After 40 years, state releases Munich papers

45 documents chronicling Olympic massacre made public, including then-prime minister Golda Meir account.

The 11 Israeli athletes killed in 1972 Munich attack 300 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS / Handout)
The 11 Israeli athletes killed in 1972 Munich attack 300 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS / Handout)
The State Archive on Wednesday released 45 documents pertaining to the 1972 Munich Massacre of 11 Israeli Olympians, including one quoting then-Mossad head Zvi Zamir as saying the German police “didn’t make even a minimal effort to save human lives.”
The documents were released to mark 40 years since the massacre, which took place on the night between September 5 and 6, 1972.
“If there is any tangible manifestation of schizophrenia, it was that night,” thenprime minister Golda Meir said when describing what it was like to sit with cabinet members and senior aides in her home in Jerusalem and follow reports of the developments in the operation to rescue the Israeli hostages at the Fürstenfeldbruck military airfield near Munich. At first there was elation, when it seemed that the German rescue effort had succeeded. But that elation turned to despair when it became clear the effort failed, leading to the death of nine Israeli hostages.
Two Israelis were killed earlier when the terrorists scaled the fence of the Olympic Village and burst into the Israeli residence. The other nine were killed, along with five terrorists and a West German police officer, at the air base where the gunmen had brought the hostages to fly with them to Egypt.
Zamir, who flew to Germany to observe the rescue operation – then-defense minister Moshe Dayan planned to go but decided against it at the last minute because he thought if the terrorists found out he was there, they would kill the hostages immediately – briefed the cabinet upon his return to Israel on September 6. The picture he painted was of German ineptitude and carelessness, including a description of snipers armed not with special rifles, but rather with pistols and even an Uzi, and armed personnel carriers that arrived 30 minutes late.
When Meir interrupted him and said the bottom line was that the Germans wanted to rescue the athletes, Zamir said, “They did not take the minimum risk to save them. They lay down behind cover and fired. It was impossible to move anyone from their cover.”
Zamir later wrote up the main points of his briefing, which was then translated into English and sent to the West German authorities.
That was one of the documents released on Wednesday.
The documents released chronicle the drama and its immediate aftermath through Foreign Ministry cables; minutes of m e e t i n g s from the period – of both the cabinet and the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee; and official correspondence between Israeli and German officials. Some of the documents have been edited to protect highly classified information.
The first document, from September 5, 1972, was the initial cable from the Israeli Embassy in Bonn saying the German police reported that armed Palestinians carrying machine guns took over the Israeli residence at the Olympic Village and were demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israel.
The last document, from November 8, were Foreign Ministry minutes of a meeting Meir had with the German ambassador following the tension that emerged when Germany released the three surviving Black September terrorists after the hijacking of a Lufthansa airliner in October.
The documents show the transition from Israel wanting to give the West German government of chancellor Willy Brandt the benefit of the doubt at the beginning of the saga, to a serious strain in relations that followed the decision to release the terrorists.
The documents are divided into nine sections:
• Initial Foreign Ministry reports about the kidnappings until the failure of the German rescue operation;
• Correspondence regarding the issue of whether the Olympic games would be stopped or suspended;
• Documents dealing with how the incident would affect Israeli-German ties;
• The German police’s report on the operation and Zamir’s harsh criticism of it;
• German disapproval of Zamir’s criticism; • The establishment of an Israeli commission – the Koppel Committee – to examine the security arrangements that existed for the Israeli athletes;
• The Meir government’s response to the Koppel Committee; • Conclusions drawn in the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee regarding active and passive ways to fight terrorists abroad; and
• Israel’s response to the German government’s decision to release the surviving gunmen after the Lufthansa airplane hijacking.
The documents provide a glimpse into the furious Israeli mood at the time, with Meir in a cable to Israel’s ambassador to Germany advising against Brandt coming to Israel to take part in the funerals. “I don’t know what will happen to Brandt, how he will be received here,” she wrote.
Then-foreign minister Abba Eban said at a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on September 5 that he was worried about a situation where instead of the anger being directed at the Arabs, it was being directed at the Germans.
At that meeting, the question was raised whether Israel had any warning of this type of attack. Meir responded, “You have no idea how many pieces of information come through during a 24-hour period about all kinds of plans, not any specific location.
“In many different countries murderers have gotten together to kill Jews, to strike at planes and ships, and you don’t know what else. I am amazed at how much we succeed to protect them,” she said. “But the world is big, and there are Israelis all over the world, and it is almost impossible to think it possible to provide absolute protection,” she added.
The documents also revealed the cynicism of the German authorities and the International Olympic Committee in refusing Israel’s request to suspend the Games while the saga was unfolding and the hostages were being held.
A dispassionate cable from the embassy in Bonn to the Foreign Ministry on September 5, some six hours after the ordeal began, said that at a meeting of the German Olympic Committee, the president of the International Olympic Committee Avery Brundage, and the German interior minister, “it was decided not to stop the Games. The reasons: 1. the possibility that stopping them will bother the police efforts [to rescue the hostages]. 2. German television does not have any alternative programming.”