Digital memorial site
for the 1972 Olympic massacre
The 1972 Olympic massacre
The cheerful Olympic summer games in Munich came to an abrupt end on 5th September 1972. Members of the Palestinian organisation ‘Black September’ forced their way into the accommodation of the Israeli team in the Olympic Village, murdered two Israeli athletes and took a further nine hostage. The airfield of the German Armed Forces in Fürstenfeldbruck suddenly became the focal point of the global public in the late evening of the same day, when the Bavarian police attempted to free the hostages there. The armed officers failed. All nine hostages and one policeman lost their lives. The events left deep wounds which may never heal.
Fürstenfeldbruck memorial site
The military airfield in Fürstenfeldbruck is inseparably connected with the terrible events of 5th September 1972. Those events and the victims may never be forgotten.
This digital memorial site is intended to make a contribution to that aim: it provides information about the events, remembers the victims and gives eye-witnesses their say. It starts with an overview of the history of the Olympic massacre. Afterwards, you can find out about the individual aspects in more detail and listen to eye-witnesses.
The Olympic Games in Munich
In 1966, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided Munich would be the venue for the 1972 Olympic summer games. Willi Daume, the president of the National Olympic Committee and the mayor of Munich at the time, Hans-Jochen Vogel, had previously intensively championed the application for the venue and convinced the sceptics. It was a huge step for the Bavarian state capital and the still young Federal Republic of Germany!
Olympische Spiele in München
The upcoming Olympic Games accelerated the modernisation of the city of Munich and the other venue locations. In Munich alone, more than two billion Deutschmarks were invested in the construction of the new sports facility and the Olympic Village, as well as the city’s infrastructure and local public transport. The aim was to provide the 7,000+ athletes from 121 countries with the ideal competition conditions and attract a large audience.
The concept of the ‘cheerful games’
The Olympic site was set up in the north of the city on the rubble pile of the Second World War. The architecture and design was intended to convey a friendly, open atmosphere, full of joie de vivre. The organisers wanted to distance themselves from the Olympic Games under the NS regime, which took place in 1936 in Berlin. The Federal Republic of Germany wanted to present itself as cosmopolitan and democratic. The safety concept was also designed in a restrained manner, in the sense of the ‘cheerful games’. Nothing was to remind people of the uniformed appearance of the National Socialists.
The opening of the Olympic Games
Federal President Gustav Heinemann and IOC President Avery Brundage opened the Olympic Summer Games in the Munich Olympic Stadium on 26th August 1972. Over 80,000 spectators were in the stadium for the opening ceremony and around a billion people followed the on screens and radios in their homes. The first competitions began on the following day.
In the early hours of the morning on 5th September 1972, eight members of the militant Palestinian group ‘Black September’ were able to force entry into the apartments of the Israeli team in Connollystraße 31 in the Olympic Village. The men shot trainer, Moshe Weinberg and weightlifter, Yossef Romano. Both had tried to defend themselves against the attackers and thereby enable their team mates to escape.
The group took nine members of the Israeli delegation hostage. They feared for their lives from that point on.
Israeli athletes Dan Alon, Tuvia Sokolsky, Gad Tsabari, Yehuda Weinstain, Henry Hershkovitz, Zelig Shtorch and Shaul Ladany were able to escape at the last minute.
Initial reactions to the hostage-taking
The police headquarters found out about shots fired in Connollystraße 31 at about 5 a.m. The area around the apartment of the Israeli athletes was subsequently blocked off. Politicians and police drove to the Olympic Village. The Munich Police President, Manfred Schreiber, the Bavarian Minister of the Interior Bruno Merk and Federal Minister of the Interior Hans-Dietrich Genscher formed the core of the crisis team. They would decide on the further proceedings.
Demands and negotiations
The hostage-takers demanded the release of 326 ‘Palestinian freedom fighters’ held prisoner in Israel, as well as the release of Kōzō Okamoto, a member of the Japanese Red Army and the RAF member Ulrike Meinhof. Only then would the hostages be released. The Israeli government would not allow itself to be blackmailed and rejected the demand to release the Palestinian prisoners.
Those responsible in Munich hoped that the hostage-taking could be ended without spilling blood. They were able to extend the deadlines set by the hostage-takers time and again. Negotiations between the crisis team and the group members lasted about 20 hours. The hostages had to hold out throughout this time in Connollystraße 31.
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Excerpts from the communiqués of the Black September, page 1 of the three-page list of detainees whom the command wanted to release. The complete list can be found in the in-depth level 'Hostage Taking and Police Action'. Source: Munich State Archives,Munich Police Headquarters, No. 1337
Plans for the release of the hostages
The position of Israel not to exchange any of the prisoners for hostages put the crisis team under pressure. The crisis team considered various plans to storm the building in Connollystraße. However, all attempts to free the hostages were abandoned early on due to safety concerns.
At 5 p.m. the hostage-takers demanded to be flown to Egypt with the hostages, in order to continue negotiations from there.
Federal Minister of the Interior Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Walther Tröger, the Mayor of the Olympic Village, were then able to speak with the hostages, who sat tied up and heavily guarded in a room. They wanted to be sure that they agreed to be flown to Egypt. The crisis team behaved as though it was organising the flight – however, only in order to gain more time to prepare for an attempt to free the hostages. Genscher and Tröger were not able to ascertain the precise number of group members during their visit in the apartment. The crisis team incorrectly assumed there were only five hostage-takers.
The decision to use Fürstenfeldbruck
The crisis team initially decided on a plan to release the Israeli hostages in the basement of the Olympic Village. Preparations were made parallel to this at the German Armed Forces airfield in Fürstenfeldbruck. When the plan to free the hostages in
the Olympic Village had to be abandoned, the crisis team returned to the Fürstenfeldbruck plan: access would now have to be gained there. The hostage-takers were informed that a plane to fly to Egypt was ready at Fürstenfeldbruck.
Shortly after 10 p.m. the group members made their way to the two helicopters which would take them to Fürstenfeldbruck with the hostages. This was the first time it became clear that there were eight rather than five hostages-takers. However, this information did not reach the team leaders in Fürstenfeldbruck. A few minutes later, both helicopters took off with the hostage-takers and hostages on board.
The planned hostage release in Fürstenfeldbruck
There were now five police snipers in position at the airfield in Fürstenfeldbruck, with the intention of shooting as many members of the Palestinian group as possible. The police, disguised as flight personnel, were to wait in the aeroplane and help to overpower the hostage-takers. At 10:30 p.m. both the helicopters landed at the airfield in Fürstenfeldbruck.
The failed attempt to free the hostages
The police had left the waiting aeroplane at the airfield shortly before as the safety arrangements were insufficient. This meant a crucial component of the plan was missing. The two Palestinian leaders recognised the trap when they entered the empty aeroplane and ran back to the helicopters.
When the police snipers opened fire, the hostage-takers shot back. At around midnight, the tanks requested from Munich reached the airfield and drove towards the helicopters. One of the hostage-takers then threw a grenade into the helicopter standing to the east, which caught fire after the detonation. After barely 90 minutes the shoot out in Fürstenfeldbruck was over.
The members of ‘Black September’ had shot eight athletes, the ninth hostage died from smoke inhalation in the helicopter. A Bavarian policeman also died during the attempt to free the hostages. Five hostage-takers, including the two leaders, were killed, the remaining three were arrested.
Even during the shoot out, false reports were being spread through the media: “Israeli hostages freed / Guerrillas killed!” It was only in the early hours of the morning of 6th September that the world learned of the actual outcome of the hostage-taking. People across the globe looked towards Munich and Fürstenfeldbruck in sadness and outrage.
Israel demanded that the Olympic Games be immediately cancelled. However, the Olympic Committee decided to continue with the competition: “The games must go on!” announced IOC President Avery Brundage. But the lightness and joy were gone. For days on end the ‘Munich massacre’ was at the centre of the international reporting.
Thus, ‘Black September’ achieved its goal: the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians took centre stage in the media. The Olympic massacre and its direct post-history burdened German-Israeli relations and marked the start of a new policy for interior safety in the Federal Republic of Germany.
Remembrance and commemoration
Munich’s Mayor Georg Kronawitter unveiled a memorial plaque for the victims in Connollystraße 31 at the end of 1972. In 1995, a stone memorial column was set up, as was a multimedia memorial site in the Olympic park in 2017.
The Fürstenfeldbruck district has also actively supported memorial work on site for many years.
In 1999, a memorial was set up in front of the gates of the airfield as part of a joint initiative with the President of the Israeli Cultural Community in Munich and Upper Bavaria, Charlotte Knobloch.
Since then, the district of Fürstenfeldbruck has held a memorial every year on the day of the massacre: to remember those who were murdered in 1972.
This memorial site allows people to remember the Olympic massacre and find out about the victims in the digital space.
Authors: Dominik Aufleger, Anna Greithanner, Robert Wolff
Click on the colorful icons to learn more about the event and its context or listen to the memories of contemporary witnesses
For an optimal user experience of the interactive scene, visit the site in desktop view. For the witness interviews, scroll down further.
Andreas Zenglein was a federal border guard and was ordered to the Fürstenfeldbruck air base on the night of September 5-6 to secure the crime scene.
Alfred Baumann was head of the Munich police command staff. He recommended freeing the hostages in Fürstenfeldbruck and instructed the snipers on the spot. On September 22, Baumann was questioned about the operation. The following are read-in passages from the detailed testimony.
Contemporary witness Rainer Zöller was part of the police pilot squad during the Olympic Games. His duties included driving important personalities such as Willy Brandt or Avery Brundage to the venues. On September 5, he brought Deputy Police Commissioner Fricker to Fürstenfeldbruck.
The contemporary witness Hennig Remmers was stationed as a soldier at the air base in Fürstenfeldbruck. During the Olympic Games, he was on duty in the so-called VIP office in Fürstenfeldbruck. The airport was used as a civilian charter airport during the Games, and Remmers and others were tasked with looking after important personalities on site. On the evening of September 5, he was off duty and at home with his wife.
Franz Kuhn, a contemporary witness, was a conscript in Fürstenfeldbruck in 1972 and waited with civilian passengers in the hangar of the air base. The hangar was located about 230 meters east of the air base. In the first interview excerpt he described the situation in FFB before the arrival of the helicopters, in the second he remembers the escape of one BGS pilot into the check-in hall.
The witness Helmut Schuster was a soldier in the maintenance squadron at the air base and was assigned to passenger handling during the Olympic Games. On the evening of September 5, he was with seven colleagues and about 200 passengers for hours in a hangar about 150 meters from the air base. In the first excerpt, he describes the situation in the hangar after the first shots were fired; in the second part, he deals with the press representatives outside the gates, which he experienced on the drive home at around 2 a.m.
The contemporary witness Dietrich Störmann was stationed as a flight instructor in the air force squadron in Fürstenfeldbruck. On September 5, he had a visit from his mother and brother-in-law and followed the events on the radio with them and his wife. He lived near the air base and could hear the approaching helicopters.