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Relatives of Munich attack victims may boycott commemoration

August 12, 2022

Berlin still hopes that relatives of Israeli Olympic team members killed by Palestinian terrorists in 1972 will attend a 50th anniversary ceremony next month.

Armored police vehicles in the Munich Olympic Village, pictured on September 6, 1972, a day after the hostage-taking.
Germany faced criticism for its handling of the crisis; a police rescue attempt backfired and the hostages were all killed.Image: dpa/picture alliance

A German government spokesman reacted with regret on Friday to media reports saying that relatives of the victims of the so-called Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics would boycott a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the tragedy. 

Steffen Hebestreit told reporters in Berlin that the government remained open to further talks with representatives of the victims' families, amid a long-running dispute over compensation payments. 

"The federal government is giving voice to its hope that a way will be found so that the bereaved can decide after all to take part in the memorial ceremony on September 5," Hebestreit said. 

Major German news outlets Bild and Spiegel had reported earlier in the day that the victims' families would not attend the ceremony. Bild quoted from what it said was a letter written by representatives Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano to the state premier of Bavaria, Markus Söder of the CSU party, explaining the decision. 

"Fifty years of defamation, lies, humiliation and denial from the German government and the Bavarian authorities in particular are more than enough for all of us," Spitzer and Romano reportedly wrote. Spitzer told Spiegel that a long-running dispute over compensation was at the heart of their decision. 

Munich is planning several ceremonies and events on September 4 and 5, including a memorial service organized by the state's Interior Ministry at the airfield where the rescue efforts failed and where most of the victims died. The city of Munich's official website notes in bold print that "for the first time, the city of Munich is officially inviting the victims' families to attend." 

Dispute over compensation payments

A German offer earlier in August had prompted some hope of a settlement in the dispute. 

The federal government in Berlin, Bavaria's state government and the city of Munich had combined to make an offer of €10 million (just over $10 million) in compensation in total. This sum also includes the past payments amounting to roughly €4.5 million in total made in 1972 and then in 2002. Representatives of the victims' families called this an "insult." 

The German government's special representative charged with tackling anti-Semitism, Felix Klein, said he regretted the families' decision.

"I am of the opinion that the federal government has made a fair offer to the relatives and the bereaved after the Olympic attack," Klein told the RND network of German newspapers. "It is at the upper threshold of what somebody would would receive today [in compensation] as the victim of a terrorist crime." 

Klein also praised the offer for a renewed historical and political evaluation of precisely what happened, after the victims' relatives have repeatedly complained about not having access to classified information.

Marking the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre

However, the government's special representative for dealing with victims of terrorist and extremist attacks in Germany, Pascal Kober, called for another attempt to find an amicable agreement. Kober said he understood there were differences of opinion even among the relatives themselves, but said it was particularly important to seek a solution in this case. 

"Germany carries a political responsibility, which we must face up to, also and particularly with regard to the unique relationship with Israel," Kober told Spiegel

What was the 'Munich massacre'?

On September 5, 1972, during the Munich Olympics in what was then West Germany, eight members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September killed two members of the Israeli Olympic team and took another nine hostage. Six coaches and five athletes were taken in all; a weightlifter and a wrestling coach were shot dead trying to fight back as the terrorists broke into the Israeli apartments in the Olympic Village.

The kidnappers at first demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and also of the founders of the West German Red Army Faction (RAF) terror group — Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof — in return for the hostages.

Israel's government was unequivocal that there should be no negotiation, given its policy at the time to refuse to negotiate with terrorists under any circumstances. 

After a brief period of negotiation by the German side, in which the eight kidnappers said no financial settlement would satisfy them and death would not deter them, German law enforcement attempted two armed rescue missions. The first had to be aborted as police realized their activities were being filmed by the massive media presence on site, and that the hostage-takers were watching the officers' preparations live on television. 

The second rescue effort failed despite attempted subterfuge trying to convince the terrorists that their latest demand — safe passage to Cairo in helicopters for them and their hostages — would be honored. The plan was to ambush them as they embarked.

The precise details of the operation remain contentious, and were kept classified for years, but West German authorities faced considerable criticism for their response. One of the victims' families' other complaints, besides possible remuneration, revolves around receiving access to all the information known to German and Bavarian police and government agencies. 

What's uncontroversial is that five hostage-takers, all the hostages and one West German policeman were killed, and three of the terrorists were arrested. 

To make matters worse, initial media reporting mistakenly said the operation had succeeded and that the hostages had been saved and the terrorists killed.

Even the terrorists who were captured in the botched operation were eventually released due to a new terrorist threat. The same Black September group hijacked a Lufthansa passenger plane later in 1972, demanding their comrades' release and threatening to blow up the jet. 

A burnt-out helicopter at military airfield Fürstenfeldbruck. Black-and-white photo from September 6, 1972.
The attempt to rescue the hostages at the Fürstenfeldbruck military airfield near Munich failedImage: dpa/picture alliance

Renewed shame after Nazis' Berlin Olympics 

The tragedy targeting the Israeli team was also symbolic due to it taking place on German soil. The 1972 Munich Summer Games were the first international sporting event of such a scale to take place in post-war West Germany, after the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics had been used for propaganda purposes by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime. 

The costly lesson of the botched rescue led within months to Germany establishing a new, special federal counter-terrorist police force, known as GSG 9. Owing to Germany's largely pacifist post-war constitution, the Bundeswehr was not permitted to take part in the rescue operation on German soil, and the police was cleared to do so. GSG 9, which can deploy anywhere in the country if needed, was conceived to have similar skill sets and firepower to trained soldiers, to better handle domestic terrorism incidents.

msh/dj  (AFP, dpa, KNA)

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