My daughter and I recently toured Munich’s beautiful Olympic Park, the site of
the brutal 1972 massacre of young Israeli athletes by the Palestinian terror
group Black September.
The day we visited was idyllic: skateboarders
careened off steeply-banked slopes; children roller-skated and bicycled, while
others walked their dogs, jogged or just took in the gorgeous
Nearby, swimmers splashed in the great swimming hall, the impressive
glass and steel structure designed to maximize the brilliant sunshine on a day
like this. Later, we partook of kaffee and kuchen – coffee and cake – at a
rotating restaurant atop one of Germany’s architectural wonders, a radio and TV
tower built on pliable gravel that allows it to actually tilt in high winds, and
in calmer weather simply offers the best view of the city.
this all in, not once was I, a scholar who has spent much of my career thinking
and writing about contemporary Germany, reminded of the unspeakable
As we near the 40th anniversary of the September 5, 1972 massacre
of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Olympic Games, we are reminded
not only of Germany’s failure to protect its guest athletes, but also of its
attempt to become a “good” democracy in the American mold.
It is easy to
forget that Germany – West Germany at the time – is a country younger even than
Israel, and that in 1972, at the tender age of 23, it was still quite insecure
about its National Socialist past and its prospects as a viable Western
democracy. At the time, lest we forget, prominent German intellectuals were
vociferously asserting the “presence” of Nazism in the Federal
Post-World War II Germany wanted desperately to shed its
militaristic past. Facilities built for the Olympics, with competition hall
roofs built like rolling waves or clouds that might float away from their
moorings, were meant to express this new age of openness, freedom and
Built on the very ruins of Munich’s war rubble (the
“Truemmerberg,” or mountain of ruins), the Olympic park was meant to signal a
But the history lessons Germany was attempting to draw on
proved to be the wrong lessons for the wrong times.
The prohibition on
the federal military intervening in the affairs of individual states – learned
from the US – proved a faulty lesson. As a result, German federal law firmly
restricted the army and other national security agencies from assisting the
totally unprepared Bavarian police.
Also, what in retrospect seems like a
lax policy toward the press was felt then to be essential to a mature
Moreover, it was held to be the antidote to the Goebbels
propaganda machine of the Nazi years.
But allowing journalists to film
the actual police response – even if an unintended consequence of the general
latitude given to the press – alerted the terrorists and caused further
bloodshed. There should have been a press blackout; instead there was such
chaotic reporting that for a while respected news stations actually announced
the successful rescue of the Israeli Olympians.
There were many other
errors and miscalculations. Why did authorities ignore the tip-off they had in
advance? How could rescue helicopters land so ineptly, leaving the hostages and
crew sitting ducks? Why were supposed sharpshooters so inexperienced they ended
up shooting each other? And how could the long-awaited armored rescue vehicles
get stuck in Autobahn traffic? It was the perfect storm of ineptitude that led
to a bloody conclusion.
Today, Germany views the Munich massacre largely
as an ongoing crime probe, with more effort dedicated to investigation than to
The few commemorative markers are tucked away in the lush
Olympic Park, out of view of most visitors.
One reason for this story’s
staying power is obvious but often unstated. The attack by Black September, a
Palestinian terror group, obviously had nothing to do with the
Yet, the stark image of Jews shot in cold blood and burned in
fire-bombed helicopters cannot but help bring to mind the suffering of Jews in
Germany just a quarter century earlier. Then, too, some were burned alive. Did
the terrorists intend this “Holocaust echo” at some level? The focus on the
Israeli victims is quite appropriate as we observe this extremely sad
anniversary. But we should also recall that Germany’s failures were in part
based on its efforts to move beyond its past.
And neither should we
forget that a brave German police officer was killed in this bloody raid, and
that one of the most prominent German politicians of the day, Hans Dietrich
Genscher (later German secretary of state), voluntarily entered the lion’s den
to try to negotiate the Israelis’ release, or at least to assess the threat. He
failed on both counts, but put his life at risk in doing so.
days in Munich, thus, were not just a result of fateful and fatal tactical
errors, but in large part a consequence of Germany aspiring to be the good,
western democracy the world expected it to be.
The writer is the chair of
the Department of Germanic Languages & Literatures and a professor of German
and Jewish Studies at Duke University.