On This Day: 11 Israeli Olympic athletes murdered in Munich Massacre

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Parade in Olympic Stadium as crowds watch on
This was the first time Germany had played host since the 1936 games in Berlin. Source: Getty Images

What began as an attempt to showcase a new and transformed Germany ended in tragedy 49 years ago at the Munich Olympics. 

By the end of Sept. 5, 1972, five Israeli athletes and six coaches were dead, along with one German police officer and four Palestinian terrorists following more than 20 hours of chaos broadcasted internationally to an audience of more than 900 million people.

Munich Summer Games

On August 25, the 1972 Summer Olympics began in Munich. 

It was the first time Germany had played host since the 1936 games in Berlin amid the country’s growing militarism and the Nazi party’s targeting of Jewish and Romani (gypsy) citizens.

Although Munich took place only 27 years after the end of WWI and the atrocities of the Holocaust, it was an opportunity for Germany to reintroduce itself as a peaceful, safe and welcoming destination to the world.

Gunter Zahn stands after lighting the Olympic flame
The atmosphere in the Olympic Village was part of the host country’s attempt to reinvent itself, opting to have a relaxed approach to security. Source: Getty Images

The atmosphere in the Olympic Village was part of the host country’s attempt to reinvent itself, opting to have a relaxed approach to security that was ill-equipped to deal with the events that were about to unfold.

Black September

At approximately 4:30 am on the morning of September 5, eight members of the Black September Organization scaled the fence surrounding the Olympic Village. 

The insurgents, dressed in tracksuits to disguise themselves as athletes, carried duffle bags packed with AK47s and grenades as they entered Collonystrasse 31 in search of members of the Israeli Olympic team.

The group, an offshoot of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (Fatah), entered Apartment 1 of Collonystrasse, taking wrestling coach, Moshe Weinberg, by gunpoint to Apartment 3 where other members of the Israeli team were staying. 

By 5:00 am, nine Israeli athletes and their coaches were held hostage, while Weinberg and Yossef Romano, a weightlifter, were killed after attempting to disarm the terrorists.

Headshots of six of the Israeli Olympic team members who were killed in the Palestinian terrorist attack.
Five Israeli athletes and six coaches were killed, along with one German police officer and four Palestinian terrorists. Source: Getty Images

Film crews gathered quickly, capturing footage of members of the Black September and hostages on the balconies of Connollystrasse 31, the first time a terrorist act was caught on film. 

Despite learning of the attack and ongoing hostage situation, Avery Brundage, the president of the Olympics committee, announced that the games would continue.

The Black September released their demands to the public: release the 234 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel along with two German terrorists held in West Germany in exchange for the nine Israeli athletes.

While German police and government officials tried to facilitate the rescue of the hostages, Israel refused to negotiate with the terrorists' demands. 

Attempts by German authorities to infiltrate Connollystrasse 31 were thwarted by the cameras which were transmitting live footage of the Olympic Village to more than 900 million people — including the Black September and hostages watching on television from inside Apartment 3.

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Later in the afternoon, as negotiations continued to fail, Black September requested to be flown to Cairo with the hostages in tow. 

At 10 pm, German officials sent helicopters to escort the Palestinians and the nine hostages to Fürstenfeldbruck, an air base where a botched rescue attempt would end in tragedy.

Fürstenfeldbruck

When the helicopters carrying the terrorists and hostages arrived at the air base, approximately 25 km from the Olympic Village, German police were waiting with a poorly thought out plan to ambush the Palestinians.

Although there was a Boeing 727 waiting on the tarmac with 17 police officers disguised as airline staff waiting to overtake the terrorists, the plane was abandoned at the last minute. 

When the terrorists arrived and boarded the empty plane, they realised that German officials had no intention of fulfilling their demands, and made their way back to the helicopters.

Caskets of murdered Olympians carried onto a plane
Caskets of the victims were seen carried onto a plan after the tragedy Source: Getty Images

Despite lacking the proper training and artillery, police officers opened fire on the terrorists inciting a gunfight that left one German officer dead.

At midnight, German officials released a statement to the media announcing that all of the terrorists had been killed and that the hostages had been secured. 

Meanwhile, gunfire ensued, with Palestinian terrorists lodging a hand grenade into one of the helicopters where held captive, killing them instantly while the remaining five hostages were shot at close range in a separate helicopter.

Impact of the Munich Massacre

Three of the surviving Palestinians were arrested and awaited trial in Munich. In October, Palestinian militants hijacked Lufthansa 615, demanding the release of the three Black September members. 

West German officials complied, and the men were transported to Libya.

Although their demands weren’t met, Black September members said in an interview with reporters that the mission was ultimately a success.

“We have made our voice heard,” one of the freed terrorists said.

The Munich Olympics continued 24 hours after the massacre. Although they were once declared the “Games of Peace and Joy,” Germany was once again tied to the execution of Jews. 

Following international criticism, Germany implemented a counterterrorism task force with national jurisdiction.

Person views photos at Munich Olympics Memorial
The horror of Sept. 5 altered security measures for the Olympics and other highly publicised sporting events. Source: Getty Images

The horror of Sept. 5 altered security measures for the Olympics and other highly publicised sporting events with potential future terrorist acts a chief concern. 

Germany implemented a counterterrorism task force with national jurisdiction following their highly criticised response to the hostage takeover.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics included a memorial to the Israeli athletes killed in Munich: David Berger, Ze’ev Friedman, Yoseff Gutfreund, Moshe Weinberg, Yoseff Romano, Mark Slavin, Eliezer Halfin, Yakov Springer, Andre Spitzer, Amitzur Shapira and Kehat Shorr.

“Even though 49 years have already passed, the tragedy is still engraved in our collective memory and will always be,” said Israel’s Ambassador to Japan Yaffa Ben-Ari. 

“The memory of our victims serves not only as a reminder to the leaders of the State of Israel of the imperative to take care of the lives of the Jewish people, but also reminds the leaders of the world that in order to fight against evil we all have to stand together and condemn terrorism.”

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