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Peter Georg Sack (1937–2016)

by Don Fleming

Peter Georg Sack was a giant of a man, in body, standing a towering 204 cm tall, in mind and in free spirit. The Tolai peoples he met on his field trips to New Britain in Papua New Guinea knew Peter as ‘man mountain Sack’. But he was a gentle giant. He was patient with both his students and his research assistants, who still remember his capacity to find amusement in the small incongruities of life. It was this stature, the friendly sparkle in his eyes and his trademark pipe smoking that made Peter such a familiar sight around the Coombs Building and across the wider ANU campus for over 30 years.

Peter was born into a wealthy family of agricultural machinery manufacturers in Germany in 1937 and spent his childhood on the family estate near Leipzig. He remembered riding a tricycle around the manor house ballroom. This privileged way of life disappeared with World War II. Peter’s three elder brothers were killed. Towards the end of the war, and later, the German civilian population suffered extreme hardship. The Sack family was no exception. Peter remembered the struggle to find food, the strict rationing and the occupation by the Russian and American troops. The Sacks lost their estate and other assets during the administration of the Russian Zone before the creation of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). In the early 1950s, GDR educational policies forbade admission of children of bourgeois families into the gymnasium, the German high schools with a strong emphasis on preparing students for academic learning. Instead, such children were required to enrol in Hauptschulen, which were vocationally oriented high schools. For Peter and his family a professional career was axiomatic, and so one night Peter, his mother, his sisters and surviving brother crossed the border to join his father, who was already in West Germany.

Peter spent his secondary education at boarding school, and later studied law at the universities of Göttingen and Kiel. After passing the first state examination in law, he began work as a Referendar in the Schleswig- Holstein state public service and in the High Courts of Stuttgart and Celle. Peter decided against a future as a career judge or practising lawyer and instead enrolled in a doctorate at the University of Kiel. His supervisor, who reportedly thought of Peter as his best student ever, allowed him a free hand to write a thesis on the law of individual interests and principles of estoppel.

The Sack family holiday houses at Heiligenhafen on the Baltic were beyond the GDR’s grasp. Summers spent at Heiligenhafen were a centrepiece of family life. Peter had fond memories of weeks of swimming, boating, eel spearing, hunting for amber and Neolithic stone tools washed up as flotsam and drinking ice-cold Dutch gin. In 1963 his mother asked him to host a young Australian, Bridget McMahon, a student teacher and Germanophile studying in Germany on a Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD) scholarship. Bridget and Peter married in Heiligenhafen the following year and then rented an apartment in Schleswig. Soon Bridget looked after their young son Fabian while Peter worked to complete his thesis, his Referendar training and his second and final state examination in law.

However, circumstances defeated Peter’s efforts to submit his first doctorate. His supervisor could find no fault with the completed manuscript. Indeed he described it as original work, going beyond the practical application of law and doctrinal construction to pure legal theory. But he did ask that Peter make some minor changes to terminology, which would have involved retyping the whole manuscript. Peter was reluctant since Bridget had typed the thesis as a labour of love, with difficulty, while caring for baby Fabian and providing a domestic base for the family. They decided that retyping the manuscript was a bridge too far. Nor could they afford to employ a professional typist as Peter didn’t have a job and they had no savings. Bridget was also an indentured student teacher. The NSW Education Department pressed her to return home to begin teaching or else pay £1,000, approximately $25,000 in today’s money, for the cost of her studentship. With these pressures on them, Peter and Bridget chose to leave Germany to live in Australia.

Peter arrived as an assisted migrant in Sydney aged 30, with a young son to co-support, sans doctorate and unemployed. He spent a few months getting to know Bridget’s family, the McMahons, weighing up his possibilities for work, watching TV and reading cheap novels to improve his English-language skills. Amongst the possibilities he saw was practising as a barrister. The McMahons were friends with well-known barrister Laurence Gruzman QC and his family. Gruzman invited Peter to shadow him on his daily rounds in the Sydney courts. The experience was short-lived, with Peter quickly realising that a barrister’s life was not for him.

Then Peter had the idea of a PhD on German colonial land law, which would enable him to exploit his legal training. He obtained a scholarship in the Law Department at ANU. Geoffrey Sawer was then Head of Department and Foundation Professor. Sam Stoljar, a professor and an internationally renowned private lawyer, was Peter’s primary supervisor. Peter also worked as a part-time research assistant for Stoljar, to assist with the Sack family finances. His PhD fieldwork saw the first of many field trips to Papua New Guinea, particularly to New Britain and its Gazelle Peninsula and Tolai peoples. Peter completed his PhD thesis entitled ‘Traditional land tenure and early European land acquisitions: The clash between primitive and Western law in New Guinea’ in 1971.

Life was good. By now, the family numbered four, daughter Danina having been born in 1968. The Sacks bought a rundown house in David Street in Turner. Family life flourished. Peter and Bridget together tended their large garden and worked to fix up the house. Dogs, cats and eventually another daughter, Ballanda, joined them, in 1971. Shortly after his PhD conferral Peter was appointed a Research Fellow.

The 1970s were the peak years of Peter’s ANU career. He was promoted to Fellow. In 1973 his thesis was published as Land between Two Laws. Over the next six or seven years, he published over 20 articles and contributions to books on German colonial law, traditional law in Papua New Guinea, legal anthropology and legal pluralism. Other publications included an edited book, Problem of Choice, exploring the complex problem of the ownership of land in pre-independence Papua New Guinea, and a bibliography of German New Guinea. More field trips to New Britain generated monographs recording Tolai interviews and stories and ethnographic snapshots of traditional Tolai leaders. There were co-published translations with Bridget and Dymphna Clark of documentary records of German colonial land law, government and public administration. And Peter used his sabbatical leave to visit the GDR’s Zentralarchiv and the West German Bundesarchiv, the International Institute for the Sociology of Law at Onati and elsewhere.

Peter delighted in the less formal sides of academic life. His research interests attracted PhD students. Guy Powles, Jim Fingleton, John Mugumba, Archana Parashar and Tony Deklin were amongst them. And he recruited research assistants to help with his work in the National Archives of Australia, including Liz Minchin, Cathy Summerhayes and Stephanie Morton. All three retain fond memories. Cathy Summerhayes remembers Peter giving them ‘the best of the academic way of life, a pleasure on so many levels’. Each remembers Peter urging them not to remain research assistants, but to obtain a PhD, which most did, several becoming ANU academics. And everyone remembers the weekly Friday lunches Peter hosted in Fellows Garden at University House. Liz Minchin recalls them as long and lazy, taken up with those rambling conversations about ideas and life that Peter so loved.

In about 1975 the Sacks purchased a derelict farm in the Deua Valley south of Araluen. Known as The Halfway, the farm provided Peter with a forum for bush gardening, such as nurturing nut trees and citrus and experimenting with asparagus. The Halfway allowed a lifestyle echoing the things Peter had loved most about his childhood and student days at Heiligenhafen. There were summer afternoon barbeques and swimming in the river, winter nights playing 500, good food and wine, a family at play, and everywhere lively conversations. The Halfway also served as an adjunct to Peter’s academic life. PhD students, research assistants, colleagues, visiting academics and their families were all invited to lunch, or to stay for the weekend. Jim Fingleton remembers Peter and Bridget as generous and courteous hosts, qualities an occasional guest would put to the test.

The 1980s began promisingly. Peter’s output of articles and book chapters continued to grow, increasing by about 20 over the decade. He was a Visiting Professor at the Max Planck Gesellschaft, the Indian Law Institute, the University of Münster and Universität der Bundeswehr, and held Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee and DAAD fellowships. Other research work included monographs on Mill and Montesquieu, legal science and primitive law, comparative law and legal history and, with Dymphna Clark, a translation of Thurnwald’s account of Melanesian law. Within the department Peter organised seminars on Pacific nation constitutions and legal pluralism published in the Canberra Law Workshop series. These seminars reflected Peter’s success in establishing the Law Department as a centre for South Pacific law, legal pluralism and law and anthropology. In 1984 he was promoted to Senior Fellow.

When Sam Stoljar retired, Peter became Acting Head. Since Sawer’s retirement in 1975, the Research School of Social Sciences (RSSS) had allowed the Law Department to be run down. But Peter had a plan. He proposed to the RSSS board that the department be re-established as a research centre for German colonial law, South Pacific law, legal pluralism and law and anthropology. Jim Fingleton sat on the board as a student representative. He remembers that the board showed little or no interest in Peter’s proposal. Instead they regarded Stoljar’s retirement as an opportunity to establish a school of research lawyers in the Australian legal mainstream, which, some in the ANU believed, Sawer should have done. This new direction was set in train with the appointment of Paul Finn as Head of the Law Department and Professor.

This development was a blow for Peter. Intellectually, he confided at the time, he agreed that the decision to re-establish and re-direct research in the department was a good idea, for the RSSS and for the ANU. However, on a personal level his reaction was very human. He was deeply disappointed that his proposal for a research centre had been rejected and by the loss of any prospect of a professorship. And then, at around the same time, life dealt Peter a far greater personal blow. His daughter Danina died after a year-long struggle with aggressive leukaemia. Jim Fingleton remembers how badly her death affected Peter and how he spent time with Peter at The Halfway consoling him in his grief.

In the following years, Peter gradually became estranged from the life of the new Law Department. This occurred partly by choice. Peter’s two academic apprenticeships had celebrated the lone scholar model that now belonged to a passing epoch of academic work, a model to which he was also personally predisposed. His estrangement resulted partly from the actions of others, intended and unintended. Peter was seen, with some justification, as being old-fashioned, unwilling or unable to adapt to a changed research environment. In retrospect, he acknowledged it was a mistake to have retreated from collegial life. But not everything was negative. His daily routine walking to and from his Coombs Building office continued, on the way home to David Street looking out in season for fungi in the Turner pine plantations. Friday afternoons still began with lunch in Fellows Garden, although attendees dwindled away. He continued to delight in regular visits to The Halfway, its garden and spending time with his family.

Academic life went on. There were several completing or new PhD students, including Sinclair Dinnen and Jonathon Aleck, a sabbatical to India and returning to the former GDR Zentralarchiv and German Bundesarchiv. Peter again wrote and published over 20 articles and book chapters, on German colonial law and its experience in the South Pacific and legal pluralism, legal philosophy and sociology of law, and co-edited a book on law and anthropology.

His primary research project in this period was a three-volume history of colonial law in German New Guinea. His work confronted modern domain orthodoxies of historians and lawyers. Confronting orthodoxy can be lonely work, and it was. His then research assistants, successively Margret Davies and Tonia Vincent, remember occasions on which Peter was frustrated at what he believed was the inability or unwillingness of others to understand his work. When the history was finished, its length and unorthodox subject matter meant that it was difficult to find a publisher. So Peter cut the manuscript down to one volume. But most publishers believed even the one volume version to be commercially problematic. Eventually Peter found an advocate in the late Hank Nelson, who reportedly thought highly of the manuscript, and pushed for its publication. The book was published by the Pacific and Asian History Division of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies (RSPAS) as Phantom History, the Rule of Law and the Colonial State: The Case of German New Guinea in 2001.

Peter reluctantly retired in 1999. For several years afterwards he was a Visiting Fellow in the Pacific History Division of RSPAS, where he continued to research and publish on the history of German New Guinea. After leaving RSPAS, he continued to research and write as an independent scholar in his study at home in Hobbs Street, O’Connor, where he and Bridget had moved in 1996.

Peter’s health faded in his final decade. He could no longer smoke his trademark pipes or enjoy his beloved cigars. He gradually became less mobile and less active. Life and its disappointments had, as Fabian Sack described in his eulogy, worn Peter deeply. But the gardens at The Halfway and the new garden at the O’Connor house were still a source of both pleasure and solace. As were his grandchildren. Peter’s physical decline meant they mostly got to know him as a weary raconteur, retelling stories about Leipzig, Heiligenhafen and his travels, and a shadow of the big man his family, friends, colleagues and students had known. To the end, Peter kept his delight in visits by Fabian and Ballanda and their families and the opportunities provided for conversation, food and a glass or two of wine.

References from the courts and academia Peter brought from Germany survive amongst his papers. One such reference includes a description of Peter that anyone who knew him will immediately recognise, and to which he remained true throughout his life. Peter was, wrote the supervisor of his first doctorate, ‘a man given to deep and penetrating thought [with] a certain measure of strong individuality in his way of thinking and terminology’. He was not ‘for speedy, smooth results but rather churns his problems over and broods on them again from the beginning’. Such personality types, the referee believed, ‘promote jurisprudence— especially where they provoke opposition’.

These qualities defined Peter. They were the wellspring of his explorations of law’s ecologies and terrains, his scepticism about modern Western law and its mythology, and his rejection of conventional historiography. It was this uncompromising intellectuality, commitment to research as discovery and refusal to shy away from uncomfortable truths that made knowing Peter a memorable experience, and why, together with his kindness and sense of humour, his friends and colleagues will remember him with great affection.

Peter is survived by Bridget, his wife of 52 years, his two children, Fabian and Ballanda, and his five grandchildren, Felix, Hugo, Caitlin, Nicholas and Lauren.

* Thanks to Margret Davies, Sinclair Dinnen, Jim Fingleton, Peter Hempenstall, Vicki Luker, Elizabeth Minchin, Stephanie Morton, Archana Parashar, Cathy Summerhayes and Tonia Vincent and Bridget and Fabian Sack for their help in preparing this obituary.

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Citation details

Don Fleming, 'Sack, Peter Georg (1937–2016)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]




16 December, 2016 (aged ~ 79)

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