The presidents of Israel and Germany on Monday led commemorations marking 50 years since 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics, with Berlin asking forgiveness from the families of the victims and admitting responsibility for a litany of failings.
“We cannot make up for what has happened, not even for what you have experienced and suffered in terms of defensiveness, ignorance and injustice. I am ashamed of that,” said German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
“As head of state of this country and in the name of the Federal Republic of Germany, I ask your forgiveness for the inadequate protection afforded to the Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games at Munich and the woeful investigation afterward. That it was possible for what happened to happen.”
Steinmeier’s apology came after a bitter fight by bereaved relatives for Berlin to own up to mistakes that enabled the massacre and for appropriate compensation.
A dispute over the financial offer previously made by Berlin to victims’ relatives had threatened to sour the ceremony, with family members planning a boycott.
But a deal was finally reached last Wednesday for Berlin to provide 28 million euros ($28 million) in compensation. It also — for the first time — saw the German state acknowledge its “responsibility” in failings that led to the deaths of the Israelis.
Opening his remarks, Steinmeier read out the names of the murdered Israeli athletes, who he said came with hope to compete in the Games.
“All hope ended in a nightmare,” he said, recounting the initial killings of two athletes at the Olympic village in Munich and the “catastrophic” German rescue operation, in which nine more athletes and a German policeman were killed, along with five of the hostage-takers.
Steinmeier said he was “profoundly grateful” the families of the victims and Herzog were there, adding that without them there was “no way we could have had a proper act of remembrance.”
“Honored family members, I cannot fathom what suffering, what pain you’ve been through… How can life go on,” he said. “For five decades, that gnawing pain has been with you.”
The German president noted the 1972 Olympics were meant to showcase a new Germany after the last Games held there in 1936 under the Nazis.
“What a vote of confidence it was after the crimes of the Shoah [Holocaust] to take part in the games hosted by the perpetrators,” he said of Israel’s participation at the 1972 Olympics.
“We wanted to be good hosts, but we were not able to live up to the trust that the Israeli sportsmen and their families placed in Germany,” he added.
“The efforts of 1972 to showcase Germany as a peaceful, friendly democracy tragically failed in Munich,” the German president continued. “The Olympic games because an international stage for the terrorists, an international stage for antisemitism and violence.”
“Today’s act of remembrance can only be sincere if we are prepared to acknowledge painful facts,” he said, including an admission of “failure.”
Steinmeier said that though the Palestinian terrorists and their supporters were chiefly to blame, “we bear responsibility too.”
“Today, 50 years on, many questions, far too many questions, remain unanswered… The attack was followed by years of decades of silence and blocking out… that too is a failure,” he said, calling for a continued “search for answers” about the attack and its aftermath.
The German president addressed the families of those killed and Herzog to close out his remarks, saying “We are united in quiet remembrance for 12 people who lost their lives.”
Speaking after Steinmeier, Herzog thanked the German president for his “courageous” words.
“Even 50 years after the murder of 11 Israeli athletes here… There is still pain and the pain is unending,” he said, referring to the families.
Herzog said the Israelis athletes “were brutally murdered in cold blood by a Palestinian terror organization just because they were Jews; just because they were Israelis.”
“For us, as a people and as a country, this massacre has always been a national disaster,” he said, adding that the Olympics would “never be the same again” for Israelis.
“This was not a Jewish and Israeli tragedy, it was a global tragedy,” he said. “The world must never forget: the war on terror, everywhere and always, must be fought with unity, determination, and assertiveness. The future of human society depends on us sanctifying the good and at the same time, repudiating and vanquishing evil. Antisemitism, hatred, terror.”
Herzog also thanked Steinmeier for his personal involvement in the recent German government decision “to take responsibility” for its failures in 1972 and compensate the remaining family members of the 11 victims.
It represents, half a century later, an important step of morality and justice for the victims, for the families, and for history itself.
Ankie Spitzer, the widow of Andre Spitzer, one of the 11 murdered Israelis, said she will never be able to find closure over his death and vowed she “will never stop talking about it so that it will never ever happen again.”
Spitzer told the ceremony that her fight for justice “was long and lonely, but thinking of you on that fateful day 50 years ago, with your hands and feet tied at the mercy of your murderers, gave me all the motivation to continue.”
“When they murdered you they also killed a part of me,” said Spitzer, directing her words to her murdered husband. “I couldn’t find peace because justice hadn’t been done.”
Now that Germany has finally admitted to bearing some responsibility for the attack and agreed to a compensation deal, “everybody is asking now if I finally feel closure,” she said.
“They don’t understand that there will never be closure,” she added. “The hole in my heart will never ever heal… They murdered our hopes, our dreams, our future, but not my love for you.”
Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, also addressed the ceremony.
“Despite the pain you suffered, you did not turn your backs on the Olympic movement… For this we will always be grateful,” Bach, who spoke in English, said to the families of the victims and Herzog.
After an initial suspension following the 1972 attack, the IOC’s then-president Avery Brundage had declared that “the Games must go on.”
Forty years later, the IOC was widely criticized for refusing to dedicate a moment of silence to the victims during the opening of the London Games.
The same year, Israel released 45 official documents on the killings, including specially declassified material, which lambasted the performance of the German security services.
Included in the reports is an official account from the former Israeli intelligence head Zvi Zamir, who said the German police “didn’t make even a minimal effort to save human lives.”
Relatives of victims have over the years battled to obtain an official apology from Germany, access to official documents and appropriate compensation beyond an initial 4.5 million euros.
As recently as just two weeks ago, relatives of the victims said they were offered 10 million euros — including the 4.5 million euros already given. Under the deal announced last week, that sum was upped to 28 million euros.
“I came home with the coffins after the massacre,” Ankie Spitzer, whose husband Andre Spitzer was killed in the hostage-taking, told AFP.
“You don’t know what we’ve gone through for the past 50 years.”
Herzog’s attendance at the ceremony was announced after the compensation deal was reached. At a meeting with Steinmeier on Sunday, the Israeli president voiced hope that the agreement would bring “this painful episode to a place of healing.”