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The Post-History

The Olympics massacre from 1972 cut deep. What happened in the first days after the failed attempt to free the hostages and their deaths? What effects did these events have on Germany and Israel? What roles did those who remained play in processing the events? How have the murders of the Israeli athletes and the death of Anton Fliegerbauer been remembered in Munich and Fürstenfeldbruck since then?

Video: Report from the morning of September 6, Tel Aviv © ARD-aktuell 1972 | Tagesschau, 6.9.1972

The morning of 6th September 1972

On the morning of 6th September, there was a terrible scene on the airfield in Fürstenfeldbruck. Officers from the Federal Border Guard (BGS) secured the site of the event around both helicopters and the bodies.

Meanwhile, journalists from across the globe gathered in the Olympic Village. At the press conference, the Federal German decision-makers took no responsibility for the events in Fürstenfeldbruck. Rather, it criticised the Israeli government and politicians from various Arab states: the Israeli government had put the hostages at risk by turning down the demands of the hostage-takers to free the imprisoned Palestinians.

Egypt and the other Arab countries had not done enough in their efforts to support the Federal German Government in their efforts to resolve the crisis. The Munich police president Manfred Schreiber contested that the death of the hostages could be traced back to errors on the part of the police.
A statement from the police regarding the operation read: ‘The decision of the Israeli state not to give in to the demands of the terrorists was the death sentence for the hostages.’

Video: Airfield Fürstenfeldbruck in the morning of September 6 © ARD-aktuell 1972 | Tagesschau, 6.9.1972

National mourning in Israel

On the morning of 7th September, a speaker read out the names of the murdered athletes on Israeli radio. The coffin of weightlifter David Berger was flown to the USA early in the morning. US President Richard Nixon had sent an aeroplane from the Air Force to transfer the dead man to his place of birth in Ohio.

Later, an aeroplane landed in Tel Aviv with the coffins, surviving athletes and delegation members on board. Israel had withdrawn its entire delegation from the Olympic Games. After a military ceremony at the airport in Tel Aviv, the dead were laid to rest. Representatives from the Federal Republic of Germany, including former Mayor of Munich Hans-Jochen Vogel, took part in the funeral service.

Funeral ceremony in Israel

The Israeli government declared 7th September to be a day of state mourning. Businesses and authorities remained closed. The flags were flown at half-mast. Decades later, the historian and journalist Aaron J. Klein summarised the scope of the violent death of the eleven Jewish athletes on German soil in words.

"The Munich massacre eclipsed everything the young nation had experienced so far. It represented a demarcation line that divided recent history into the time before and after Munich. Even before that, Israel had endured difficult hours, but Munich struck a nerve, severing the protective scar tissue along with the sinews. Once again, Jews had been led to the slaughter on German soil. Images of Israel's finest athletes, shackled, unable to stave off impending death, inflicted a grievous wound on the nation's soul. A sense of helplessness spread. Only twenty-seven years had passed since six million Jews had been crammed into camps and murdered. Now the wounds of the Holocaust were reopening and bleeding."

The burial of Anton Fliegerbauer

On 8th September, the city of Munich set up an honorary grave at the Munich forest cemetery for the policeman Anton Fliegerbauer, who was shot dead during the operation in Fürstenfeldbruck. Mayor Georg Kronawitter had already visited his wife in condolence on the day after the deadly night. Fliegerbauer’s colleagues called for donations for his family. Several hundred police officers and official representatives from Germany and Israel took part in the burial. Minister President Gustav Heinemann and Chancellor Willy Brandt laid wreaths on the grave. A representative of Israel gave thanks for Fliegerbauer’s contribution and declared that Fliegerbauer would be entered in the remembrance book of the Israeli police.

Video © ARD-aktuell 1972 | Tagesschau, 8.9.1972

The funeral of Anton Fliegerbauer © ARD-aktuell 1972 | Tagesschau, 8.9.1972

Official evaluation of the police operation

A discussion about the police operation in Fürstenfeldbruck quickly ensued. Did the German authorities fail? Those responsible also came under increasing pressure. Shortly after the events in in Fürstenfeldbruck, the Bavarian police published an ‘official report’, which was printed in the Süddeutschen Zeitung.
Among other things, it stated that the police snipers had ‘eliminated as many of the terrorists as possible’ during the first round of shooting. It did not mention that the snipers were unaware of the number of hostage-takers at that time. On 18th September, the Committee on Internal Affairs in the German Federal Government came to the decision that a parliamentary investigation was not necessary.

Public criticism

Despite the official versions, criticism of the German authorities grew. Zvi Zamir from the Israeli foreign secret service Mossad, who had been on location in Fürstenfeldbruck, told the Israeli government that there “was a basic lack at an operational level in the preparedness of the Bavarian government to undertake serious measures to free the hostages.”
The Federal German media also criticised the operation, stating: five precision snipers were too few, the police in general were poorly trained and the weapons were not suitable for the operation. Moreover, the night time operation in Fürstenfeldbruck was poorly lit as shadows were formed under the helicopters in which the hostage-takers could hide from the police snipers. The sudden departure of the police operation team from the aeroplane was also criticised. This meant that the hostage-takers had immediately realised it was a trap. Moreover, the tank vehicles were ordered too late to Fürstenfeldbruck.

The founding of the GSG 9

The Bavarian police indicated they were satisfied with their operation a few days after the events: ‘With the objective consideration of all aspects, the police management can determine that it not only did nothing wrong, but it also could not have used its means (personnel and material) any better under the given circumstances.’
However, Federal Minister of the Interior Hans-Dietrich Genscher determined that the police must be better prepared for possible threats and events of this kind in the future. He was of the opinion that the Federal Republic of Germany required a special unit which was trained for hostage situations and had the necessary equipment. Genscher therefore commissioned Ulrich Wegener from Federal Border Protection to create such a unit. In April 1973, Wegener reported that the unit was ready. It had the name ‘Border Protection Group 9’, or GSG 9 for short. The events in Munich and Fürstenfeldbruck led to a new direction for the security policy of the Federal Republic of Germany. At the same time, the international cooperation of security authorities was improved.

The deportation of Arabic nationals

The events from 5th and 6th September 1972 had an effect on the lives of Arabic people living in Germany. Around 100 people who were engaged in Palestinian affairs were deported as a reaction to the hostage-taking in the Federal Republic of Germany.

Among them was the Egyptian Magdi Gohary, who had offered his services as a translator to the authorities on 5th September. He spoke to the hostage-takers and also held telephone conversations with the representatives of Arab countries who were to convince the Palestinian group to release the Israeli hostages. The foreign office praised his willingness to help.
Two weeks later, the Bavarian police took him into custody and deported him from Germany with other Arabs a few hours later. He was not able to say goodbye to his wife and child. Gohary had been living in Germany for twelve years and was involved in the Munich Palestine committee.

The ban on Palestinian organisations

The Federal Ministry for the Interior also banned the General-Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) and General-Union of Palestinian Workers (GUPA), which were classified as Fatah aid organisations by the protection of the constitution. It could not be established whether the two organisations had some sort of connection to the hostage-takers.

The Federal Government also changed the regulations for all people entering the country from Arab countries – a decision which put a heavy burden on diplomatic relations with Egypt. As the measures were directed against ethnic groups they were criticised as racist by various Arab States.

The handover of the killed hostage-takers to Libya

The Palestinian organisation responsible for the Olympic massacre, ‘Black September’, demanded the transfer of the bodies of the five killed hostage-takers and the release of the three arrested hostage-takers on 7th September. Otherwise, there would be revenge on the Federal Republic of Germany. Under solicitation from the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, the German government released the bodies of the five hostage-takers. They were flown to Tripoli on 12th September 1972. There, a mass of people bore the coffins from the Martyr’s Square to the Sidi-Munajdir cemetery. The hostage-takers had left a testament which stated ‘We are neither murderers nor bandits. We are persecuted people without a country or home.’ The killed hostage takers were blessed as ‘holy martyrs’ and their mission as ‘one of the most sublime and brave in the history of humankind’. The masses called out “We are all Black September!" For days, this call was echoed at demonstrations across the Arabic world.

The forced release of the imprisoned hostage-takers
on 29th October 1972

Three of the eight hostage takers survived and were taken to a German prison. At the end of September, a speaker for ‘Black September’ threatened that the three hostage-takers would be removed from the prison institutes as soon as they had recovered from their injuries. This threat became a reality on 29th October 1972.

A Palestinian group hijacked a Lufthansa aeroplane which had started from Beirut and was meant to fly to Frankfurt via Ankara and Munich. The people who hijacked the aeroplane demanded that the Federal Republic of Germany exchange the three imprisoned hostage-takers for the passengers and personnel on the flight. After a brief consultation, the Federal Republic of Germany was ready to meet the demands.

The three hostage-takers were brought to the Munich-Riem airport on the same day, where they were to be taken on board the captured aeroplane. After the aeroplane hijackers had suggested other airports for the exchange several times, the Federal Government finally flew the hostage takers from Munich to Zagreb. From there, the captors and hostage-takers were flown to Tripoli, where they released the passengers and flight personnel.

With this, the three surviving hostage-takers were free again just a few weeks after the Olympic massacre. Upon their arrival in Libya they were celebrated as heroes.

The Israeli government spoke out vehemently against the exchange of the hostage-takers and accused the Federal German government of trying to get rid of the hostage-takers as quickly as possible out of fear of attacks. The decision by the Federal German government to agree to the exchange of the hostage-takers contributed considerably to a deterioration in the relationship between Germany and Israel.

Willy Brandt explained his motivation for releasing the hostage-takers in a letter to Golda Meir.

Botschaft des Bundeskanzlers der Bundesrepublik Deutschland Die kürzliche Entführung einer Lufthansa-Maschine hat der bayerischen Staatsregierung und der Bundesregierung eine schwere Entscheidung abverlangt. Unser Handeln wurde von der Überzeugung bestimmt, dass der Rettung der gefährdeten Menschen Vorrang vor allen anderen Erwägungen gebühre. In diesem konkreten Fall gab es keine andere Wahl. Die am 29. Oktober eingenommene Haltung der Bundesregierung bedeutet kein Zurückweichen gegenüber dem Terrorismus. Die Bundesregierung wird sich auch in Zukunft mit ganzer Kraft und allen ihr zur Verfügung stehenden Mitteln terroristischen Anschlägen entgegenstellen. Wir werden nicht dulden, dass unser Land zum Schauplatz gewaltsamer Auseinandersetzungen wird. Wir werden unsere Sicherheitsmaßnahmen ausbauen und uns verstärkt für eine internationale Zusammenarbeit bei der Bekämpfung des Terrorismus einsetzen. Sie werden verstehen, dass ich schmerzlich berührt bin von Äusserungen, die im Zusammenhang mit der Entführung der Lufthansa-Maschine von israelischer Seite gefallen sind. Mit allem Nachdruck muß ich widersprechen, wenn hierbei Parallelen zu einer verbrecherischen Periode deutscher Politik gezogen werden. Es erfüllt mich mit Sorge, dass durch diese Vorgänge das Verhältnis zwischen unseren Ländern belastet werden könnte, und ich meine, wir sollten uns in zemeinsamem Bemühen dafür einsetzen, dass die deutsch-israelischen Beziehungen keinen Schaden nehmen. The recent highjacking of a Lufthansa plane has placed the Bavarian State Government and the Federal German Government before a grave decision. Our way of action was motivated by the conviction that the rescue of endangered lives must have precedence before all other considerations. In this particular case there was no other choice. The attitude which the Federal Government took on October 29th, does not mean a surrender to terrorism. The Federal Government will also in future oppose vigorously and with all the means in its power the attacks of terrorism. There will not permit our country to become the scene of terrorist violence. Je shall. improve our security messures and we shall increase our efforts for international cooperation in the combat against terrorism. You will understand th

The ‘Caesarea’ group

Israel demanded remuneration for the murder of its athletes. A few days after the bloody end of the hostage-taking in Fürstenfeldbruck, the Israeli army attacked Palestinian camps in Syria and Lebanon and killed hundreds of people – according to the information from the army, they were ‘terrorists’. The foreign secret service Mossad also formed a group under the name ‘Caesarea’ (Eng. ‘Wrath of God’). The aim of the unit was to find the people involved in planning and carrying out the Olympic massacre as well as further members of ‘Black September’ and kill them. Uninvolved persons who were mistakenly identified by the state execution squad were also victims of the subsequent military operations, or blown to death by the explosive devices intended to take out the targeted people. At the start of the 1990s, the special unit ceased its operations. At least 20 people had been killed by then. None of them were those who had planned the Olympic massacre.

The relatives demand an explanation

Shortly after the Olympic massacre, the families of the victims demanded an explanation from the German authorities as to the circumstances under which their relatives had lost their lives. Many questions remained unanswered. The families also tried to gain access to the autopsy reports and the results of the ballistic investigations – but without success.
In 1976, Hans-Dietrich Genscher visited Israel as a foreign minister. At first, he refused to meet the families of the murdered athletes. Only Ankie Spitzer’s threat that she would prevent his flight from leaving convinced him to meet with her and Ilana Romano. The two widows demanded the publication of the information which had been withheld until then about the events in Munich and Fürstenfeldbruck. They requested that the Federal German government develop a compensation plan for those remaining and erect a memorial for the victims.

German reactions

Hans-Dietrich Genscher promised to look into their demands in writing. Ten months later, his answer arrived at the foreign ministry in Jerusalem. In it, Genscher denied that the Federal German government was in possession of documents about the murder of hostages in Fürstenfeldbruck. In his letter, Genscher did not mention their demand for a memorial to be erected. However, he was prepared to guarantee a total of two children of the victims a year’s scholarship at a German university. These scholarships were only guaranteed to children who could prove financial need. The families rejected the offer and continued their fight for the release of information. In the following years, Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano met with almost every high-ranking representative of the Federal Republic of Germany who visited Israel.

A new impetus for review in 1992

Only in 1992 ‒ 20 years after the Olympic massacre – was there movement on the matter, when Ankie Spitzer appealed to German viewers during a TV interview on ZDF. She reported about her fruitless attempts to gain detailed information about the events in Munich and Fürstenfeldbruck and about the death of her husband. She still could not believe that there was not a single record about the night of his death. A few weeks after the interview, Spitzer was passed some documents: these were excerpts from the autopsy report about her husband, David Berger and Yossef Gutfreund, as well as ballistic analyses for almost every victim.

Ankie Spitzer now demanded full access to the files. However, this was rejected by the responsible Bavarian authority. During a TV appearance, Spitzer – in a live feed from Tel Aviv – confronted the Bavarian Minister for Justice with these documents, as he had denied the existence of these documents up to that point. She pulled out the papers and began to read out the official results of the ballistic investigations. After this appearance, the opposition parties demanded the release of all the file materials.

The opening of the files and a minute of silence in Tokyo 2021

At the end of August 1992, the files were found, according to the official presentation, in the Bavarian state archive. The material was extensive. Thousands of pages and hundreds of photographs gave an insight into the final hours of the eleven Israeli athletes. The documents also put the families in the position to bring the case before the courts and sue for compensation payments. The process against the Federal Republic of Germany, the Free State of Bavaria and the City of Munich was held in 1994.

Ultimately, the families were offered compensation. The German side offered the complainants the converted amount of three million euros, which was to be shared among the relatives. Due to the high costs of the process, the families of the victims received about 900,000.00 euros altogether.

Since 1972, the relatives have been fighting for the remembrance of the murdered athletes. For decades, those remaining requested a memorial from the International Committee (IOC) for the murdered Israeli athletes. The IOC rejected this several times, despite prominent supporters, such as US President Barack Obama. In 2021 the time had finally come: for the first time there was a minute of silence for the victims of 1972 at the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano said they were relieved: “We finally have justice for the husbands, fathers and sons murdered in Munich.”

Memorial sites in Munich and Fürstenfeldbruck

After the end of the 1972 Olympic Games, the discussion began about how to remember the hostage-taking in Munich and memorialise the victims. On 8th December 1972, a memorial plaque was attached to the wall of the house in Connollystraße 31, which to this day remembers the violent death of the eleven Israeli Olympic participants in German and Hebrew. Discussions also started about the future use of the house. Since then, it has been used as a guest residence of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft for foreign scientists and is not accessible to the public.

Remembrance of the massacre only became clearly visible in Munich in 1995: a memorial was unveiled on 27th September 1995, the ten meter wide stone sculpture ‘Klagebalken’ by the sculptor Fritz Koenig. It shows the names of the eleven murdered athletes and of the police officer who were killed during the operation in Fürstenfeldbruck. Four years later in September 1999, a memorial site was also inaugurated in Fürstenfeldbruck: since then, twelve stylised flames rising from a granite bowl in front of the gates of the airfield remind us of the people murdered. Hans-Jochen Vogel, who, as Mayor, brought the Olympic Summer Games of 1972 to Munich, said in his speech he wanted “that everybody who passes the memorial not only looks at it, but also thinks about what they can do to so that there is no longer an opportunity for violence against minorities and weaker members of society.” In 2017, a ‘Memorial site for the Olympic massacre’ was opened in the Olympic park – a pavilion which provided multimedia information about the events from 5th and 6th September 1972.

The former airfield on the German Army premises Fürstenfeldbruck is not open to the public and can therefore not be used as a memorial site. With this digital memorial site, the district of Fürstenfeldbruck has created an opportunity to not only consider the historical site and its history in a digital space, but also to keep the memory of the massacre alive and remember the victims.

Authors: Dominik Aufleger, Anna Greithanner, Robert Wolff