Munich Olympics Massacre, 1972

Although it would be still years before 24/7 news cycle, the 1972 Munich Olympics and the subsequent hostage crisis unfolded live on televisions around the globe. On 5th September — right in the middle of the Games — eight terrorists sympathizers of the Palestinian terrorist organization, Black September, jumped over the six-foot high fence that encircled the Olympic Village and broke into the Olympic Village.

They headed straight for 31 Connollystrasse, the building where the Israeli team was staying and around 4:30 a.m., they rounded up the occupants of apartment 1 and then apartment 3. A few fought back and two were killed, and some were able to escape out windows. Nine were taken hostage. Although the security service prepared itself theoretically for such an event (the infamous Sieber scenario 21), the police didn’t realize that the kidnappers would able to follow their reactions and plans by simply turning on television sets.

The above photo of the hooded terrorist on the balcony of the Israelis’ hotel room, taken by AP’s Kurt Strumpf, was the defining image of the crisis, and subsequently, international terrorism. Clad in a nondescript pull-over, his face hidden by a sinister looking balaclava with cut-out slits for eyes, he looked more like a dehumanized monster than a young man from a Palestinian refugee camp that he was. It was not certain who he was, yet this faceless individual personified the very image of the modern terrorist: someone who was not like us, did not look like us, and came from some faraway place of which we knew little; someone different, alien, and inherently evil.

A few other photographers had similar photos to Strumpf: Syndey Morning Herald’s Russell McPhedran, LIFE’s Co Rentmeester whose photo appeared in the magazine’s September 15 issue (below), and Magnum’s Raymond Depardon who stood next to Rentmeester, and German press photograher Axel Sven Springer. The hooded terrorist was not widely on newspapers but many did run it. The New York Times published the photo inside.

The terrorists dropped a list of their demands out of a window: the release of 234 prisoners from Israeli prisons and two from German prisons. Negotiators were able to extend the deadline to noon, then 1 p.m., then 3 p.m., then 5 p.m. However, the terrorists refused to back down and the Israeli government refused to release the prisoners

Eventually accepting their prisoner exchange demands will not be met, the terrorists request a plane to transport themselves and the hostages to Cairo. The Germans supplied the plane, but a failed rescue attempt at a military airport at Fürstenfeldbruck ended with nine remaining hostages dead. The Games continued during the crisis, but eventually they were halted for a few hours. There were calls to cancel the rest of the Games, but they continued, a decision which the Israeli authorities supported. When the Games re-started, it began with mournfully tunes from Beethoven and a memorial service held in the Olympic Stadium.

After every Olympics, organizers publish an official report; Munich’s one was “Teutonically comprehensive”, but recounted the atrocity in “dispassionate, mostly exculpatory prose”, according to Time magazine, ending with a “grotesque rationalization”. The organizers wrote: “After the terrible events of September 5, 1972, it was once again the atmosphere of the Olympic Village which contributed a great deal to calming down and preserving peace among the athletes.” Left unsaid of course were unsightly stories of a New Zealand weightlifter who took a Polaroid snapshot not different from Strumpf’s photo above and spent the rest of the game trying to sell the photo and of ten nations which vehemently refused to let their flags fly at half-mast.

For better or for worse, the hostage crisis brought the Palestinian cause to the world’s attention. It’s hard to imagine it now, but at the time of Munich, the Palestinians were still a forgotten people. Israeli prime minister Golda Meir insisted they did not exist, and all the footage from 1972 never used the word “Palestinian”; the gunmen were simply “Arabs.”

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0 thoughts on “Munich Olympics Massacre, 1972

  1. Super strange, when I turned on my Iphone this website was already loaded. I really liked your website. There are certainly a lot of information to take into consideration. Might there be a part 2 some time in the future?

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