Richard Wilson Reichard (1924–2013)
Historian of Europe
The death of Richard Wilson Reichard at age 89 has gone largely unreported. He died on May 1, 2013, in Chicago, where he had resided since 1977.
During World War II, Reichard served as a B-24 crew member in the Fifteenth Air Force. He had graduated from Lafayette College before the war; upon discharge from the military, he entered graduate school at Harvard. His doctoral thesis traced the German labor movement in the late nineteenth century. His first book came in 1968, Crippled from Birth: German Social Democracy, 1844–1870, published by Iowa State University Press. His second work, From Petition to Strike: A History of Strikes in Germany, 1869–1914, was privately printed. His teaching ranged widely, from traditional European topics to aspects of Asian, African, and American history.
His entire professional career must be seen against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and an increasing demand for political conformity. In the 1950s, under the banner of “true Americanism,” Senator Joseph McCarthy and other members of Congress presided over numerous hearings, commonly referred to as “witch hunts,” designed to expose and root out any known or suspected sympathizers with or members of the Communist Party. The drive for conformity made social critics suspect and any reformer an enemy of the nation. Reichard’s career was also intermingled with the civil rights movement, especially during his residency in North Carolina.
After a two-year postdoctoral appointment at Stanford, in 1959 he was offered a position at George Washington University, but before his first class, the contract was canceled and withdrawn. In the same year, he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, as a person identified by the FBI as a recruiter for the Communist Party at Harvard. Upon the advice of progressive journalist I. F. Stone, he pleaded his rights under the Fifth Amendment, which in the context of the time was interpreted as an admission of guilt. The resulting legal struggle over his contract soon involved the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). In the end, the college offered to pay the salary agreed to in the two-year contract.
Reichard’s years at Cornell College (1960–1969) were perhaps the most satisfying and productive of his career. Two of the senior members of the history department at Cornell had been dissenters during World War II and knew the price to be paid for dissent. Reichard rose through the ranks to tenured associate professor and became a popular teacher and a respected colleague—a person well suited for the liberal arts environment. While at Cornell, he was named director of the All College Humanities program involving four major departments in a mandatory two-year program.
A new administration team at Cornell College in 1967 and the coming of a much more politically conscious and divided student body created serious tensions across the college. Demands for a more democratic governing structure of the college, including a large voice for faculty and students, and for fewer restrictions on student social life were key points in an agenda for change that was easily dismissed by those who held with the paternalistic policies and leadership styles of the past. In 1968, students staged a takeover of the administration building as part of demands for racial justice as well as increased student power. As happened with many of the faculty, Reichard’s support of the new agenda for change strained his relationship with the administration. An exodus of younger faculty began as the environment on campus became increasingly repressive. When Reichard announced his departure to Queens University (College), in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1969, he told students that his “services are no longer desired” at Cornell. Most of the faculty believed the statement was made under pressure, some of which came from off campus. Another factor may have been the dissolution of his marriage and a desire to make a clean start. In all this Reichard never lost the support of the history faculty and a good portion of the larger faculty and student body. The Charlotte years were a time of turmoil over desegregation in housing and education in the city and surrounding county. Events on the campus were played out with a raw edge of violence. Reichard provided hospitality for leading radicals, such as Carl Braden and Ray Robinson, as they arrived to support various protest movements in Charlotte and the South. He maintained a long friendship with Jurgen Kuczynski, the architect of the East German Communist Party. In later years, he befriended Lisa Fittko, who had challenged the rise of Hitler and was another lifelong antifascist socialist.
The environment in Charlotte often grew white-hot with anger and violence—an uncomfortable atmosphere for many academics with strong social convictions. Pressures on colleges and universities from all sides forced decisions that were not in the best interest of their mission. After five years in this charged atmosphere, Reichard and Queens parted company. The injustice of the segregation system prompted him to take an active part in numerous protests. As an active public dissenter with socialist convictions he was an easy target for attacks from the southern political right. He was frequently known to violate the codes of the Old South. He remained in Charlotte for another two years in search of an academic appointment; finding none, he moved in 1977 to Chicago, where he assumed the role of academic journeyman, teaching courses in such institutions as Loyola University, Governor’s State University, and the College of Du Page.
Reichard was a man of deep personal convictions. He was a committed socialist and known to students and faculty for his ability to engage in serious debate without rancor. He was also loyal to his friends and cultivated friendships, especially among other dissenters who shared his struggle. At the end of his life, he told his son he was a “lifelong radical socialist. I believe in state control of the means of production.” Several of his closest friends at Cornell were sure there was a period in his life when he was as member of the Communist Party—probably while he was at Harvard.
Reichard’s academic and activist career ended only with his approaching death. One of his sons commented, “My father would never run from any of his past. On the contrary, he robustly embraced [it] and was never afraid to pay for his beliefs.” The career of Richard Wilson Reichard demonstrates his courage and integrity as well as the strength of his convictions. His was one more casualty of the “McCarthy era,” when demands for political conformity were widespread.
Reichard was preceded in death by his oldest son. He is survived by his wife, Gloria Lerner Carrig, three sons, five stepchildren, and 14 grandchildren.
Memorial services were held in Chicago in June 2013.
Richard H. Thomas
Editor’s Note: Lawrence Reichard provided assistance.
Tags: In Memoriam
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.