Peter Munz was a commanding part of New Zealand’s European Jewish diaspora, a public intellectual whose diminutive appearance was belied by his larger than life character and academic achievements.
Specifically, as a warm obituary published in New Zealand Books noted at the time of his death, Munz was an excellent and memorable teacher who lectured without notes, a publisher of specialist monographs and books on history as a discipline, a world-renowned reviewer, the country’s best-known humanities scholar internationally, and a mentor to many during his years at Victoria University.
Born in Chemnitz, he was educated in Germany, Switzerland, and at a Florence liceo scientifico, where he became fluent in Italian, before lighting out to New Zealand with his mother and sister in 1939 to escape the growing Nazi threat.
Arriving in Christchurch in January 1940, Munz enrolled at Canterbury University College at Christchurch, studying history and German, and, and then philosophy under another celebrated European émigré, Karl Popper, who had been in Christchurch since 1937.
They became firm friends. The following year he moved on to the University of Cambridge to commence his doctoral studies, during which he was a member of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s seminar. Of the two icons, Munz rated Popper more highly, and he credited his 1934 Logik der Forschung as having made as much an impression on his own ideas as it did on science generally.
Munz was also physically present the evening when his two philosophy teachers memorably clashed at the normally genteel Moral Science Club, a celebrated tiff that would later became the subject of a best-selling book, Wittgenstein's Poker, by the British journalists David Edmonds and John Eidinow.
These memorable periods of study would spur his interest in two particular scholarly areas, religion and history, which would dovetail in the years he held the Chair of History at Victoria University from 1968 to 1986. He remained on as an emeritus professor for many years afterwards.
Image above header: Historian Dr Peter Munz, Wellington. Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1959/3815-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.