time in Nazi Germany in his student years. He knew the Third Reich at first hand. The Red Army had just turned back the Wehrmacht at the gates of Mos- cow. For a man of Rose’s leanings, it seemed increasingly plain that the Soviet Union was morally and socially superior to the West. He decided to join the Communist Party of Australia. “It became his bedrock,” his biographers write. “He would build his world on it.”
Rose tried for positions in academic anthropology in Australia, but was blocked — by Elkin, he suspected. Instead, he took up a series of public service jobs in Canberra in the postwar reconstruction bureaucracy. This brought him back into contact with the Top End. He was able to return briefly to Groote in support of the landmark American-Australian Scientific Expedition, whose leader, Charles Pearcy Mountford, wrote him out of the record.
By now, Rose was developing a double life: principal research officer in the Department of External Territories by day, CPA expert on Aborigines by night. His Canberra home was a hive of radical networking. Nothing illegal in that, since the ban on communist politics had been rescinded; but a new shadow was hanging over leftist sympathisers in the national capital.
From intercepted and decrypted Soviet telegrams it was clear to US intelligence that there was a leak in the Australian Department of External Affairs. Classified documents were being passed to the Soviet legation. The evidence against a handful of departmental staff was compelling, but was Rose a member of their ring? He came under scrutiny. Attitudes to communism were hardening once more. Robert Menzies narrowly failed in a bid to secure by referendum the power to ban the CPA. Security screening also intensified. Rose was in line for a new post that would have made him the senior public servant in charge of the Northern Territory’s Rum Jungle uranium deposit. ASIO was called in, and hit on a way of easing Rose out: his job would simply be made redundant.
A hinge point in his life now loomed. He left A young Fred Rose, left, photographed by his wife Edith; Rose with Manning Clark caught on camera by ASIO, above; Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov, right the public service, moved away from his wife and children and set up with a new companion as a dairy farmer on King Island in Bass Strait. Then, on April 4, 1954, Vladimir Petrov, ostensibly the third secretary at the Soviet embassy in Canberra, in fact a senior intelligence officer, defected to the West, bringing with him cipher codes and guides to agent networks around the world.
That July, Rose was called before the royal commission held to probe Petrov’s leads. Monteath and Munt cover the events around the commission in forensic detail: “Fred Rose had little more than a cameo role,” they write, “but it would be enough to besmirch his name forever.”
The biographers tend to accept Rose’s account of his political activities and convictions at that time. They view him as a believing CPA member who refrained from espionage, who knew he had no aptitude for the cloak-and-dagger aspects of clandestine work. Other accounts of the Petrov saga have tended to the view that Rose may have served as a “contact point” between active agents in External Affairs and their Soviet handlers.
The royal commission report was inconclusive. There was no firm evidence that could be presented against Rose, and even in the secret intercepts of Soviet cable traffic there were only vague hints at an unidentified agent listed as “professor” — a cover name in code. But Rose’s stonewalling performance at the commission’s hearings did him no good. The report described him as “one of the most unsatisfactory witnesses called before us” and his evidence as “full of prevarications and evasions”. After this there was no prospect of an academic career in anthropology for him in Australian universities. Rose went to work on the Sydney waterfront.
In 1956 he made the extraordinary decision to leave Australia, rejoin his wife in Europe and reunite his family. He would start afresh in East Berlin, capital of the German Democratic Re-