Today is the 34th anniversary of the Munich massacre. On 6 September 1972, nine Israeli Olympic athletes were killed by Palestinian gunmen. The two-day drama came to a grim end in a botched rescue mission at a military airport. 17 people died in all. They were eleven Israelis (two died in the initial attack), one German policeman and five terrorists.
The Munich Olympics was the first in Germany since Hitler’s Games of 1936. They were intended to present a new, democratic and optimistic Germany to the world. The official motto was "the Happy Games." And for the first ten days, it lived up to its happy hype. The 22 year old US swimmer Mark Spitz won a record seven gold medals in the pool (with seven world records to boot). The young and dwarfish Russian gymnast Olga Korbut charmed television viewers worldwide and came back from a fall in her favourite event to win two gold medals. She was 17 years old. At the time she seemed very young for a major sportsperson.
But it was a country that wasn’t represented at the Olympics that stole the show. The Palestinian group Black September was named for the conflict of that name in Jordan in 1970. That was an Arab on Arab conflict. In September that year the Hashemite King Hussein of Jordan quelled a Palestinian attempt to overthrow the monarchy. The Hashemites go back to pre-Islam times but conveniently trace their ancestry the great-grandfather of the prophet Muhammad. The Palestinian refugees from the devastating loss of the 1967 Six Day War with Israel had become a significant population in Jordan. Fatah militants launched attacks on Israel and Israel retaliated. But with help from the Jordanian army the Israelis were repulsed. Arafat’s PLO claimed the victory. But after a visit to Nixon in Washington, Hussein clamped down on the Palestinians. In September, the PLO attempted to assassinate Hussein and launched a series of aeroplane hijacks. Hussein hit back, declared martial law and ordered his army to quell the camps. They succeeded but at the cost of many dead Palestinians. Black September the organisation was born in memory of the war and their dead.
So September 1972 had anniversary significance to the now two year old group. Israel remained the real bitter enemy ahead even of the Hashemites. What better stage to show the world that the Palestinians meant business than the great carnival of the Olympics. The attack on the Israeli athletes was well planned and easy to carry out. The Olympic Village had a poor excuse for security. By day ten many athletes had finished their work and wanted to party. Munich had plenty of places where people could party till the early hours. Then it was just a simple matter of climbing over the gates to get back to the officially closed village. Jumping over gates was easy for lithe athletes and some unsuspecting American athletes helped eight tracksuit clad Palestinians over the two metre high fence. Inside the Palestinians' duffel bags were guns and grenades. Once inside, they used stolen keys to enter two apartments being used by the Israeli team at 31 Connollystraße. Their attempt to break in was overheard by an Israeli, he shouted in Hebrew for his team-mates to get away. Some escaped thanks to his warning. Two athletes were killed in the ensuing struggle and nine were held captive.
The terrorists made demands. They wanted over 200 prisoners released from Israeli jails and also the freedom of the German terrorists the Red Army Faction’s Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, Israel turned down their part of the offer. Germany turned down Israel’s offer of help. The Germans proceeded to screw it up. Their Special Forces team launched an attack on the building unaware that the world’s TV cameras were beaming the coverage directly onto the TV sets watched by the hijackers. With utterly no hope of surprise (other to themselves) the attack had to be called off.
After two days of fruitless negotiation, the authorities pretended that they had given in to their demands to fly to Cairo. The kidnappers and Israelis were bussed and then taken by helicopter to the obscure military base of Fürstenfeldbruck. The Germans relied on five snipers to kill what they thought were five terrorists (whereas there were eight). Most of the five snipers did not have sharpshooter training and they were strategically placed where they would be in each others crossfire. Nor did they have any radio contact. A dummy jet was placed on the tarmac with another ‘five or six’ (no-one is exactly sure) policemen inside. When the two helicopters that carried the payload landed, the German police in the dummy jet voted to abandon their mission. That just left the five snipers, blissfully unaware of their colleagues’ decision. The Palestinians realised they were duped when they saw the now empty jet and ran back to the helicopters. The Germans opened fire and unleashed instant chaos. Two terrorists and a policeman were killed. The athletes were tied up in the two helicopters and could only sit trussed and watch their fate unfold. After an hour one of the surviving gunmen emptied his machine gun on one of the helicopters. A second gunman took care of the other helicopter. All nine Israelis were dead. The Germans cleaned up a few more Palestinians.
Initial news reports, published live on TV all over the world, indicated that all the hostages were alive, and that all the terrorists had been killed. Eventually an IOC spokesman had to issue the grim understatement: "initial reports were overly optimistic." While the siege was in progress, the Olympics stopped for a day (September 5) but after the midnight massacre, the IOC decided to resume the Games with the support of the Israeli Government - though not the surviving Israeli athletes – they went home immediately. The Egyptians left too, fearing reprisals. The high-profile and Jewish Mark Spitz was sped away by the Americans.
The Germans jailed the three surviving hijackers but conjured up a bizarre plan to get two of them out of the country. On 29 October, six weeks after the incident, hijackers of a German Lufthansa passenger jet demanded the release of the three surviving terrorists who were being held for trial. The three were immediately released by Germany. It was unseemly haste. Germany did not try to negotiate at all. Israel was furious and sent its own Mossad death squads to hunt them down.