The Israeli Olympic team parades in the Olympic Stadium, Munich, Aug. 26, 1972
The Israeli Olympic team parades in the Olympic Stadium, Munich, Aug. 26, 1972, during the opening ceremony of the 1972 Olympic Games. Photo by AP / Haaretz Archive
Text size
A map of the military airbase near Munich, from the Israeli State Archives.
A map of the military airbase near Munich, from the Israeli State Archives.
AP / Haaretz Archive
West German police who have swapped their uniforms for anonymous athletes sweatsuits climb on the roof of the Munich Olympic village building where Israeli athletes are held hostage, Sept. 5, 1972. Photo by AP / Haaretz Archive

For 40 years these documents lay in the Israel State Archives in Jerusalem, many of them hidden, kept out of the reach of researchers and the general public. Now, in honor of the 40th anniversary of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes in the 1972 Munich Olympics, which is coming up next week, the State Archives revealed 45 records related to the event.

On the menu are protocols of a cabinet meeting, consultations held by ministers, and of sessions of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, as well as, various reports and telegram exchanges. Half of the material was never before published, and is now being made public for the first time. In the interest of those readers and researchers interested in these documents, we have chosen to focus on the hitherto unpublished material. The remaining records can be viewed in full on the State Archives website.

The archive and its employees deserve special praise for the initiative to reveal so many high quality, authentic, and classified documents. Their location, selection, categorization, and scanning, as well as, getting the okay to publish them from the different security organization, took both time and expertise.

That said, certain parts of the documents, whose publication was not cleared, were redacted. In addition, an unknown number of records remain unpublished, probably on orders of the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service. These orders can and should be questioned: Whose interest is being served by the suppression of information about an event that took place 40 years ago? What information about this event has not yet been revealed, and how can its publication today harm national security? These questions will have to wait for future revelations.

Perusal of the documents reveals a fascinating, disturbing and thought-provoking story. One could say that the records are every historian’s wet dream, as they provide a rare and unique glimpse into the minds and hearts of the historical leaders of state during what were dramatic and trying moments. In today’s 21st century jargon, the publication of the documents might be called “Wikileaks 1972.”

The records unearth the dilemma Israel faced when it discovered that Israeli citizens were being attacked by Palestinians on German soil. The government deliberated about how to preserve neutrality and passivity, and to avoid meddling in the internal affairs of another state, while, at the same time, saving the lives of its imperiled citizens. How can Israel avoid negotiating with terrorists, while also making them believe that it is willing to open the lines of communications? How should the state react in light of the helplessness and incompetence of German security forces, without jeopardizing the relations between the two countries?

The chilling testimony of former Mossad Chief Zvi Zamir, who had just returned from a nerve-wrecking night at the place where the attack took place, particularly stands out. Zamir’s criticism of the German forces was unprecedented, charging them with incompetence, clumsiness and lack of concern. They didn't even make “a minimal effort,” he said, to save lives.

Also exposed is the report by a committee charged with investigating the Israeli delegation's security breach, as well as, discussions about the report and the attempts made to suppress it. The report suggests that security arrangements were widely neglected in Israel, falling instead on the shoulders of the Israeli embassy’s security officer who was later described as “inept.”

The documents also describe then-Minister of Transportation Shimon Peres’ attempts to block the publication of confidential information about the investigation, as well as, his interesting remark that “sad and painful though it may sound, it is foolish to protect all Israelis.”

The hypocrisy of the diplomatic world, as it faced the question of whether to carry on with the games or not, is also revealed, as is Israel’s dilemma: how can it bring home the Israelis who chose to remain in Munich despite the massacre.

And there is also some comic relief. The then-Prime Minister Golda Meir and her ministers found the time to discuss Channel One reporter Dan Shilon’s coverage of the event, which they deemed anti-German, and which they worried might damage relations between the two countries.

By publishing these records, the State Archives makes a substantial contribution to the ongoing public and historical discussion about one of the previous century’s most significant events. The confidential documents published here join those recently published in Germany, thanks to the efforts of the German weekly Der Spiegel, whose reporters scoured the archives of various German government agencies. The picture that emerges from this investigation is no less troubling: Germany ignored warnings of an attack during the Olympics and even cooperated with its perpetrator in its aftermath.

For the full picture we will have to wait until the really classified archive material belonging to the Mossad, the Shin Bet and their German counterparts is made public. Only then – if ever – will we truly know what happened there in September 1972, and why even today, 40 years after the event, not all the material has been released to the public.