50 years after the bloody hostage-taking, the memory of “images that cannot be forgotten”

Germany is about to celebrate a painful anniversary. Fifty years ago, on September 5 and 6, 1972, as the Munich Olympics were in full swing, terror struck. Members of the Palestinian commando “Black September” took hostage and killed eleven members of the Israeli delegation, as well as a German policeman. The horror resurfaced on German soil, even though the federal government wanted, with these “Games of Peace and Joy”, to make people forget the sad memory of those of 1936, organized by Adolf Hitler in Berlin.

Half a century after the “Munich Massacre”, the pain is still present. Athlete Guy Drut, Olympic vice-champion in the 110m hurdles in Munich, says he regularly thinks back to these Games, a “double-edged memory” : “The medal on one side, the horror on the other”. Crowned in the track cycling speed test the day before the attack, Daniel Morelon remembers a “long day of anxious waiting”.

On September 5, 1972, at dawn on the eleventh day of the Games, at around 4:30 a.m., the attack began. A commando of eight men (dubbed “Black September”), dressed as athletes, manages to gain access to the pavilion of the male Israeli delegation, at 31 Connollystrasse. They get in without great difficulty, since the German authorities, who had to heart to forget the country’s Nazi past, had put in place a weak security system in the Olympic Village, without armed police patrols.

The terrorists kill two people when they enter the Israelis’ apartments and take the nine other occupants hostage. One of the bodies is abandoned in the street by the assailants. The organization, named in reference to the bloody repression of Palestinian fighters in Jordan in September 1970, poses its demands: the release of some 230 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.

Olympism, symbol of peace and unity, falls into terror. “The modern Olympics were supposed to be in the same spirit as the ancient Olympics, that there is peace and all violence is stopped. No one imagined that“, told the Associated Press in 2020 the Israeli runner Shaul Ladany, who escaped the attack by fleeing through the French window of his room. The event “always occupies the mind” from the current IOC President and former fencer, the German Thomas Bach: “Even fifty years later, you can’t talk about one without talking about the other, it was so extreme”he tells The magazine team.

Then begin long hours of confused discussions, between terrorists and totally overwhelmed police. “We saw the Germans conducting the negotiations with the terrorists who threatened to kill an athlete every two hours and throw his body from the balcony of their building if the Palestinian prisoners were not freed.described former Israeli sprinter Esther Roth to AFP in 2012. It was exhausting and terrifying.”

The trauma of a direct witness, the ex-handball player from East Germany, Klaus Langhoff, whose apartment was about twenty meters from the attack, remains deep. “I have to say it was a shock”he confides 50 years later to AFP, still shaken by this face to face. When we looked outside, through the window or on the balcony, we saw this dead sportsman”, he says. He lived through everything on that day, and remembers“a man who permanently held a grenade in his hand in front of the front door. And upstairs, on the balcony and on the roof, there was another terrorist who had a Kalashnikov ready to fire. It was like a scene of war.”

Guy Drut remembers that day very well. The European champion in the 110m hurdles, who was playing his first Games, was to take advantage of a day of rest, while waiting for his final, scheduled for the next day. When we woke up on September 5, great confusion reigned in the Olympic village. The 21-year-old athlete understands “immediately that something was not normal” : “The village was cordoned off. After learning about the hostage-taking, we followed everything on television screens.”

“Information was trickling in. The police surrounded the village, we saw snipers positioning themselves on the roofs”

Daniel Morelon, track cyclist, triple Olympic champion, crowned in speed in Munich in 1972

at franceinfo: sport

The French athlete assists in the organization of the transport of fedayeen and hostages to the military airport. The terrorists are transported there, at their request, with the Israelis to take a plane there, direction Cairo, where the negotiations must continue. “The medical building where I was being manipulated by the physiotherapist was on the border between the Olympic village and a car park, says the hurdler. We heard propeller noises. We sat on the balcony. Below, there were helicopters and buses, whose windows were obscured by blankets. We saw the hostages get in. These are images that cannot be forgotten. Afterwards, everything calmed down for us, even as the ordeal began for the Israelis.“

On the tarmac of the Fürstenfeldbruck military base, the attempt to free the German police, ill-prepared and under-equipped, turns into a disaster. The shots ring out. The hostage-taking ended at 12:30 a.m. on September 6, with the deaths of eleven Israelis (six coaches, five athletes), a German policeman and five terrorists.

A hostage-taking with a disastrous fate, the management of which will subsequently be highly criticized. Just like the decision to maintain the Games. Around the world, protests are demanding that the event end. The Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, declares that the competitions must continue, that to stop the Games would be tantamount to giving in to the blackmail of the terrorists. For his part, Avery Brundage, the IOC President at the time, said: “The Games must go on”. After a day of mourning, the remaining events resume on September 7.

Israelis demand the end of the Olympic Games in Munich, September 6, 1972.   (AFP)

If the Israeli delegation leaves Bavaria, followed by a few Norwegians and part of the Dutch team, for the majority of the athletes whose events remain, the sporting issue takes precedence. This is the case of Guy Drut. Although “the world of hedges was directly affected” by the death of Amitzur Shapira, the coach of his friend Esther Roth (in the 100m hurdles final, initially scheduled for September 6), the French hurdler “put back in (her) athlete bubble”. “Objectively, I no longer thought about what happened to prepare for the final. I was very young, I was not even 22 years old, my political consciousness was not developed. With the other seven finalists, we were obviously affected by what had happened, but we shared the same state of mind, pursues the one who will win the Olympic silver. We were there to win and we all got back into our bubble of top-level athletes.”

This tragedy continues to haunt witnesses and survivors. Especially since the management of the crisis has traumatized the families of victims: held partly responsible for its outcome, the German authorities are struggling to manage the legacy of this tragic event. The latter has never been the subject of a public apology from the authorities and the thorny question of compensation for the families of victims by the German government was only resolved on August 31, 2022, a few days before the 50th anniversary of the hostage-taking.

It was not until 2017 that a memorial in honor of the victims of the hostage-taking was inaugurated at the Olympic Park in Munich. It is there, as well as at the Fürstenfeldbruck military base, that the ceremony will take place in memory of the victims of the attack, in the presence of around 70 relatives of the athletes killed as well as the German and Israeli heads of state.

A woman meditates at the 1972 Munich massacre memorial. (SVEN HOPPE / DPA via AFP)

Commemorations that the families of victims once declared to be boycotting, demanding in particular financial reparations “just” and a public apology. After decades negotiations, the German authorities have announced that Germany will “to fulfill its historic obligation” towards the victims and their families, by paying them 28 million euros. Documents will also be declassified to allow historians to grasp the subject. A job that could heal the gaping wounds left by this terrorist attack.

source site-33