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  • The 1972 Munich Olympics and the Making of Modern Germany
  • Amy Bass
Schiller, Kay and Christopher Young. The 1972 Munich Olympics and the Making of Modern Germany. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. Pp. 368. Notes, bibliography, and index. $16.95 pb.

To write about the Munich Olympics in 1972 is, of course, to write about the massacre of the Israeli team. In The 1972 Munich Olympics and the Making of Modern Germany, Kay Schiller and Christopher Young do just that. But these historians also go beyond the usual gaze on Munich, focusing on how Germany had hopefully constructed a vision of the Olympics that would replace the legacy of Hitler and the so-called Nazi Olympics in 1936. With the bloodshed that took place on that fateful September morning, a devastated nation saw not only the birth of modern terrorism at the hands of the Black September Movement, but the shattering of Munich’s blueprint for a “New Germany.”

Relying on a wide array of primary archival sources and interviews, and set firmly within rich secondary source contextualization, Schiller and Young make a substantial contribution to scholarship on the modern Olympic games. Theirs is a study not just of the games themselves, but also of how the various levels of government of the host state interacted among themselves and with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the impact the planning of the games had on East/West German identity, and, to be sure, what Munich can tell us about the complex relationships among Germans, Jews, and Arabs.

The modern construction of these various identities, and their relationship to government structures and global planning, is at the core of this book. For the organizers, rebuilding the image of Germany in a post-Nazi era was deeply embedded in the game plan, not just in terms of overshadowing the enormous legacy of what transpired in Hitler’s Olympics in Berlin in 1936, but in the aftermath of World War II. Despite the fall of the Nazi party in this interim period, the image of an evil empire remained, something (West) German organizers were overtly aware of. The design for welcoming the world was to put forward a country that was modern and without politics—the antithesis to how the Berlin [End Page 364] games had been crafted—and a seemingly solid outline for how all international events should be hosted: a model for others to follow in the future.

The deeply researched pages in which Schiller and Young set up these organizational stages seem to make the arrival of September 5, 1972, all the harder to bear, as if it was not horrific enough. They wisely underplay the importance of the terrorist attack in order to convey what the games were supposed to be, emphasizing how what was planned was hardly what occurred, regardless of the overwhelming and colorful spectacles, such as the pageantry of the Opening Ceremony, or the wondrous athletic achievements, such as Mark Spitz’s unprecedented medal count in the pool. Thus, by largely focusing on the planning of these games, we see what figures such as Munich’s mayor, Hans-Jochen Vogel, and the head of the German Sports Association, Willi Daume, imagined West German postwar society to look like, a vision the IOC readily accepted when it gave Munich the bid.

Such a focus demonstrates beautifully how well sports can be used as a window into broader histories. This examination of how the West Germans planned for their games in the midst of the increasing militancy of global youth and the magnification on the relationship between politics and sports, perhaps especially the black protest movements at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, as a means of reinventing their sense of self and state is a major contribution not just to Olympic history, but to that of modern Germany, at large. And to find importance in the Munich Olympics before Black September took center stage makes, truly, for a fascinating read.

Amy Bass
The College of New Rochelle


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pp. 364-365
Launched on MUSE
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