Munich’s foiled history lessons – an American perspective

Stark image of Jews shot in cold blood, burned in fire-bombed helicopters cannot but help bring to mind suffering of Jews in Germany a quarter century earlier.

Munich Memorial R370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
Munich Memorial R370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
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 day.
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.
In soaking 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 attack.
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 Republic.
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 transparency.
Built on the very ruins of Munich’s war rubble (the “Truemmerberg,” or mountain of ruins), the Olympic park was meant to signal a fresh era.
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 democracy.
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 commemoration.
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 Holocaust.
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.
Those dark 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.