The night of April 17, 1945 was a dramatic one in the Bavarian town of Ansbach. The Third Reich was on the verge of collapse and U.S. forces were besieging the city. They would take it in less than 24 hours. That night a small, courageous group of young anti-Nazis tried to get the town to surrender without bloodshed or destruction.
The tragic events of that night and the following morning would enable one of Germany's most important postwar historians to clear his name of accusations that he was pro-Nazi. Through a web of lies and half-truths, the historian, Karl Bosl, swept away his Nazi past and replaced it with the image of a brave opponent of the Nazis.
Research by Prof. Benjamin Z. Kedar, the vice president of the National Academy of Sciences, and Peter Herde of Wurzburg University in Germany, has exposed what really happened that night, as well as Bosl's true Nazi past. As a result, the government of the Bavarian city where Bosl was born, Cham, announced about two weeks ago that it was changing the name of a square from Dr.-Karl-Bosl-Platz and removing a statue of Bosl from town hall.
The two scholars discovered that Bosl had tried to gain anti-Nazi credentials through his previous contact with Ansbach's true hero, a young man named Robert Limpert, who had been Bosl's student. Limpert, born in 1925, had established an anti-Nazi underground cell in Ansbach.
In the days before April 18, he and his comrades posted flyers on city hall calling on residents to disrupt the defense of the town and get it to surrender to Allied forces. Limpert even secured the deputy mayor's consent to surrender, but he was overridden by Ansbach's Nazi military commander, Col. Ernst Meyer, who insisted that the town fight to its last bullet.
Limpert then took the courageous, perhaps crazy, step of cutting communications wires he thought linked Meyer's headquarters with Nazi forces in the town. But the lines were not connected. Limpert's act of sabotage was witnessed by two members of the Hitler Youth, who turned him in to Meyer. Limpert was arrested at home, quickly convicted and executed on a gallows set up outside city hall.
On April 18, Limpert actually escaped his captors but was recaptured. Meyer himself put the noose around the young man's neck, but on the first attempt the rope broke. The executioners were successful with their second try. Shortly after the execution, Meyer fled Ansbach and U.S. forces captured the town.
Three days later, Limpert was buried in Ansbach in a ceremony in which he was eulogized by his former teacher, Bosl. The eulogy was Bosl's first attempt to rid himself of his Nazi past, say Kedar and Herde.
"He spoke about Limpert as if they had been on the same side," Kedar said. An American officer, Frank Horvay, who was in charge of Ansbach's denazification, played a key role in further burnishing Bosl's image. The two men apparently became friends.
The researchers obtained a letter in which Horvay wrote about Bosl to his teacher in the United States. Horvay recounted the cutting of the communications wires but said Bosl was the one who carried it out.
This account found its way into a number of other letters, and in January 1946, Bosl received a document from the American forces stating that although he had nominally been a member of the Nazi Party, he had also been a member of the anti-Nazi underground who had risked his life to post anti-Reich notices.
The document also noted Bosl's purported act of bravery in cutting the wires. Horvay helped Bosl publish an account on the "New Germany" in an American publication, and the way was paved toward clearing his name.
During his research, Kedar located Horvay's daughter in Kentucky and was provided some of her father's personal papers. The truth came out after research into Bosl's papers and interviews with two members of Limpert's underground group who survived.
The researchers dispelled Bosl's claim that he had only been a member of the Nazi Party for a short time and had left for ideological reasons. He had been a member for years, Kedar and Herde say, and Bosl left the party for failure to pay a fee. The scholars also found that Bosl had also been a member of other Nazi organizations.
After the war, Bosl became a leading historian of the Middle Ages. Stories surfaced occasionally about his Nazi past, but they were countered by accounts of his alleged anti-Nazi activity.
"Bosl was cautious," said Kedar, a Holocaust survivor and also a historian of the Middle Ages. "He never said he had cut the cables himself, but he provided the letters in which others said so. When people interviewed him and asked him directly about the case, he said he didn't want to talk about it."
Kedar and Herde's research was recently published in English by Hebrew University's Magnes Press in a book entitled "Karl Bosl and the Third Reich." Bosl died in 1993.
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