50 years later — Triumph and tragedy of the Munich Olympics
Part II: Tragedy
People associate Munich first and foremost with the Oktoberfest, but this was not always the case. In post-WWII Germany, the city was strongly associated with the place where Hitler came to power, as Munich was the site of his attempted putsch and it was here that he rose to popularity. As the ruler of Germany, he was also the driving force behind the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
These were intended to exhibit the superiority of the Aryan race. How fitting that Jesse Owens, the black star athlete from the U.S., turned up to shatter that illusion quite thoroughly by winning four gold medals in track and field.
Munich suffered under the shadow of both Hitler’s rise to power and his staging of the 1936 Games. The Munich Olympic games offered a fresh opportunity for the country to put the past behind it. Here was a chance to recast the city as a modern, friendly place and push the horrors of WWII farther into the past.
There would be no trace of the militaristic braggadocio of the Berlin Games. No Nazi propaganda, barbed wire or armed policemen. The security forces for these Games did not even carry weapons, as the goal was to have so-called heitere Spiele, light-hearted games.
This was the ultimate international event, ideal for shining a new, positive light on the city and the country.
But it was not meant to be. The Olympics were overshadowed by a group of Palestinian terrorists. They took advantage of inadequate security, kidnapping and ultimately murdering 11 Israeli athletes and a German policeman on September 5 and 6, 1972. This tragedy dealt a terrible blow to Israel and permanently marred the legacy of the Munich Games.
It also proved to be a watershed moment in German policing and anti-terrorist forces. Germany was forced to recognize the new reality of rising international terrorism. The era of naïveté had come to a brutal end.
It was an era when Palestinian terrorists were very active. Germany was not very experienced — yet — in dealing with terrorists, who had sneaked easily into the Olympic Village and entered the living quarters of the Israeli athletes through unlocked doors. The police eventually devised a plan to surround the building to free the athletes, but the terrorists caught wind of this from reports on the TV and radio and the rescue had to be called off.
The German authorities had neglected to cut off the electricity.
One of the terrorists’ common tactics involved hijacking planes. This held true for the Munich attack, too, for they demanded an airplane to transport them to an Arab city. Cairo was chosen. Through a series of tactical mistakes and basic unpreparedness, the planned rescue was a complete failure. The Mossad, the legendary Israeli secret service, judged the mission to be utterly amateurish.
There is a memorial to this attack at the Munich Olympic Village. On the recent 50th anniversary of the incident, victims’ relatives visited Munich for a memorial service, attended by German government representatives, who apologized for the tragic events. The bungled rescue attempt and the fact that the captured hijackers were subsequently released in exchange for hostages did not contribute to closure for those left behind.
On the heels of the attack at the Olympics, Germany’s GSG9 (Grenzschutzgruppe 9, or Border Protection Group 9) was founded as the tactical unit of the federal police. In the meantime, it is a well-established and integral part of security forces. The Federal Interior Minister at the time ordered its formation as a direct result of the failed rescue of the Israeli athletes.
The GSG9 was subsequently called upon to deal with the increased terrorist attacks and threats that Germany would face in the 1970s, particularly in the shape of the Red Army Faction, also called the Baader-Meinhof gang. The subsequent atmosphere of terror of that decade in Germany is still etched into the minds of anyone who experienced it at the time.
Steven Spielberg made a provocative movie on the psychology of terror and revenge based on this event, called Munich. There is also a score of other movies on the same topic.
I encountered the deployment of the GSG9 who were also called to action during a supposed terrorist attack in July 2016. When a shooting took place at a shopping center, killing 10 people, it was unclear if it was a coordinated terrorist attack — and the GSG9 was called in. It turned out to be a single 18-year-old who did the shooting. You can read my account here of that harrowing evening.
While the swift, strong reaction from the authorities on that evening turned out to be unnecessary, it was far preferable to the unpreparedness of the previous era. It’s hard to imagine the lax security of the Munich Olympics at any such event nowadays.