The Munich Massacre

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Early in the morning of 4 September 1972, eight terrorists scaled the fence of the Olympic Village in Munich. They were members of Black September, a rogue offshoot of Fatah, and had arrived to kidnap the Israeli Olympic team, hold them as hostages and force the release of hundreds of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. Twenty-four hours later, three were arrested and five were dead, alongside eleven athletes and one police officer, in events later known as the Munich Massacre.

The last time Germany had hosted the Olympics had been in 1936, when the country was under the Nazi Dictatorship. Jews had been banned from competing then, and propaganda preaching Aryan supremacy had abounded. When American athlete Jesse Owen won four gold medals, and his other black teammates accumulated another eight, the Nazi Press had described them as “Black Auxiliaries, Nigers, Monkeys.” Unsurprisingly, the West German government of the 1970s had no desire to evoke memories of the 1936 Games. Unfortunately, there were concerns that armed German guards and police would conjure up images of the Wehrmacht of Nazi propaganda, and so the few security guards protecting the Games and athletes were plain-clothed, unarmed policemen – there merely for crowd control. Except for a two-metre-high chain link fence, the athletes were unguarded. 

On the night of 3 September, the Israeli national team had headed to central Munich to watch the musical Fiddler on the Roof, which starred fellow countryman Shmuel Rodensky as the protagonist Tevye. Afterwards, they had dined with him and returned to Connollystraße 31 late at night. A few hours later, at 4:30 AM, terrorists broke into the Olympic Village, with the aid of a team of North American athletes (it is unknown whether they were Americans or Canadians), who were also trying to enter the Village for different reasons.

The terrorists had disguised themselves as athletes by donning tracksuits, and had stored their TT-30 pistols, assault rifles and grenades in a duffel bag. Luttif Afif and Yusuf Nazzal, the leader of the terrorists and his second-in-command respectively, had already stolen keys to access the Village, and so the terrorists had no issues entering Connollystraße 31. The building itself was split into three apartments: the first housed the coaches, officials and other non-athletes, the second contained the team doctors, fencers and sharpshooters, along with Shaul Ladany, the team racewalker and Shmuel Lalkin, the chief diplomat, and the third apartment was home to the wrestlers and weightlifters. The sailing team was based on Baltic coast, while the female team members were based in a separate block, and so these athletes escaped the events of the Munich Massacre.

When the terrorists broke in, they accidentally awoke Moshe Weinberg and Yossef Gutfreund, the wrestling coach and referee. In vain, the pair tried to fight off the attackers. Weinberg was shot, then forced at gunpoint to lead Afif to the rest of the team. Bizarrely, the eight terrorists and Weinberg bypassed Apartment Two and instead went directly to Apartment Three. It is possible Weinberg had lied and said no athletes were in the apartment, but the terrorists were already familiar with the building’s layout – both Afif and Nazzal had been working undercover in the Olympic Village in various occupations. The most likely reason the group avoided Apartment Two was that Henry Hershkowitz and Zelig Shtroch were two of the finest sharpshooters in the world, and were very much in possession of their guns. Meanwhile, Olympic fencers Dan Alon and Yehuda Weisenstein were also in the apartment, along with their swords. The inhabitants of Apartment Two managed to escape the building, along with Tuvia Sokolovsky, a weightlifting coach who had escaped apartment one via a window.

Another theory concerning why Apartment Two was walked past posits that Weinberg hoped the weightlifters and wrestlers in Apartment Three would be able to overcome the terrorists, but they were still asleep, and so barely put up a fight. As the newly acquired hostages were being escorted back to Apartment One, Gad Tsabari, a wrestler, broke free and sprinted downstairs and out through the underground car park. Taking advantage of the confusion, Weinberg and weightlifter Yossef Romano fought back against their abductors. They were both shot dead. 

Later that next morning, Afif – acting as negotiator for Black September – announced his demands. In exchange for the safe return of Israel’s athletes, the Israeli government would have to release 234 Palestinian prisoners, while West Germany would need to free Andrew Baased and Ulrike Meinhod – the founding members of the Red Army Faction. The terrorists also asked for a private plane to fly them to the Middle East. Israel, convinced that succumbing to the terrorists’ demands would only court future attacks, was firmly opposed to negotiations.  

Accordingly, the West German police prepared an assault on Connollystraße 31. The plan called for the police to climb to the first floor through an air vent, take the terrorists by surprise and free the hostages. It was a good strategy, and could have succeeded. However, Fox News – despite being asked not to film the events – had been transfixed by the police’s every move, and had been broadcasting their preparations to one billion people, eight of whom happened to be the Black September terrorists. Afif immediately threatened to kill two hostages if the police did not immediately back down. Negotiations were forced to resume. 

Realising that they were in a precarious position, the terrorists demanded they be flown to Egypt with their hostages in tow. At 10 PM, a deal was finally struck. The West German government offered to fly the terrorists from Fürstenfledbruck airport to Cairo, where talks would continue. In secret, the West German government had placed police in key sniper positions around the complex, and the plane’s crew had been replaced by sixteen police officers. The plan was to lure Afif and Nazzal aboard the plane, where the police would overpower them. The remaining Black September members would be killed by the snipers. 

Unfortunately, problems emerged in concerningly rapid succession. The first was that, when the terrorists emerged to board two helicopters (which were to fly them to the plane), it became clear that there were eight terrorists – as opposed to the four or five the negotiators had claimed there were. Too few snipers were present for success to be assured. Moreover, reinforcements were unable to arrive due to traffic, and the police in the plane had voted to abort the mission, without informing their superiors. The last line of offence, the snipers, were not in fact snipers at all – they were simply standard policemen who went shooting over the weekend. To make matters worse, the snipers had no night vision or scopes on their standard issue rifles, making accurate shooting at 11 PM all but impossible. Nothing had gone to plan, and the Munich Massacre was about to earn its name.

When the helicopters finally arrived, Afif and Nazzal went to inspect the, now empty, plane. Immediately sensing foul play, they shouted to the remaining terrorists and sprinted out of the plane. In the darkness, one sniper managed to hit Nazzal in the thigh. Police fired on the terrorists, but it was too little, too late. A violent gunfight ensued, and in the chaos a West German police officer was shot dead. 

Just after midnight, armoured cars – which had only been called in when the shooting started – finally arrived. Afif, realising the tide was turning, ran into the eastern helicopter, unleashed four magazines on the hostages bound inside and lobbed a grenade into the cockpit. After this, Adnan Al-Gashney, another terrorist, did the same to the five remaining hostages in the western helicopter. At 12:30, fighting finally stopped. Four terrorists had been killed in the gunfight, along with one policeman and nine hostages. An injured Nazzal had fled the scene, but was himself gunned down at 1:30 AM. The Munich Massacre had ended.

The three remaining terrorists, Adnan Al-Gashey, Jamal Al-Gashey and Mohammad Safady, were arrested and sent to West German prisons. All, however, were released when other terrorists hijacked Lufthansa flight 615 on 29 October and flew it in circles above Zagreb airport. Unless the three remaining Black September terrorists were released, the plane would deplete its fuel supplies and crash. After the shambles of the previous month, the West German government complied and released the surviving perpetrators of the Munich Massacre. They were flown to Libya. In Israel there was outrage, and the government launched Operation Wrath of God to hunt down the perpetrators in vengeance. 

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