It was just after 4 a.m. when an attack that would shock the world began — quietly.
Eight men in tracksuits hopped the fence at Munich’s Olympic Village, carrying with them Kalashnikov rifles and grenades in duffel bags.
They were members of the group Black September — an affiliate of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Their mission was to hold Israeli athletes hostage and demand the release of 236 prisoners: 234 in Israel and the two leaders of the West German Baader-Meinhof terrorist group.
Their mission failed. About 20 hours after it began, five of the hostage-takers would be dead, along with 11 members of Israel’s Olympic team and a West German policeman.
But the Munich massacre of Sept. 5 to 6, 1972, would have lasting repercussions on an international scale, waking up Western governments to the threat of terrorism, showing the power of live broadcast and setting the stage for future violence.
“The cheerful Games”
Munich 1972 was supposed to be the opposite of Berlin 1936. Nearly three decades after the Holocaust, West German authorities went to pains to try to erase symbolism of the country’s Nazi past. The light blue Olympic emblem, “Radiant Munich,” as the International Olympic Committee notes, symbolized “light, freshness, generosity.” The event’s motto was “the cheerful Games.”
“They wanted to come across as playful, as laid back, congenial. Not a police state,” says David Clay Large, a senior fellow at the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of Munich 1972: Tragedy, Terror, and Triumph at the Olympic Games.
Authorities were aware of security threats, but they were coming from different directions. There was the Red Army Faction, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof’s leftist group, which had carried out bombings in West Germany that year. The far-right National Democratic Party of Germany was a concern, as were other groups, Large says.
Despite warnings, the idea of a Palestinian group carrying out an attack was not “at the top of their list for possible dangers,” Large says.
The Games had already gone on for 10 days without a serious incident, and security officials had let down their guard. The gunmen, having already scouted the location, easily slipped into the building that housed the Israelis. They knew which apartment to go to.
Black September ended up with nine hostages, after killing wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg and weightlifter Yossef Romano, who had both fought back against the attackers.
The group demanded the release of 236 prisoners, most of them Palestinians in Israeli custody, and threatened to kill hostages otherwise.
As West German authorities scrambled to figure out how to respond that morning, the Games resumed as normal. It was at least seven hours into the hostage situation by the time events were halted.
The hostage crisis was viewed globally as it unfolded
When television networks finally switched to covering the hostage crisis, it created the aspect of the attack most notable today: It was the first time a terrorist incident had reached a global audience during a live broadcast.
At the Olympic press center, 11 monitors showed the ongoing athletic events while another three were trained on the building where the Israelis were being held hostage. Dave Marash was a CBS Radio reporter at the time. “Those simultaneous images flickering on those monitors struck me as the most incongruous, most inappropriate, most flat surreal visual memory of my life,” he told NPR in 2002.
The hours dragged on as West German authorities worked to buy time. Their response was uncoordinated. Security was in the hands of state authorities, not federal ones. They had no expertise in dealing with hostage situations. Calling in the army wasn’t an option — West Germany’s postwar constitution limited the domestic use of the army during peacetime.
“What they tried to do was negotiate their way out. That was their only recourse,” Large says. But the West Germans had no way to give Black September the main thing it wanted: the release of the prisoners. Israel’s prime minister, Golda Meir, said no. She told the West Germans they were responsible for getting the hostages out.
The West Germans came up with a plan. Black September was told it would be able to take a plane with its hostages to Cairo. On the plane would be West German police disguised as members of the plane’s crew, who would overpower the terrorists.
Late that evening, the gunmen and their hostages were flown by helicopters to the Fürstenfeldbruck air base outside Munich, where the plane was waiting.
Significant problems immediately became apparent. The police officers who were supposed to be on the plane backed out, saying it was too dangerous. Plan B was to use snipers to kill the hostage-takers as they emerged from the helicopters and tried to board the plane. But the police had no expert snipers and no proper equipment. And they didn’t know how many Black September members were in the group.
“The attempt to pick off these commandos turned out to be an absolute fiasco,” Large says. “They ended up shooting five of them, five of the eight commandos, but not before the commandos then killed in cold blood all of the remaining nine hostages.”
A West German policeman was also killed in the exchange of gunfire. Three of the Black September members escaped but were soon captured.
Initial reports coming out of the air base said the rescue was a success. It wasn’t until early on Sept. 6 that officials confirmed that all the Israelis had been killed.
ABC sportscaster Jim McKay, who had anchored coverage throughout the day, made the announcement to world audiences at 3:24 a.m.: “They’re all gone.”
New exposure for acts of terrorism and the Palestinian cause
About 900 million people are believed to have watched the hostage crisis on television.
“From start to finish, it was the first time terrorists had hijacked a televised event and turned it into their own drama,” says Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has studied terrorism for decades.
In 1968, about 11 international terrorist groups were operating. A few years after the Munich massacre, that number was more than 50, Hoffman says. A large reason for that was the global attention the attack received.
“I think other aggrieved persons saw terrorism as a vehicle to attract attention to themselves and their cause and also coerce governments. I mean, you had these small nonstate actors … with limited weaponry and constrained capacity for violence, forcing governments to deal with them,” Hoffman says.
The impetus for the attack, of course, did not come out of nowhere, having its origins in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a conflict between Jordan and the PLO.
The incident, though horrific, gave new attention to the Palestinian cause. More than a million Palestinians had been refugees since Israel’s creation in 1948 and the wars that followed, but global powers had been largely ignoring their plight.
Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and the director of its Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs, notes that the U.S. and the Soviets were preoccupied with the Cold War.
The Munich attack, as well as other terrorism connected to the PLO, “was really a double-edged sword,” he says. “It brought attention to the Palestinian issue, but it’s mostly negative attention.”
He says it was likely part of a two-pronged approach by the PLO: active diplomacy combined with militant attacks that were carried out with plausible deniability.
“And these kinds of violent attacks actually succeed in putting the issue on the international agenda,” Elgindy says. From there, the PLO notched two diplomatic wins: 20 Arab League countries recognized the organization as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” in October 1974. A month later, the United Nations gave the PLO observer status.
Israel begins a sweeping retaliation
Palestinian militants had previously hijacked several planes in incidents starting in 1968, and Japanese terrorists recruited by a Palestinian group massacred 26 people at Israel’s Lod Airport in May 1972.
But Israel considered the brazenness of an attack against its athletes to be a new extreme.
In the days after the Munich massacre, Israel launched airstrikes and raids on PLO bases in Syria and Lebanon, destroying bridges and houses. Over 200 people may have been killed, including women and children, according to Large.
Relations between West Germany and Israel had been improving since the mid-1960s but were now at another low point after the attack during the Olympics. Tensions were further inflamed less than two months later when Black September sympathizers hijacked a Lufthansa flight on Oct. 29, 1972, demanding that the three Black September members in West German detention be freed.
The West Germans quickly complied. The three surviving perpetrators of the Munich massacre arrived in Libya to a hero’s welcome, given refuge by Moammar Gadhafi.
Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was enraged. She authorized Israeli assassination squads to take out those involved in planning the Munich attack. Operation Wrath of God lasted some 20 years.
Accounts vary on how many people directly connected to the attack were killed by Israel. In one infamous case, agents killed a waiter in Norway whom they mistook for a PLO official.
“They didn’t get all the culpable figures involved,” though they did kill some innocent people, Large says. “This was not a delicate operation on the part of Israel. And it further inflamed the extreme tensions in the Middle East.”
The attack spurred the development of counterterrorism forces
It’s impossible to capture every ripple effect of the attack, but terrorism scholars note that one distinct change was in how Western governments thought about international terrorism as a threat, long before the 9/11 attacks.
“If Germany suffered such a gruesome, huge attack and failed so colossally, then we could be next. So we better prep,” says Ronit Berger Hobson, outlining what governments were thinking at the time.
Hobson, a lecturer in politics and international relations at Queen’s University Belfast, recently outlined the international security response to the Munich massacre in an article in the journal Israel Affairs, co-authored with professor Ami Pedahzur of the University of Texas at Austin.
Multiple governments created new special forces to respond to hostage situations and terrorism — they never had them before. West Germany promptly organized the GSG 9 police unit. France, Britain and the U.S. followed with similar forces, as part of the police or the military.
Israel already had its Sayeret Matkal unit, which had origins in intelligence-gathering. (During the hostage crisis, Israel offered to send this force in, but West Germany rejected the help.) But the Munich attack and others led to a proliferation of special forces units within Israel’s security services with a renewed focus on counterterrorism, Hobson says.
Those special forces were able to demonstrate successes in the years that followed. In 1976, Israeli forces successfully rescued hostages in Entebbe, Uganda. The GSG 9 succeeded in freeing hostages from a hijacked plane in Somalia in 1977. As Hobson and Pedahzur note, France’s Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale freed hostages aboard an Air France flight in 1994.
Some missions failed as well, including when terrorists killed or injured most hostages in Ma’alot, Israel, in 1974 and the U.S. attempt to rescue hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, in 1980.
The Olympics were forever changed
The Olympic Games were suspended for a total of 34 hours, with a memorial for the Israelis held in the main competition stadium the morning of Sept. 6. But International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage declared that the “Games must go on.”
The remaining members of the Israeli team quickly flew home, under orders from Meir.
Shaul Ladany, now 86, a racewalker who survived the attack by escaping early on, said he would have liked to have stayed for the remainder of the Games.
Countries hostile to Israel had tried unsuccessfully to keep Israel from competing in various sports forums, he told NPR. “After we lost 11 of our people, with our own hand we gave them that satisfaction that they kicked us out of the Olympic Games.”
From a security standpoint, the Olympics would never be the same.
Organizers of subsequent Games were forced to devote more to prevent future attacks. “The security budgets just dramatically shot up,” says Large, with the 1976 Montreal Olympics spending 50 times more on security than Munich had spent. China spent $6.5 billion on security alone for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The trend toward ballooning security budgets — for personnel, surveillance, equipment, infrastructure and more — continues to the present, one of the factors that make any government think hard about costs before offering a bid.
Perhaps the security budgets have kept the events of Munich from being repeated — though terrorism would strike the Olympics again in Atlanta in 1996, when a bomb exploded, killing one person directly and another person indirectly and injuring more than 100.
It was a half-century ago that Munich presaged for the world the era of international terrorism — only fully crystallized to Americans on 9/11.
“It was basically sending the message, because the theme of the Olympics is peace and cooperation. And if the Olympics weren’t safe, nothing would be,” says Hoffman, the terrorism researcher. “It ushered in, I think, the modern era of terrorism that we’re still enmeshed in today and can’t escape.”