In the years following World War II, Wagner’s enrollment swelled as veterans returned to college en masse on the G.I. Bill.
Amidst those who had fought the Nazis, there were also a couple of students who had escaped becoming the regime’s victims. One of them was Peter Berger ’49 H’73.
Peter Berger was born in 1929 in Vienna. His parents, Jewish converts to Christianity, fled Vienna in 1938 upon the Anschluss, or annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany. They spent the following years in Palestine, then under British control, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1947.
By 1949, at age 20, Peter Berger had already attained his B.A. in philosophy from Wagner College. “It was part of his becoming integrated into American society,” says his son, Thomas Berger, a professor of international relations at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University.
Howard Braren ’50 H’12 remembers Peter Berger as a quiet, studious young man who lived down the hall from him in the dorm (today’s Reynolds House). Berger’s roommate was Friedrich “Fred” Katz ’49, a fellow Austrian Jewish émigré who also had an intellectual bent. Another friend at Wagner was Paul Edward Hoffman ’49.
Katz, who died in 2010, became a distinguished historian at the University of Chicago. Berger writes in his memoir, Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist, that he was “inspired by religious fervor” and “wanted to become a Lutheran minister.” He went to the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, a path often trod by Wagner graduates; but after a year, Berger decided theology school was not the right choice for him.
He switched to sociology, earning a Ph.D. from the New School for Social Research. It was there that he found his intellectual home and launched a brilliant career as a professor, scholar, and writer.
Peter Berger died this year on June 27, at age 88. The New York Times called him “an influential, and contrarian, Protestant theologian and sociologist who, in the face of the ‘God is dead’ movement of the 1960s, argued that faith can indeed flourish in modern society.”
Berger’s most famous work on this topic was A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural, published in 1969. Berger returned to Wagner in March 1973 to speak about “Religion and Political Language in America Today” as part of Faith and Life Week, an annual tradition at the College for many years. The College awarded him an honorary doctorate at that time.
Berger was also noted for his work on the sociology of knowledge. His 1966 book The Social Construction of Reality, co-written with Thomas Luckmann, was translated into more than 20 languages. The International Sociological Association ranked it No. 5 among the 20th century’s most influential sociology works.
Berger wrote many more books. He retired as a professor emeritus at Boston University, where he founded the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs (CURA) in 1985. His longtime colleague Robert Hefner, who followed him as the CURA director, says that Berger “will be remembered as one of the greatest sociologists of religion and modernity in the period stretching from the late 1950s to today.”