‘The Happy Games are over’: The Munich Massacre
The ‘Heitere Spiele’ (Happy Games) in Munich in 1972 came to an abrupt end following the bloody hostage-taking of members of the Israeli Olympic team and the failed attempt to free them. The terrorist attack with international repercussions has become etched in the collective memory and continues to have an influence to this day. It marks the darkest hour in the history of the Olympic Games and in relations between the young State of Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany.
The attack by the Palestinian ‘Black September’ terrorist organisation on the Israeli team of athletes began on 5 September 1972 at 31, Connollystrasse in the Olympic Village in Munich. The foremost aim of the attack was to obtain the release of 234 Palestinian prisoners detained in Israel. The attack ended on 6 September in a dilettantish liberation attempt by the police on the military airfield in Fürstenfeldbruck. All eleven hostages were murdered and a policeman shot dead in the massacre. Five terrorists were also killed.
After the attack many demanded that the Olympic Games be cancelled. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), however, decided that they should continue. After a mourning ceremony in the Olympic stadium in Munich, the games continued after the brief interruption. In the words of the IOC President Avery Brundage: “The Games must go on”.
Improvised crisis management
The attack on the Israeli Olympic team in Munich in 1972 was the first hostage-taking by terrorists on West German territory. The security forces of the Summer Olympic that had consciously been planned to be peaceful, cosmopolitan and ‘happy’, were shown to have been extremely inadequately prepared for such a scenario. The consequences of the improvised crisis management were correspondingly devastating.
The first terrorist act in history to be broadcast live worldwide was a media event. However, not only a global public learnt about police deployment directly from the radio and television but the terrorists as well. In the afternoon on 5 September, the police, disguised as athletes in tracksuits, planned an attempted rescue. The unsuccessful operation had to be aborted as the electricity supply to the terrorists had not been cut off nor had a news ban been enforced.
Another attempt to free the hostages took place during the night of 5/6 September at the airbase in Fürstenfeldbruck. The police, only five in number, took up positions there against the eight hostage-takers. They had not received sufficient preparatory training and were poorly equipped for such a mission. The operation ended in disaster with the deaths of all the hostages.
The badly planned attempt to free the hostages by the Munich police and its catastrophic failure led to the formation of the counter-terrorism unit, the ‘Grenzschutzgruppe (GSG) 9’ (the Border Protection Group) that same month.
The aftermath of the Munich Massacre: Israel
Immediately following the Munich Massacre, West Germany tried in vain to maintain good relations with both Israel and the Arab states. After accusations made by both sides, Israel and West Germany were drawn into an open diplomatic conflict. The negotiated release of the surviving terrorists held in prison in Bavaria in October 1972 marked the low point in relations between the two states.
The Munich Massacre was the most heinous attack Israel had ever experienced up until that time. The Israeli government responded to the attack with an intelligence operation that lasted several years. In the course of an operation known generally as the ‘Wrath of God’, the secret service – the Mossad – carried out the targeted killing of members of the ‘Black September’ terrorist organisation. Innocent people, however, were also killed or injured, not least of all in 1973 in Lillehammer, Norway.
Even though the Olympic organising committee and the federal government had immediately paid compensation to the families of the victims, the court cases dragged on for more than 30 years. It was only in 2002 that these were ended. In an out-of-court settlement Germany made a compensation payment of three million euros to the surviving dependants.
For a long time the federal government went to great lengths to distance itself from any blame for what had happened. This changed when the President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, opened the memorial ‘Einschnitt’ (Incision) near the scene of the massacre in 2017. He officially acknowledged the failure of the German security authorities in Munich at the time.
The Munich Massacre continues to be important in the politics of sport today. For a long time Israel had demanded an appropriate form of commemoration from the IOC at the Olympic Games. Under the IOC President Thomas Bach a ceremony was held in the Olympic Village at the Rio Games in 2016 to commemorate the victims of the massacre. However, it was only in 2021 at the Tokyo Olympics that, for the first time, the long requested minute of silence became an integral part of the opening ceremony.
The aftermath of the Munich Massacre: The Arab World
The Munich Massacre resulted in the largest deportation wave of people of Arab origin in West German history. This led to an increasing number of protests at home and abroad as well as accusations of discrimination against Arabs. Many Palestinian organisations such as student associations and workers’ unions found themselves under general suspicion and were banned.
Controls at German borders and airports were tightened as a consequence. In addition, the assumption that Palestinian terrorist groups recruited their members from throughout the Arab world led to the introduction of visas being required by citizens of Libya, Tunisia and Morocco.
Of the eight terrorists who carried out the attack on the Israeli Olympic team, three survived the aborted rescue operation by the Munich policeforce of 6 September 1972. After only a short period spent in prisons in Bavaria, they were released on 29 October 1972 following negotiations – in exchange for the passengers and crew of the Lufthansa plane ‘Kiel’ which had been hijacked by a Palestinian terrorist commando. Two of the terrorists allegedly died later in targeted killings by the Israeli secret service Mossad.
In the Arab mass media the Munich assassins and the attack against Israel were generally enthusiastically received. As recently as 2016, Fatah – the strongest faction within the ‘Palestine Liberation Organisation’ – of which the ‘Black September’ terrorists were part, celebrated the Munich Massacre as a heroic deed.
Since 2021 the surviving dependants of the Israeli athletes murdered in the attack have been demanding compensation from the United Nations. A sum of 110 million euros, supposedly in accounts administered by a UN body, represents assets that were frozen worldwide after the death of the former Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011. Gaddafi’s involvement in the 1972 Munich Massacre has not yet been legally proven.