43 years ago, a youngster sat glued to the TV set. Like so many others, he revelled in following the Olympic Games of Munich. Being Jewish, he relished the 7 gold medals won by an American swimmer, Mark Spitz, the uncharacteristically moustachoed young man of 22 years.
This day, however, was different. In the early morning hours, Palestinian commandoes had climbed a fence around the Olympic Village – aided by unsuspecting athletes – and took 11 Israelis hostage. In the initial struggle, two of the hostages had already been killed. A crisis team built by Bavarian authorities, began formulating a strategy. Some 19 hours later, it all ended at Fürstenfeldbrück airport – in a tragedy: all nine remaining hostages dies in gunfire and grenade explosions, at the end of a horrendously amateurish attempt to deal with trained terrorists.
I was this youngster. The Munich Massacre, as it inevitably became called soon after the event, was one of the defining moments of my youth, much like the death of John F. Kennedy had been to some only a few years older than me. Avidly following all and any events in the “Jewish world”, while still captive in a largely dichotomical thinking of only good or evil that adolescence had barely begun to penetrate, Palestinian terrorism was present as archetypical evil. By definition, Germans trying to save Jewish lives had to be good. That they failed had confused me, as so much had in those days – to an extent that I can only look at with disbelief today. Obviously, I did not know at the time that the German authorities had not allowed but one Israeli, and only in an obseratory role, to be present. I had no idea that they had rejected the offer of help by Israel to send anti-terrorist experts, and relied instead on not only amateurish regular police forces and dilettante’s equipment. German pride, not only at admitting a lack of expertise, but also being driven by the horrendous past and guilt complex of the Shoah, expecially in Bavaria, especially in a place like Munich, but also of a sincere longing to prove how much “better” they had become, were levels of complexity hidden from the juvenile that was me in 1972.
In Germany,Munich resulted in the creation of GSG9, an elite force that briefly appeared in the limelight, when at the height of the home-grown terror of the Red Army Fraction, they freed a hijacked airplane. German politicians struggled much more at formulating an answer to the relatives of the Israeli victims. It took 32 years of legal battles, before a largely symbolic amount of only 3 million Euros were paid to them. Many of the contemporary documents were not released until even later, thereby contributing to the accusations of cover-up. The International Olympic Committee proved even more disastreous: not only have they refused any attempt to commemorate, however symbolically, the September 1972 events, most recently for example at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Only very recently have the IOC announced plans to set up a special area at the Olympic Village at Rio 2016 to honor the victims. They will also (finally) hold a “moment of reflection” during the Games’ Closing Ceremony.
Meanwhile, the world continues to fawn over Mahmoud Abbas, whom one of the surviving terrorists has identified as being responsible for the financing of the attack. Sports, despite all protestations to the contrary, remain highly politicised and politics are still as hypocritical as ever. Under such circumstances, how dare we hope that the memories of those innocents who died at Fürstenfeldbruck airport be a blessing?