Willard Allen Fletcher (1924-2016)
Historian of Modern and Contemporary Europe
Willard Allen Fletcher, 91, professor emeritus of history at the University of Delaware, died of pneumonia on March 28, 2016, at Christiana Hospital in New Castle County, Delaware.
Fletcher was a distinguished historian of modern and contemporary Europe with a pioneering interest in Holocaust studies. In 1960 and 1961, he served as director of the American Historical Association project that microfilmed German military and administrative documents captured at the end of World War II. Working against a tight deadline and in cooperation with the National Archives, Fletcher saw this work through to completion. The documents were published in numerous coedited volumes from 1961 to 1982. Early in his career, Fletcher published an outstanding monograph, The Mission of Vincent Benedetti to Berlin, 1864–1870 (1965), a contribution to the scholarship on the origins of the Franco-Prussian War from the standpoint of the French ambassador to Prussia. In retirement, Fletcher and his wife, Jean Tucker Fletcher, edited and published the memoirs of the US consul in Luxembourg in the first years of World War II: Defiant Diplomat George Platt Waller: American Consul in Nazi-Occupied Luxembourg, 1939–1941 (2012). In these memoirs, Waller wrote movingly about his efforts to extricate endangered Jews from occupied Luxembourg. Fletcher also wrote numerous articles dealing with wartime Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
Willard Fletcher lived through much of this history himself. He was born in Vermont in 1924, the son of an Army officer in World War I who married a woman from Luxembourg. With his mother and two sisters, Fletcher returned to Luxembourg in 1926. He attended schools there, becoming fluent in French and German, and lived, as he said later, between the Maginot and the Siegfried lines. He experienced the German occupation of Luxembourg firsthand. When Germany declared war on the United States in 1941, Fletcher was 17 and in high school. Three Gestapo agents removed him from his trigonometry class, and he spent close to two years, 1942–44, interned in a prison camp for enemy aliens in Upper Bavaria. On one occasion, Heinrich Himmler visited that camp, an experience that Fletcher later described as “chilling.” Otherwise, as he later recalled, internment camps had little in common with concentration camps.
When he was repatriated to the United States, via Lisbon and a Swedish Red Cross ship, he connected with his older brother, then in New Jersey, and joined the US Army. Fletcher trained as a scout and returned to Europe in 1945 as a combat infantryman, serving in the 14th Armored Division and, somewhat ironically, advancing through Bavaria. He was one of the first American soldiers to enter the overcrowded international prisoner-of-war camp at Moosburg, outside of Munich, Germany—Fletcher always remembered the enthusiastic reception of the prisoners, many of them Americans. He and his fellow scouts also discovered other POW and labor camps and a few satellite work camps, with their starving Jewish prisoners, of the infamous Dachau system. He was assigned to join a division scheduled for the invasion of Japan when the war ended.
He left the Army in 1946 and obtained a degree in political science at the University of Vermont in 1949. He earned his master’s degree in history at the University of Arkansas (1952) and his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania (1956), where he studied with the eminent Lynn Case, whom he always revered. In 1949–50, he and his new bride, Jean Tucker Fletcher, were among the first group of Fulbright Scholars and studied at the University of Belgium.
Fletcher’s teaching career took him back to the University of Vermont and then to the University of Colorado, the University of Texas, and finally to the University of Delaware, where he served from 1969 until he retired in 1989. Fletcher came to Delaware as chair of the department, a role he fulfilled from 1969 through 1975. Many of his colleagues, including this writer, remember him as the best chair that the department ever had. He regarded his office as a service role and worked selflessly to strengthen the department in every way.
He emphatically supported his numerous younger colleagues, then untenured assistant professors; almost all achieved tenure. As chair, he accepted a new structure of democratic governance for the department and made it work. He broke what was then new ground when he insisted that women professors receive compensation equal to that of men of comparable rank and accomplishment. He was the lead investigator on the first of two NEH grants that helped launch the History Media Center, still in service today. These grants permitted students to work in the National Archives and produce slides using its photographs. Fletcher even moved out of his spacious chair’s office and gave that room to the media center. As the center developed, more and more history teachers made use of its growing collection of slides—now digitized—and other media. Finally, several valuable hires took place during his tenure as chair, including two senior professors.
While teaching at the University of Vermont, Willard Fletcher became the friend of Raul Hilberg, whose The Destruction of the European Jews (1961) would become a magisterial work on the Holocaust. Inspired by Hilberg, Fletcher, too, became active in Holocaust studies and served on the Memorial Council for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He taught a course on the Holocaust at Delaware before and after his retirement. It always drew a large enrollment.
Fletcher held a Guggenheim Fellowship from 1963–64. In 1976, the government of Luxembourg appointed him an officier in the Ordre de la Couronne de Chêne, an honor bestowed in recognition of his service and contributions as a historian of Luxembourg. Jean Tucker Fletcher predeceased Willard Fletcher. He is survived by their children Ian Fletcher, Colin Fletcher, Hilary Fletcher, and Brian Fletcher.
John J. Hurt
University of Delaware
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