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Germany, Israel mark 50 years since Munich Olympics attack

September 5, 2022

In 1972, eight Palestinian militants stormed the Israeli apartment in the Munich Olympic village. In the bungled police operations that followed, all nine Israeli hostages were killed.

The presidents of Germany and Israel, along with their partners, attend a memorial event
Monday marks 50 years since the attack on the Israeli Olympic team in 1972Image: Sven Hoppe/dpa/picture alliance

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Monday asked for forgiveness from the families of the Israeli Olympic team members who were slaughtered at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.

Steinmeier was speaking alongside his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog at a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the attack, in which 11 Israelis were killed.

"We cannot make up for what happened; we cannot make up for the obstruction, ignorance and injustice you experienced and suffered. That shames me," Steinmeier said at a ceremony at Fürstenfeldbruck airbase, where the 1972 terror attack came to a climax.

"As the head of state of this country and in the name of the Federal Republic of Germany, I ask your forgiveness for the woefully inadequate protection afforded to the Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich and for the woefully inadequate investigation afterwards — for the fact that it was possible for what happened to happen."

"I have a duty and a need to acknowledge Germany's responsibility — here and now and into the future. May the outcome of today be that you, the families, feel properly seen and heard in your pain and feel that we take our responsibility seriously."

Steinmeier asks Israel for forgiveness

What happened in 1972?

On September 5, 1972, eight Palestinian gunmen stormed the Israeli team's apartment at the Olympic village. The Black September militants shot dead two Israeli team members, and took a further nine Israelis hostage.

In a botched response from West German police, all nine hostages were killed, as well as five hostage-takers and a police officer. The incident caused a deep rift between Germany and Israel, just 27 years after the Holocaust and during the first major international sporting event on German soil since the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

West Germany had hoped the Games would showcase a new face to the country, but the actions of police and German security authorities were harshly criticized and caused outrage in Israel.

In his speech, Steinmeier said the Games were supposed to represent a counterpoint to the Nazi-run Berlin games in 1936. The fact that Israel had taken part — survivors of the Holocaust were among the team members — was a show of confidence in the new face of Germany, but they failed as hosts.

"Intrinsic to the sad and painful truth of this commemoration is the fact that we wanted to be good hosts, but did not live up to the trust that the Israeli sportsmen and their families had placed in Germany. They were not safe. They were not protected. In our country, they were tortured and killed by terrorists."

Israel's Herzog later praised Steinmeier for a "brave and historic speech".

"It represents, half a century later, an important step of morality and justice for the victims, for the families, and for history itself," Herzog said.

Steinmeier: 'We were not prepared' for Munich Olympics

Mayor apologizes for 'momentous mistakes'

At a separate ceremony at the Olympic village on Monday morning, Munich mayor Dieter Reiter apologized for the "momentous mistakes" of the organizers of the Games.

"I am sorry for that and I apologize for the fact that after the attack, what would have been demanded by humanity was simply not done — admitting the mistakes and taking responsibility for them."

At the village event, Israeli Sports Minister Hili Tropper said the hostages had been murdered in cold blood, and the fact the Games had continued as planned meant the event was stained with blood.

Family members receive compensation

Bereaved family members had threatened to overshadow Monday's events with a boycott over a long-delayed compensation deal. However, Germany on Wednesday agreed to an increased €28 million ($28 million) payout for relatives, averting the boycott. In the deal, the German state for the first time acknowledged its "responsibility" in failings that led to the deaths of 11 Israelis.

Family members had long fought for an official apology, and access to official documents.

Steinmeier thanked the families for attending Monday’s events, as well all those who made the deal possible.

"Honored family members, we cannot fathom what suffering, what pain you have been through. We can only imagine what the loss of your sons, husbands, fathers meant to you and still means to you."

Steinmeier called for ongoing reconciliation between Germany and Israel.

"The friendship, the reconciliation that Israel has afforded us is nothing less than a miracle."

"May the outcome of today also be that we Germans prove ourselves worthy of the precious asset which forms the foundation of that friendship — the asset which was so badly damaged in this place 50 years ago: trust."

Herzog will also hold a speech in the German parliament, or Bundestag, on Tuesday, and visit the former concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, where thousands of Jews were imprisoned under the Nazi regime. Many died of disease, starvation and mistreatment.

aw/msh (AFP, dpa, epd)