This summer’s Olympic games in London mark the 40th anniversary of the Munich massacre, when 11 Israeli athletes were kidnapped and killed by a group of eight Palestinian terrorists. The impact of the tragedy, the worst in Olympic history, can still be felt today. In the decades that have passed since the death of the Munich 11, relatives of the deceased have worked to create an official commemoration within the Olympic community. The International Olympic Committee has ceaselessly refused.
Ankie Spitzer, widow of slain fencer Andre Spitzer, spearheaded a campaign for a moment of silence to be held at this Friday’s opening ceremony, which was championed by more than 100,000 signatures online, as well as governments in the US, UK, Italy, Germany, Australia and beyond. In response to the IOC rejection, Jspace has compiled a moment-by-moment breakdown of the events leading up to the killings, the massacre itself, and the aftermath, in the hope that we will never forget.
April 26, 1966: Munich wins its bid to host the ’72 summer games, succeeding over requests from Detroit, Madrid and Montreal. It would be the first time a German city housed an Olympic tournament since the ’36 games, when Berlin played host under Nazi regime. As a result, the German Olympic Committee goes to great lengths to present a modern, welcoming city. The ’72 Olympics are named “The Happy Games,” its logo is a pale blue sunburst, and the mascot is a dachshund named Waldi.
Also in an effort to step away from its World War II image, Munich decides to keep security lax at the games. The unarmed guards that are employed to monitor the event are not even issued standard police uniforms, but instead wear light blue outfits that match the games’ official color.
Much fuss is made over the fact that the ’72 games will benefit from a growth in media technology, with many broadcasters planning to shoot and air live coverage at Munich.
1971: Test runs for the Olympics begin. A team of trained German shepherds patrols the newly constructed grounds, which several reporters take umbrage with. It is pointed out that Munich is only six miles away from the Dachau concentration camp, and organizers create a scaled back security plan so as not to seem insensitive.
Spring, 1972: Dr. Georg Sieber, a police psychologist, is brought on by German organizers to help outline possible security concerns for the games. Sieber comes up with 26 worst-case scenarios, in an aim to create reactionary plans before a problem can arise. The doctor’s Situation 21 details a scene that would prove eerily accurate: Sieber predicts that a Palestinian attack early one morning would see terrorists scale the fence of the Israeli dormitories, take over a group of hostages, kill two to enforce “discipline,” then try to escape with the hostages via plane to an Arab capital. Despite this warning, the Israeli village would go unguarded.
Mid-July: Six terrorists, ranging in age from 19 to 26, are instructed by Fatah leaders to travel to Libya. They are forbidden to tell their families where they are going or for what purposes. In Libya, the men train for an unspecified mission.
Three weeks before the attack: New reports show that the foreign ministry in Bonn, Germany, receives intelligence from Beirut that an attack on the Israeli Village may take place. The message is sent to Munich, but nothing is done with the information.
Meanwhile, Israeli delegation head Shmuel Lalkin tells the Olympic Committee he is uncomfortable with the location of Israel’s lodgings. He says the dorms are too far apart from populated areas and worries about the lack of armed personnel, putting his team in danger.
Aug. 26: The games begin.
Aug. 31-Sept. 2: Eight members of Black September arrive sporadically in Munich from Libya.
Sept. 3: Terrorist Jamal Al-Gashey attends two volleyball matches with one of his fellow Black September members.
Sept. 4, 8 pm: The Israeli delegation attends a performance of “Fiddler on the Roof,” presented in German and starring Israeli actor Shmuel Rodensky. Simultaneously, the six trained terrorists gather at the Munich Central Railway Station, 10 minutes away from the theater. The men eat dinner at the station restaurant, where they are joined by Muhammad Massalha, 27, and Yussef Nazzal, 25, who possess secret orders for the operation. A plan is revealed to kidnap Israeli athletes for use as leverage in the exchange of some 200 Palestinian prisoners from the Jewish state.
9:30 pm: The Israeli team is invited backstage during intermission to meet the “Fiddler” cast. The group takes a picture with the performers, the last they will ever pose for.
Midnight: The Black September terrorists locate specified lockers at the Munich railway station and remove an arsenal of weaponry that has been stored there for them.
Sept. 5, 4 am: Eight members of the Palestinian terror group Black September quietly scale the fence of the Israeli Village, as athletes inside sleep. The terrorists head to 31 Connollystrasse, a dormitory containing five apartments that house the Israeli men’s team.
4:42 am: Black September enters 31 Connollystrasse.
The terrorists come upon wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg at Apartment 1. Weinberg struggles with one terrorist, getting shot in the process. The wounded coach is ordered to take the men to the rest of the team. Forced by gunpoint, Weinberg leads the terrorists past Apartment 2, where field athletes are housed, instead heading to Apartment 3, where the weightlifters and wrestlers sleep. Weinberg’s hope is that the stronger athletes may have a chance of overpowering the gunmen.
Hostages in Apartment 3 are rounded up and marched back to Apartment 1. Weinberg makes a final attempt at stopping the terrorists, knocking one out and stabbing at another with a fruit knife. The scuffle allows wrestler Gad Tsobari to escape via an underground parking garage. Weightlifter Yossef Romano (who is injured and on crutches, planning to fly back to Israel in one day to undergo surgery) joins his friend Weinberg in attacking the terrorists. Both Israeli men are shot and killed. The terrorists now have nine living hostages.
5:10 am: Shmuel Lalkin discovers the naked body of Weinberg in a hallway and alerts authorities, who arrive on the scene.
6 am: Israeli news outlets pick up the story. What would become a media frenzy begins.
7:40 am: The terrorists demand the release of 236 Palestinian prisoners, giving a 9 am deadline.
9 am: The first deadline passes. Authorities are able to secure extensions to continue negotiations, pushing the deadline time back to noon, then 1 pm, then 3 pm, then 5 pm. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir is in constant communication with German officials, but insists that Israel will not give in to terrorist demands.
3:50 pm: Zvi Zamir, head of the Mossad, arrives in Munich, despite German protests that Israel does not need to send its own security team over.
4 pm: German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, realizing the negotiations are turning futile, offers himself up in exchange for the Israeli athletes. Massalha, who acts as representative for all the Black September members, refuses.
4:30 pm: Hostage Andre Spitzer pokes his head out a window and speaks to German authorities. He says all but one of the hostages is okay.
4:50 pm: Genscher and a police chief are permitted entrance to the hostage location to speak face to face with the terrorists. Their first person account leads to misinformation that there are only four terrorists. The two Germans will later report that the Israeli athletes were “not very hopeful” that their lives could be saved.
5 pm: German officials put into place a covert initiative, called Operation Sunshine. Due to Bavarian law, German military are not legally allowed to deploy. Instead, a team of 38 volunteers dressed as athletes plans to storm 31 Connollystrasse, with machine guns hidden in canvas bags. However, thanks to live television cameras trained on the site, the terrorists see the attack coming and the plan is foiled.
5:46 pm: Eventually accepting their prisoner exchange demands will not be met, the terrorists request a plane to transport themselves and the hostages to Cairo, where they expect easier negotiations. German authorities agree to supply the plane, but do not intend to let the terrorists actually leave the country with the Israeli athletes.
10:30 pm: The terrorists and hostages are brought by helicopter to Furstenfeldbruck, a military airport. A decoy plane waits with a police squad disguised as flight crew planning to overpower the Palestinians. Five snipers sit at a tower, as authorities expect only four terrorists to arrive with the Israelis.
Realizing their mistake, authorities decide the plane crew is undertrained and abandon the decoy mission. Instead, the terrorists and hostages land on the ground, where the snipers begin shooting. Two terrorists and one German policeman, Anton Fliegerbauer, are killed immediately.
11:30 pm: Reaching a stalemate, the Germans order armored cars and wait over an hour for the vehicles to arrive. Once delivered, the terrorists enact a scattered offensive. One jumps onto a helicopter, shooting four more of the Israelis and firing off a grenade. Another Palestinian jumps into the second helicopter, killing the remaining five athletes. Snipers hit three of the terrorists, then finally take the last three Palestinians into custody.
Midnight: German government spokesman Conrad Ahlers goes on the air to falsely announce to the world that all of the terrorists are in custody and all of the Israeli athletes are alive. He calls the event an “unfortunate interruption” and says, “It will be forgotten after a few weeks.”
Sept. 6, 3:24 am: American reporter Jim McKay makes history, telling the world, “When I was a kid my father used to say, 'Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized.’ Our worst fears have been realized.” He announces that all 11 Israeli athletes are dead.
10 am: A memorial is held in the wake of the killings. Flags of participating Olympic nations are lowered to half-staff. Ten Arab nations object, and their flags are raised back to full height.
Afternoon: The games continue. The Israeli team flies home with its murdered teammates. An international cry to suspend the Olympics goes unheeded, prompting athletes of various nationalities to drop out of their own accord. Dutch distance runner Jos Hermens says, “You give a party and someone is killed at the party, you don’t continue the party. I’m going home.”
October 29, 1972: The three surviving terrorists are awaiting trial when a Lufthansa jet is hijacked over the Mediterranean Sea. The new terrorists, also Palestinians, demand the release of the Black September gang in exchange for the passengers on board. The German government immediately agrees.
There are only 12 passengers onboard the jumbo jet, all adult men. Conspiracy theories persist that the hijacking was a setup by Germany as a way to get the Palestinians off its hands and prevent further attacks aimed at retrieving the men. In 1999’s documentary “One September Day,” German General Ulrich Wegener, who was on the scene for the entire tragedy, says, “I think it’s probably true, yes.”
The three surviving terrorists, Mohammed Safady, Adnan Al-Gashey and Jamal Al-Gashey, return to Libya to a hero’s welcome.
The months following: Under the authority of Golda Meir and led by Mossad head Zvi Zamir, Israel enacts a response initiative called Operation Wrath of God. It is widely believed that two of the three remaining Munich terrorists are tracked down and killed as part of the covert mission. The third, Jamal Al-Gashey, is still alive today and resides in North Africa with his wife and children. He has given few interviews in the last decades, but spoke during the filming of “One September Day.” He says to the camera, “I’m proud of what I did in Munich.”
The Munich massacre led to Germany’s creation of its first counter-terrorism agency.