Forty years after Munich, documents show Israel acknowledging its failures, Germany ducking blame
New papers provide bitter insights on how the massacre of 11 Israelis during the 1972 Olympics could have been avoided. But official Germany is still saying nothing
Forty years after Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, Israelis and Germans are revisiting the event: everything from the lapses in the run-up to the Games that made the tragedy possible, to the diplomatic aftermath that severely threatened what were then relatively fresh bilateral relations.
But while Munich 1972 is headline news, the revived debate and the latest revelations have so far produced only silence from the German authorities — the successor authorities to those under whose watch Jews were again slaughtered on German soil a quarter-century after the Nazis.
The Israeli State Archive, which operates under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office, this week published 45 hitherto classified files that document the incensed Israeli reaction to the sluggishness with which the German authorities confronted the situation, as well as the failure of the Israeli security agencies to appropriately protect the delegation before the games. Der Spiegel, Germany’s premier news magazine, also recently dug into the archives and earlier this month revealed for the first time grave blunders on the part of German officials, both before and after the deadly Black September terror attack.
“Screw-ups, nothing but screw-ups,” one German paper headlined an article this week about Bonn’s failure to heed warnings that Palestinian terrorists planned to attack Israelis at the Munich Olympics.
In Germany this week, newspaper coverage of the latest Israeli documents focused on the accusatory report of the former Mossad chief Zvi Zamir — the Germans didn’t “even take a minimal risk to save people,” he charged — and the frosty correspondence between Israeli prime minister Golda Meir and German chancellor Willy Brandt in the days and weeks after the murders.
“It is the bitter reckoning, with one of the most tragic events in recent German history,” BILD, the country’s largest daily, titled its story about the declassification of the Israeli documents.
Official Berlin’s silence, the German embassy in Tel Aviv told The Times of Israel, stems from the fact that the current government can only speak for itself and not for alleged failures of its predecessors. Berlin “of course feels for the deceased and their families,” a spokesperson said. The best proof for that, the spokesperson added, was that Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle traveled to London and attended a memorial event during this year’s Olympics, during which he asserted that “Germany has not forgotten.”
“The Olympic Games in Munich were the first global event in Germany after the horrors of Nazism,” Westerwelle said in front of UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Israeli Minister Limor Livnat, and Ilana Romano and Ankie Spitzer, two widows of slain Munich athletes. “The attack on the Israeli team in the Olympic village came as a profound shock. It was an attack on the Olympic ideals of fairness, mutual respect and peaceful competition.”
“Germany looks back in grief,” Westerwelle added. “We cannot bring back the dead. But it is our responsibility to honor their memory.”
Will Germany stay mum?
In the coming week, as the world marks the attack’s 40th anniversary, German dignitaries will doubtless again express somber sentiments at various memorial events. But will officials speak about the recent — ostensibly embarrassing — revelations?
No comment has been issued to date on Der Spiegel’s revelation that Germany failed to properly protect the Israeli delegation despite a tip-off it had received from an informant weeks before the Olympics that Palestinians were planning an attack. Or on the magazine’s report this week that said a senior German diplomat met with Black September’s Abu Youssef, the mastermind behind the Munich attack, mere months after it occurred, to “create a new basis of trust.”
Why would a German official seek to build trust with an arch-terrorist? According to Der Spiegel, Bonn sought to appease Palestinian terrorists to avoid future terrorist attacks on German soil.
“From the Israeli perspective, it felt like a bitter irony of history that [the spirit of appeasement] involved Munich — a city that became a symbol of the Western powers’ appeasement of Hitler after the Munich Agreement permitting Nazi Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland was signed there in 1938,” the magazine writes.
‘Diplomats and senior Interior Ministry officials upgraded the status of Black September by calling it a ‘resistance group’ — as if its acts of terror had been directed against Hitler and not Israeli civilians’
The files the German journalists unearthed indicate a disturbing unfeelingness on part of the country’s most senior decision makers. Chancellor Brandt is quoted as calling the Munich massacre a “crazy incident.” Another senior Foreign Ministry official refers to it merely as the “events in Munich.”
“Diplomats and senior Interior Ministry officials upgraded the status of Black September by calling it a ‘resistance group’ — as if its acts of terror had been directed against Hitler and not Israeli civilians,” the magazine charges. German officials also never pushed for the extradition of terrorist Abu Daoud after France had captured him in 1977, Der Spiegel found.
“In the coming weeks, during events to mark the 40th anniversary of the attack, the question will once again be raised as to why the German courts never tried any of the perpetrators or backers of the Munich massacre,” the magazine wrote. “The documents that are now available suggest one answer in particular: West Germany didn’t want to call them to account.”
Given the official radio silence on Der Spiegel’s findings, it is unlikely German officials will comment on the revelations from the Israeli archives either, some of which have sparked outrage among Israelis.
The most surprising revelation emerging from the 45 secret documents — which are available on the State Archive’s website — was one of the two reasons for Olympic officials’ and West German authorities’ refusal to abort the Games as soon as the attack on the Israelis became known — “German television has no alternative program.”
(It was later decided to suspend the Olympics and conduct a memorial ceremony for the murdered athletes.)
On the morning of September 6, 1972, hours after the hostage drama on Munich’s military airport had ended in death, the Israeli cabinet met in bleak, somber mood to discuss the outrage.
According to the documents, Minister Yisrael Galili expressed concern about the Palestinian terrorists’ willingness to kill themselves for the cause. “This event may serve the terrorists as the basis for a new national mythology,” he said prophetically.
Diplomatic ties under strain
But the German media coverage on this week’s revelations from Jerusalem focused more on the rancorous report former Mossad chief Zamir sent to prime minister Meir and a team of ministers about the fateful events.
Just one day after the botched rescue operation by German security officers, an emotional Zamir described in detail how the events unfolded — blaming the Germans for lack of professionalism, patience and will to rescue the hostage.
“They didn’t make even a minimal effort to save lives, didn’t take even a minimal risk to save people, neither theirs nor ours,” Zamir said. The Germans only wanted to get over with this business, “at all costs,” so that they could continue with the Games, he charged.
Meir wanted to know why the Israeli delegation had not been properly guarded. Zamir said a security officer at the embassy in Bonn had asked the local police to provide protection but was told the “Olympic spirit reigns here and nothing will happen,” the documents show.
As the failed rescue operation, during which the Israeli sportsmen were eventually killed, unfolded, Zamir, who was at the airport, tried to intervene and help the clearly overwhelmed German forces. But German Interior Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and the police commander present “refused to accept advice from me,” Zamir said. The police commander indeed acted with “extreme impatience” toward Zamir, he said.
After receiving Zamir’s damning account, Meir regretted the rather friendly message she had previously sent to Brandt, in which she praised him for the German forces’ efforts. In another missive, she told Brandt about Zamir’s “sombre and disquiet” report and added that “a precise inquiry into what happened” was needed.
Nearly a month later, Brandt responded to “Frau Meir,” telling her that Zamir’s report includes “a number of inaccuracies or incorrect statements.”
The German government also implored Meir not to publicly criticize the failures of the security arrangements that led to the disaster, as such talk would likely become a “polemic discussion” ahead of upcoming Bundestag elections. “Such a development we believe would not be in the interest of either of the Israeli or the German side.”
Bilateral relations remained frosty for several weeks. They deteriorated further when the German government released three terrorists involved in the Olympic attack after Palestinians hijacked a Lufthansa plane on October 29. Israelis were furious; many brought up the Holocaust, saying that Germans don’t care about Jewish blood. German-Israeli relations were in real danger, as Brandt — who had always opposed Nazism — felt personally insulted. But Israel eventually concluded that it was better to be on Bonn’s good side in the long run and so relations improved again.
While the documents unearthed by Der Spiegel show the Germans refused to carry any blame — “Mutual accusations should be avoided, as well as self-criticism,” a Foreign Ministry official said just two days after the attack — the Israeli records show that Jerusalem was willing to admit mistakes.
Already on September 11, Meir proposed the creation of an inquiry commission to investigate Israel’s failings. A committee was formed to gather information about the security arrangements for the Israeli delegation from all the parties involved.
The committee, in its report, does speak of a “complete failure of the Germans.” But it also acknowledges that Israeli officials dealing with the Olympic delegation took little interest in security measures, significantly underestimating any threats. The Shin Bet’s arrangements for security of Israelis abroad “did not keep up with the changing needs,” the report found.
Do you rely on The Times of Israel for accurate and insightful news on Israel and the Jewish world? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
- Support our independent journalism;
- Enjoy an ad-free experience on the ToI site, apps and emails; and
- Gain access to exclusive content shared only with the ToI Community, including weekly letters from founding editor David Horovitz.
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel ten years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel