The story of the Munich Massacre, the Olympics' darkest day

Olympic rings at Kiel Schilksee Olympic Centre
The Olympic rings | Image: ricochet64 / Shutterstock

Before the start of the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, the West German organisers had dubbed them Die Heiteren Spiele (‘The Cheerful Games’). The last time the Games were held on German soil was in 1936 when Adolf Hitler shamelessly exploited the spectacle to promote his Nazi ideologies. Whilst those Olympics were overshadowed by blatant racism and anti-Semitism, 1972 offered West Germany a chance to distance itself from its dark past.

It also provided the International Olympic Committee (IOC) with an opportunity to recover from the sour events of the previous Olympics in Mexico City. Just a few days before the 1968 Games began, government forces opened fire on hundreds of students in Mexico’s capital. The Mexican military was a looming presence over the Games, leading West German officials to take a drastically opposite approach. Security personnel in Munich were to be unarmed and were ordered to be unobtrusive, inconspicuous, and non-confrontational.

The lack of security at the Munich Games had been a cause for concern in the build-up to the event with a commissioned report even predicting a terrorist attack. The West Germans, however, were keen to downplay any military or police presence.

The first week of sporting events went according to plan. However, that all changed in the early hours of 5th September when eight terrorists associated with Black September – an extremist faction of the Palestinian group Fatah – took full advance of the lax security measures and entered the Olympic Village. Disguised as athletes and carrying gym bags filled with machine guns and grenades, the militants stormed the apartment complex that housed Israeli athletes.

Within minutes two Israeli team members lay dead, both had been shot by the militants and one was left mutilated as a warning. The terrorists then took nine other Israeli athletes hostage. By that time, the alarm had been raised and a short while later the terrorists laid out their demands.

They demanded the release of 234 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, along with the release of two German terrorists held in West German prisons. If their demands were not met, a hostage would be killed every hour.

The crisis unfolded live on television screens across the world with the now-infamous image of a terrorist on the apartment balcony wearing a black balaclava. In the hours that followed, millions watched with bated breath as negotiators attempted to resolve the situation.

At one point, a rescue attempt by West German police was foiled when television cameras showed the officers approaching the complex. The terrorists were able to view the attempt on their TV screens because the police had failed to cut electricity to the apartments before their raid. Although the terrorists agreed to move their deadline on numerous occasions, they rejected an offer from negotiators of an unlimited amount of money in return for the hostages.

Eventually, the militants changed their demands and requested they be provided with an aircraft to transport them to somewhere in the Middle East. The West German authorities sensed an opportunity and feigned agreement to the demands. At around 10pm, two helicopters were sent to transport the terrorists and their captives to the nearby Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base, where a Boeing 727 was waiting for them.

Upon arrival at the Air Base, the police had planned an ambush. Things, however, went catastrophically wrong. Undertrained and poorly equipped, the police sharpshooters took up weak positions and, to make matters worse, had no means of communicating with one another. Combined with incompetent intelligence, the situation quickly descended into a firefight soon after the two helicopters had landed at the Air Base.

In the ensuing chaos, a West German policeman was killed along with five of the eight terrorists. All nine of the hostages, tied and bound together, were killed when the terrorists opened fire and threw grenades into the helicopters. The remaining three militants were captured by police.

The 20-hour ordeal had come to an end, bringing the curtain down on the darkest day in the history of the Olympics. Just a few decades after the horrors of the Holocaust, Jewish blood had once again been horrifically spilt on German soil.

The Games were suspended for 34-hours for the first time in modern Olympic history. On 6th September, a memorial service was held in the Olympic stadium, attended by 80,000 spectators and around 3,000 athletes.

The story didn’t there. Just a month after the Munich Massacre, the three captured terrorists were released in a hostage exchange after a Lufthansa flight destined for Frankfurt was hijacked by two Black September members. Threatening to blow up the plane along with its crew and passengers if their demands were not met, the terrorists successfully secured the exchange before flying to Libya and receiving a hero’s welcome.

The speed at which the West German police agreed to their demands has since been brought into question, with some accusing them of complicity. The Oscar-winning 1999 documentary One Day in September made arguments supporting this theory, suggesting the West Germans helped organise the hi-jacking to secure a guarantee from Fatah that they’d make no further acts of terror on West German soil.

Angered by the exchange and being left in the dark, Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir authorised an assassination campaign under the codename ‘Operation Wrath of God’. The covert operation was to be conducted by Mossad, the country’s national intelligence agency, and would target the Black September members as well as any others involved in plotting the Munich Massacre.

In the coming months, the Israeli hit squad successfully assassinated several suspects. The operation, however, was put on standby after an innocent man was incorrectly killed by the Mossad agents in Norway in July 1973. Although the intended Black September target Ali Hassan Salameh escaped, he eventually fell foul of ‘Operation Wrath of God’ during its final mission in 1979, perishing to a car bomb planted in Beirut. The events of the assassination campaign were later dramatised in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 movie Munich.

The 1972 Munich Massacre changed the Olympic Games forever and not just in regard to security. The violent politicising of humankind’s most revered sporting spectacle continues to cast a long shadow over the Olympic Movement.