On This Day

munich massacre, black september
Kurt Strumpf/AP
A member of the Black September terrorist group stands guard on the balcony of the village building where the commandos held several members of the Israeli team hostage.

On This Day: Palestinian Terrorists Kill Israeli Athletes in “Munich Massacre”

September 05, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Sept. 5, 1972, a Palestinian terrorist group called Black September raided the Israeli team barracks at the Munich Olympic Games, killing two team members and taking nine hostage. The hostages were later killed during a bungled rescue attempt by German authorities.

The Munich Massacre

Munich played host to the Games of the XX Olympiad, the first time that Germany had hosted the Games since 1936, when the country was under Nazi rule. Hoping to avoid a militaristic feel and invite a comparison to Hitler’s Games, the organizers kept security to a minimum.

“The Munich Olympics were to be ‘the Carefree Games,’” explains Alexander Wolff in Sports Illustrated. “There would be no place for barbed wire, troops or police bristling with sidearms.” The Olympic Village was protected only by a single 6-foot-tall chain-link fence, and it was common to see athletes jump the fence while returning home.

For the first 10 days, “The Games of Peace and Joy” was a success. But on Sept. 5, at 4:30 a.m., eight members of a Palestinian terrorist group easily made their way past security and used stolen keys to enter two Israeli team apartments in the Olympic Village.

Armed with hand grenades and Kalashnikovs, they startled the athletes and coaches out of their sleep. Many of the athletes and coaches attempted to flee, while wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg and weightlifter Yossef Romano fought back. Both men were killed, and nine other Israelis were taken hostage.

The terrorists demanded the release of 234 prisoners from Israeli jails and two Germans from German jails. After hours of unsuccessful negotiations, the terrorists demanded that they be able to fly to Cairo with their hostages.

That night, the terrorists and hostages were taken by helicopter to Fuerstenfeldbruck military airport, where they were promised there would be a plane waiting to take them to Cairo. German authorities planned for a rescue attempt, with five snipers waiting to shoot the terrorists.

The plan had several flaws, however: authorities had underestimated the number of terrorists, the officers were not trained for such a mission, and they had no way of communicating with each other. When officers dressed as flight crew decided to back out of the mission, they did not alert others.

Two terrorists were taken to the plane; when they found it empty, they raced back to the helicopter and began firing. The snipers, who were not actually trained snipers, had trouble locating the terrorists due to poor lighting. The Germans could do little until four armored cars, which had been caught in traffic, arrived about a hour later.

Upon seeing the cars, the terrorists decided to kill their hostages, who were bound inside the helicopters, with point-blank shots and a hand grenade. When the violence stopped sometime after midnight, five terrorists, a German officer, a pilot and all nine hostages were dead; the remaining three terrorists, who were wounded in the fighting, were arrested.

Reaction: “The Games Must Go On”

News organizations originally reported that the Israeli hostages had been saved. But at 3 a.m., reality had become clear. ABC reporter Jim McKay, who had covered the incident all day, announced on television, “They're all gone.”

There was some sentiment that the remaining six days of the Olympics should be canceled. Several athletes dropped out in protest, and Arab nations Egypt, Kuwait and Syria pulled out to avoid reprisals. The surviving Israeli athletes returned home and Israeli Olympic Committee president Joseph Inbar declared, “Enough blood has flowed to end the Games.”

But organizers were determined to continue the Games. At a memorial in the Olympic Stadium, IOC president Avery Brundage proclaimed, “The Games must go on.”

“German and IOC concern over the fate of the Israeli athletes was unquestionably genuine,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Jerry Kirshenbaum, “but it was obvious that that worry was coupled with an almost equal concern for the fate of the Games.”

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