- Massacre in Munich: The Olympic Terror Attacks of 1972 in Historical Perspective
Thanks in part to Steven Spielberg’s film Munich (2005), the name of this fine Bavarian city no longer conjures up only happy images of the Hofbräuhaus and Oktoberfest—or even the much less happy connection to the infamous Munich Agreement of 1938, which made “Munich” a byword for appeasement. These days “Munich” is indelibly associated with the brutal murder of eleven Israeli Olympians during the 1972 Summer Games.
The death on June 8, 2008 of famed ABC sportscaster Jim McKay prompted widespread recollections of Munich ’72, for it was McKay who anchored ABC’s coverage of the surreal hostage-taking drama at the Olympic Village and the horribly botched rescue effort at nearby Fürstenfeldbruck Airfield, which resulted in the death of the remaining nine hostages (two had been killed earlier at the Village). Later, McKay published an autobiography in which he opined that the Munich murders represented “the end of an age of innocence for sport.” Of course, that wasn’t quite right; high-level sports, including the modern Olympic Games, have never really been innocent. The modern Olympics in particular were politicized from the outset. Before 1972 the Games were often used for propagandistic and ideological purposes. Here we might recall Hitler’s famous exploitation of the 1936 Berlin Olympics; the Arab boycotts of the 1956 Melbourne Games in protest against the Anglo-French and Israeli Suez Canal invasion; and the “Black Power” demonstrations by two African-American athletes at the 1968 Mexico City Games.
And yet McKay was correct to posit Munich as a kind of watershed in modern sport, especially Olympic sport, because the supposedly peaceful and brotherly Olympic festival had never been violated quite so brazenly or cruelly before (or—thankfully—since). In fact, the challenge of ensuring that there would be “no more Munichs” at ensuing Olympics drastically changed the complexion of the Games.
Records from Bavarian archives relating to the preparations for Munich ’72 make clear that the planning process was dominated by the imperative of thoroughly distancing these Games from those infamous “Nazi Games” of 1936, and indeed from all associations with the Third Reich. Of course, there was good reason why the city of Munich in particular had to worry about Nazi associations. It had been the birthplace of Nazism and the site of Hitler’s first (unsuccessful) grasp at power, the “Beer Hall Putsch” of 1923. Once Hitler came to power, he named his adoptive German hometown the “Capital of the [Nazi] Movement,” and it remained Nazi Party headquarters throughout the Third Reich. Hitler himself maintained an office in the newly built Führerbau in Munich’s Königsplatz, site of the Munich Conference of 1938. Just up the road from Munich lay Dachau, home to Nazi Germany’s first concentration camp. Munich Olympic organizers were careful not to call attention to the fact that the ’72 Games took place on the site of the former airfield where British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had arrived to attend the Munich Conference, or that the Königsplatz, where the Olympic Torch was welcomed following its relay run from ancient Olympia—a ritual invented by the Nazis in 1936—had recently served as the heart of Nazi Munich.
With all this very much in mind, the Munich planners determined that visitors to their Games would encounter, instead of any associations with the bad old past, an alternative set of images mirroring the “new Munich” and the “new [West] Germany”—images connoting parliamentary democracy, peace, civilian rule, and, above all, laid-back good times. Not for nothing was the unofficial motto of Munich ’72 “the Carefree Games” and the official mascot a cuddly little dachshund, who clearly didn’t bite.
Whereas Berlin in the summer of 1936 had pulsated with national pride and military assertiveness (Hitler had just remilitarized the Rhineland), [End Page 2] Munich ’72 deemphasized nationalism and all things military. Instead of a sea of swastika banners and other national flags, visitors to Munich found ranks of Olympic banners colored in placid pastels—the vivid reds and blacks of Nazi days having been explicitly...