In what became known as the Munich Massacre, eight terrorists wearing tracksuits and carrying gym bags filled with grenades and assault rifles, breached the Olympic Village at the Summer Games in Munich before dawn on September 5, 1972. The terrorists, associated with Black September, an extremist faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, entered the apartment complex where Israeli athletes were staying. Once inside, they murdered two members of the Israeli team and took nine others hostage. Audiences around the world then watched in horror as the international nightmare unfolded on live TV.
The terrorists demanded the release of 234 Arab prisoners from Israeli jails, as well as two German terrorists held in West German custody. When authorities attempted to rescue the hostages after a 23-hour standoff, all the hostages, one West German police officer and five Black September members were killed.
More than 900 million viewers watched coverage of the terrorist attack on TV, including the now iconic sight of a black ski mask-clad terrorist on the balcony. It was the first time an act of terror was broadcast live and took place during a major global sporting event.
Lax Security During Post-Nazi Olympic Games
Hosting its first Olympics in Germany since Adolf Hitler’s Nazi propaganda and racism-laden 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, the West German government had been looking to highlight its democracy and downplay any military presence. Hailing the event as “the Games of Peace and Joy,” and “the Cheerful Games,” West Germany eschewed uniformed soldiers and police for unarmed guards.
Less than 30 years after the end of World War II, when approximately 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, Israel entered the Munich Olympics with its biggest-ever team of officials and athletes. According to the book One Day in September by Simon Reeve, "several of them (were) older Eastern Europeans still bearing physical and mental scars from Nazi concentration camps."
Israeli officials had reportedly voiced concern about the lack of security at the Games and a 1972 New York Times report pointed to "glaring" precautionary deficiencies. The way the terrorists were able to take deadly advantage of easy access to the village would change security protocols and preparation for future Olympics.
The Terrorist Attack
Ten days into the Games, on September 5, 1972, under the cloak of darkness, the terrorists stormed the Israeli team's quarters at 4:30 a.m., having been helped over a wire fence by athletes sneaking in after a night out who mistook them for fellow Olympians.
Upon breaching the Israeli dorm, wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg and weightlifter Yossef Romano were killed almost immediately. Horrifyingly, Romano, according to the Associated Press, was castrated and Weinberg’s body was thrown to the street. Some escaped, but nine Israelis were quickly taken hostage, including weightlifters David Berger, who was born in America, and Ze’ev Friedman, wrestlers Eliezer Halfin and Mark Slavin, track and field coach Amitzur Shapira, sharpshooting coach Kehat Shorr, fencer Andre Spitzer, weightlifting judge Yakov Springer and wrestling referee Yossef Gutfreund.
A 9 a.m. deadline was set for the terrorists’ political prisoner release demands—not meeting it, they said, would result in one hostage being executed every hour.
Negotiations and Demands
With no counter-terror unit in place, the West Germans took control of the negotiations, with Munich's police chief as well as Libyan and Tunisian ambassadors to Germany, attempting to deal with the kidnappers. According to the Guardian, the terrorists rejected the offer of "an unlimited amount of money" for the release of the hostages, but did extend their deadline multiple times. At least one attempt at a rescue in the athletes’ dorm was botched when the terrorists were able to view officers approaching on TV—their electricity hadn’t been cut off.
Israel's immediate response was that there would be no negotiations. "If we should give in, then no Israeli anywhere in the world can feel that his life is safe," Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir said at the time.
With negotiations failing, the members of Black September demanded transport to Cairo and, with the hostages, were moved via two helicopters to Fürstenfeldbruck air base, about 15 miles away, where a jet was waiting. In a rescue attempt-turned bloodbath, German snipers, with no sharpshooting experience, inadequate gear, bad intelligence and no means of communication with each other, opened fire on the kidnappers. The terrorists returned fire, killing Anton Fliegerbauer, a German policeman positioned in a control tower. All nine hostages, bound in the helicopters, were killed by gunfire and a grenade.
Black September leader Luttif Afif and four other terrorists were also left dead, while three were captured alive.
Reaction and Response
Following the attack, the Games were suspended for 34 hours, with a memorial service held September 6 in Olympic Stadium that was attended by 3,000 athletes and 80,000 spectators. The rest of the Israeli team left Munich, as did Mark Spitz, the Jewish American swimmer who had already won seven gold medals at the Games, and the Egyptian, Philippine and Algerian teams, among others.
A month later, the three captured terrorists were released in a hostage exchange after the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 615 and received a “hero’s welcome” upon arrival in Libya, according to Reuters.
Meir and Israel, meanwhile, responded with Operation Wrath of God, a covert Mossad mission to kill the masterminds behind the Munich massacre. Several suspects were assassinated in the coming months, but the mission was suspended when an innocent man was mistakenly killed in Norway in 1973. The target of that shooting, Black September Chief of Operations Ali Hassan Salameh, was assassinated by car bomb in 1979 in the operation’s final mission.
“Israeli team’s massacre overshadows sports at 1972 Olympics,” by Aron Heller, Associated Press, August 7, 2020.
"The terrorist outrage in Munich in 1972," by Simon Burnton, The Guardian, May 2, 2012.
FACTBOX: “The Munich Olympics killings and their aftermath,” by Reuters Staff, Reuters, March 7, 2012.
One Day in September: The Full Story of the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and the Israeli Revenge Operation 'Wrath of God,' by Simon Reeve, Simon & Schuster, 2018.
“Tragedy in Munich,” National Park Service