Analysis

Germany Marks Munich Massacre With Memorial, but Still Avoids Taking Responsibility

Germany yet to apologize for failures that led to the murder of 11 Israeli athletes in September 1972

A visitor looking at the portraits of the Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics, at the newly inaugurated Memorial Center, September 6, 2017.
CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP

The new memorial to the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, inaugurated on Wednesday, makes no mention whatsoever of the omissions, failures and ultimate responsibility of Germany for the disaster. Germany is thus missing another historic opportunity to take responsibility for its part in the weaknesses in security, defense and intelligence that enabled the massacre.

On the 45th anniversary of the massacre, the memorial was inaugurated in Munich’s Olympic Park. Those present included Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier, along with Horst Seehofer, prime minister of the German state of Bavaria, along with representatives of the athletes’ families.

The Munich 1972 Massacre Memorial’s construction was financed by the Bavarian government, the city of Munich, the German government and the International Olympic Committee, among others.

The memorial, carved into a hill, focuses on the personal lives of the 11 Israelis and the German policeman who were murdered. The purpose is both to show respect for their memories and to show the faces behind the names. There is also a short explanation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – but, glaringly, no critical mention of the role played by the German authorities in the massacre.

There was also no criticism of Germany in the speeches by Israel’s consul to southern Germany, Sandra Simovich, or by Seehofer. Texts of their addresses were given to reporters ahead of the ceremony.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, left, and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the inauguration of "The Munich 1972 Massacre Memorial," September 6, 2017.
MICHAELA REHLE/REUTERS

In the predawn hours of September 5, 1972, eight members of the Palestinian terror group Black September infiltrated the Olympic village in Munich. They murdered two Israeli team members on the spot and took nine Israeli athletes hostage.

After one abortive rescue attempt, German security flew the terrorists and hostages to a nearby airport, saying they would be flown from there to Cairo. Meanwhile, security forces were planning another rescue attempt.

“The police failed in this attempt, and the operation ended in disaster. All of the hostages and the German police officer Anton Fliegerbauer, as well as five of the terrorists, died,” the memorial says.

The memorial does not elaborate on that word “failed.” It does not mention the incompetence of the German police after the Israelis were initially taken hostage by the Black September group. It does not mention the dubious relationship Germany maintained with the terror organization after the massacre, or the fact that neo-Nazis helped the terrorists with logistics when they were preparing for the attack. Nor does the memorial note that, to this day, neither the governments or Germany or Bavaria have taken any responsibility for their roles.

Five years ago, Der Spiegel ran a cover story revealing a list of omissions and mistakes by the German authorities before, during and after the attack, called “How the state covered up its failure.” The German and Bavarian governments made big mistakes, the true extent of which remained secret, Der Spiegel wrote. Among other things, it quoted documents revealing that concrete warnings had arrived a month before the event and had not been handled properly.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin delivering a speech at the new memorial to the 1972 Munich massacre,  September 6, 2017.
CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP

Der Spiegel’s inquiry also revealed that Germany maintained a controversial relationship with Black September after the massacre, based on documents from the German foreign minister and archive. The papers showed that official Germany representatives held meetings with top Palestinians, including terrorists from Black September such as Muhammad Youssef Al-Najjar (Abu Youssef) and Ali Hassan Salameh.

The parties agreed that the organization would refrain from carrying out attacks on German soil in exchange for various benefits, including permission for a PLO representative to operate in what was then West Germany.

Papers published by the Israel State Archives five years ago are also indicative of German shortcomings. The testimony by Zvi Zamir, head of Mossad at the time, is especially telling. After visiting the site while the terrorists still held the Israelis hostage, Zamir slammed the Germans’ conduct, saying they demonstrated helplessness, lack of empathy and ineptitude.

The Germans “place no value on human life. Not their own or that of others,” Zamir reported back to the prime minister at the time, Golda Meir, and her ministers. “They did not make the minimal effort to save lives, they did not take the minimal risk to try and save people, not theirs or ours.”

Zamir also described how he tried to advise the Germans on managing the crisis, but that his suggestions were rejected with contempt. Among other things, he recalled how he talked with the German police commander in the field. “I told him, ‘Listen, there’s a loudspeaker here, let’s talk to them in their language. ... If we don’t give them a way out of it, they’ll fight to the end.’”

A member of the Black September terrorist group at the Israeli team's quarters in the Munich Olympic Village, September 5, 1972.
Kurt Strumpf/AP

The Germans rejected the suggestion. “He said they don’t agree to go now ‘to negotiations.’ I told him, ‘What negotiations? Let’s tell them we’ll let them go to Egypt.’ And then they began to discuss it.” Finally, a German representative spoke to the terrorists and told them they were surrounded and “had no chance.”

The failed attempt to rescue the athletes at the airport led to the deaths of all nine being held there by the terrorists. Three terrorists survived the airport raid and were arrested, but released a month later in a prisoner exchange deal made with the hijackers of a Lufthansa flight.