Episode 27 | Munich Olympics 1972 | The Israeli Massacre at the Olympic Games
This week I had the immense privilege to be the voice for the opening ceremony of the Twenty20 Tokyo Olympics. It was a surreal moment for me and my family. Broadcast to more than 1.5BILLION people around the world- voice jobs really don’t get much bigger than that. The statement I read was a message of remembrance for the millions around the world that we've lost to the Covid pandemic in the past year and a half but also a dedication to a group of Olympians that were murdered by Palestinian terrorist- The Israeli delegation at the Munich Olympics in 1972. This was the first time that this atrocity has been publicly recognized at the olympic games since the massacre 49 years ago.
One week into the games on the morning of September 5th, Palestinian militants known as Black September, took 11 Israeli athletes and staff hostage. For 20 hours high drama played out live on television, broadcast around the world - precipitated by a horrendously bungled police shootout. Because the drama was carried live on television, the suspense involved everyone, evoking memories of similarly intensely emotional events and a train of other murders that in hindsight seemed to begin that fateful day in Dallas in 1963 with the assassination of JFK.. This time the final monstrous twist was that the killings were in Munich, the original spawning ground of Nazism—and the victims were Jews.
To understand or try to understand the Black September militants decision for targeting the Israeli athletes we first need to understand the Israeli Palestinian conflict.
It’s one of the world’s longest-running and most controversial conflicts. It’s a deeply complicated issue but At its heart, it is two self-determination movements — the Jewish Zionist project and the Palestinian nationalist project — both laying claim to the same territory.
In 1970 A cell of Palestinian fedayeen (arab guerrillas operating in Israel against the government) formed a group known as Black September. In a nutshell Their MO was to take revenge upon King Hussein and the Jordanian Armed Forces who had killed and expelled 1000’s of Palestianns from Jordan. Black September was also seeking the release of 234 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. Their actions at the 1972 Olympic Games became a pivotal event in the evolution of global terrorism.
The 1972 Munich Olympic Games marked the first return of the Olympics to a German city since the 1936 Games in Berlin. Adolf Hitler’s use of those Games as a platform for the propagation of Naziideology was roundly criticized, as was the blatant racism and anti-Semitism characterizing the Games. The West German invitation had been extended, in part at least, to offer the world a contrast to the horrifying spectacle of Berlin in 1936. (East and West Germany wouldn’t be entirely united again until 1989 with the demolition of the Berlin Wall.
The spectre of the Summer Olympics held 4 years earlier, the 1968 Mexico City Olympicsalso loomed over Munich. On October 2, 1968, Just ten days before the 1968 games opened, around 10,000 university and high school students gathered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas for a peaceful anti-government protest. They listened to speeches and chanted No queremos olimpiadas, queremos revoluciуn! ("We don't want Olympics, we want revolution!”)Rally organizers in hind sight should have called off the protest when they noticed an increased military presence in the area. As military helicopters buzzed over the plaza they shot flares into the crowd and then all hell broke loose with government forces gunning down hundreds of innocent protestors.
As the games opened a week and a half later and throughout its entirety, the Mexican military was a conspicuous presence..
Munich organizers in contrast had a far less conspicuous security presence. They spent less than $2 million on security. and security personnel were to be unarmed, STRIKE 1, inconspicuous, STRIKE 2 and nonconfrontational. Strike 3. Jonny Bring in the terrorists!
According to a long-secret Israeli government document, the Kopel Report, members of the Israeli Olympic delegation sent to Munich in 1972 talked among themselves about the obvious lack of security at the athletes' living quarters. They knew that ground-floor dormitory accommodations were dangerous. They worried about their proximity to the Sudanese team's dorms. They were wary of Palestinian workers employed throughout the Olympic Village.
The athletes also noticed a dearth of security personnel. But they convinced themselves that this posed no threat. Surely security officers were on the job, but would be hard to spot if they were working undercover.
In the lead up to the Munich Games, organizers commissioned Police psychologist Georg Sieber to predict worst-case scenarios for the Munich games. Sieber imagined 26 ways the 1972 Summer Olympics could go terribly wrong. He came up with a range of possibilities, from explosions to plane crashes, for which security teams should be prepared.
Situation Number 21 was uncannily and eerily prescient. Sieber envisioned that “a dozen armed Palestinians would scale the perimeter fence of the [Olympic] Village. They would invade the building that housed the Israeli delegation, kill a hostage or two (“To enforce discipline,”, then demand the release of prisoners held in Israeli jails and a plane to fly to some Arab capital.” The German organizers balked, asking Sieber to downsize his projections from cataclysmic to merely disorderly — from worst-case to simply bad-case scenarios. Situations such as Number 21 could only be prevented by scrapping the Olympics entirely, they argued. Instead of taking heed and beefing up security, they scaled back their expectations of threat.
As they would soon discover and as history will reflect upon, they were terribly unprepared when an attack unfolded almost exactly according to Sieber’s hypothetical specifications.
The XX Olympiad began on August 26, 1972, as thousands of athletes from more than 120 countries celebrated the opening ceremonies of what the West German organizers had dubbed Die Heiteren Spiele (“The Cheerful Games”). The USA’s top swimmer Mark Spitz was making Olympic history - collecting an astounding 7 Gold Medals at the games and all world records! This would hold until fellow American Michael Phelps bagged eight gold medals in the Beijing Olympics in 2008. It was a festive time. Athletes from around the world we're celebrating not only metals but personal victories- after all only the best of each country makes it to the Olympics. It was the first Olympics to be broadcast globally via satellite. With over 1 billion people watching from their homes around the world.
For more than a week, the Games unfolded without incident. That is until the early hours of September 5th 1972. A horrific moment in world history.
The day of terror began at 4:30 AM. A group of eight Palestinian terrrorists affiliated with Black September—a militant offshoot of the Palestinian group Fatah, scaled the unguarded fence of the Olympic village. Disguised as athletes in track suits, They were heavily armed and kept their weapons in sports bags slung over their shoulders. Kalashnikov sub machine guns, pistols and hand grenades made up their cache of death and intimidation.
The Black September group already had had some members in Germany, among the Palestinians attending universities there. But the planning and training for the attack, according to Israeli intelligence, was carried out in Syria. Israel also accused Syria of helping the fedayeen get German work permits in order to reconnoiter. The week before the Olympics started, several members of Black September set out for Munich, traveling separately and by various means of transport.
Once they reached Munich, they carefully surveyed the Olympic Village; some got jobs among the 30,000 workers in the village. Athletes from Uruguay, who occupied quarters next to the Israelis, later remembered having seen some of the Arabs in the vicinity.
The terrorists made their move at 4:20 a.m. as the sprawling Olympic Village lay quiet and sleeping in the predawn darkness. Two telephone linemen saw a group of young men wearing track suits and carrying athletic equipment scale the 7-ft. fence surrounding the village. It was a fairly common occurrence; many of the Olympic athletes had broken training to enjoy a night on the town, and then scaled the fence to re-enter the compound. But once out of sight, the group stopped to blacken their faces with charcoal or put on hoods, and pull weapons out of their bags. Then with stolen keys to the complex in hand, they set off toward the Israeli quarters at 31 Connollystrasse. This street is named, in Olympic tradition, after U.S. Hammer Thrower Harold Connolly and his Czech-born wife, Olga, a discus thrower.
The 22 male Israeli athletes, coaches and officials shared five apartments in the modern three-story building. Uncertain how many of the three-room apartments housed Israelis, the intruders knocked on one of the doors of Apartment 1. Deep asleep was Wrestling Coach Moshe Weinberg, 32. He went to door and opened it a crack. Someone at the door asked in German, "Is this the Israeli team?” He then threw himself against the door trying to lock it when he saw the armed men, and yelled for his roommates to flee. Weinberg was hit by a burst of submachine-gun fire through the door.
Virtually the same scene was repeated at a second apartment. Wrestler Joseph Romano who Despite being on crutches due to an injury during competition, fought off the intruding Arabs and made an attempt to disarm one of the terrorists with a knife, but was mortally wounded. To prove their resolve, the terrorists castrated Romano and left his mutilated body on the floor of the apartment as a warning.
In Apartment 3 as the terrorists gathered more hostages and forced them back to Apartment 1, Wrestler Gad Tsabari broke from the group and dashed down a flight of stairs toward an underground parking garage bullets whistling by his ears, escaping to safety.
Meanwhile back in Apartment 1 Yosef Gottfreund, a 6-ft. 1-in., 240-lb. wrestling referee, held a door shut despite the efforts of five attackers pushing from the other side. "Hevra tistalku!" [Boys, get out!] Gottfreund yelled in Hebrew. But it was too late for him, the door was finally forced open and the terrorists poured in.
18 Israelis managed to escape in the chaos. Nine who did not make it to the exits were taken hostage. They were bound hand and foot in groups of three and pushed together onto a bed. Members of Black September then dragged Moshe Weinberg's body out onto the steps in front of the Israeli compound, showing the German police and the world watching that they meant business.
By 6 a.m. Munich police, alerted to the situation by escaping Israelis, had arrived and begun to take the measure of the situation. A crisis center, was set up in the village administration building 200 meters from 31 Connollystrasse. Police Chief Manfred Schreiber quickly assembled 600 men, along with armored cars, to cordon off the area. Meanwhile an ambulance crew retrieved the body of Moshe Weinberg.
Shortly after, Police chief Schreiber boldly walked up to the besieged apartment house, and was met by the leader of the group Lutif Afif - Wearing white tennis hat sunglasses and his face blackened with shoe polish. Schriber had considered grabbing the leader and in turn taking HIM as a hostage, when Afif opened his hand displaying a hand grenade his thumb on the pin. and asked 'Do you want to take me?’
At 9 a.m. the terrorists tossed an English message out a window that included 200 Arab prisoners presently held in Israeli jails and demanded their release. The list also included leaders of a gang of German leftist terrorists and a Japanese terrorist who had taken part in a recent massacre at Tel Aviv's Lod airport, in which 26 people died. As the police read the list, the Olympic Games continued only 400 yards away, amid 2,000 cheering fans watching a volleyball game between West Germany and Japan. —many of them still unaware of the drama unfolding.
The Palestinians insisted that they and their prisoners be flown out of West Germany to any Arab nation except Lebanon or Jordan, specifically aboard three airplanes that would leave at intervals. Authorities had three hours, until noon, to comply. If they didn’t abide by the demands, the hostages would be executed at the rate of two every 30 minutes.
By then a hot line was humming between Munich—and Jerusalem. In Israel, Premier Golda Meir summoned her senior advisers. It din’T take them long to decide: 1) not to negotiate with the terrorists or release any prisoners, 2) to tell the Germans they had full responsibility for any rescue action and 3) to indicate that Israel would not object should the Germans give the terrorists safe-conduct out of the country—provided that they received ironclad guarantees that the hostages would then be freed.
Thus West German Interior Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, was tightly limited in the decisions that he could make. Genscher bargained with the terrorists personally, and offered them an unlimited sum of money for the release of the Israelis; the Palestinians brusquely said no dice. Genscher then offered himself and other West German officials as hostages in the Israelis' place, - again he was rebuffed. He stalled for time by promising he was persuading the Israelis to change their decision about releasing prisoners. In fact, as Police Chief Schreiber later stated, the Germans were convinced the hostages fate had already been sealed by the decision not to comply with the terrorists' demands.
Genscher boldly demanded to see the hostages. He was Taken to a bedroom in one of the apartments, and saw the nine bound men sitting on the beds. He spoke with one of them who said they were doing OK. At Genscher's pleading, the Palestinians pushed back their deadline for executing the hostages to 5pm if their demands were not met. They ultimately changed the deadline for times before the fateful final act.
West German authorities had by now brought up 15 volunteer police sharpshooters, who wore armored vests under athletic uniforms. They were tracked by zoom-lens television cameras from atop the Olympic TV tower, broadcasting live to TV audiences around the world AND to the terrorists themselves. They could see every maneuver and phalanx of the authorities. Even the odd coded radio messages that accompanied their moves: "Samira to Eagle, the sky is clear." "Akal to 25, take the iron but be careful."
American television announcer Jim McVay, offered live play by play coverage of the crisis, ultimately announcing 16 straight hours during the hostage standoff.
Finally the TV coverage was switched off altogether on the chance that the terroists were also watching the stealthy sharpshooters edge up on them. Which they were. But there were not enough targets to fire at. If a sharpshooter hit one of the Arabs who peered out from time to time his colleagues inside would undoubtedly retaliate against the hostages.
Meanwhile crowds drawn by the live television and radio reports poured into the area. A German Olympic hostess walked boldly up the street and spotted a guerrilla peering out from a half-open door of the apartment house. Calling out to him in English to give yourselves up and nothing will happen. He answered with a quick no. A large group of young Jews broke through police barricades and sang loudly the Hatikvah, Israel's national anthem, followed by the U.S. civil rights hymn We Shall Overcome. Police sirens wailed in the background as army helicopters fluttered overhead.
West German authorities had already made the day's most important decision. and ruled out completely the possibility of permitting the terrorists to fly away with the prisoners, convinced that would be certain death. with the chancellor saying it would be impossible for an honorable country to allow it, noting their responsibility for the fate of the Israelis.
Realizing they couldn’t stall the increasingly edgy terrorists much longer, both parties agreed to a new plan. The fedayeen and the hostages would be taken to Munich's airport and flown out on a Lufthansa 727 jet to any place they named. The Arabs selected Cairo as their destination and agreed to a new 7 p.m. deadline.
However BOTH sides had other intentions. A 727 was flown to Fürstenfeldbruck, a West German airbase 16 miles outside of Munich. No crew could be found that was willing to take the plane out loaded with Arabs and Israelis; that really didn’t matter since the Germans had no intention to let them leave. Plans were under way to transfer sharpshooters to the airbase. The Germans were pinning hope on if the white-capped leader of the terrorists could be taken out by a sniper, his followers might surrender. Black September, as it turned out, were equally misleading about their intentions to head to Cairo. When they finally did reach the airfield, they demanded a crew of eight to take them to a destination that they would reveal only after they were airborne.
At 10 p.m., nearly 18 hours after they had started their assault, the eight guerrillas herded their prisoners, who were now tied together like a chain gang and blindfolded, out of the building and into a gray German army bus.
They were driven through a tunnel under the village to a strip of lawn 275 meters away where a makeshift helicopter pad was set up. They poured out of the bus and loaded on to Two choppers which took the the terrorists and their hostages on a 25-minute ride to Fürstenfeldbruck airport; a third chopper preceded them, carrying German officials and Israeli intelligence men.
Waiting at the airport was a ring of 500 soldiers. Sharpshooters were staked out, but, strangely and disastrously, there were only five of them to pick off the eight terrorists; other Sharpe shooters had been left at Olympic Village in case the Arabs presented targets of opportunity there.
When the helicopters set down at Fürstenfeldbruck, two Arabs hopped out and walked over to check out the 727. Two more jumped out and, although they had promised not to use Germans as hostages, ordered the helicopter crews to get out and stand by their choppers.
The sharpshooters —three of them posted in the control tower 40 yards from the helicopters and the other two on the field—had been instructed to fire whenever the Arabs presented the greatest number of targets. The cautious terrorists never exposed more than four of their own at a time. To complicate matters, the local police sharpshooters had turned down infra-red sniperscopes offered by the West German army because they had never been trained to use them. They sighted through regular scopes at a field illuminated by floodlights and stippled by shadows.
Regardless of this, moments later one marksman squeezed off a round with the other snipers quickly following suit. A hail of gunfire and mayhem ensued.
The two Arabs guarding the helicopter crews were hit, and one of the pilots was wounded. A third guerrilla on the tarmac was killed. But the sporty leader in the tennis hat and blackened face whom the police wanted to hit most of all, dived under a helicopter and began firing back. His shots managed to knock out the lights and the radio in the control tower. Bullets were ricocheting everywhere and crouched beside the control tower for cover was a Munich police sergeant. He was hit and killed. Dying at the scene.
Meanwhile the Israeli hostages remained on the two helicopters, gun fire erupting all around them. In yet another horrific act of cowardice a terrorist tossed a hand grenade at one of the choppers, in which one group of the four hostages were seated. The helicopter caught fire and all four burned to death. The remaining hosatages in the 2nd chopper were machine-gunned to death by the terrorists. The battle continued sporadically for another hour with Eventually five of the terrorists, including the leader, being killed. Three of the surviving Black September terrorists surrendered.
False Rumors spread, however, that the terrorists had been captured and the Israelis had been freed alive. This news in error was also broadcast live by television presenters. The world prematurely rejoiced. In Jerusalem, Israelis celebrated and Golda Meir opened a bottle of cognac, ready to propose a toast.
Four hours later, however West German authorities finally admitted that the good news was a terrible mistake .
West German authorities had captured three of the fedayeen, two of whom were wounded, but the Germans were not even sure who they were. Their pictures were flashed on television to see if viewers could identify the men and help trace their path to Munich. Black September demanded their release under threat of further atrocities.
The morning after the murders, an audience of 80,000 filed into the Olympic Stadium for a hastily arranged memorial service. The surviving members of the Israeli team, heavily guarded, sat with the other athletes in the center of the field. The stand was draped in black, and for the first time in Olympic history the flags of 122 competing nations and the Olympic flag flew at half-staff. Munich's Philharmonic orchestra played the sad strains of the funeral movement of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony.
Should the Games continue? 84 yr old retiring IOC chair Avery Brundage, declared that "the Games must go on"—and the crowd in the stadium cheered. One obvious consideration was to deny the Arab terrorists the satisfaction of having halted the Olympics. But the decision was a troubling one, and the Israeli government justifiably protested that the Games should be halted while Israel mourned its Olympic dead. Many felt that the tragedy was of such magnitude that the remaining Games should be called off. However they continued with the decision endorsed by the Israeli government and Israeli Olympic team.
Could this tragedy have turned out differently? Maybe no. Once the basic policy decisions had been made—not to release Arab prisoners in Israel for the hostages in Munich, not to allow the terrorists to leave the country with their Israeli captives—there was no choice but to try to stop the Black September guerrillas by force. The decision not to trade off prisoners was an Israeli one.
The final decision to stage an ambush was based on the West German conviction that if the terrorists were allowed to fly out with the hostages, they would kill the Israeli hostages elsewhere. The terrorists had indicated they would shoot them the following morning if Israel didn’t free the prisoners. That was probably indeed Black September’s intent—but there is still room for doubt. The Arabs, after all, had ignored their own ultimatums and let their deadlines go by before —and the hostages were worth more to them alive than dead.
The real fault was in the preventable lack of security throughout the 1972 Olympic games and the bungled execution of a SOLID plan after the hostages were taken,. The police operation was badly mismanaged, and that failure was compounded by a lack of zeal in the task. Most of the 500 German soldiers on hand, were being used to control crowds on the perimeter of the airfield and perhaps would have been more usefully employed in assaulting the helicopters.
The security budget for the Olympics has since mushroomed as you would imagine, from $2 million in 1972 to well over $1 billion in 2020.
One month after the massacre, another Palestinian terrorist group hijacked Lufthansa Flight 615, and demanded the West German government release the 3 Black September prisoners in a hostage exchange. Which they did. The Israeli government then launched Operation Wrath of God, which authorised Mossad to track down and kill those involved in the Munich massacre. Which they did. And Steven Spielberg did an outstanding job with the 2005 Movie Munich which is about the 1972 Munich massacre and Mossad’s operation to take out those responsible.