The 1972 Munich Games virtually became a footnote, by the actions of a terrorist cell calling themselves Black September. The games were well into the competition when the terror group went into the Olympic Village looking for the Israeli athletes and coaches.
A confluence of events led to the terrorists having a relative easy time in getting to the Olympic Village. The German authorities wanting to distance themselves from the militaristic feel of the 36 Games, embraced an open and friendly feel for the atmosphere in the Village. Security was very lax, and many athletes bypassed security checkpoints altogether and simply climbed over the chain link fence into the Village.
The head of the Israeli delegation Shmuel Lalkin, expressed concern over the lack of security. Further, the Israeli delegation was lodged in a relatively isolated area of the the Village, in a small building near an access gate. Lalkin expressed his concerns to the German authorities, and was assured that extra security precautions would be in place, but it is very much in doubt if those extra measures were taken.
The West German Olympic Organizers had asked forensic psychologist Georg Sieber to create scenarios of terrorism so that the committee could plan accordingly. Sieber did exactly this and his ‘Situation 21’ accurately forecast armed Palestinians breaking into the Israeli delegation headquarters, killing and taking hostages, demanding the release of political prisoners, and requesting a plane to take them out of Germany. The Organizers balked at this, and other scenarios and the preparation for them to not lose the free spirit of the games.
On the night of 4 September, the Israeli contingent had gone out and watched ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and dined afterward with the star of the play, fellow Israeli Shmuel Rodensky. They returned to the Olympic Village. Approximately 4:30 on 5 September, eight members of the terror group clad in tracksuits and carrying dufflebags with assault rifles, pistols, and grenades scaled the fence with the help of some unsuspecting Canadian athletes.
Referee Yossef Gutfreund, was awakened by a noise and he got up to investigate. He saw the door opening and masked men trying to enter the apartment. He tried to close the door back and prevent the terrorists from entering, but his actions were in vain. It did give one roommate, weightlifting coach Tuvia Sokolovsky, enough time to smash a window and escape.
Wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg fought with the terrorists and was shot in the cheek. The terrorists forced him to help them locate other members of the Israeli delegation to take as hostages. Weinberg led them to apartment 3, which housed the weightlifters and wrestlers, probably hopeful that these men could help overpower the terrorists, but everyone was asleep and taken by surprise. As they were being led back to the coaches apartment, Weinberg attacked again, which allowed wrestler Gad Tsobari to escape. Weinberg knocked one terrorist unconscious and slashed another with a pairing knife, before he was shot to death. Weightlifter Yossef Ramano also attacked and wounded one of the terrorists and was shot to death.
The Israeli contingent was bound and held in the first apartment, giving the terrorists nine hostages total. Gutfreund, coaches Kehat Shorr, Amitzur Shapira, Andre Spitzer, weightlifting judge Yakov Springer, wrestlers Eliezer Halfin and Mark Slavin, and weightlifters David Berger and Ze’ev Friedman. The other members of the Israeli group managed to hide and later flee from the building.
Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir called upon the world to “save our citizens and condemn the unspeakable criminal acts committed.” King Hussein of Jordan was the only leader of an Arabic country to speak out against the actions of the terrorists.
Most of the athletes in the village seemed to not even know what was unfolding around them. The Games were continuing until finally the IOC gave into mounting pressure to suspend the events.
The incident was further complicated since the German military was forbidden by the postwar constitution from even participating in the rescue, and left in the hands of the local authorities.
The local authorities cobbled together a plan to meet the demands of the terrorists by securing a 727 to take the terrorists out of Germany. The terrorists and hostages were taken out of the village by bus to a pair of waiting helicopters to take them to the airport, where the German police had set up an ambush. The German plan was for five sharpshooters to set up in different locations and try to pick off the terrorists, while other members of the police overpowered the terrorists as they inspected the plane. The Germans were operating on the mistaken assumption of no more than 5 terrorists.
The attempted rescue attempt was an unmitigated disaster from the start. The police on board the airplane voted to abandon the mission, the sharp shooters and no one else had radio communications. The terrorists realized the setup was a trap and scrambled to safety exchanging fire with the police. The pilots of the helicopters escaped, but the Israeli hostages were bound inside the helicopters and could not. A German police officer, Anton Fliegerbauer, was killed by gunfire.
Just after midnight on 6 September one of the terrorists opened fire into one of the helicopters. Most of the people in the helicopter were killed by the gunfire; the terrorist lobbed a grenade into the cockpit and the explosion and fire destroyed the helicopter and killed the remaining hostages.
The other helicopter was shot up by both terrorists and the German police. A terrorist opened fire into the helicopter and hit the hostages multiple times with automatic weapon fire. Three of the terrorists were taken into custody by the police after the fight was over at approximately 1:30.
Initial reports circulated all over the world that the hostages had been rescued. As word filtered in, it was determined to be in error. At 3:24 Jim McKay uttered what many did not want to hear, “We just got the final word … you know, 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 tonight. They’ve now said that there were eleven hostages. Two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.”
In the memorial service IOC president Avery Brundage barely acknowledged the Israeli victims. After the memorial service the Israeli delegation withdrew from the games and left Germany.
Earlier this year Der Spiegel published an article alleging that the Germans had know that an event was going to take place and that there has been a massive coverup for the last 40 years concerning the massacre.
Of the terrorists that survived, two have been allegedly killed by the Israeli Mossad, with the prevailing belief that the final gunman is living in northern Africa or Syria.
The lessons learned from this event have been far reaching. The German military founded their own special forces group called the GSG-9. Many other countries noted the need for elite counter-terrorism groups and have built them accordingly.
ABC’s Jim McKay “They’re All Gone” video link below.