1972 Munich Olympic Massacre
The Munich massacre is a common reference name for an attack that occurred during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Bavaria, in southern West Germany, when 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and eventually killed, along with a German police officer, by the Palestinian group Black September. Shortly after the crisis began, they demanded the release of 234 prisoners held in Israeli jails, and the release of the founders (Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof) of the German Red Army Faction, who were held in German prisons. Black September called the operation “Ikrit and Biram”, after two Christian Palestinian villages whose inhabitants were expelled by the Haganah in 1948.
The attackers were apparently given logistical assistance by German neo-Nazis. Five of the eight members of Black September were killed by police officers during a failed rescue attempt. The three surviving assassins were captured, but later released by West Germany following the hijacking by Black September of a Lufthansa airliner. Israel responded to the killers’ release with Operation Spring of Youth and Operation Wrath of God, during which Israeli intelligence and special forces systematically tracked down and killed Palestinians suspected of involvement in the massacre.
The first few days of the Olympic Games went smoothly. On September 4, the Israeli team spent the evening out to see the play, Fiddler on the Roof, and then went back to the Olympic Village to sleep. A little after 4 a.m. on September 5, as the Israeli athletes slept, eight members of the Palestinian terrorist organization, Black September, jumped over the six-foot high fence that encircled the Olympic Village.
The terrorists headed straight for 31 Connollystrasse, the building where the Israeli contingent was staying. Around 4:30 a.m., the terrorists entered the building. They rounded up the occupants of apartment 1 and then apartment 3. Several of the Israelis fought back; two of them were killed. A couple of others were able to escape out windows. Nine were taken hostage.
By 5:10 a.m., the police had been alerted and news of the attack had begun to spread around the world. The terrorists then dropped a list of their demands out the window; they wanted 234 prisoners released from Israeli prisons and two from German prisons by 9 a.m.
Negotiators were able to extend the deadline to noon, then 1 p.m., then 3 p.m., then 5 p.m.; however, the terrorists refused to back down on their demands and Israel refused to release the prisoners. A confrontation became inevitable.
At 5 p.m., the terrorists realized that their demands were not going to be met. They asked for two planes to fly both the terrorists and the hostages to Cairo, Egypt, hoping a new locale would help get their demands met. The German officials agreed, but realized that they could not let the terrorists leave Germany. Desperate to end the standoff, the Germans organized Operation Sunshine, which was a plan to storm the apartment building. The terrorists discovered the plan by watching television. The Germans then planned to attack the terrorists on their way to the airport, but again the terrorists found out their plans.
Around 10:30 p.m., the terrorists and hostages were transported to the Fürstenfeldbruck airport by helicopter. The Germans had decided to confront the terrorists at the airport and had snipers waiting for them. Once on the ground, the terrorists realized there was a trap. Snipers started shooting at them and they shot back. Two terrorists and one policeman were killed. Then a stalemate developed. The Germans requested armored cars and waited for over an hour for them to arrive.
When the armored cars arrived, the terrorists knew the end had come. One of the terrorists jumped into a helicopter and shot four of the hostages, then threw in a grenade. Another terrorist hopped into the other helicopter and used his machine gun to kill the remaining five hostages. The snipers and armored cars killed three more terrorists in this second round of gunfire. Three terrorists survived the attack and were taken into custody.
“They’re all gone.”
In the end, 17 people died during the Black September attack: six Israeli coaches, five Israeli athletes, five of the eight terrorists and one West German policeman. Three terrorists were captured, but less than two months later, the three remaining terrorists were released by the German government after two other Black September members hijacked a plane and threatened to blow it up unless the three were released. According to multiple reports (long denied by Israel) Israeli security agents later tracked down and killed many of those believed to be responsible for the Munich attack.
Sept. 4, 8 pm: The Israeli delegation attends a performance of “Fiddler on the Roof,” presented in German and starring Israeli actor Shmuel Rodensky. Simultaneously, the six trained terrorists gather at the Munich Central Railway Station, 10 minutes away from the theater. The men eat dinner at the station restaurant, where they are joined by Muhammad Massalha, 27, and Yussef Nazzal, 25, who possess secret orders for the operation. A plan is revealed to kidnap Israeli athletes for use as leverage in the exchange of some 200 Palestinian prisoners from the Jewish state.
9:30 pm: The Israeli team is invited backstage during intermission to meet the “Fiddler” cast. The group takes a picture with the performers, the last they will ever pose for.
Midnight: The Black September terrorists locate specified lockers at the Munich railway station and remove an arsenal of weaponry that has been stored there for them.
Sept. 5, 4 am: Eight members of the Palestinian terror group Black September quietly scale the fence of the Israeli Village, as athletes inside sleep. The terrorists head to 31 Connollystrasse, a dormitory containing five apartments that house the Israeli men’s team.
4:42 am: Black September enters 31 Connollystrasse.
The terrorists come upon wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg at Apartment 1. Weinberg struggles with one terrorist, getting shot in the process. The wounded coach is ordered to take the men to the rest of the team. Forced by gunpoint, Weinberg leads the terrorists past Apartment 2, where field athletes are housed, instead heading to Apartment 3, where the weightlifters and wrestlers sleep. Weinberg’s hope is that the stronger athletes may have a chance of overpowering the gunmen.
Hostages in Apartment 3 are rounded up and marched back to Apartment 1. Weinberg makes a final attempt at stopping the terrorists, knocking one out and stabbing at another with a fruit knife. The scuffle allows wrestler Gad Tsobari to escape via an underground parking garage. Weightlifter Yossef Romano (who is injured and on crutches, planning to fly back to Israel in one day to undergo surgery) joins his friend Weinberg in attacking the terrorists. Both Israeli men are shot and killed. The terrorists now have nine living hostages.
5:10 am: Shmuel Lalkin discovers the naked body of Weinberg in a hallway and alerts authorities, who arrive on the scene.
6 am: Israeli news outlets pick up the story. What would become a media frenzy begins.
7:40 am: The terrorists demand the release of 236 Palestinian prisoners, giving a 9 am deadline.
9 am: The first deadline passes. Authorities are able to secure extensions to continue negotiations, pushing the deadline time back to noon, then 1 pm, then 3 pm, then 5 pm. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir is in constant communication with German officials, but insists that Israel will not give in to terrorist demands.
3:50 pm: Zvi Zamir, head of the Mossad, arrives in Munich, despite German protests that Israel does not need to send its own security team over.
4 pm: German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, realizing the negotiations are turning futile, offers himself up in exchange for the Israeli athletes. Massalha, who acts as representative for all the Black September members, refuses.
4:30 pm: Hostage Andre Spitzer pokes his head out a window and speaks to German authorities. He says all but one of the hostages is okay.
4:50 pm: Genscher and a police chief are permitted entrance to the hostage location to speak face to face with the terrorists. Their first person account leads to misinformation that there are only four terrorists. The two Germans will later report that the Israeli athletes were “not very hopeful” that their lives could be saved.
5 pm: German officials put into place a covert initiative, called Operation Sunshine. Due to Bavarian law, German military are not legally allowed to deploy. Instead, a team of 38 volunteers dressed as athletes plans to storm 31 Connollystrasse, with machine guns hidden in canvas bags. However, thanks to live television cameras trained on the site, the terrorists see the attack coming and the plan is foiled.
5:46 pm: Eventually accepting their prisoner exchange demands will not be met, the terrorists request a plane to transport themselves and the hostages to Cairo, where they expect easier negotiations. German authorities agree to supply the plane, but do not intend to let the terrorists actually leave the country with the Israeli athletes.
10:30 pm: The terrorists and hostages are brought by helicopter to Furstenfeldbruck, a military airport. A decoy plane waits with a police squad disguised as flight crew planning to overpower the Palestinians. Five snipers sit at a tower, as authorities expect only four terrorists to arrive with the Israelis.
Realizing their mistake, authorities decide the plane crew is undertrained and abandon the decoy mission. Instead, the terrorists and hostages land on the ground, where the snipers begin shooting. Two terrorists and one German policeman, Anton Fliegerbauer, are killed immediately.
11:30 pm: Reaching a stalemate, the Germans order armored cars and wait over an hour for the vehicles to arrive. Once delivered, the terrorists enact a scattered offensive. One jumps onto a helicopter, shooting four more of the Israelis and firing off a grenade. Another Palestinian jumps into the second helicopter, killing the remaining five athletes. Snipers hit three of the terrorists, then finally take the last three Palestinians into custody.
Midnight: German government spokesman Conrad Ahlers goes on the air to falsely announce to the world that all of the terrorists are in custody and all of the Israeli athletes are alive. He calls the event an “unfortunate interruption” and says, “It will be forgotten after a few weeks.”
Sept. 6, 3:24 am: American reporter Jim McKay makes history, telling the world, “When I was a kid my father used to say, ‘Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized.’ Our worst fears have been realized.” He announces that all 11 Israeli athletes are dead.
10 am: A memorial is held in the wake of the killings. Flags of participating Olympic nations are lowered to half-staff. Ten Arab nations object, and their flags are raised back to full height.
Afternoon: The games continue. The Israeli team flies home with its murdered teammates. An international cry to suspend the Olympics goes unheeded, prompting athletes of various nationalities to drop out of their own accord. Dutch distance runner Jos Hermens says, “You give a party and someone is killed at the party, you don’t continue the party. I’m going home.”
October 29, 1972: The three surviving terrorists are awaiting trial when a Lufthansa jet is hijacked over the Mediterranean Sea. The new terrorists, also Palestinians, demand the release of the Black September gang in exchange for the passengers on board. The German government immediately agrees.
There are only 12 passengers onboard the jumbo jet, all adult men. Conspiracy theories persist that the hijacking was a setup by Germany as a way to get the Palestinians off its hands and prevent further attacks aimed at retrieving the men. In 1999’s documentary “One September Day,” German General Ulrich Wegener, who was on the scene for the entire tragedy, says, “I think it’s probably true, yes.”
The three surviving terrorists, Mohammed Safady, Adnan Al-Gashey and Jamal Al-Gashey, return to Libya to a hero’s welcome.
The months following: Under the authority of Golda Meir and led by Mossad head Zvi Zamir, Israel enacts a response initiative called Operation Wrath of God. It is widely believed that two of the three remaining Munich terrorists are tracked down and killed as part of the covert mission. The third, Jamal Al-Gashey, is still alive today and resides in North Africa with his wife and children. He has given few interviews in the last decades, but spoke during the filming of “One September Day.” He says to the camera, “I’m proud of what I did in Munich.”