At Furstenfeldbruck air base near Munich, an attempt by West German police to rescue nine Israeli Olympic team members held hostage by Palestinian terrorists ends in disaster. In an extended firefight that began at 11 p.m. and lasted until 1:30 a.m., all nine Israeli hostages were killed, as were five terrorists and one German policeman. Three terrorists were wounded and captured alive. The hostage crisis began early the previous morning when Palestinian terrorists from the Black September organization stormed the Israeli quarters in the Olympic Village in Munich, killing two team members and taking nine others hostage.
The 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany, were publicized by organizers as the “Games of Peace and Joy.” West Germans were intent on erasing the memory of the last Olympics held in Germany: the 1936 Berlin Olympics that Adolf Hitler exploited as a vehicle of Nazi propaganda. Police in Munich–the birthplace of Nazism–kept a low profile during the 1972 Games, and organizers chose lax security over risking comparison with the Gestapo police tactics of Hitler’s Germany.
So just before dawn on September 5, 1972–the eleventh day of the XX Olympiad–evidently no one thought it strange that five Arab men in track suits were climbing over a six-and-a-half-foot fence to gain access to the Olympic Village. The village, after all, had a curfew, and many other Olympic athletes had employed fence climbing as a means of enjoying a late night out on the town. In fact, some Americans returning from a bar joined them in climbing the fence. A handful of other witnesses hardly gave the five men a second glance, and the intruders proceeded unmolested to the three-story building where the small Israeli delegation to the Munich Games was staying.
These five men, of course, were not Olympic athletes but members of Black September, an extremist Palestinian group formed in 1971. In their athletic bags they carried automatic rifles and other weapons. They were joined in the village by three other terrorists, two of whom were employed within the Olympic compound.
Shortly before 5 a.m., the guerrillas forced their way into one of the Israeli apartments, taking five hostages. When the Palestinians entered another apartment, Israeli wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg struggled with them. He was shot to death after knocking two of his attackers down. Weightlifter Yossef Romano then attacked them with a kitchen knife, and he succeeded in injuring one terrorist before he was fatally shot. Some Israelis managed narrowly to escape through a back entrance, but a total of nine were seized. Four of the hostages were athletes–two weightlifters and two wrestlers–and five were coaches. One of the wrestlers, David Berger, had dual American-Israeli citizenship and lived in Ohio before qualifying for the Israeli Olympic team.
Around 8 a.m., the attackers announced themselves as Palestinians and issued their demands: the release of 234 Arab and German prisoners held in Israel and West Germany, and safe passage with their hostages to Cairo. The German prisoners requested to be released included Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader, founders of the Marxist terrorist group known as the Red Army Faction. If the Palestinians’ demands were not met, the nine hostages would be killed. Tense negotiations stretched on throughout the day, complicated by Israel’s refusal to negotiate with these or any terrorists. The German police considered raiding the Israeli compound but later abandoned the plan out of fear for the safety of the hostages and other athletes in the Olympic Village. Ten West German Olympic organizers offered themselves as hostages in exchange for the Israeli team members, but the offer was declined.
Finally, in the early evening, the terrorists agreed to a plan in which they were to be taken by helicopter to the NATO air base at Fürstenfeldbruck and then flown by airliner to Cairo with the hostages. The terrorists believed they would be met in Egypt by the released Arab and German prisoners. Around 10 p.m., the terrorists and hostages emerged from the building; the Israelis bound together and blindfolded. They took a bus to a makeshift helicopter pad and were flown the 12 miles to Fürstenfeldbruck.
German authorities feared that the Israelis faced certain death upon their arrival in the Middle East. Egypt had denied the request to allow the plane to land in Cairo, and Israel would never release the Arab prisoners in question. Israel had a crack military task force ready to raid the plane wherever it landed, but the German police planned their own ambush. In the course of the transfer, however, the Germans discovered that there were eight terrorists instead of the expected five. They had not assigned enough marksmen to kill the terrorists and, moreover, lacked the gear, such as walkie-talkies and bulletproof vests, necessary to carry out such an ambush effectively. Nevertheless, shortly before 11 p.m., the sharpshooters opened fire. Their shots were off mark in the dark, and the terrorists fired back.
Toward the end of the firefight, which lasted more than two hours, the Palestinians gunned down four of the hostages in one of the helicopters and tossed a grenade into another helicopter holding the other five–killing them all. At approximately 1:30 a.m., the last terrorist still resisting was killed. All eight Palestinians were shot during the gun battle–five fatally–and a German policeman was killed. One of the helicopter pilots was also seriously injured.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, the Munich Games were temporarily suspended. A memorial service for the 11 slain Israelis drew 80,000 mourners to the Olympic stadium on September 6. International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage, who was widely criticized for failing to suspend the Games during the hostage crisis, was further criticized for his decision to resume them on the afternoon of September 6. On September 11, closing ceremonies ended the XX Olympiad.
On October 29, Palestinian terrorists hijacked a Lufthansa jet in Beirut and ordered it flown to Munich, where the three surviving Munich terrorists were being held. Germany agreed to turn the terrorists over in exchange for the release of the airliner’s passengers and crew, which was carried out after the jet landed in Libya. The Black September terrorists, however, did not enjoy their freedom for long. Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, formed an assassination squad that eventually killed two of the three terrorists along with at least six others believed to have been involved in the attack on the Israeli Olympic compound. One of the Munich terrorists, Jamal al-Gashey, survives in hiding.
READ MORE: When World Events Disrupted the Olympics