Germans envisioned the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich as the antidote to the 1936 “Nazi” Olympics in Berlin, when the Reich’s capital was awash with swastikas and Adolf Hitler sat prominently in front-row seating. So much in Germany had changed since the war’s end, and the prosperous, liberal West Germans wanted desperately to show it off to the world.
In their darkest nightmares, West Germany’s authorities never imagined a tragedy so grim and historically fraught as the hostage-taking and murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. “In terms of haunting mental pictures of Munich ’72, nothing will ever compete with those masked gunmen guarding the Israeli compound in the Olympic Village,” writes the historian David Clay Large in his superb book Munich 1972. The cold-blooded murders, the most lethal terrorist attack in post-war Germany, and the bungled rescue attempts, completely upended the country’s costly, choreographed attempt to flout its progressive post-war incarnation.
The “Munich massacre” would reverberate far beyond Germany, and even leave its mark on the Games today. In Munich 1972, Large, an American scholar of contemporary Germany, adds to his impressive stack of books with a gripping, finely researched chronicle of those Games set against the backdrop of the tumultuous politics of the 1960s and 1970s. The bloody slayings weren’t the only political incursion into those infamous Games. So mired was this Olympics in controversy and acrimony that by their end, argues Large, “among the questions raised by these most tragic of Games was whether the Olympic flame should not stay extinguished for good”.
That Munich was even selected at all as a host city offended many observers. After all, Germany was still battling its demons from the not-so-distant past. And of all cities Munich, which during the Nazi years had been dubbed “Capital of the Movement” because of Hitler’s staging of his 1923 Beer Hall Putsch there. Moreover, the Federal Republic was perched on the frontline of the Cold War, staring across the Iron Curtain at another (communist) Germany. So prickly were the relations between East and West that Games organisers bent over backwards just to get the Soviet-orbit countries on board.
The new Munich, however, was a modern metropolis, rich in culture and home to the high-tech industries that had catapulted the Federal Republic from a bombed-out shell to a booming, export-led economy in just two decades. The whole idea was to make the XX Olympics as “un-Berlin” as possible. The entire event was to have the light-hearted air of a freewheeling carnival. Even the colours of this Olympics were carefully chosen: soft, tranquil pastels as opposed to the martial blacks, reds and browns of the Nazis. The magnificent glass roof, a canopy that swooped over the Olympic Stadium, was the city’s extravagant new pride, a multimillion deutschmark design that exuded openness and good vibes.
Indeed, from the very beginning, this Olympiad, supposedly above the raucous fray of politics, was mired in geopolitical haggling. In addition to the Eastern Europeans kicking up a fuss, the African countries threatened a boycott should white-ruled Rhodesia be invited. China vowed to stay away – and did – if Taiwan competed.
The security threats the Germans took most seriously were on the domestic front, such as African-American militancy on the US team, which had raised its head in Mexico four years previously and had plenty of supporters in the black GIs stationed in the country. Of course, there was also the Baader-Meinhof group among other leftist radicals that had been wreaking havoc in West German cities. Volatility from Middle Eastern participating nations was also of concern, too. But the Games’ security was also meant to reflect Germany’s new, peaceful bearing. The Olympic Village was surrounded by a two-metre-high chain-link fence, as barbed wire would have seemed too reminiscent of the concentration camps. The daytime security guards wore light blue leisure suits and carried walkie-talkies. The entire operation was in the hands of the provincial Bavarian police, who were ultra-sensitive to outside meddling.
Despite existing security threat scenarios, concrete measures such as placing special guards near the dorm rooms of the Israeli athletes did not occur. Even Israeli security forces didn’t bother. After the first week of the Games, just about anybody who wanted could come and go from the village, so laid back was the mood. The event had already launched petite Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut to fame and witnessed the US swimmer Mark Spitz capture a record seven gold medals. The Germans and everyone else were head over heels about the extravaganza in the Alps.
September 5, the competition’s 10th day, changed everything. Nine heavily armed Palestinian commandos from Black September, an arm of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, scaled the back fence and took much of the Israeli team hostage. Two of the team were gunned down attempting to resist the attack. One of the bullet-riddled corpses was dumped in full view for the world’s cameras. The horror of the situation was plain for all West Germans to see: once again Jews faced political murder on their soil.
The terrorists demanded the release of 236 “political prisoners”, most of them Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
The attack caught the Germans so off guard they could only bumble until a hail of bullets and a propane explosion took the hostages’ lives. The Federal Republic didn’t even have a special counterterrorism unit to deal with hostage crises (this would have been too reminiscent of the SS or the Gestapo). Israel did, but when it offered its services to the Germans, they turned them down.
The world watched in horror as the masked terrorists prowled back and forth across the balconies. Finally, the terrorists agreed to accept a flight, with the hostages, to the Middle East. At the airport one half-baked German plan after another went awry. After a chaotic gun battle, the German police finally located armoured personnel carriers with which they advanced on the hunkered-down gunmen. The terrorists turned on the hostages, cruelly murdering every one of them before trying to make a getaway. In a gun battle, five of the terrorists were killed and three arrested.
The bloodshed constituted what today is still called “the darkest day in the history of the Federal Republic”. The Israeli government shrieked at the Germans for their incompetence. The Germans blamed one another. There was serious consideration of discontinuing the Games there and then, a response that Large thinks would have been appropriate. But, no, the Games had to go on. Olympic face had to be saved, races had to be won. The fact that the Bavarians seemed to see themselves also as victims of the terror was summed up in newspaper headlines, with one calling it “the most beautiful Olympics ever wrecked”.
The ugly pall of the Munich tragedy has hung over every subsequent Olympics. Security budgets have doubled and tripled, to the point that for the Atlanta Games in 1996, security was the largest budget item of the entire event. In the run-up to the 2004 Athens Games, authorities rounded up and incarcerated local leftists and suspect Muslims. In 2008 in Beijing some 100,000 soldiers guarded the Olympic city.
Despite the endless doping scandals, host cities that inevitably wind up bust and jousting on and off the field that does more to inflame nationalist tensions than assuage them, the great and glorious Olympics must persevere. If the events of September 5 and 6, 1972, didn’t put a stop to them, surely nothing ever will.
Paul Hockenos is the author of Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany.