This article first appeared in spiked on 5 September.
Fifty years on from the cold-blooded murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, the shock waves can still be felt.
As a 12-year-old watching those Olympics, I was at first captivated, like much of the world at the time, by the sporting performances on show – from Mark Spitz, an American swimmer who won seven gold medals in seven world-record times, to the tiny Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut, whose performances were error-prone but often sublime.
Then, early in the morning of 5 September 1972, the news suddenly broke. A group of eight Palestinian terrorists from the Black September organisation had entered the Olympic village and killed an Israeli coach, Moshe Weinberg. Later, it emerged that they had also fatally wounded Yossef Romano, a weightlifter, in an initial struggle. They took another nine members of the Israeli team hostage.
For most of the rest of the day, the world’s media were focused on the events in the Munich Olympic village. A shot of a hooded Black September gunman standing on the balcony of the Israeli team’s apartment was broadcast around the world. German officials and politicians, including interior minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, attempted to negotiate the release of the hostages. They even offered to take the hostages’ place. But the terrorists refused. Israel rejected Black September’s demand to release 200 prisoners in its custody – sticking to its policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists. The Israeli authorities also wanted to send in their own special-forces team to rescue the hostages, but Germany denied the request.
Late in the evening, the scene shifted. The gunmen and hostages were allowed to travel by helicopter to the nearby NATO air base at Fürstenfeldbruck. The German authorities told the terrorists that they would be flown to Cairo next, but this was only a pretence to allow a rescue attempt to take place. Soon after the group arrived at Fürstenfeldbruck, a firefight broke out and it was mistakenly announced to the media that the hostages had been saved. Almost an hour later, there was renewed fighting and the remaining nine Israeli hostages were killed by a terrorist grenade. Yossef Gutfreund, David Berger, Yacov Springer, Ze’ev Friedman, Amitzur Shapira, Eliezer Halfin, Mark Slavin, Andre Spitzer and Kehat Shorr all died that day. A German policeman was also killed in the crossfire.
Five of the terrorists were killed in the botched rescue attempt while three were captured. Despite the terrible events of 5 September, the Munich Olympics carried on, albeit under a dark cloud.
These events are often referred to today as the ‘Munich massacre’, but that is far from an ideal description. The Palestinian gunmen involved were certainly willing and ready to kill Israeli athletes, but there was far more to it than that. The Munich events crystalised important trends in relation to Germany, Israel and the Palestinian national movement.
The Munich Olympics were meant to be an important step in the rehabilitation of Germany (divided though it was between East and West) on the international stage. During the 1950s and 1960s, Germany was still tarnished by its Nazi past. The hope was that the Olympics would symbolise the emergence of a new non-militaristic Germany.
But this hope was dashed. As a top-secret report from the US Central Intelligence Agency later made public said: ‘The Munich tragedy has dealt a major blow to Germany’s self-esteem.’
The Munich massacre also seemed to reveal an institutional diffidence in German politics. German politicians were often reluctant to take the lead in difficult situations. That does not mean that no politicians were willing to take individual risks. On the contrary, the German interior minister was reportedly willing to trade himself for an Israeli hostage. But the West German state seemed excessively anxious about dealing with violent threats. For example, eight weeks after the Munich events, a Lufthansa flight was hijacked by two Black September Palestinian terrorists. The three terrorists who had been captured in Munich – Jamal Al-Gashey, Adnan Al-Gashey and Mohammed Safady – were then released by the German authorities to meet the demands of the hijackers.
Fifty years on, the German state is clearly fundamentally different from its West German incarnation. Nevertheless, it is still reticent about playing a decisive role in world affairs. Only six months ago, Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, announced a ‘Zeitenwende’ (a turning point or start of a new era) in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The thrust of his speech was that Germany would now be prepared to take a lead in an international crisis. In practical terms, this involved, among other things, upping its military spending and upgrading its military equipment. That Germany has only now made this move, nearly 80 years after the end of the Second World War, shows that it is still having trouble fully coming to terms with its terrible past.
From an Israeli perspective, the lesson of Munich 1972 was that it could not rely on Western powers to protect its citizens. It launched Operation Wrath of God as a covert assassination operation to kill those involved in the Munich events, as well as others it regarded as a terrorist threat. Although there are conflicting accounts of exactly what this involved, the broad intent of Israel’s actions was clear.
For the Palestinian national movement, the situation was more complicated. The term ‘Black September’ came from the bloody purging of the infrastructure of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Jordan by the Jordanian military in 1970. After this, it became clear to the Palestinians that they could not rely on Arab regimes to give them backing. Jordan had become fearful that the PLO had created a state within a state in a country with a large Palestinian population. Under such circumstances, Jordan had no compunction about crushing the Palestinians with military force. The Palestinians were left feeling deeply isolated.
However, barely two years after the Munich attack, then PLO leader Yasser Arafat was invited to address the general assembly of the United Nations. Although Black September was kept at arm’s length from the PLO (the exact relationship between the two is disputed), its actions paradoxically helped give the Palestinian leadership respectability. Black September was closed down in 1973-74 and the PLO agreed not to engage in violent acts outside of pre-1967 Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza strip.
In Britain, the Munich events did not have nearly as much of an impact with the general public as in Germany, Israel or among the Palestinians. No doubt, many from an older generation remember what happened 50 years ago, but most today will have little knowledge of it.
But for many British Jews the impact of the Munich events persists. One reason why Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader from 2015 to 2020, was so widely loathed among the Jewish community was his alleged association with those who planned the Munich attack. In 2018, it emerged that in 2014 he had been present at a wreath-laying ceremony in Tunisia near the graves of four members of Black September. Corbyn acknowledged he was present at the ceremony but said he was not involved in it. Instead, he was there to commemorate a 1985 Israeli air strike on Tunisia.
Less well known among the general public, but perhaps more striking, was the refusal of the International Olympic Committee to allow a one-minute silence for Israel’s Munich victims at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Munich massacre. Accounts vary as to whether or not David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister at the time, backed calls for a minute’s silence at the games. In the event, there ended up being a quiet memorial ceremony in central London instead.
The Munich massacre and its ripple effects help explain, at least in part, the striking levels of existential fear among Britain’s Jewish community today. According to a poll commissioned by the Anti-Semitism Barometer 2021, fewer than six in 10 British Jews say they have a long-term future in Britain while 46 per cent avoid displaying outward signs of their Jewish identity in public. Over eight in 10 still see the Labour Party as too tolerant of anti-Semitism despite recent attempts to clean up its image.
The legacy of the events of 5 September 1972 has left Britain’s Jewish community feeling vulnerable. There is an acute fear that, in the event of trouble, the authorities might not have their back. This anxiety helps explain the widespread – although not universal – support for Israel among Britain’s Jews. Many feel it would at least provide a refuge in the event of anti-Semitic violence getting out of control. Whatever one’s views on specific Israeli actions, it should be understandable why many Jews feel this way.
So, while much has changed since terrorists took an athletics team hostage half a century ago, the slaughter that followed still casts a shadow over Germany, Israel and Jewish communities around the world. The dark legacy of the Munich massacre is still very much with us.
Note on the photo: The photo shows the memorial plaque in front of the Israeli athletes’ quarters at the Olympic village in Munich. Although the German and Hebrew wording may appear similar there is a significant difference. The German says that the athletes died a violent death. The Hebrew says the athletes were cruelly murdered and asks for God to avenge their blood ( a traditional Jewish phrase for those killed by anti-Semites). Both say what happened in the building, when it happened, name the athletes killed and call for their memory to be respected.
Photo credit: "Memorial Plaque in Front of the Israeli Athletes' Quarters" by Paul Robert Lloyd is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.