In Memoriam: Karl Peter 1924 to 1998

Article excerpt

Karl Andreas Peter, one of the principal Canadian specialists on Hutterite society and culture, was the first recipient of a doctorate specifically in sociology from the University of Alberta, in Edmonton.

Karl was born in Germany in 1924, the only son of a socialist entrepreneur who later was imprisoned by the Nazis. He was attending a teacher's college when political conditions forced him into the German Army before his education could be completed. He served as an officer on the Russian front under horrific conditions that he would occasionally recall for the rest of his life. When the war was over, he initially became a coal miner before settling into a journalistic career. He had married Franziska Kolf, the daughter of a prosperous merchant from Julich, on the last day of the war. Their family grew over the subsequent few years to include two much welcomed daughters. During these post-war years, Karl gradualy began the study of European modern history which continued throughout his life. He moved with his family to Canada at a time when only agricultural work was available to such immigrants, and his months on Saskatchewan farms formed another experience which influenced his social understanding. He finally settled in Alberta where he became the editor of a German-language newspaper. His wife had already had similar editorial experience, and in the late 1950's her continuing economic support enabled him to enrol at the University of Alberta, where he took his B.A., M.A. and finally, Ph.D. in sociology.

His interest in social issues first led to his specialization in sociology, and later to his developing an interest in the communal life of the Hutterites, who were to be found dotted in collectives across the Canadian prairies. From the beginning of his graduate work he began a pattern of visiting Hutterite colonies. His own willingness to listen increased the rapport that he developed with Hutterite leaders at the local level. These leaders, who were also prominent preachers, doubtless came to respect their German-speaking visitor. Although he did not share their religious beliefs, he was able to penetrate into that tightly knit and somewhat reserved society. Hutterites have in general avoided proselytizing, but it is certain that in the early years of his work he was able to gain many insights into their values and social behaviour.

Karl had been greatly influenced by the general system theory of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, which was his first initial intellectual allegiance. Later he became an admirer of Pitrim A. Sorokin, one of whose letters was a framed adornment of his study. Later still he became intrigued by early sociobiology, especially that of E.O. Wilson, although he never espoused the more extreme positions of that group.

His first appointment in 1967 was at the University of Waterloo where he spent his first post-doctoral year. In 1968, he joined the Educational Foundations Centre, an experimental department at Simon Fraser University dedicated to examining the social and philosophical foundations of education. At this time he became a friend of Ernest Becker, whose own eclectic training in anthropology and psychology led to a series of stimulating books culminating in The Denial of Death (for which he received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize). When invited to join the PSA department at SFU -- itself another cross-disciplinary amalgam of political scientists, sociologists and anthropologists -- Becker stipulated that Karl Peter should also be recruited.

Karl remained with that department for many years. It became the base which enabled him to continue in Hutterite studies. The nearest colonies were in eastern Washington State, and every year he would spend some time among them.

These experiences led to many articles, starting with a 1963 graduate student publication, and developing into chapters in symposia on Canadian society and institutions. Another colleague, the writer of this obituary joined him as co-author of several articles, but Karl Peter determined the main direction in these writings. …