“Purely in terms of sheer numbers of distributed copies, Peters’ world map may be the best known map in the world, excepting only the Mercator and possibly the Robinson.”

--Jeremy Crampton, in The Cartographic Journal

If the statement above is true – and we have no reason to doubt it – it’s a remarkable story. First published in Germany in 1974, the Peters map broke into the English-speaking world in 1983 and is now widely available also in French, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, and Danish editions. United Nations agencies, religious communities, international development and humanitarian service organizations are prominent among major users. It continues to make its mark in schools and universities. Not surprisingly, Arno Peters’ work has encountered heated opposition as well as enthusiastic welcome. To develop a fully informed perspective on the map, it becomes important to know the man.

Shaping a Character
Born in Berlin, Arno Peters came of age during Germany’s Nazi era. But other dynamics shaped him, notably his parents’ example of commitment to social justice. They were independent thinkers and activists; indeed, Bruno Peters, Arno’s father, was condemned to prison because he refused to conform to state totalitarianism. One of Arno Peters’ early memories, he stated during an interview in October 2001, was of a black professor from the United States being entertained in their home. The visitor, an author and activist in what we today might call the civil rights struggle or the liberation of the oppressed, left a lasting impression. This opening to a wider world, unusual in the Germany of that day, grew through other encounters that crossed the chasms of culture, race, and nationality. Together they tore at his loyalties. How could this 13-year old German youth accept the official dogma of Aryan superiority? How could he go along with popular put-downs of other peoples? How could he deny his own experience?

As World War II drew to a close, Arno Peters saw firsthand the terrifying and tragic results of prevailing attitudes, of false world-views that led some people to deny the inherent dignity of others. Moral outrage flamed within him; he determined to do what he could to reshape the world in a fairer, more equitable way.

Righting Wrongs: The Historical Record
Even before founding the Institute for Universal History, Peters brought together an international,
intercultural team of scholars to evaluate world history curricula. According to his analysis, these typically lacked balance and inclusiveness.

  • They concentrated on Western history, paying only scant attention to the rest of the world.
  • They weighted certain centuries heavily – mostly the recent ones – as if the accomplishments of other centuries didn't matter.
  • They still used terms like “Dark Ages,” seemingly unaware that the period they called dark was a time of great flowering of civilization beyond Europe’s shores.
  • “World” histories specialized in kings, political figures and battles to the virtual neglect of any deep understanding of cultural life or how the vast majority of ordinary people lived.

In short, the claim of mainstream historians to present a reliable view of the world’s history was false. Peters’ bold response was to develop, over a period of years, and publish his Synchronoptische Weltgeschichte (soon adapted in a French version as Histoire Mondiale Synchronoptique). One might say that even as a historian he was thinking like a mapmaker, assigning historical data – events in time – a spatial value and location. Each decade, each century, from 3000 BCE to the present gets its own allotment of space on a page; there are no favorites based on arbitrary or personal preference.

Righting Wrongs: The World Image
But Peters was not satisfied. He contended that people’s perceptions of the world suffered from geographic distortion as well as from historical skewing. And the Mercator projection, widely used, often uncritically assumed to be “the truth,” had to be supplanted. Like the racist regime of the Nazis, it offended his sense of fairness to all peoples. Finding no satisfactory alternative, he set about to create one. It had to be an equal area map – absolutely no question there – as one might expect from a person of his convictions. He felt it had also to retain certain strengths of the Mercator, especially its rectangular grid, from which other desirable properties derived – including unambiguous orientation, north always being straight up and south always straight down.

Support and criticism soon surfaced. Dr. Peters reflected on the turmoil of that time:

...public discussion was such as had not been known in the history of cartography. I attribute this to the fact that the debate over my map was in reality not a struggle about a projection as such but about a world picture. Clearly, ideology had entered the struggle.

And that points to what some consider Arno Peters’ greatest contribution to the art and science of map making. In the storm of controversy that swirled around his map, that extended to his other work and finally to his person, it became clear that maps are never simply objective, scientific, mathematically precise, utterly reliable statements of “truth” – they are constructs, they carry a point of view, they have an agenda. To call that agenda political or cultural or ideological or commercial or practical does not alter the essential reality: the map has a purpose. It follows, then, as I have argued elsewhere, that a map needs to be judged in light of its intent. Is the purpose worthy? How well does the map fulfill that purpose? To apply extraneous criteria is to run the risk of being irrelevant and unfair and, worst of all, to miss the point. This is not to advance the claim that Peters was the only one – or even the first – to declare the need for an equal-area representation of the world. Rather, because of him the point got made in such a dramatic way that no one now can go back to what Peters called “the old cartography.” In a remarkable way, the world of map making has moved beyond the simple (though significant) split: pro-Peters and anti-Peters camps. Its taxonomy is now to be understood as pre-Peters and post-Peters. To borrow Jeremy Crampton’s cogent phrase, with the Peters Map “cartography’s defining moment” had come. It is a matter of record.
Arno Peters lived, and the world is no longer the same.