German History: Munich Massacre

As soon as Ilana Romana heard about the situation in Munich, she expected the worst: “I knew who he was. He would not sit quietly. He was not the type. I knew it would end badly.” She spoke of her husband, and, unfortunately, her prediction was correct. Earlier that day, her husband, Yossef, and his teammates were awoken by Arab terrorists beginning an episode that would result in the death of eleven Israeli athletes and forever scar the 1972 Olympics, leaving the games to be remembered for the years to come as the “Munich Massacre.”

Most Germans hoped that the 1972 Olympics would help to heal the racial damage caused by the 1936 Olympics. It was the first time the games had returned to the state since Nazism and Adolph Hitler were in full stride; the first time the games were held in Germany since Hitler had tried to use them as a way to show the superiority of his Aryan race on a world’s stage. At this time, the world was still in political unrest as the Vietnam War raged on, racial tensions in the United States continued, and violence persisted in the Middle East. German president Gustav Heinemann welcomed the Olympics as “a milestone on the road to a new way of life with the aim of realizing peaceful coexistence among peoples.”

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His goal was not meant to be, however. At approximately four o’clock in the morning on September 5, 1972 (six days before the end of the games), Yossef Gutfreund, a 275 pound wrestling referee, reacted to the sound of Arab voices behind the door of the apartment where he and other Israeli athletes were staying. The terrorists had accessed the building unnoticed as they were dressed in athletic warm-ups and carried their weapons in gym bags. Gutfreund quickly alerted his roommates that something was wrong and proceeded to push his body against the door in an effort to prevent Arab entrance.

His efforts were successful for only a few moments, however, as the Arabs soon entered the apartment, immediately taking five Israelis hostage. It was at this time that Romana, in an effort to save his teammates, took a knife out of the kitchen and stabbed one of the gunmen. Moments later, he and wrestling coach Moshe Weinberger were each shot several times, resulting in the first casualties of the morning.

Approximately an hour after the attack began, the terrorists left, having killed two Israeli team members and capturing nine. Due to the unanticipated chaos and struggle, the terrorists failed to locate eight other team members in the neighboring apartments. Within the next hour, the Arabs had issued a set of demands, and had thrown Weinberger’s body into the street.

The Palestinian off-shoot group, the Black September Organization, claimed responsibility for the actions at the apartment of the Israeli athletes. Their demands included the release of 234 Arab and German prisoners held in Israel and West Germany. The terrorists provided a typewritten list of prisoners for release, including the founders and leaders of the German based Baader-Meinhof Gang. The terrorists also demanded three planes for their escape; one would be used to return the released prisoners to a safe location.

The Munich police commissioner, chief of Olympic security forces, and others worked with the Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir to attain the release of the hostages. However, Meir made it perfectly clear to all involved that the government of Israel would not negotiate with terrorists. The West German police extended the three deadlines originally imposed by the terrorists, giving the officials more time to deal with the situation. Eventually, after the failure of last-minute negotiations and further demands by the Black September Organization, combined with Meir’s absolute refusal to negotiate, the police commissioner was forced to believe that a rescue attempt was the only option.

After giving up hope of negotiation, the terrorists abruptly collected their hostages and headed for the military airport in Munich for a flight back to the Middle East. At the airport, German sharpshooters opened fire, killing three of the Palestinians. A gun battle ensued, claiming the lives of all nine of the hostages, along with one policeman and two additional terrorists.

Three of the remaining terrorists were captured. A little over a month later, a jet was high jacked by terrorists demanding that the Munich killers be released. The Germans capitulated and the terrorists were let go, but following the Munich Massacre and this incident, Israel launched an assassination campaign against those who it suspected were responsible for the crime.

Directly after the events in Munich, Israel launched a new plan to counter terrorism called The Israeli Response to the 1972 Munich Olympic Massacre and the Development of Independent Covert Action Teams. The purpose of this study was to examine the methodology of the covert action teams authorized by Prime Minister Golda Meir and to find and assassinate those individuals responsible for the attack on the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic games in September 1972. Specifically, the study addressed whether the operational and tactical methods utilized in this counter terrorist effort were successful relative to the original operational objectives. In July 1973, this campaign ended in the assassination of a man who was mistakenly identified as a key Black September operative. The innocent man was gunned down in front of his bewildered pregnant wife. Israeli retaliation for the 1972 Munich massacre was the first Israeli retaliation of unexpectedly large magnitude, and it produced a temporary deviation of terrorist attacks from the natural rate.

Meanwhile, the mastermind of the massacre remains at large. In fact, in 1999, Abu Daoud admitted his role in his autobiography. He claims his commandos never intended to harm the athletes and blamed their deaths on the German police and the stubbornness of then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

The tragedy of the Munich Massacre stunned the world and stopped the XXth Olympics. A memorial service was held at the main stadium the next day with over 80,000 people in attendance. After 24 hours, however, the International Olympic Committee president and the Olympic committee made a very controversial decisions and ordered that “the games must go on.” Disapproval was shown around the world: “Incredibly they’re going on with it,” Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times wrote. “It’s almost like having a dance a Dachau.” Many countries were offended by this decision, and some individual athletes even withdrew themselves from the competition out of respect for Israel, the deceased athletes, and their families. The Olympic games as a whole, however, proceeded with the flags flying at half mast.

To this day, the effects of the Munich Massacre are evident: “It is viewed as a struggle between innocent athletes and political murderers.” On the 25th anniversary, Israel planed an official memorial ceremony at the Tel Aviv monument to the victims. And like every year, the Wingate Sporting Institute held a ceremony, and the families made a group pilgrimage to the graves. Many of the victims’ families are still focusing on the German government as their targets today as evidence of carelessness and inefficiency is revealed in regard to the way in which the situation was dealt; the eleven families accuse the government of negligence and are suing for $25 million collectively. Also, effects of this event were even evident during the past Olympic games in Sydney, Australia. Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Authority urged Arab regimes to boycott the Games because there was a moment of silence at the start of the games in memory of the 11 Israeli athletes –one of them a U.S. citizen–murdered by Arafat’s PLO terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

This moment of silence was a very small, but important and significant gesture in relation to the suffering caused to the families of the victims. Ironically, Ilana Romana says that she had premonitions of an attack at the Olympic games, but her husband laughed as replied, “Ilana, are you crazy? I’ll be back here in a few weeks; everything’s going to be fine.”

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German History: Munich Massacre. (2018, Aug 19). Retrieved from