In what became known as the Munich Massacre, eight terrorists wearing tracksuits and sports bags filled with grenades and assault rifles, raped the Olympic Village at the Munich Summer Games before dawn of September 5, 1972. Terrorists, associated with Black September, an extremist faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, entered the apartment complex where the Israeli athletes were staying. Once inside, they murdered two members of the Israeli team and took nine others hostage. Audiences around the world then watched in horror as the international nightmare unfold on live television.
The terrorists demanded the release of 234 Arab prisoners from Israeli jails, as well as two German terrorists held in West Germany. When authorities attempted to rescue the hostages after an 23-hour standoff, all the hostages, a West German policeman and five members of Black September were killed.
More than 900 million viewers watched coverage of the terror attack on television, including the now iconic sight of a terrorist wearing a black ski mask on the balcony. It was the first time that an act of terror was broadcast live and took place at a major world sporting event.
Lax security during the post-Nazi Olympics
Hosting its first Olympics in Germany since Adolf Hitler’s Nazi propaganda and the racist 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, the West German government sought to emphasize its democracy and downplay any military presence. Hailing the event as “the Games of Peace and Joy” and “the Joyful Games”, West Germany shunned uniformed soldiers and police in favor of unarmed guards.
Less than 30 years after the end of World War II, when an estimated 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, Israel entered the Munich Olympics with its largest team of officials and athletes. According to the book One day in September by Simon Reeve, “several of them (were) older East Europeans still bearing physical and mental scars from Nazi concentration camps.”
Israeli officials have reportedly expressed concern over the lack of security at the Games and a New York Times report indicates “glaring” gaps in precaution. The way in which the terrorists were able to fatally take advantage of easy access to the village would alter security protocols and preparation for future Olympics.
The terrorist attack
Ten days after the start of the Games, on September 5, 1972, under cloak of darkness, terrorists stormed the Israeli team’s quarters at 4.30 a.m., after being helped over a metal fence by soldiers. athletes sneaking past an evening that took them for fellow Olympians.
After entering the Israeli dormitory, wrestling trainer Moshe Weinberg and weightlifter Yossef Romano were killed almost immediately. Horribly, Romano, according to the Associated Press, was neutered and Weinberg’s body was thrown onto the streets. Some escaped, but nine Israelis were quickly taken hostage, including American-born weightlifters David Berger and Ze’ev Friedman, wrestlers Eliezer Halfin and Mark Slavin, track coach Amitzur Shapira, the Marksmanship coach Kehat Shorr, fencer Andre Spitzer, weightlifting judge Yakov Springer and wrestling referee Yossef Gutfreund.
A 9-hour deadline has been set for terrorists’ demands for the release of political prisoners – failing to meet it, they said, would result in the execution of a hostage every hour.
Negotiations and requests
With no counterterrorism unit in place, the West Germans took control of the negotiations, with the Munich police chief as well as the Libyan and Tunisian ambassadors in Germany attempting to deal with the kidnappers. According to Guardian, the terrorists rejected the offer of “an unlimited sum of money” for the release of the hostages, but extended their deadline several times. At least one rescue attempt in the athletes’ dormitory was unsuccessful when terrorists could see officers approaching on television – their electricity had not been cut.
Israel’s immediate response was that there would be no negotiations. “If we are to give in, no Israeli in the world can feel that their life is safe,” Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir said at the time.
As negotiations failed, members of Black September demanded transport to Cairo and, along with the hostages, were moved via two helicopters to Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base, about 15 miles away, where a plane was waiting for them. In a bloodbathed rescue attempt, German snipers, with no sharp shooting experience, inadequate equipment, poor intelligence, and no means of communication between themselves, opened fire on the kidnappers. The terrorists retaliated, killing Anton Fliegerbauer, a German policeman positioned in a control tower. The nine hostages, bound in the helicopters, were killed by gunfire and a grenade.
Black September leader Luttif Afif and four other terrorists were also left dead, while three were captured alive.
Reaction and response
Following the attack, the Games were suspended for 34 hours, with a memorial service held on September 6 in the Olympic Stadium attended by 3,000 athletes and 80,000 spectators. The rest of the Israeli squad left Munich, as did Mark Spitz, the American Jewish swimmer who had already won seven gold medals at the Games, and the Egyptian, Filipino and Algerian teams, among others.
A month later, the three captured terrorists were freed in a hostage exchange after the hijacking of Lufthansa flight 615 and received a “hero’s welcome” upon their arrival in Libya, according to Reuters.
Meir and Israel, meanwhile, responded with Operation Wrath of God, a secret Mossad mission to kill the brains behind the Munich massacre. Several suspects were murdered in the coming months, but the mission was put on hold when an innocent man was mistakenly killed in Norway in 1973. The target of the shooting, Black September operations chief Ali Hassan Salameh, said was murdered by a car bomb in 1979 in the final mission of the operation.
“Israeli Team Slaughter Overshadows Sport at 1972 Olympics,” by Aron Heller, Associated Press, August 7, 2020.
“Terrorist indignation in Munich in 1972”, by Simon Burnton, The Guardian, May 2, 2012.
FACTBOX: “The Munich Olympics Murders and Their Consequences,” by Reuters staff, Reuters, March 7, 2012.
A September Day: The Full Story of the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s Revenge Operation ‘Wrath of God’, by Simon Reeve, Simon & Schuster, 2018.
“Tragedy in Munich”, National Park Service