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Insight from the Past: Pierce County

Thank you to Pierce County for Ed Peterson, who showed us what it takes to stand up to tyrants.

August 03, 2017
Ed Peterson

Photo courtesy of the UWRF Archives

First Ed Peterson ’50, MA’51, PhD’50 lived history. Then he taught it. He left us deep insight into the subtle and subversive power of tyranny.

Long before Peterson became a prominent professor of German history at UW–River Falls in Pierce County, he had his first view of Germany through the scope of an antitank rifle. A draftee in 1944, Peterson landed in Europe with the 70th Infantry Division. By Christmas, he was fighting along the Rhine River, and through 1945, he was advancing across southern Germany.

“I survived only by great good luck,” he humbly said of his service, “and did nothing to prevent my country’s victory.”

During the occupation, he taught himself German and was assigned to military intelligence. The background formed the basis of Peterson’s career. After returning to the United States, he used GI Bill of Rights funding to enroll at UW–Madison, where he studied 20th-century Germany and wrote his first books on leading politicians of the Weimar Republic and their conflict with — and accommodation to — the Nazi regime.

“History is eternally fascinating,” he said, “because human beings can do the most creative and beautiful things and can do the most awful and cruel things.”

“History is eternally fascinating because human beings can do the most creative and beautiful things and can do the most awful and cruel things.”

In 1954, Peterson joined the faculty at Wisconsin State College at River Falls — today’s UW–River Falls. He taught a wide variety of history classes, and eventually he rose to chair the social studies department. But his fascination remained focused on Germany and its struggles with totalitarian governments. He authored books on World War II and the Cold War, with a particular interest in the role of the secret police — whether the Nazis’ Gestapo or East Germany’s Stasi. His goal, he said, was to gain “insight into how a dictatorial secret service operated, what it thought important to know, what it discovered, its problems, its weaknesses, and its image of itself.”

Peterson became a favorite teacher at UW–River Falls, teaching there until his death in 2005. His work continues to offer insight on how an advanced democracy can give way to dictatorship.

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