Germany asks forgiveness for multiple failings over 1972 Munich Olympics massacre

Israeli president attends memorial service at the airbase where the hostage-taking by Palestinian terrorists reached its tragic climax

Germany has sought forgiveness from families of the victims of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, admitting co-responsibility for the deaths of 11 Israelis and for failing their families in the years since.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier described the attack as “a story of misjudgments, of dreadful, fatal mistakes... and failure”. According to declassified Israeli secret service documents, the hostage-taking and chaotic final shoot-out was “a complete mess”.

After a last-minute compensation deal, relatives and Israeli president Isaac Herzog attended the memorial service at the Fürstenfeldbruck airbase where the hostage-taking by Palestinian terrorists reached its tragic climax.

“We cannot make up for what happened; we cannot make up for the obstruction, ignorance and injustice you experienced and suffered, that shames me,” said Mr Steinmeier.


He asked “forgiveness for the woefully inadequate protection afforded to the Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich and for the woefully inadequate investigation afterwards”.

Munich framed the 1972 Olympics as the “friendly Games”, a conscious counterpoint to the fascist propaganda of the 1936 Berlin Games.

Mr Steinmeier noted that this determination saw German organisers, police and security services ignore concrete threats directed at the team from Israel, “which had been threatened from the first day of its existence, surrounded by hate and enmity”.

The open-door policy allowed eight gunmen of the Palestinian militant group Black September walk into the Israeli team apartments in the Olympic Village, early on September 5th, shooting dead two men and taking nine more hostage.

The second failure, the German president said, was a bungled operation at the nearby airbase when ill-equipped and unco-ordinated Bavarian police were ordered to shoot the hostage-takers. Refusing assistance from the Israeli side, and using only basic equipment, all of the hostages were killed in a bloody shoot-out.

A third failing came when organisers announced that the Games would continue, said Mr Steinmeier, and “the silence, the suppression and the forgetting” began.

For Mr Steinmeier it was “bitterly disheartening” that there had been no expression of regret from the Palestinians nor from Black September’s backers in Libya.

Instead of empathy and compassion, the German president conceded, families had been shown “hard-heartedness”.

There was no official inquiry, relatives’ campaign for a memorial at the massacre site took 45 years while a decades-long compensation struggle ended only last week with a €28 million settlement.

President Herzog said grieving relatives “hit a wall” whenever they tried to raise the issue with Germany and the International Olympic Committee.

“I think there was tragic suppression here,” he said. Among the many “inhuman and incomprehensible” failings, he said was how “the hostages were being led to slaughter and the Games went on”.

The Israeli secret service, refused permission to assist in Munich, claimed in declassified documents that German police “didn’t make even a minimal effort to save human lives”.

As well as compensation, Germany and Israel are to establish a commission of historians from both sides to investigate the massacre, its lead-up and aftermath.

Half a century on, Bavaria flew all flags on state buildings at half-mast as the two presidents laid a wreath at the site, watched by relatives of the dead.

For Ilana Romano, widow of weightlifter Yossef Roman, it had been their “moral duty to demand justice”.

In an emotional speech Ankie Spitzer promised her murdered husband she would “never stop talking about it so that it will never ever happen again”.

“When they murdered you, they also killed a part of me,” she said. “I couldn’t find peace because justice hadn’t been done... there will never be closure, the hole in my heart will never, ever heal.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin