New Internationalist

OBITUARY

Issue 353

Arno Peters was not a cartographer. Yet he is best known, some would say notorious, for his creation of the Peters’ World Map.

Representing our globe on a flat piece of paper is a more complex enterprise than one might suppose, and one in some sense doomed to failure, since either true shape, true area or true distance will inevitably be lost. Most modern world maps are based on a projection created by the sixteenth-century cartographer Gerardus Mercator “for use in navigation”. However, there are obvious problems with Mercator; hold up a globe and you can see that Africa is significantly larger than North America, while on Mercator it appears to be the other way around. The reason is that, on Mercator, regions closer to the north and south poles appear proportionally larger than those near the equator.

In 1974, German historian Arno Peters produced an alternative projection, and while Mercator’s purpose was practical, Peters’ was political. Peters’ concern was that maps based on Mercator’s projection reinforced a Eurocentric view of the world. So in the Peters’ World Map, Africa and South America appear to have been stretched, while Europe and Australia have been shrunk to a fraction of their previous size. The down side of this “equal area” approach is that it distorts shape, leaving the countries of the world looking like “wet, ragged, long winter underwear hung out to dry,” as Professor Arthur Robinson of the University of Wisconsin described them.

The Peters’ World Map remains highly controversial. Many cartographers contend that Peters plagiarised an earlier map by the Reverend James Gall, published in 1855. In fact, Gall’s projection was slightly different to Peters’, and it was not until late in life that Peters became aware of it. At the time of its publication, some scholars resented Peters’ intrusion into a field in which he was not expert; others resisted the challenge to white western supremacy which the Peters’ Map came to represent. Peters did not engage with his more vitriolic critics, pleased that the map was provoking thought and debate about the way maps shape our view of the world.

Despite opposition, the Peters’ Map met with huge success and was adopted by the UN, aid agencies, schools, human resource professionals and corporate trainers around the world, selling more than 80 million copies worldwide so far. In the 1980s, Peters went on to publish the successful Peters’ Atlas of the World, the only atlas to show all land areas at the same scale.

What fewer people realise, is that the Peters’ World Map was itself a sequel to Peters’ earlier “Sychronoptic World History”, published in 1952. Noticing that in most histories of the world Europe got more attention than Africa, Asia and Latin America combined, Peters decided to create a history which gave equal weight to each century in human history and to each region. The information in the “Synchronoptic World History” is therefore arranged in tabular form with time running along the top and regions running down the side, so that the reader can see at a glance what was happening around the globe at any one time. Author Thomas Mann said of the work, “It provides a gripping, memorable picture of world history, designed to implant the ideals of peace, freedom and humanity in young people.”

Today, the idea of according all cultures equal importance is commonplace, but Peters grew up in a different moral climate - one in which the exploitation of other peoples was seen as a God-given right. Towards the end of the Second World War, his father was imprisoned by the Nazis in Bautzen for his support of Communism, and Arno Peters’ dialectical view of history led to accusations that he too was a Communist sympathiser. To protect him, nine high profile scholars founded the Institute for Universal History in Bremen, of which Peters was appointed head.

Peters’ other projects, which spanned economics, political theory, history, cartography, and even music, all sprang from his extraordinary sense of justice. This was complemented by a strong work ethic and a single-mindedness which often bordered on stubbornness: he refused high profile positions in favour of remaining a private scholar; despite losing the use of a leg after contracting polio at the age of 16, he walked without a stick, and even in his 80s swam 12 laps of his swimming pool every day; and he never wore glasses, maintaining until the end of his life both his 20/20 eyesight and his vision for a fairer world.

Arno Peters, historian, was born in Berlin on May 22, 1916, and died in Bremen on December 2, 2002, at the age of 86. Married three times, he is survived by his wife Marjenna and by seven children, four from his first marriage, one from his second, and two from his third.

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