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Background & Overview: Munich Olympic Massacre

(September 5, 1972)

It was 4:30 in the morning on Sept. 5, 1972, when five Palestinian terrorists wearing track sweat suits climbed the six-foot six-inch fence surrounding the Olympic Village. Although they were seen by several people, no one thought anything was unusual since athletes routinely hopped the fence; moreover, the terrorists’ weapons were hidden in athletic bags.

Black September terrorist

These five were met by three more men who are presumed to have obtained credentials to enter the village. The Palestinians then used stolen keys to enter two apartments being used by the Israeli team at 31 Connollystraße.

Israeli wrestling referee Yossef Gutfreund heard a faint scratching noise at the door of the first apartment. When he investigated, he saw the door begin to open and masked men with guns on the other side. He shouted “Hevre tistalku!” (Hebrew: "Guys, get out of here!") and threw his nearly 300-lb. (135-kg) weight against the door to try to stop the Palestinians from forcing their way in. In the confusion, coach Tuvia Sokolovsky and race-walker Dr. Shaul Ladany escaped and another four athletes, plus the two team doctors and delegation head Shmuel Lalkin, managed to hide.

Wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg, attacked the kidnappers as the hostages were being moved from one apartment to another, allowing one of his wrestlers, Gad Tsobari, to escape. The burly Weinberg knocked one of the intruders unconscious and stabbed another with a fruit knife before being shot to death. Weightlifter and father of three Yossef Romano, 31, also attacked and wounded one of the intruders before being killed. The Arabs then succeeded in rounding up nine Israelis to hold as hostages.

(Top, L-R): Moshe Weinberg; Yossef Romano; Yossef Gutfreund;
David Berger (Second Row): Yacov Springer; Ze’ev Friedman;
Amitzur Shapira; Eliezer Halfin (Third Row): Mark Slavin;
Andre Spitzer; Kehat Shorr

At 9:30, the terrorists announced that they were Palestinians and demanded that Israel release 200 Arab prisoners and that the terrorists be given safe passage out of Germany. The Palestinians were led by Luttif Afif (“Issa”), his deputy Yusuf Nazzal (“Tony”), and junior members Afif Ahmed Hamid (“Paolo”), Khalid Jawad (“Salah”), Ahmed Chic Thaa (“Abu Halla”), Mohammed Safady (“Badran”), Adnan Al-Gashey (“Denawi”), and his cousin Jamal Al-Gashey (“Samir”).

Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir refused to negotiate with the terrorists and wanted to send a special operations team to free the athletes. The Germans, however, insisted on taking responsibility for their rescue. 

After hours of tense negotiations, the Palestinians, who it was later learned belonged to a PLO faction called Black September, agreed to a plan whereby they were to be taken by helicopter to the NATO air base at Firstenfeldbruck where they would be given an airplane to fly them and their hostages to Cairo. The Israelis were then taken by bus to the helicopters and flown to the airfield. In the course of the transfer, the Germans discovered that there were eight terrorists instead of the five they expected and realized that they had not assigned enough marksmen to carry out the plan to kill the terrorists at the airport.

After the helicopters landed at the air base around 10:30 p.m., the German sharpshooters attempted to kill the terrorists and a bloody firefight ensued. At 11, the media was mistakenly informed that the hostages had been saved and the news was announced to a relieved Israeli public. Almost an hour later, however, new fighting broke out and one of the helicopters holding the Israelis was blown up by a terrorist grenade. The remaining nine hostages in the second helicopter were shot to death by one of the surviving terrorists.

At 3 a.m., a drawn and teary-eyed Jim McKay, who had been reporting the drama throughout the day as part of ABC’s Olympic coverage, announced: “They’re all gone.”

Zvi Zamir, the head of the Mossad, had gone to Germany but his recommendations for freeing the hostages were rejected. “They didn’t make a minimal effort to save lives, they didn’t take a minimal risk to try to save people, neither theirs nor ours,” he said after returning to Israel.

Five of the terrorists were killed along with one policeman, and three were captured. A little over a month later, on October 29, a Lufthansa jet was hijacked by terrorists demanding that the Munich killers be released.

The destroyed helicopters on the runway in Munich

The Germans capitulated and the terrorists were let go, but an Israeli assassination squad was assigned to track them down along with those responsible for planning the massacre. According to George Jonas in Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team, eight of the 11 men targeted for death were killed. Of the remaining three, one died of natural causes and the other two were assassinated, but it is not known for sure if they were killed by Israeli agents.

The eleven terrorists on the list were:

Kamal Adwan: Chief of sabotage operations for Al Fatah in the disputed territories
Hussein Abad Al-Chir: PLO contact with KGB in Cyprus
Mohammed Boudia: Linked with European PLO
Abu Daoud: Admitted member of the Black September Organization
Dr. Wadi Haddad: Chief terrorist linked with Dr. George Habash
Mohmoud Mahshari: PLO member and coordinator of Munich incident
Kamal Nassir: Official PLO spokesman and member of the PLO Executive Committee
Ali Hassan Salameh: Developed and executed the Munich operation
Abu Yussuf: High ranking PLO official
Wael Zwaiter: Cousin to Yasser Arafat, organizer of PLO terrorism in Europe
Dr. Basil Paoud Al-Kubaisi: Responsible for logistics within the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)

The Jonas book was the basis for two movies about Munich, “The Sword of Gideon” and Steven Spielberg’s 2006 Oscar nominee, “Munich.” In the subsequent publicity about Spielberg’s film, reports have discredited the account in Jonas, which was largely based on what the author was told by a former self-described Mossad agent, Juval Aviv, who claimed he was the leader of the assassination team. In fact, journalists Yossi Melman and Steven Hartov found that “Aviv never served in Mossad, or any Israeli intelligence organization. He had failed basic training as an Israeli Defence Force commando, and his nearest approximation to spy work was as a lowly gate guard for the airline El Al in New York in the early 70s.”

In contrast to the account of “Operation Wrath of God” offered by Jonas, Mossad agents have told reporters subsequently that no one team was sent to kill a specific list of terrorists.

Melman insists Zamir never ordered the vengeance killings and says the proof is that three terrorists were never targeted. One died of natural causes and the others live in Jordan and L/lebanonebanon.

It is true the mastermind of the massacre remained at large long after the Olympics. Abu Daoud was shot thirteen times on July 27, 1981 in a Warsaw hotel coffee shop, but survived the attack. Daoud was allowed safe passage through Israel in 1996 so he could go to a PLO meeting convened in the Gaza Strip to rescind an article in its charter that called for Israel’s eradication. In 1999, Abu Daoud admitted his role in the massacre in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Palestinian Terrorist.

Daoud, who lived with his wife on a pension provided by the Palestinian Authority, claimed his commandos never intended to harm the athletes and blamed their deaths on the German police and the stubbornness of Prime Minister Meir. On December 27, 2005, Daoud reiterated that he had no regrets about his involvement in the Munich attack, and that Steven Spielberg’s new film about the incident would not deliver reconciliation. Daoud died of kidney failure at age 73 on July 3, 2010, in Damascus.

Bassam Abu Sharif, a member of the PFLP at the time, said the motive for the operation in Munich was to attract publicity for the Palestinian cause and to win the release of Palestinian prisoners.

The massacre of 11 Israeli athletes was not considered sufficiently serious to merit canceling or postponing the Olympics. “Incredibly, they’re going on with it,” Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times wrote at the time. “It’s almost like having a dance at Dachau.”

On December 1, 2015, new information about the Munich massacre was released to the public for the first time via an article in the New York Times. The article shed light on long-hidden details from that day, and included interviews with Ilana Romano and Ankie Spitzer, who were both widowed following the attack. Among the most horrific new details revealed was that Yossef Romano, Ilana Romano’s husband, was beaten and brutally castrated by the terrorists while the Israelis were being held hostage. Most of these specific and gory details about the tragedy were not revealed to the victims families until September 1992, when the German government released hundreds of pages of reports on the attack and photographs of the crime scenes that they had previously claimed did not exist.

In July 2012, German magazine Der Spiegel reported that Germany had in fact been warned about the possibility of a Palestinian terrorist attack at the Games but took no actions to secure the Olympic Village. Ten years later, Süddeutsche Zeitung published a telegram sent in August 1972 from the German Embassy in Beirut to the foreign ministry in Bonn warning of an attack.

Ilana Romano and Ankie Spitzer attended a memorial ceremony to honor their husbands on August 3, 2016, in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, the host city of the 2016 Olympic Games. The ceremony, led by the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, was followed by one minute of silence in the Olympic village to honor the murdered Israeli athletes. In addition to the remembrance ceremony, the IOC inaugurated a new tradition in honor of the athletes; a place of mourning to be established at every future olympics in the olympic village. Ankie Spitzer told reporters that, “This is closure for us. This is incredibly important. We waited 44 years to have this remembrance.”

A memorial monument to the victims of the Munich Olympics massacre was opened to the public in September 2017, along a quiet path in Munich’s Olympic park.  The memorial is carved into a grassy hill, and being inside evokes the feelings of being in both a sanctuary and a cavern. The monument’s architects stated that their idea was to carve something out of the landscape, as the attack did to the victim’s families.  Included in the memorial area are personal stories, items and photographs from each victim. Ilana Romano and Ankie Spitzer attended the dedication ceremony.  

Germany planned a memorial ceremony for September 5, 2022, to mark the 50th anniversary of the massacre. The families of the athletes, however, announced they would boycott the event because they do not believe they were adequately compensated by the German government and maintained the Germans covered up their failures to protect and rescue their loved ones. The German government said it had paid the families about $4.8 million and was engaged in talks with representatives of the victims’ families. According to the New York Times, the government was offering about $5.5 million to 23 family members but they were seeking substantially more. The decision of the families to boycott the event put pressure on Israeli President Isaac Herzog and the planned delegation of Israeli athletes and others to cancel their participation.

Days before the ceremony, Germany agreed to pay additional compensation to the families (reportedly $30 million), release files regarding the event to a commission of Israeli and German historians, and apologize for the security lapses. 

“It is high time and we owe it firstly to you, the relatives,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at the commemoration. “The Olympic village became a place of Palestinian terrorists, a stage for their boundless hatred for Israel. It should never have happened.” He also said, “We didn't live up to the trust given to us. They were not safe – they were tortured and murdered by terrorists in our country. We weren't prepared for a terrorist attack of this kind, but we should've been.” He concluded, “Today's memorialization can only be real if we accept some hard truths and acknowledge that the series of events that led to the Munich terror attack were full of underestimations, as well as difficult and deadly mistakes.”

In April 2023, Germany announced it had created an eight-member panel of historians, most of them based in Israel or Germany, who would review the events surrounding the attack,  as it had promised the relatives of the Israeli athletes. The Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History (IfZ) will carry out an accompanying research project and will assist the commission in its work. 

Federal Minister of the Interior Nancy Faeser said: 

We can never undo the immeasurable suffering which the family members of the victims of the 1972 Munich Olympics attack have experienced. The attack has left deep wounds. It is shameful that agonising questions were left unresolved for far too long. For too many years, there was a lack of understanding or reappraisal of the events, transparency about them or acceptance of responsibility for them. We, as the current Federal Government, are keenly aware of this, and it has informed our actions, especially when it comes to supporting the family members and finally conducting a thorough reappraisal of what happened. To this end, today I appointed a commission of eight superb and internationally renowned researchers. The commission will also rigorously examine the period before and after the attacks. It is particularly important to me for their work to also thoroughly address the treatment of the family members after the attack as well as issues related to the culture of remembrance. Because we want to learn from this history, and we must learn from it. We must treat people whose lives have been dramatically altered by attacks with greater empathy and support.

The members of the commission are:

  • Dr Ofer Ashkenazi
    Professor of History and Director of the Richard Koebner Minerva Center for German History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
  • Dr Michael Brenner
    Professor of Jewish History and Culture at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich and Director of the Center for Israel Studies at American University in Washington, D.C.
  • Dr Shlomo Shpiro
    Director of the Europa Institute and holder of the Paterson Chair in Security and Intelligence at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel
  • Dr Margit Szöllösi-Janze
    Retired Professor for Contemporary History at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich
  • Dr Petra Terhoeven
    Professor of European History and Cultural History at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen
  • Dr Shulamit Volkov
    Professor emerita of Modern European History at Tel Aviv University
  • Dr Klaus Weinhauer
    Professor of Modern History at Bielefeld University
  • Dr Christopher Young
    Professor of Modern and Medieval German Studies at the University of Cambridge

Sources: Jerusalem Report.
George Jonas, Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team, (NY: Bantam Books, 1985).
Thomas B. Hunter, “The Israeli Response to the Munich Olympic Massacre,” Journal of Counterterrorism & Security International, Vol. 7, No. 4, (Summer 2001).
Yossi Melman and Steven Hartov, “Munich: fact and fantasy,” The Guardian, (January 17, 2006).
“Planner of Munich olympic attacks dies,” Jerusalem Post, (July 3, 2010).
Sam Borden, “Long-Hidden Details Reveal Cruelty of 1972 Munich Attackers,” New York Times, (December 1, 2015).
“Olympics-Israeli victims of 1972 Games honored 44 years on,” YNet News, (August 3, 2016).
Andrew Keh, In Munich, a Tribute to Israeli Athletes and Families’ Persistence, New York Times, (August 30, 2017).
Ronen Bergman, “Families of Israelis Killed at Munich Olympics Plan Anniversary Boycott,” New York Times (August 10, 2022).
“Compensation Agreement Reached Between Families of Munich Massacre Victims And German Government,” Algemeiner, (August 31, 2022).
Noa Shpiegel, “German President: ‘We Didn’t Live Up to the Trust Given to Us by Israeli Athletes,’” Haaretz, (September 5, 2022).
Yossi Melman, “How Germany Put Families of Munich Olympics Victims Through Their Own Ordeal,” Haaretz, (September 5, 2022).\
Ayhan Uyanik, “Munich memorial marks 1972 Olympic Games attack on Israeli team,” Reuters, (September 6, 2022).
“Federal Minister of the Interior Nancy Faeser appoints commission to reappraise the attack at the Munich Olympics in 1972,” Federal Ministry of the Interior and Community, (April 21, 2023).