Germany had a tip-off three weeks ahead of Munich massacre, Der Spiegel claims

Beirut informant’s warning of Palestinian ‘incident’ was ignored, then covered up for 40 years, magazine says

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Two West German policemen, armed with submachine guns and wearing tracksuits, get into position on the roof of the building where armed Palestinian terrorists were holding Israel Olympic team members hostage, September 5, 1972 (photo credit:AP)
Two West German policemen, armed with submachine guns and wearing tracksuits, get into position on the roof of the building where armed Palestinian terrorists were holding Israel Olympic team members hostage, September 5, 1972 (photo credit:AP)

Germany had a tip-off from a Palestinian informant in Beirut three weeks before the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre that Palestinians were planning an “incident” at the Games, a German news magazine charged Sunday.

The Foreign Ministry in Bonn took the tip-off sufficiently seriously to pass it on to the secret service in Munich and urge that “all possible security measures” be taken.

But the Munich authorities failed to act on the tip, which was passed on to Bonn by the German Embassy in Beirut, and have never acknowledged it in the ensuing 40 years, Der Spiegel said in a front-page story to be published Monday but made available online in German on Sunday.

The failure to act upon that tip-off at the time, and the subsequent failure to acknowledge that it had even been received, Der Spiegel added, is only part of a 40-year cover-up by the German authorities of the mishandling of the 1972 terror attack, in which 11 members of the Israeli team were massacred by Palestinian Black September terrorists.

“The federal government [in Bonn] and the local government of the state of Bavaria committed grave errors in their handling of the attack on Israeli athletes during the Olympic Games in Munich, and have kept the true extent of the failure true under wraps until today,” Der Spiegel asserted.

For the first 20 years after the massacre in Munich, the German authorities refused to release any information about the attack; nor did they accept any responsibility for the tragic results. This changed after Ankie Spitzer, widow of slain fencer Andrei Spitzer, appeared on ZDF West German TV in the spring of 1992 and appealed, in German, for information on how her husband had died.

Several weeks later she received a call from an anonymous government official with access to the files. As Aaron J. Klein reported in “Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s Deadly Response,” two weeks later 80 pages of original typewritten documents arrived at the Tel Aviv office of Pinchas Zeltzer, the lawyer representing the victims’ families, including autopsy logs and ballistic reports and yet the Bavarian justice minister steadfastly denied the existence of official government archives. Spitzer confronted him on national TV, waving a sheath of papers in his face.

On August 29, 1992 Zeltzer received word from Munich: the archive had been located. All told the government had been hiding 3,808 files, containing tens of thousands of documents. Their existence allowed the families to file suit in 1994 against the federal government, the Bavarian government and the city of Munich. In 2004 the families accepted the German offer of 3 million Euros as a form of monetary compensation and a muted acceptance of government responsibility.

‘Mutual accusations should be avoided, as well as self-criticism’

On Sunday, Der Spiegel said it obtained hitherto secret reports by authorities, embassy cables and minutes of cabinet meetings that demonstrate just how amateurish the German officials were ahead of the September 5 attack, which also claimed the life of one German policeman.

According to Bonn’s official documentation of the event, the Palestinian Black September terror group carried out its deadly mission with “precision.” But the German authorities knew the Black September was a badly prepared group that barely managed to find hotel rooms in Munich, Der Spiegel stated.

As far back as August 14, 1972, three weeks before the massacre, the German Embassy in Beirut reported to Bonn that an informant had talked about Palestinian plans for “an incident” during the Olympics, according to the report. Four days later, the Foreign Ministry in Bonn told the secret service’s Munich branch about this and advised authorities to “take all possible security measures.”

Needless to say, the necessary security measures were never taken. The report revealed, for instance, that the terrorists were strolling by the apartments of the Israeli athletes without anybody stopping them from doing so.

All these facts are missing from the official documentation of the German government.

The official documentation also conceals the fact that the Munich prosecution investigated the city’s police chiefs for suspected negligent homicide, the magazine reported.

“Mutual accusations should be avoided, as well as self-criticism,” a Foreign Ministry official told a special cabinet session just two days after the deadly attack. “From that moment on, this apparently became the motto of the governments in Bonn and Munich,” the magazine wrote.

Mitch Ginsburg contributed to this report.

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