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The 1972 Olympic Games in Munich resulted in one of the most historically significant events of the 20th century. What was supposed to be two carefree weeks of friendly international competition instead changed the way the world viewed terrorism forever. Please continue reading or click a link below for complete information about the Munich 11 and the tragedy of the Munich Olympics.

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Introduction to Munich

Just 36 years after the Olympics were hosted in Berlin in 1936 under the close watch of Hitler and the Nazi regime, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) again awarded the summer Games to a German city. This time it was Munich, in what was then West Germany, that was chosen to host the 1972 Games. The IOC “gradually ushered the defeated [World War II] nations back to the heart of the international family” in an attempt to show that the nation had recovered and severed ties with its Nazi past (Schiller 56). The Games were billed as an event of “peace and joy,” and yet the legacy of 1936 was impossible to ignore, especially considering the history and tradition that the Olympics usually espoused (Schiller 57). One IOC member commented that Munich was chosen to host “because of the country’s proven ability to protect Olympism against all odds” (Schiller 60-61).

The German Olympic organizing committee aimed for a tranquil set of Games, separated from the political tensions of the Cold War and remnants of World War II. Normal security forces were replaced with a special crew of 2,000 “Olys”: a special unarmed Olympic assemblage that served dual roles as both police and crowd control. At the opening ceremonies, the local crowd extended a warm welcome to the visiting delegations, many of whom were seated unusually close to their political rivals (Schiller 187).

The Games had a special significance for the Israeli delegation to Munich. NBC sportscaster Jim McKay, one of the memorable faces of the Munich Olympics to American television audiences, reported the scene: “There was a great applause when the nation of Israel walked in here, and of course, you couldn’t be in Germany and not remember. We’re just about fifteen miles here from the concentration camp of Dachau. But it is perhaps a measure of the fact that peoples and times change and nations do change that Israel is here. The Germans are cheering the Jewish athletes” (qtd. in Schiller 188)

For the Israelis, the event marked a moment of triumph. The delegation was led into Olympic Stadium by Henry Hershkowitz, a marksman, carrying the Israeli flag. He remembers the excitement he felt: “I felt awesome pride that Jews could raise their flag on German soil. … This is proof that the Nazis weren’t able to crush the Jewish spirit, the Israeli spirit’” (qtd. in Klein 25). Dan Alon, an Israeli fencer, likewise remembers the opening ceremony positively. “[It] was one of the most beautiful moments in my life,” he recalls. “We were in heaven” (qtd. in Schiller 188).

International tensions

In the decades that followed World War II, West Germany emerged as an ally of the young State of Israel. The Federal Republic of Germany explicitly wanted to shed its negative, Nazi-tarnished image, and prove to the world that it had changed in order to be re-accepted on the world stage. In addition to reparations paid to Israel as a result of its wartime atrocities, West Germany established formal diplomatic relations with Israel and even went so far as make clandestine weapons deliveries as a show of support for the Jewish state (Schiller 191).

Yet, West Germany was delicately attempting to find a balance between a moral responsibility to Israel alongside the realities of the political and economic arenas. By the late 1960s, the Cold War was in full force and the balance of power in the Middle East in danger of rapidly shifting. The U.S.S.R. continued to expand its sphere of influence in the Arab world, to the consternation of many Arab rulers. The West German government in Bonn was “keen to listen” as these leaders sought external support. Meanwhile, in light of West Germany’s full recognition of Israel and secret arms agreements, Egypt threatened to formalize ties with the East German regime to maintain the balance of power in Europe and the Middle East (Schiller 191). As the Olympics neared, West Germany strove to ease political tensions and avoid putting them on the world stage.

The Israeli delegation

Israel attended the Munich Olympics with a delegation of 30: 16 athletes, 2 referees, and 12 other delegates including coaches. They were:

Itzhac Aldubi
Dan Alon, fencing
David Berger, weightlifting
Eliyahn Friedlander
Ze’ev Friedman, weightlifting
Yossef Gutfreund, wrestling (referee)
Eliezer Halfin, wrestling
Henry Hershkowitz, shooting
Shaul Ladani, athletics
Shmuel Lalkin, delegation head
Yair Michaeli, sailing
Itzhak Nir, sailing
Shlomit Nir, swimming
Dan Parrack
Yossef Romano, weightlifting
Esther Roth-Shahamorov, athletics
Michael Micha Samban
Ester Shahamorov, athletics
Amitzur Shapira, athletics (coach)
Kehat Shorr, shooting (coach)
Mark Slavin, wrestling
Tuvia Sokolovsky, weightlifting (coach)
Andrei Spitzer, fencing (coach)
Yaakov Springer, weightlifting (referee)
Zelig Stroch, shooting
Josef Szwec
Gad Tsobari, wrestling
Kurt Weigl
Moshe Weinberg, wrestling (coach)
Yehuda Weissenstein, fencing

The Israelis arrived at the Games with a sense of triumph, returning as equals to the place where the worst imaginable horrors of the Holocaust had taken place just three decades prior. Unfortunately, the event that was supposed to be a display of international peace and solidarity turned into one of the most gruesome attacks the world has ever witnessed. As members of the Israeli delegation were enjoying a production of Fiddler on the Roof at a local Yiddish theater in Munich during their free day on Sept. 4, a group of eight terrorists known as Black September received final instructions for what was termed Operation Ikrit and Biram. Black September was led by Abu Iyad, a commander in the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and its operations were personally approved by Yasser Arafat, the leader of the PLO and the future Palestinian Authority (Schiller 194). The name “Black September” derived from an attack on PLO headquarters in 1970 by King Hussein of Jordan, resulting in the death of over 3,000 Palestinian guerrillas.

Hostages taken in Olympic Village

Around 4:00 a.m. on September 5, 1972, the members of Black September, disguised as athletes, scaled a 6-foot fence surrounding the Olympic Village and made their way to the dormitory housing the Israeli athletes. Under their clothing and in the sports bags they carried, the terrorists had Kalashnikov assault rifles (Reeve 2). The two leaders of the group, nicknamed Issa and Tony, had previously gone undercover in the Olympic Village prior to the Games, as an engineer and cook, respectively (Reeve 2). Now knowing full well the location and layout of their intended target, they made their way to 31 Connollystrasse, a building housing members of the Israeli delegation.

Around 4:30 a.m., Yossef Gutfreund was awakened by the faint sounds coming from the hallway. Cracking open his door and peering out, he saw a terrifying scene: armed terrorists waiting to break into his room. He immediately shouted to his teammates to take cover, and threw his large frame against the door in the hopes of delaying the inevitable (Reeve 4). Gutfreund’s valiant efforts bought his roommate Tuvia Sokolovsky a few extra seconds, allowing him to dislodge their bedroom window and jump out of it, saving his life (Reeve 4).

The terrorists began rounding up the Israeli athletes. When Issa broke into Moshe Weinberg’s room, Weinberg attempted to attack him with a fruit knife, resulting in the other terrorists opening fire on him, with a bullet piercing him through the cheek (Reeve 5). With Weinberg badly injured, the captors led him and 11 other hostages upstairs to Apartment 1. Despite his devastating injury, Weinberg created a diversion by landing a heavy punch on one of the terrorists, allowing Gad Tsabari, a wrestler, to dart down the stairwell. Tsabari ran for his life through the underground parking lot while being chased by an armed terrorist. While Tsabari escaped, Weinberg was fired on again and ultimately killed by the other terrorists (Reeve 7-8).

Around 5:00 a.m., the German police had noticed the disturbance and Munich’s chief of police had ordered the area to be cordoned off. Within minutes, police and senior officials arrived to the scene to determine what was happening. They were greeted with the dead body of Moshe Weinberg, which the terrorists dumped outside the apartment (Reeve 12-13). The Germans, who had run a clean and efficient set of Games up to this point, wanted direly to defuse the situation.

In exchange for the Israeli hostages being held in the Olympic village, the terrorists demanded the release of 234 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, as well as a few foreign comrades. The German authorities, in an attempt to end the standoff and maintain the sanctity of the Games offered the leader of Black September “unlimited sums of money” to release the hostages. The offered was laughed off, with the response that they were not seeking money. Meanwhile, as news of the hostage situation reached Israel, Prime Minister Golda Meir informed the Germans that she and the Israeli government were not interested in a prisoner exchange, and would stand by their policy of not negotiating with terrorists (Schiller 196-197).

To external viewers, the crisis was made worse by the surrounding environment in the Olympic Village. The live broadcast of the Munich Olympics was much anticipated by worldwide audiences and seen as a technological feat, but now the many live news cameras were turned toward the Israeli dorms. The world watched, live, as the terrorists peered out the windows donning masks and holding guns. Dan Shilon, an Israeli television journalist, remembers, “This was a bizarre, surrealistic situation in which we journalists surrounded the event with every possible camera.” Meanwhile, the cameras also captured eerie images of life proceeding as normal for other athletes in the village, just hundreds of yards away, watching as they sunbathed and jovially played table tennis between athletic events, which continued throughout the standoff (Schiller 197).

The German police and local and national authorities continued to try to defuse the crisis. The deadline set by the terrorists, after which they claimed they would begin murdering one hostage each hour, was continually extended as negotiations continued. German authorities made a poor attempt to storm the residence, sending police officers dressed in track suits through the village and onto the roof and upper-level balconies of the building in a maneuver they termed “Operation Sunshine.” Unfortunately, the operation was captured by the live television cameras and watched in real time by the terrorists in the building, foiling the plan (Reeve 87-89).

Rescue attempt at Furstenfeldbruck

Eventually, the leader of Black September, sensing that negotiations had reached a standstill, requested safe passage for them and their hostages via airplane to a friendly country. Without consulting the Israeli government, the Germans obliged. A second rescue attempt, involving an ambush of the terrorists as they walked 180 yards to the helicopters that would take them to the Furstenfeldbruck air field where they would transfer to a plane, failed when one of the terrorists first examined the route and was alerted to the presence of police snipers. Ultimately, the terrorists successfully left the building via a shuttle bus which took them to the nearby helipad where they boarded the helicopters with their hostages (Reeve 98-100).

Having then made their way to Furstenfeldbruck via helicopter, the terrorists and Israeli hostages were to be taken by a Lufthansa jet to Libya. The German police had one final, but poorly planned and executed, rescue attempt left: to ambush the terrorists during the transfer on the tarmac from helicopter to airplane (Schiller 199-200). Again without consulting the Israeli government, and seemingly without any expertise in such tactics, the operation pressed ahead despite many of the involved parties feeling that it was doomed from the start. A group of policemen posing as Lufthansa crew abandoned the mission at the last minute (Reeve 108-109). Details about the actual number of terrorists involved did not emerge until they had boarded the helicopters, and the information was never relayed to the airbase. The German sharpshooters were general policemen and had received no special training in marksmanship or special operational tactics (Reeve 106-107). They were given rifles not suitable for a sniper operation, and were not given the benefit of adequate lighting on the airfield. The police were unprotected and undermanned (Klein 83-85).

When the helicopter landed at Furstenfeldbruck, Issa and Tony, the two terrorist leaders, emerged to inspect the recently deserted airplane. Realizing that something was amiss, they returned quickly to the helicopters, while the German snipers were given the order to fire (Reeve 113). In the initial firefight, one terrorist was injured, while another was killed. As the gunfight ensued, the terrorists also held the German helicopter pilots at gunpoint, raising the number of hostages from 9 to 13 (Reeve 112).

Sensing chaos, Israeli officials, who had been reduced to onlookers, pleaded with the German police to do something. Eventually, they were allowed to climb the tower where the German snipers were camped, and attempt to negotiate with the terrorists using a megaphone. The terrorists responded with more gunfire. Meanwhile, after about 20 minutes, the German police called for backup from armored vehicles, which ultimately wound up stuck in a massive traffic jam, the result of thousands of onlookers flocking to the air base to witness the events (Reeve 118-119).

About an hour later, the armored vehicle finally arrived and approached the helicopters with the remaining terrorists and hostages. One terrorist, sensing the end was near, opened fire on the hostages at point-blank range, killing three of the Israelis (Reeve 120). Moments later, he jumped from the helicopter and tossed a hand grenade inside behind him. Snipers then shot down Issa and another terrorist, who fell to the tarmac just as the hand grenade went off, killing the remaining hostages inside that helicopter (Reeve 121). As flames engulfed the scene, another terrorist began gunning down the bound hostages inside the other helicopter. Another terrorist was killed by snipers fleeing from underneath the second helicopter.

A final armored car arrived to rescue the German helicopter pilots who had volunteered to participate in the operation and had been given a promise of safety by the terrorists. The police officers inside the car, though, but had not been in communication with the authorities already present at the scene. Seeing a figure in the shadows holding a rifle not far from a downed terrorist, a police officer in the armored vehicle opened fire. The police officer struck and killed the figure, only to tragically discover that it was one of the German snipers. Another officer was also struck by friendly fire but survived. Ambulances, which had not originally been present, were ordered to the scene but did not arrive for another 30 minutes (Reeve 121-122).

As the battle raged on past midnight, the four remaining terrorists opened fire on the unarmed firemen who arrived to put out the helicopter fire. As they attacked on the brave but defenseless firemen attempting to blanket the helicopter in foam, a sniper was able to take out one more terrorist. Finally, the gunshots stopped at 12:30 a.m. (Reeve 122). As authorities approached the scene, they found two surviving terrorists playing dead among the foam, while a third had been captured trying to flee the area (Reeve 133).

The victims’ families and onlookers from around the world breathed a momentary but misplaced sigh of relief following a late-night announcement. Government spokesman Conrad Ahlers appeared on television, stating mistakenly that all of the hostages had been freed (Reeve 129). The mysterious source of this information is still unknown, and no sufficient explanation for this erroneous announcement has ever been offered. Early morning newspapers picked up the announcement, including the Jerusalem Post, running headlines that the Israeli athletes were free. In reality, this couldn’t be farther from the truth (Schiller 201).

Around 3:20 a.m. on September 6, NBC sportscaster Jim McKay delivered the unforgettable words the shook the world:

I’ve just gotten the final word. When I was a kid, my father used to say our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized. Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They’ve now said that there were eleven hostages. Two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning. Nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.

How did it happen?

Lax security surely was partially responsible for Black September being able to conduct their operation. But Germans authorities had not suspected that security threats would arise from abroad. Likewise, British, American, French and Israeli intelligence agencies were also in the dark about any specific terrorist plans targeting Israelis at the Games (Schiller 202).

Shmuel Lalkin, the Israeli delegation head, had inspected the facilities that the Israelis would occupy in the Olympic Village ahead of time. After doing so, he complained to the Shin Bet (the Israeli security service) that the security provisions of the Germans were insufficient; his pleas went unanswered. A later investigation revealed that a variety of Israeli security officials had been given the opportunity by the Munich organizing committee to change the Israeli delegation’s dorm assignment but had declined to do so (Klein 91-21). Additionally, the Israeli team chose to come to Munich without its own security team; high-ranking Israeli security officials were later fired as a direct result (Schiller 206-207)

No one person or missed assignment was responsible for the attack. Given the nature of and approach to security at the Games, preventing the attack would have required a heavily armed police presence, which the police chief, Manfred Schreiber, acknowledged would have “compromised the serenity of the Games” (Schiller 205). Had a few armed guards, for example, been present at the entrance to the Olympic Village, it is doubtful they would have been able to hold off or prevent the attack given the number of terrorists and the weapons they possessed. In all, only $2 million was spent on security at the 1972 Munich Games (compared to $1 billion in 2004) (Klein 26).

The aftermath

The following day, a crowd of 70,000 showed up to Olympic Stadium to mourn the dead Olympians (Reeve 138). Attendees included several heads of state, as well as former heroes of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, American Jesse Owens and Sou Kitel of South Korea (Reeve 138). Israeli delegation head Shmuel Lalkin delivered a speech insisting that the Israeli spirit would not be broken, and that they would return to the Olympics. This was followed by a speech from Avery Brundage, the head of the International Olympic Committee, who strangely compared the terrorist tragedy with the exclusion of the Rhodesian delegation, viewed to be an illegitimate and racist regime, days earlier (Reeve 139).

Of the Arab countries, only Morocco, Jordan and Lebanon condemned the attacks. Egypt, set to host the Arab League meeting just a few days later, and having tried very hard not to get caught in the middle of this incident, declined to do so (Schiller 209-211). Many athletes left the Games of their own accord, including the entire delegation from the Philippines, 13 Norwegian athletes, and six members of the Dutch team.

For all the failings of the West German government, it is worth noting that they were nonetheless the first country to ever directly intervene militarily on Israel’s behalf (Schiller 211). Many German churches across the country also held vigils for the dead, and many more protested the resumption of the Games following the memorial service (Reeve 148).

Following the ceremony at Olympic Stadium, 10 of the 11 athletes’ bodies were returned in coffins draped in Israeli flags to Israel in an El Al jet. Only the body of David Berger, originally from Shaker Heights, Ohio, did not return to Israel. Rather, his parents had requested that he be buried in his hometown; arrangements for the transportation were assisted by President Nixon, who ordered a United States Air Force jet to West Germany to make the transfer (Reeve 142). As the bodies arrived, the athletes’ parents, spouses and children were understandably in a state of shock, while a sense of guilt ripped through the athletes that had survived the attack.

A minute of silence

For the past 38 years, the families of the Munich 11 have worked to obtain recognition of the Munich tragedy from the international and Olympic communities. Specifically, they have requested a minute of silence during the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games, a fitting tribute for athletes who lost their lives on the Olympic stage. Unfortunately, these requests have been turned down at every overture.

In 2012, the Summer Olympics will be held in London. That year will mark the 40th anniversary of the Munich Olympics. More than 20 million minutes will have passed since the terrorist attack in the Olympic Village. The families of the Munich 11, and people worldwide seeking to honor their memory, want only 1 minute to remember them. For more information about raising awareness and supporting the remembrance of the Munich 11, please read all about our CHANGE4CHANGE project.

Works Cited

Klein, Aaron J. Striking Back: the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s Deadly Response. New York: Random House, 2005. Print.

Reeve, Simon. One Day in September: the Full Story of the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and the Israeli Revenge Operation “Wrath of God” New York: Arcade, 2000. Print.

Schiller, Kay, and Christopher Young. The 1972 Munich Olympics and the Making of Modern Germany. Berkeley: University of California, 2010. Print.