Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Forty years later, new revelations on the Munich massacre

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Today marks forty years since the Munich massacre - when eleven Israeli Olympic athletes, coaches and officials, as well as a German police officer, were killed at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games by Palestinian terrorist group Black September. This tragedy has recently been given renewed attention following the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) defiance of an international campaign to hold a minute's silence to remember those killed at this year's London Olympic's opening and closing ceremonies.

Four decades later and the many unanswered questions about the attack has fuelled rumours, criticism and conspiracy theories. (Anyone needing a reminder of the course of events on Sept. 5, 1972, is advised to read the very comprehensive Wikipedia page.) Such questions include - did German and Israeli authorities do enough to ensure the safety of the Israeli athletes? Why was the press able to report on the kidnappings in ways which provided useful information to the terrorists? Why did the ‘rescue' attempt fail so badly at the Fürstenfeldbruck military airfield? What intelligence existed prior to the attack and how could the terrorists caught in Germany be later released in response to the Lufthansa plane hijacking?

Now Germany and Israel have recently released once classified documents that shed new light on some of these questions.

The German documents were scoured by German weekly Der Spiegel, which claims, that the Federal Republic of Germany (‘West Germany') ignored warnings of an attack during the Olympics and cooperated with its perpetrators in the aftermath. In June Der Spiegel reported that Germany's domestic intelligence agency erfassungsschutz (BfV) has files which reveal that neo-Nazis worked with Black September prior to the lead up to the 1972 Munich terror attack. According to the report, police in the city of Dortmund sent a notice to the BfV, which noted that "Saad Walli, an ‘Arab-looking man' met conspiratorially with the German neo-Nazi Willi Pohl." Saad Walli was the cover name for Abu Daoud, widely believed to be the leader of the Munich attack. According to Pohl he drove Walli around West Germany and prepared fake passports.

Furthermore, the paper also reports in a separate story that Germany had a tip-off from a Palestinian informant in Beirut three weeks before the massacre that Palestinians were planning an "incident" at the Games, which was passed on by the Foreign Ministry to the secret service in Munich. According to the newly released documents, there are no indications that the German authorities acted on the information provided to them by the Dortmund police or the Beirut informnant.

German documents also reveal that Germany maintained secret contacts with the organisers of the Munich attack for years afterward and appeased Palestinian terror groups to prevent further attacks on German soil. According to Der Spiegel, six months after the Munich attack, there was already active but secret diplomatic communication between Germans and Palestinians. Der Spiegel reported:

"West German representatives were talking to men like Abu Youssef, Ali Salameh and Amin al-Hindi, all of them masterminds of the Munich murders. Even the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), which is obligated to prosecute criminals, was involved in meetings, according to documents in the Political Archives of the German Foreign Ministry and the Federal Archive in the western city of Koblenz, which SPIEGEL has now analyzed. The motives were plain. Bonn knew that the Palestinians craved international recognition. Any contact with West German representatives, even in secret, upgraded the PLO's status as an institution. In return, the government of then Chancellor Willy Brandt and Vice-Chancellor Walter Scheel hoped to protect Germany from further attacks. But the price they had to pay in return appears to have been high."

Der Spiegel also notes that: "the question will once again be raised as to why the German courts never tried any of the perpetrators or backers of the Munich massacre. The documents that are now available suggest one answer in particular: West Germany didn't want to call them to account."

Israel has also recently released its state archives that provide insight into the decision making process of Israel's leaders at the time, in particular then Prime Minister Golda Meir. The archives include cabinet meetings and consultations held by ministers, and of sessions of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, as well as, various reports and telegram exchanges in response to the Munich attack, however some have been redacted for security reasons.

The archives highlight the hypocrisy of the IOC. According to the archives, following the first reports about the attack in Munich, the Israeli government approached the West German government and the IOC with a demand to suspend the games as long as the hostages had not been released, but they initially decided not to stop the games because among other reasons, "German television has no alternative programming." They later decided to suspend the games and conduct a memorial ceremony the following day for the two Israelis killed in the first few hours, which eventually became a memorial ceremony for all eleven murdered athletes.

The archives also note that Israel considered calling for the complete cancellation of the games but decided to await the US position on the matter. The US decided the games should continue and asked Golda Meir not to approach the US President with a request to pull out the American delegation, arguing that she "should not force them to face this dilemma."

The archives interestingly reveal that faced with mounting evidence of German negligence in response to the Munich attack, Israel tried to balance its criticism of West Germany, with a willingness to maintain friendly diplomatic relations. The issue was complicated by memories of the Holocaust, as many in the Israeli public were making comparisons between the Munich attack, and Germany's Nazi past.

Initially Golda Meir did not seek to blame West Germany and sent a message of thanks to Chancellor Brandt for the German efforts to deal with the attack. However, she regretted this ‘friendly' approach following testimony from former Mossad Chief Zvi Zamir, who was sent by Israel to ‘oversee' the rescue operation in Munich. 

Zamir heavily criticised the German response, particularly their rejection of his attempts to be involved in the operation, the lack of professionalism and apathy displayed by the German forces.  Zamir said, "They didn't make even a minimal effort to save lives, didn't take even a minimal risk to save people, neither theirs nor ours".  According to Zamir, "the Germans only wanted to finish with this business, at all costs, in order to get on with the Olympics." In response to Zamir's report, Golda Meir sent Chancellor Brandt another more critical message demanding an investigation into the events as soon as possible.

The Germans' conducted an investigation, which conflicted with Zamir's report.  However, Der Spiegel reporting suggests this appears to have been a deliberate attempt in Germany to whitewash the role of German security forces, with the paper stating in July that:

"The federal government [in Bonn] and the local government of the state of Bavaria committed grave errors in their handling of the attack on Israeli athletes during the Olympic Games in Munich, and have kept the true extent of the failure true under wraps until today."

This includes long-term concealment of documents on the massacre which for instance, contrary to public claims about the professionalism and 'precision' of the Black September terrorists, shows they were in fact badly prepared and barely managed to find hotel rooms in Munich. 

Diplomatic relations reached a new low when the German government agreed to release the Munich terrorists when a Lufthansa plane was hijacked. The archives summary states:

"Golda Meir did not rule out the hints of Warhaftig and others regarding a possible conspiracy. ‘Everything happened so fast, they didn't even try to bargain with them. As if the helicopters were ready sand waiting for the terrorists', she said. She strongly attacked the actions of the German government and its spokesmen, and their obsequious attitude to the Arabs."

With respect to Israel's responsibility, the attack was widely considered an Israeli intelligence failure. Defence Minister Dayan declared that:

"Although there were no tip-offs about Munich, we did recently, without any doubt, have more serious tips than in the past, on groups of terrorists - with names and details - leaving for Europe with the intention of harming us; and these tips were immeasurably more serious than those we received in the past."

Dayan proposed to re-examine all the standard security measures, especially those relevant to Israelis abroad. Golda Meir commented that there were countless warnings about attacks on Israelis abroad but that despite all the efforts to deal with them, "it is impossible to be prepared at every moment".

However, public outcry in Israel led to an investigation. A committee report suggested that security arrangements were widely neglected in Israel, falling instead on the shoulders of the security officer at the Israeli Embassy in Germany who was later described as "inept." During the discussion of the report Golda Meir indicated her willingness to accept personal responsibility, and stated that it was not possible that a minister should not know what was going on in his ministry, especially on such a subject. She said that "if I were just a regular minister - I wouldn't ask anyone and I wouldn't consult with anyone (about my resignation)" but she said she could not resign because it would result in a political crisis.

These recently released files by Israel and Germany do provide a deeper understanding into the Munich attack. While they do not answer all the questions as to how so many mistakes could have been made and in particular why the rescue attempt was such a failure, the files at least provide greater transparency and accountability for what happened, and the response to it. The Munich attack may have been forty years ago, but there will not be closure for the victims of the tragedy until all the many troubling questions are answered and there is permanent commemoration to honour the memory of the victims at each Olympics.

Sharyn Mittelman

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