Obituary for Emeritus Professor John Milfull

29 Nov 2016

John Rowland Milfull was born in Sydney on 24 April 1940. He attended SHORE, where his father was a teacher of mathematics, and studied arts at Sydney University, majoring in German and music and graduating with First Class Honours. After a year in Munich, he completed his PhD in German Literature and promptly began an academic career as lecturer at UNSW at the age of twenty-five.

Following an accelerated promotion to Senior Lecturer, he was appointed Foundation Professor and Head of the School of German in 1972. The ambitious professor, one of the youngest ever appointed at that time in Australia, was determined to make a mark in his profession, and one way of achieving his goal was to create a team of like-minded teachers and researchers.

In 1976, Milfull succeeded in convincing the university administration to ‘import’ three full-time lecturers from Germany. These strategic appointments were part of a reform agenda designed to modernise a foreign language department’s curriculum. A new curriculum was designed, featuring subjects dealing with history, social sciences and politics, film and media.

Long before cultural studies became common in literature departments of English-speaking countries, it was practiced at UNSW. A close alliance was forged with the Department of German at Monash University, the only department where a similar reform took place initiated by Professor Leslie Bodi, a migrant from Budapest and student of Georg Lukacs.

German Studies at UNSW soon attracted international attention. Prominent scholars from Europe and the US came as visiting professors. Annual interdisciplinary symposia alternating between UNSW and Monash likewise attracted leading academics from around the world.

In 1984, Milfull was appointed Dean of Arts and Social Sciences, a position he held for nine years. During this time of reduced government funding and increasing globalisation, dwindling enrolments in European languages along with Australia’s turn towards Asia were some of the factors that caused a re-thinking of the structure and goals of the faculty.

One outcome was the establishment of a degree program in European Studies to which Milfull devoted his considerable energies. He founded a Centre for European Studies and remained its director until his retirement in 2006. Apart from a brief secondment as Acting Dean to the University of Adelaide, John Milfull spent all his working life – 41 years – at UNSW’s Kensington Campus.

Milfull’s pioneering commitment to Jewish Studies deserves a special mention. He introduced Holocaust Studies and subjects on the history of German-Jewish relations in tertiary teaching and research. As a non-Jew and confirmed disbeliever, he joined the debates on the so-called “German-Jewish symbiosis” and the destruction of European Jewry.

As historian and scholar of German culture, he was keenly interested in Germans’ post-war efforts to ‘master’ or ‘come to terms with’ the Nazi past. His lectures and publications, especially his essays on the work of Jewish authors such as Kafka, Lion Feuchtwanger and Walter Benjamin, reveal a special affinity to those European intellectuals who he classified as ‘dual outsiders’ in society, a position with which he strongly identified.

Milfull published on a wide range of topics, from music (the ‘sexual politics’ in Mozart’s Zauberflöte) to classical and modern literature (Goethe, Brecht), and German-Jewish history (“The Attractions of Fascism’). His favourite mode of expression was the short essay where he frequently presented his personal views with passionate conviction. He was also an accomplished musician who occasionally performed at private concert functions, playing the flute and singing Lieder from the repertoire of German romanticism. As an encore, he would not hesitate to offer his version of Brecht/Weill’s ‘Mack the Knife’.

In the good old days of the 70s, he longed for the nightly, often heated debates with colleagues on literature and politics, leaving behind overcrowded ashtrays and empty flagons. He possessed the remarkable ability to resume his workaholic routine in the morning clear-headed. When he vacated his office upon retirement, he called himself "John Evictus".

John Milfull passed away in Canberra on 6 November 2016 after a long illness, cared for by his family. He is survived by his wife Dr. Helen Milfull and their daughters Katrine and Alison.

(Gerhard Fischer, Bernd Hüppauf, Konrad Kwiet)