Munich Massacre 1972
An in–depth look at the Munich Massacre 1972, a terrorist attack that cast a dark shadow over the Olympic dream.
This was billed as the “carefree games”, the “serene games” and the “peaceful games”.
Less than 30 years after the devastation of Europe and the fall of the Third Reich Germany was back on the world stage. Munich, sometimes called the “secret capital” of West Germany, was to host the 1972 Summer Olympic Games.
Here was a new Germany: optimistic, democratic, progressive and out to impress the world.
This peaceful vision was shattered when a group of Palestinians brought terror into the Games leading to what has become known as the Munich Massacre.
On 5 September in the second week of the Munich Olympics these terrorists took most of the Israeli Olympic team hostage. After a tense standoff at the Olympic Village and a shootout at a nearby airfield 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, five terrorists and one West German policeman were left dead.
Who were the terrorists and what did they want?
Black September commander Luttif "Issa"
the hostage crisis in front of
apartments in the
Munich Olympic Village.
Image from contemporaneous footage shown in
One Day in September.
Eight Black September members took part in the attack. They were Palestinian militants known as fedayeen and had at least partly grown up in refugee camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The most visible member was the leader and spokesman, Luttif Afif.
Known as “Issa”, he wore a white hat and his face was blackened by shoe polish during the negotiations.
Black September was an offshoot of Yassir Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Munich terrorists were trained in Libyan desert camps before travelling to West Germany.
Jamal Al-Gashey, one of the three terrorists who survived the attack, was interviewed for the 1999 documentary One Day in September
Al-Gashey said he underwent “special training” for the Munich attack.
“I did a few tours of duty in training camps in Lebanon, and then the leadership sent us to Libya for special training. The training was hard and advanced. We were there for about one month. It seemed to me were getting special training. “We began to get a feeling that something big was underway.”
A step-by-step account of the Munich Massacre
The Israeli team members entering the Munich
Olympic Stadium during the opening parade.
This was an emotional
not just for the athletes
but for Jewish people everywhere. For the first time
Jews were marching proudly under the flag of the
of David in the city which fostered Nazism and
the Holocaust of World War Two. In a little over a
week that triumph would be shattered. Pic: From
an official poster at the Munich City
▪ A PLEASANT EVENING
– On 4 September the Israeli athletes and coaches enjoyed a night out Munich, attending a performance of Fiddler on the Roof
starring Israeli actor Shumel Rodensky. The Israelis later returned to the Olympic Village and went to sleep.
▪ OVER THE FENCE
– At 4.30am the next morning the Black September terrorists entered the Olympic Village by jumping over a two-metre chain-link fence.
They had the assistance of some unwitting Canadian athletes who were returning from a night out.
The terrorists were wearing tracksuits and carrying duffel bags, which, unbeknownst to the athletes, were stuffed with assault rifles, pistols and grenades.
▪ ROOM INVASION
- The terrorists entered the building housing the Israeli apartments at 31 Connolly Strasse.
They forced their way into Apartment 1 where the Israeli coaches were quartered. Wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg decided to fight back, attacking one of the terrorists but was shot through the cheek.
▪ ON TO APARTMENT 2
Site of the hostage crisis: 31 Connolly Strasse today.
– The terrorists ordered Weinberg to help them find more hostages. He led them past Apartment 2, which housed the Israeli track and field athletes, to Apartment 3 where the weightlifters and wrestlers were staying. Weinberg must have reckoned that these strong men would have a better chance of overpowering the terrorists. But the athletes were surprised in their sleep and were not able to put up much resistance.
But wrestling referee Yossef Gutfreund thrust himself against the door as the terorists were entering, holding them up for a few precious moments. This gave weightlifting coach Turvia Sokolvsky time to escape by breaking a window jumping out.
The terrorists led six hostages back to Apartment 1.
▪ FAILED FIGHTBACK
Israeli wrestler Gad Zabari answered the door to Apartment 3 when the Black September terrorists came knocking.
“I got out of bed and went outside only to find myself standing in front of a terrorist wearing a balaclava hood and a yellow sweater,” He said in One Day In September.
Zabari was the first in the line hostages the terrorists were leading back to Apartment 1 and seized an opportunity to escape by running away through an underground car park.
“My friends are behind me with their heads bowed.
I feel in a bit of a daze when suddenly I see another terrorist in front of me wearing a balaclava hood,” Zabari said.
“Suddenly the reality of what’s happening hits me. “As I get closer he orders me in this direction, but as he’s giving me the order I push his Kalashnikov aside and run. He shoots two or three rounds at me, but I don’t think about the shots, I just run.
I run for about 70 metres and then jump over the village fence and into the first building I see.”
– As Zabari escaped Weinberg and weightlifter Yossef Romano tried to overpower the attackers. Weinberg knocked one of them unconscious and slashed at another with a fruit knife. Both athletes were shot and killed.
The track and field athletes in Apartment 2 were able to hide in the building and later escape, so the terrorists were left with nine hostages.
– By 5.10am news of the hostage crisis started to spread around the world. A note was dropped from the apartment window demanding the release of 234 inmates from Israeli prisons and far-left wing German terrorists Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof from German prisons. They terrorists also asked for a plane to take them to Egypt and set a 9am deadline for their demands. Weinberg’s body was thrown out the apartment block's front door so the terrorists could show they were serious.
A clash of needs
Manfred Schreiber at
the press conference,
as shown in One Day
“I offered them an unlimited amount of money in exchange for the hostages, this offer was rejected.
They said ‘it is not a question of either money or substitute hostages but only of the 200 prisoners.” – Munich police chief Manfred Schreiber in a press conference at the time of the crisis.
Jewish-American swimming champion Mark Spitz
was the star of the 1972 games, winning seven gold
medals (and setting seven new world records!) in
the pool. He was evacuated from Munich on 5
September due to fears he might also become a
Black September target. Pic: from an info board at
the Olympic Stadium in Munich.
– Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir refused to negotiate, and offered to send a Special Forces team to Munich to deal with the crisis. That offer was rejected by the German Government, which falsely believed its forces would be able to handle the situation.
– The Games themselves continued until international pressure force Olympic organizers to suspend events that afternoon. Negotiations took place throughout the day and the terrorists’ deadline was extended first to 12pm, then 1pm, the 3pm and then 5pm.
Olypmpic Village Mayor Walther Tröger and Munich police chief Manfred Schreiber negotiated directly with “Issa”, the Black September commander. Merk and Schreiber tried to explain what a difficult situation this was for Germany because of the country’s dark history with the Jewish people. But the Germans’ pleas fell on deaf ears.
▪ STORMING ABORTED
Talking to a terrorist
Walther Tröger, as he
One Day in September.
Tröger later recalled how he had a certain liking for Issa. He said the negotiations even touched on the ideology of the hostage-taking.
“I didn’t like Issa of course because of what he was doing but I could have liked him when I met him elsewhere.
“He was not violent, I would have even trusted him in his word, not his compatriots and his partners. They were, like, what we say in German, Galgenvogel, gallows birds. But Issa was different from them.
“We were not only negotiating on how to handle this we also were, I wouldn’t call it philosophical but we were also going into the grounds of the whole thing and I said ‘why are you doing it?’
He said ‘We are sorry for you. You make a good Olympic Games, but you offered us a showcase, and we have to use this showcase in order to show our possibility to so many millions or even billions of people in the world who are watching your Olympic Games,”
- Walther Tröger, Mayor of the Olympic Village, from One Day in September
– Later in the afternoon a team of German police dressed as athletes and carrying assault rifles took up positions on the roof of and around the building where the hostage crisis was unfolding. This proposed storming of the apartment was codenamed “Sunshine”, but the attempt was thwarted because every Olympic Village apartment had a television.
TV crews stationed on the roofs of nearby buildings filmed the preparations and the footage was broadcast live. The terrorists were able to watch on TV what the police were up to and where the team would be coming from. Issa threatened to kill more of the hostages and the police team withdrew.
▪ A WAY OUT?
- Eventually the terrorists realized that their demands would not be met. Issa agreed to a plan where the kidnappers and the hostages would be taken by bus to two military helicopters nearby. The helicopters would then take them to the NATO airbase at Fürstenfeldbruck outside Munich, and from there a small jet was to take them to Cairo.
▪ A TRAP IS SET
– The Germans’ plan, however, was to ambush the terrorists at the airfield. Three sharpshooters were stationed on a control tower and two more were on the ground around the airfield. Five or six more police were waiting inside the jet posing as crew and maintenance staff.
The idea was to overpower the terrorist leaders when they came on-board to inspect the plane. The sharpshooters would then shoot the rest of the terrorists and the hostages could be freed. Things, however, didn’t go at all according to plan.
- Just seconds before the helicopters landed at around 10.30pm the police on board the jet voted to abandon thier posts. They fled the plane and took cover around the airfield.
Ditching the ambush
Heinz Hohensinn, as he
appeared in The Tragedy
of the Munich Games.
“On board the plane we had some discussions. We agreed not to go through with it because we decided that it would be a suicide mission. “We didn’t have the proper uniforms and the terrorists were not stupid. They would have seen that we were not real stewards.”
– German policeman Heinz Hohensinn, in the 2005 documentary Our Greatest Hopes, Our Worst Fears: The Tragedy of the Munich Games
– Throughout the day the Germans thought there were no more than five terrorists in total, but when the group left the apartment authorities correctly identify eight of them.
This info wasn’t passed onto the team at the airport so the snipers were facing a larger and much more heavily armed group unawears. In addition, the helicopters landed at Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base facing the wrong direction, so instead of providing the snipers a clear shot into the cabins the terrorist had extra cover.
– When Issa and his deputy boarded the plane they found it empty, realized the trap and ran back to the helicopters. The police sharpshooters opened fire and manage to kill two of the terrorists. The helicopter pilots fled their aircraf, but the tied and bound hostages were unable to escape. A stalemate then developed as the terrorists were unwilling to leave the cover of the helicopters and the police were ill-equipped to confront much more heavily armed group.
– Armored personnel carriers were finally called in but were delayed by traffic (media, onlookers, etc) heading to the airport. When the APCs got there around midnight, the terrorists realized their time was up.
Issa and another of the terrorists raked the Israelis with machine-gun fire, and Issa threw a hand grenade into one of the helicopters, incinerating the bodies.
All of the hostages and five of the eight terrorists were dead. German policeman Anton Fliegerbauer, stationed in an airport building, was killed by a stray bullet. One of the sharpshooters, who was stationed on the ground directly in the line of fire of his compatriots on the tower, was injured by friendly fire.
Devastation: The remains of the helicopter which “Issa” lobbed a grenade into on the tarmac at Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base. Pic: from an info board at the Olympic Stadium, Munich.
The three surviving terrorists were arrested.
Hohensinn described the terrorists’ emotions when they were captured.
“We had to undress them. The three terrorists in their underpants were kneeling in front of us. They looked terrified. It seemed to me that they expected to be executed. When we explained that we were not going to shoot them they seemed so relieved. I surprised at how happy they were to know that they would live.” – German policeman Heinz Hohensinn, in Our Greatest Hopes, Our Worst Fears: The Tragedy of the Munich Games
More questions and answers
How was the news of the massacre reported?
Initially falsely. At midnight a German Government spokesman announced that all the Israelis were safe and the terrorists had been killed. The next morning the world was greeted by newspaper headlines like “8 HOSTAGES FREED IN GUN BATTLE” and “THEY’RE FREE! Olympic hostages all safe after gun battle”.
It was only later that the real state of affairs became known.
US television reporter Jim McKay summed it up memorably with the words: “When I was a kid my father used to say our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized. Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They have now said there were eleven hostages; two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They're all gone.”
What happened to the three surviving terrorists?
Mohammed Safady, Adnan Al-Gashey and Jamal Al-Gashey were arrested by police at Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base and incarcerated in different Bavarian prisons. Then, on 29 October, barely two months after the Munich Massacre, a Lufthansa jet flying back to Munich from Syria was hijacked by Black September terrorists. They demanded the release of the three remaining Munich terrorists.
The German authorities acted quickly. It took only one hour for the prisoners to be located and transported from the separate prisons to Munich Airport, where they were put on a plane and flown off to Libya.
Many newspapers considered this hijacking suspicious. There were only 11 passengers on board the Lufthansa flight, all men.
It turns out the incident was part of a secret deal between the German government and the Palestinian extremists: the Munich Massacre terrorists could go home and Germany would avoid being a target in the future.
Simon Reeve, author of One Day in Munich
said there was no doubt the hijacking was a setup.
“We have to remember at the time European governments who were trying to deal with the terrorist problem dealt with it in their own individual ways. The French Government paid off some terrorist groups, the German Government tried to talk to them and did deals with them. The German authorities presumably felt they were doing the right thing. They felt that they’d been approached by Palestinian groups who said ‘unless you release them then we’ll launch terrorist attacks against Lufthansa and against German targets.” - Simon Reeve in Our Greatest Hopes, Our Worst Fears: The Tragedy of the Munich Games.
The three terrorists received a hero’s welcome in Libya and went into hiding. Mohammed Safady and Adnan Al-Gashey were probably killed by the Israeli secret service, Mossad.
Jamal Al-Gashey, interviewed for One Day in September
in 1999, is likely still alove. Al-Gashey said he held no regrets about his role in the Munich Massacre.
“I’m proud of what I did at Munich because it helped the Palestinian cause enormously. Before Munich the world had no idea about our struggle but on that day the name of ‘Palestine’ was repeated all over the world.” - Jamal Al-Gashey in One Day in September
Did the West German authorities know about the attack?
Al-Gashey as he appeared in One Day in September.
In 2012 German news magazine Der Spiegel
revealed that German authorities did know beforehand that such an attack was planned. On August 14, 1972, three weeks before the Olympics, a German embassy officer in Beirut was told by an informant that “an incident would be staged by from the Palestinian side during the Olympic Games in Munich”. Although this intel was passed onto the Bavarian authorities they failed to increase security for the Olympics.
Three days before the attack Italian newspaper Gente
also claimed Black September was planning a “sensational incident during the Games”.
Additionally, West German forensic scientist Georg Sieber correctly predicted a scenario where Palestinian terrorists invaded the Olympic Village, took Israeli hostages and demanded the release of prisoners and a plane to leave Germany. Sieber’s “Scenario 21” was one of 26 terrorism scenarios he created for the Olympic organizers to help with security planning.
Organizers refused to prepare for the scenarios however, as this was supposed to be the security-lite “Carefree Games”, shaking off the shadow of Germany’s role in World War Two.
Did the German authorities cover up the mishandling of the massacre?
Pictures of one of the Black September terrorists wearing a white mask keeping a look-out from the balcony of 31 Connolly Strasse. These images struck fear into hearts around the world when they were beamed live from Munich on 5 September, 1972.
Pic: From an info board at the Olympic Stadium, Munich.
In 2012 Der Spiegel
also revealed the German Government denied responsibility for the mishandling of the massacre for over 20 years. Der Spiegel
said the government had hid tens of thousands of documents about the tragedy, including evidence the German authorities knew the kidnapping was planned.
Der Spiegel also revealed in a separate 2012 report that the West German Government had links to the PLO and the masterminds of the Munich Massacre for years after the tragedy, apparently to prevent Germany from being targeted in future attacks.
Did the Black September terrorists have any help from neo-Nazis?
Yes. It was previously thought that German left wing extremists helped the terrorists. Instead, Der Spiegel
revealed that neo-Nazis helped the terrorist prepare for the attack. German neo-Nazi Willi Pohl had been in contact with Abu Daoud, one of the main planners of the attack, up to seven weeks before the Munich Olympics.
“I chauffeured Abu Daoud back and forth across Germany, where he met Palestinians in various cities,” Pohl told Der Spiegel
How did Israel respond to the massacre?
Firstly by bombing PLO bases in Syria and Lebanon, killing up to 200 people. Then the Israeli Government directed Mossad to track down and kill those who were (or were claimed) to be involved in the hostage-taking. The operation, called Wrath of God, allegedly lasted more than 20 years and dozens of Palestinian terrorists and suspected conspirators were killed. In April 1973 Israeli special forces attacked PLO targets in Lebanon, killing up to 100 people including three of the organization’s leaders. This was called Operation Spring Youth and was depicted alongside the Munich Massacre and Wrath of God in the 2005 Steven Spielberg film Munich
Ankie Rekhess-Spitzer, widow of one of the Israeli victims, Andre Spitzer, said Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir told her and the other victims' families they would be “avenged”. According to Rekhess-Spitzer the families responded with shock.
Were the athletes who helped the terrorists into the Olympic Village really Canadian?
Looking for justice
as she appeared The Tragedy
of the Munich Games .
“We said look, we don’t ask for revenge because this will not bring back my husband, and not her husband, and not their son. We don’t want revenge, we want justice.”
– Ankie Rekhess-Spitzer in The Tragedy of the Munich Games
It was long thought the Black September members had met a group of US athletes sneaking in after a night out, but in 2012 it was revealed the athletes were part of the Canadian team.
Jamal Al-Gashey said in One Day in September
: “As we were climbing over the fence, we ran into a group of American athletes who were sneaking in after a night out. The funny thing is we actually helped each other to climb over.”
Canadian water polo player Robert Thompson was interviewed about the incident in 2012. Thompson said he had been watching a broadcast of a hockey game outside the Olympic Village. He was with a group of about 30 athletes who decided to take a short cut to their apartments by jumping over the fence into the village.
“It was a big village and you had to walk around to the front, the back gate was locked. So we decided, we’ll we’re not walking around, we’ll just climb this fence.
“They (the terrorists) had to have come over with us because he (Al-Gashey) said he climbed the fence with a bunch of athletes.” - Robert Thompson
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