My dear friend and colleague Peter Meusburger died early on Monday morning.
It was Peter who invited me to give the first Hettner Lecture in Heidelberg in 1997. He met me at the airport in Frankfurt – a typically kind and thoughtful gesture – and we talked non-stop all the way down to Heidelberg, including a 90-minute wait while a crash on the Autobahn was cleared: we barely noticed the delay. He had arranged a whirlwind programme, including a two-day seminar with graduate students from all over Germany, but with lots of time for informal walks and talks in the exquisite grounds of the Villa Bosch and elsewhere in the Neckar Valley. At the end of my visit we were sitting with colleagues in the garden of one of Peter’s favourite inns in Handschuhsheim, when he asked me for my impressions. He knew I’d never been to Germany before – I’d studied German in grammar school in the 1960s for three years, but my teacher had been a captain in the Tank Regiment during the war and when he shared photographs of German cities with us all you could see were piles of rubble (really)… So I said I had been surprised by the lively informality of the whole event; I was still feeding on a diet of Jürgen Habermas, and it was this as much as anything that had prompted me to expect a much more abstract and, above all, I suppose hierarchical discussion. Instead of which the whole week had been a series of wonderfully engaging conversations and debates. As Peter pressed me for more, I recalled a remark of Heine – to the effect that when the world is falling apart, one should never worry because there would always be a German professor to put it back together again – another reference to Habermas’s architectonic schemes. The more I elaborated my idiotically stereotypical view of German intellectual culture, the more Peter and his colleagues roared with laughter, until eventually even I realised I was missing something; wiping away his tears, Peter managed to say “We’re all Austrian…”
During the week I had come to know the old city of Heidelberg well, and every day I had passed an antiquarian bookshop. At the very back of the shop I had found an English guidebook to Egypt, and every day I had debated with myself about buying it – at that time I was working on cultures of European and American travel to Egypt in the long nineteenth century from 1798 to 1914, a supplement to Edward Said‘s commentaries in Orientalism – and the issue was not so much getting the volume through Canada Customs as getting it past Angela’s scrutiny when I got home. Eventually I had persuaded myself that I could afford both the price and the risk, but when I returned the book had gone. I hadn’t mentioned it to anyone, but that evening in Handschuhsheim Peter handed me a gift to thank me for my visit. When I unwrapped it, I found that Egyptian guidebook.
That story is typical of not only of Peter’s kindness but also his attentiveness to people. I have no idea how long he had searched for the perfect gift, but – as always – he found it. He was one of the most generous, humane and modest scholars I’ve ever known – always keenly interested in ideas and their implications, and ever concerned to promote the work of everyone but himself.
He invited me back to Heidelberg on multiple occasions – one of them to receive an honorary degree, which I treasure – and these subsequent visits were directly responsible for provoking two of the biggest changes to my research in recent years: the work on bombing and more recently the work on the wounded body.
When Peter first invited me to take part in one of his “Knowledge and Space” symposia, I knew I had to do something new, and something special, for Peter: he was that kind of man. The subject of the meeting was “Cultural Memories”, about which I protested I knew next to nothing. But then, remembering those German cities reduced to piles of rubble, I recalled Heinrich Böll saying that when, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, he saw his ‘first undestroyed city’ he broke out into a cold sweat: it was Heidelberg. This prompted me to turn to W.G. Sebald, to A Natural History of Destruction, and to produce what eventually became “Doors into nowhere: Dead cities and the natural history of destruction” as a first attempt to understand the genealogy and geography of aerial violence.
That little word ‘eventually’ in that last sentence is a leitmotif of my work, as Peter knew very well. Two years later he invited me to another symposium in the series, on “Knowledge and Power”. This time my presentation returned to the Middle East, but to one peopled not with tourists and travellers but with soldiers and canons (as Said once put it). By the time it came to produce an essay for the edited volume, though, I wanted to do something completely different. Would that be OK? I asked Peter. His reply was immediate and encouraging, even though he knew it would take me even longer than usual to submit the essay. Again, the inspiration was literary: a quotation from William Boyd‘s An Ice-Cream War:
Gabriel thought maps should be banned. They gave the world an order and reasonableness it didn’t possess.
This prompted me to return to the skies, but this time to the reconnaissance missions flown over the Western Front to produce the aerial photographs that were the basis for the trench maps of the First World War… and then to juxtapose this planar, bird’s eye view with the corporeal, glutinous slimescape through which troops on the ground struggled and died. The result was “Gabriel’s Map: Cartography and corpography in modern war”, which set me off on what is a continuing exploration of bodies in conflict.
I’m certain that neither of these essays, let alone the projects they launched, would have happened had it not been for Peter. He was always immensely supportive (not only in my research but in my responses to the serial inquisitions from his technical editor; that was no small thing – they prompted a besieged Steve Legg to flee to India on one occasion; I never had to do that, but it was a close call: in “Doors into nowhere” I had referred to urbicide, and noted its origins in the Bosnian conflict, only to be asked for a reference in the original Bosnian….).
For all of those seminars and symposia Peter gathered together an eclectic mix of scholars from all fields, most of them geographers but always with some inspired and inspiring additions from left field who often made the most creative contributions of all (my favourite, and I suspect Peter’s too, was Stefan Paul‘s ‘Telling the future: reflections on the status of divination in Ancient Near Easterm politics’, by turns achingly funny and stunningly serious, a tour de force of sustained scholarship and perfect performance). Peter understood better than anyone that creative scholarship is also always irredeemably social: that it thrives on the trust that makes risk-taking possible, and on the good humour that enables genuine debate. That too was one of his most precious gifts.
Peter’s love for Heidelberg, the University, his colleagues – and above all his family – shone through everything he did. One of our last conversations was about his plans for “retirement” (which would always be in scare-quotes where Peter was concerned; not because he was scared of it at all, but because it obviously was never going to happen) and his plans for remodelling the family home in his beloved Austria.
One of the very good things about the academic life, even in these increasingly neo-liberal corporations in which we labour, is the capacity to make lasting friendships around the world. Whenever I met Peter we resumed our last conversation; I can still hear his voice, see that twinkle in his eye, find myself grinning at that smile on his face. I shall miss his generosity of spirit, his restless intellect – but above all his friendship.
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Peter spent a semester at Clark University, and attended my seminar, where we discussed Foucault, knowledge, power and academia. And a few years ago I participated in a Knowledge and Space event in Heidelberg. On both occasions he was a generous, thoughtful, , intellectual human being. My condolencies and best wishes.