A Half Century After The Atrocity, Germany Offers Apologies
Fifty years after Palestinian terrorists murdered eleven Israeli athletes who had gathered in Munich for the 1972 Olympic Games, the German government has admitted its responsibility for the lax security that enabled the assault, the disastrous police response, and decades of indifference to the suffering of the victims’ families.
German officials had failed to heed multiple warnings about a planned Palestinian attack. Olympic organizers decided in favor of light security, leaving the Olympic Village exposed as an easy target for the eight PLO terrorists who easily scaled the chain-link fence surrounding the Village compound to perpetrate their assault.
Two Israelis were violently killed inside the Village, while the terrorists took nine others hostage and transported them by helicopter to Furstenfeldbruck Air Base. The terrorists, armed with Kalashnikov rifles and grenades, had demanded and received safe passage with their hostages to the airstrip, where they would be flown to a nearby terrorist hideout.
U.S counter-terrorism experts later identified the killers who called themselves the Black September group as an offshoot of arch-terrorist Yassir Arafat’s PLO, headquartered in the West Bank.
Munich Killers Released
German authorities had planned an ambush at the air base but the police, besides being poorly equipped, were ill-trained in commando missions. Despite this ineptitude, the government refused to allow Israeli military experts with more experience in countering terrorist attacks to handle the rescue operation.
The standoff ended in a disastrous gun battle in which all nine hostages held captive in the helicopter were blown to bits by terrorist grenades. Five of the terrorists and a German policeman also died in the firefight. Three of the killers were captured alive.
The Munich atrocity was carried out just thirty minutes from Dachau, where, during the Holocaust just 27 years earlier, about 32,000 Jewish prisoners were murdered by the Nazis. The echoes of Nazism that resounded over post-war Germany were supposed to be banished by the benevolent universalism of the 1972 Munich Olympics.
The lavish accommodations, festivities and public relations extravaganza would showcase the “new Germany” as a peaceful democracy welcoming all nations equally.
What the world witnessed instead were echoes of the “old” Germany in the arrogance and callousness the government displayed toward human suffering. In a city notorious for hosting the rise of Nazism and serving as the heart of the Nazi party, Jews were again murdered for being Jewish while the perpetrators were given a virtual pass.
Instead of bringing the surviving terrorists to trial and administering justice, the government released them just eight weeks after the massacre in a suspicious “prisoner swap,” after a Lufthansa jetliner was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists.
The Munich killers were flown to Libya where they were liberated and given a hero’s welcome.
[The families’ lawyers, Alexander and Carry Knoops, said they uncovered evidence that the Lufthansa hijacking was secretly initiated by West Germany. Fearful of retaliation attacks by Arab terrorists, the Germans sought a way to wash their hands of the Munich murderers, according to a 2000 article by the Guardian.] [See Sidebar]
Wall of Silence
Within a day of the attack, the 11 coffins of the slain Jews were loaded onto a plane for the trip back to Israel, while the Munich sporting events resumed, as if nothing had happened.
“The Israelis went home in coffins and the world went back to its games,” wrote the Boston Globe.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, German officials imposed a wall of silence, brushing aside inquiries from the families of the victims about how their loved ones had died.
“The [authorities] were brutal. They were abusive – they humiliated us,” Mrs. Ankie Spitzer, widow of one of the victims, told ABC News. She recalled the stonewalling and disdain she met from German and Bavarian officials when she arrived in Munich, a 27-year old widow with a two-month old daughter, in search of the truth behind her husband Andrei’s murder.
She remembered entering the bloodstained, debris-strewn apartment in the Olympic Village in Munich, where Moshe Weinberger and Yossef Romano were the first to be killed. Spitzer said she made a promise to herself to never stop talking about what she saw at the gruesome crime scene.
Over successive trips to the police and the coroner’s office, she met with obstinate silence and outright lies. Everyone, from the police to state and federal officials, insisted there was no information to share, Mrs. Spitzer told ABC News. Instead, they told her “dead is dead” and accused her and the Israeli athletes of bringing terrorism to German soil.
The posture of indifference and hostility continued for decades afterward, she said, as she and others fought for transparency about the tragedy.
Whistleblower Leaks German Documents
The government’s silence was finally breached in 1992 when a whistle-blower leaked 80 pages of classified documents to the families to prove the government had withheld information all along, the Times of Israel reported. Only then did the various levels of government agree to share some official reports, and victims’ families learned how they died.
The revelations led the families to sue the German authorities for their inept handling of the terror attack. But by then the statute of limitations had passed. For half a century, the families campaigned for the government to release the archives about the massacre, take responsibility and pay compensation.
Last week, just days before the 50th anniversary of the attack and amid mounting pressure, the city, state and federal governments agreed to meet those demands.
Fifty years after the massacre, the government finally agreed to pay roughly $36 million in compensation, reported the Globe and Mail. Officials also pledged to hold an inquiry that would unseal the archives and finally expose all the facts surrounding the atrocity.
In a joint statement with Israeli President Isaac Herzog last week, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that Germany “recognizes the terrible suffering of the murdered and their relatives.”
The sincerity of the remembrance ceremony would be tested by whether “we are prepared to recognize painful facts,” Steinmeier said, noting that the events of 1972 were a string of “misjudgments and of dreadful, fateful mistakes of failure.”
“Far too many questions remain unanswered,” he added, questioning the callousness of having the Games resume on the very day a memorial service was held for the slain athletes.
The German president pointed to the task that lay ahead for an Israeli-German commission of historians, to investigate the critical failures and questions that were left to fester for fifty years.
According to the Globe and Mail, it was Bavaria’s Commissioner for Anti-Semitism, Ludwig Spaenle, who urged Steinmeier to reach a deal with the families. He described the response in 1972 as a “complete failure of the state” and said the German handling of the massacre in the subsequent decades “weighs just as heavily.”
It is “characterized by cover-up, concealment, suppression, even deception, lies and denial of responsibility,” he wrote to Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Aug. 26. “It is an open wound in our country’s history.”
All the families have accepted the accord with Germany, which their lawyers said was subject to a non-disclosure agreement at the request of German negotiators. According to Reuters, it includes roughly $36.6-million in compensation, about five times what the government offered a few months ago.
“Everybody is asking now if I finally feel closure,” said Mrs. Spitzer whose 27-year old husband, Andrei Spitzer, was among the slain. “They don’t understand that there will never be closure. The hole in my heart will never ever heal.”
In the early hours of Sept. 5, 1972, eight members of Black September, a wing of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, scaled a chain-link fence to carry out the planned assault. The terrorists broke into the Israeli quarters at 31 Connollystrasse. In the first stage of the assault, they killed Moshe Weinberg and Yossef Romano, mutilating Weinberg and hurling Romano’s body to the street.
They captured and bound nine others at gunpoint, using the hostages to demand the release of 200 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel, according to historian David Large, author of a book about the massacre.
Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir refused the terrorists’ demands because of the precedent it would set in encouraging terrorists to carry out an endless spree of kidnappings and hostage-taking. Over the next 20 hours, negotiations broke down and two German police rescue efforts were launched.
The first operation was called off when officials realized they had allowed what was supposed to be a secret ambush to be aired on live TV, where the terrorists gleefully watched police actions from the apartment where they held the Israelis hostage.
The second rescue went ahead despite the German police being outnumbered and ill-prepared. The terrorists and hostages had been moved to an airfield by helicopter, in a ruse orchestrated by German security forces to ambush the terrorists, while pretending to comply with their demands.
In his book, One Day in September, journalist Simon Reeve explains that the officers had neither the training nor the equipment to carry out the operation, but plunged ahead blindly nonetheless. As the gun battle escalated, the terrorists threw grenades into the helicopter, blowing it up with all its occupants.
“The action ended in disaster, leaving all the hostages dead,” reads the blunt assessment on the Bavarian government’s website.
Scathing Report From Mossad
In 2012, Israel released 45 official documents on the killings, including specially declassified material which slammed the performance of the German security services.
Included in the archive is an official account of the massacre based on a report from former Mossad chief Zvi Zamir, who accused the German security forces of making no effort to save the hostages’ lives while carrying out an ambush doomed to fail.
“On the evening of September 6, 1972, Zvi Zamir returned from Munich and reported to Prime Minister Golda Meir and Ministers Allon, Eban and Galili,” the report begins.
“With great emotion, he described the events to the shocked ministers –including the rejection of his attempts to be involved in the [rescue] operation, the chaos, the lack of professionalism and the apathy displayed by the German forces.”
“‘They did not make even a minimal effort to save lives, did not take even a minimal risk to save people, neither theirs nor ours,’” Zamir said. In his opinion, the Germans only wanted to finish with the hostage business at all costs, in order to get on with the Olympics.
“When Golda asked Zamir why the Israeli delegation had not been guarded, he quoted the words of the security officer at the Israeli embassy in Bonn. The officer had asked the local police to provide protection for the delegation, and his reply was: ‘What are you thinking about? The Olympic spirit reigns here and nothing will happen.’ (Document 15).
Golda Meir reacted visibly to this devastating story, the report continues, but made a strange comment. “It is a German matter,” she said. “We are not responsible for what the Germans did.”
However, in view of Zamir’s harsh report, the prime minister had misgivings about the friendly message she had earlier sent to Chancellor Brandt earlier, with words of praise for the Germans’ “rescue efforts.” She now regretted that message. She accepted Galili’s suggestion to send Brandt another message based on the new intelligence, demanding an investigation as soon as possible.
“A very carefully worded telegram was sent to Brandt,” the official’s account says.
A day after his return, Zamir presented the prime minister with a detailed written report, repeating his information in more organized and precise language, and faulting the Germans for their failed operation. It was carried out “stupidly, ineptly,” he said, “which led to the tragic outcome.”
The report was translated into English and sent to the West German government, along with a diagram of the scene at the airfield.
As is well known, the Germans ignored Prime Minister Golda Meir’s “carefully worded telegram” seeking an investigation and stonewalled all inquiries for the next fifty years.
Operation Divine Wrath
“The killings were a trauma for the Israeli population,” recalls Ehud Barak, a former Israeli prime minister who at the time served as a commando leading an elite military unit. “The nature of the massacre, the helplessness of the athletes, the fact that it was on German soil and then the killers actually being released…All this hit a very deep nerve,” he told AFP.
It sparked “deep sorrow and outrage and a drive to prevent similar attacks in the future,” Barak said.
The release of the Munich killers by Germany was celebrated by the Palestinians. The Israelis, still grieving over the massacred athletes, were stunned.
Within hours of hearing the news that the terrorist were free in Libya, then Prime Minister Golda Meir reportedly authorized the Mossad to launch Operation Divine Wrath.
The clandestine program was spearheaded by then Mossad chief Zvi Zamir, Golda Meir and her counterterrorism adviser, Aharon Yariv, attested historian Michael Bar-Zohar in an interview with France 24.
Aware it would be impossible to hunt down all members of Black September, the three devised a strategy of “smashing the head of the serpent,” by killing the group’s leadership, Bar-Zohar said.
Over the next few months, the heads of Black September and their allies from the Palestine Liberation Organization began to die in mysterious circumstances in Rome, Paris and Cyprus.
In January 1979, nearly five years after the start of the operation, Al Hassan Salameh, the leader of Black September, was killed by a car bomb in Beirut.
Ronen Bergman, author of the book, “Hashkem Ve’hargo,” Rise and Kill First, about Israel’s targeted killings, said the Munich attacks made Israel realize foreign countries could not be relied upon to protect Israeli citizens from terrorist marauders.
“There is a direct link between what happened in Munich and the targeted killings of terrorist leaders”—not only by Israel but by other countries as well—“in our own time,” he said.
EYEWITNESS REPORT OF A SPECTACULAR FAILURE
An eyewitness to the 1972 massacre, who served on the National Olympic Committee executive board at the time of the Games, recorded his memories of the attack and the rescue fiasco in a 1975 interview.
Mr. Davie Mckenzie, who died in 1981, testified that he saw events unfold in Munich from his balcony that overlooked the rooms of the Israeli athletes. “I was able to watch it closely and in very real detail … how they were taken out and the like,” McKenzie recalled in the interview, cited by ABC News.
“I don’t suggest that the situation was not serious and tragic, but the reaction of the Germans didn’t fit, it was totally too dramatic, with too many troops involved, too many Bren gun carriers and helicopters and tanks involved,” asserted Mckenzie in the interview. “What on earth they proposed to do with all this vast firepower in a sensitive hostage situation…it’s clearly a mystery.
“At the same time, the sharp-shooters that were supposed to kill the terrorists were too few in number, [and] issued with rifles to be used in the evening, without infrared scopes on them. It wasn’t handled well at all,” testified the eyewitness.
“I understand that requests by the Israeli government to handle the operation with their special knowledge and experience in terrorism were rejected, as were requests from the US to assist. I thought the Germans reacted in a senseless way … I personally feel they must take some of the blame for what actually occurred,” stated Mckenzie.
Bonn ‘Faked’ Hijacking To Free Munich Killers
The book, One Day in September, by journalist Simon Reeve, as well as an award-winning 1999 documentary by the same name, reveals a likely reason the German government stonewalled all requests for information about the Munich Massacre by relatives of the slain Jews and the government of Israel.
The reason, says Reeve, is that the Palestinian terror group that killed the Israeli athletes was allowed by the German government to hijack a passenger jet two months later, to provide a ‘cover story’ for Germany’s release of the three terrorists captured alive at the scene.
Fear drove this “devil’s bargain,” according to Reeve. Afraid the terrorist gang would carry out their threats of bombings and hijackings on Germans if their comrades were not released, Bonn chose a policy of appeasement, and released the jailed terrorists under the guise of a prisoner swap.
“On October 12, 1972 – not even eight weeks after the Munich attack – a Lufthansa Boeing 727 on its way from Damascus to Frankfurt was hijacked by two terrorists as it left Beirut airport. There were only 11 passengers on board, all male,” reported the Guardian.
The pilot was ordered to fly to Munich and the terrorists’ demands were relayed to Bonn. Within hours, the German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, gave in. The Munich killers were handed over and the Boeing passengers were set free. The Israelis were not consulted, according to Reeve, and found out with the rest of the world.
Two of the surviving terrorists were later killed by Mossad, but Jamal Al-Gashey, the third, went into hiding in North Africa where he survived for many years. According to the Guardian, he surfaced in 1999, when he gave an interview to the research team for “One Day in September, headed by Kevin McDonald who produced the documentary.
‘An agreement had been made with the German government for our release after the hijacking of a Lufthansa plane,’ Al-Gashey told researchers. ‘I found out later.’
Ulrich Wegener, then a key aide of the Interior Minister, confirmed the German government was determined not to risk confronting the Palestinians after the attack on the Olympics, according to the Guardian article.
“Though Willy Brandt himself denied any deal,” the article said, “Al-Gashey’s allegations are supported by a range of senior German, Palestinian and Israeli intelligence and political sources.”