This article first appeared in the CUFI UK Torch Magazine. For the latest issue, see here.

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Germany seeks forgiveness for Munich Massacre failings

Some may see Germany as a victim of the Munich Massacre, but Germany failed in its responsibilities before, during and after the attack. It wasn’t until 2022 that reconciliation with the families was finally made.

When the attack happened, the German authorities were ill-prepared for the events unfolding, despite prior warnings. During the hostage situation, Israeli experts flew to West Germany, including the head of Mossad, Zvi Zamir, who was well-versed in counter-terrorism operations. Despite his experience and that of his team, Zamir was side-lined by German authorities and could only act as a witness to the events. 

The errors made by the German authorities were catastrophic, both during the negotiations and the ultimate shootout. For example, the main team of German operatives left their position, and the sniper team was equipped without long range sights, instead shooting almost blindly at both the terrorists and the hostages.

“In my opinion – I take full responsibility for my words – they did not make the most minimal effort to save lives, they did not take the most minimal risk to try and save people, not theirs or ours,” said Zamir.

The Mossad chief concluded in a letter to the then Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, that in his opinion the Germans only wanted the crisis over at all costs, in order to get on with the Olympics.

In the aftermath, the failures of the German authorities were covered up. Germany released no official information about the Munich Massacre for over twenty years. There was clearly something to hide.

In 2012, German newspaper, Der Spiegel, obtained secret reports by authorities, embassy cables, and minutes of cabinet meetings that demonstrate the lack of professionalism of the German officials in handling the massacre. This included information that authorities were notified three weeks before the attack that the Palestinians were planning an “incident”, and that Black September members met with Neo-Nazi leaders a month before that, possibly as a sign of cooperation between the two antisemitic groups. Despite this foreknowledge, Germany failed to take the necessary security measures, even deciding that armed guards wouldn’t appear at the Olympics to reflect “the cheerful Games”.

Der Spiegel also reported that following the attack, Germany began secret meetings with Black September due to a fear they would carry out more attacks in Germany. They met together to form a “new basis of trust” with the terror organisation and even promised to give the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) political recognition if there were no future attacks on German soil.

The ultimate betrayal of the victims came when the mastermind of the Munich Massacre, Abu Daoud, was arrested by French police for extradition to Germany.  Germany refused to take him, instead allowing him to be released to Syria where he lived out the rest of his life without ever facing justice for his crimes.

In recent years, Germany’s government has made numerous attempts to find reconciliation with Israel and the families of the victims. In 2022, Germany held a commemoration event to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Munich Massacre. Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier took it upon himself to correct the mistakes of the past by his government agreeing a compensation deal of £23 million to the Israeli families.

“We cannot make amends for what has happened,” said Steinmeier. “I ask you, as the head of state of this country and on behalf of the Federal Republic of Germany, for forgiveness for the lack of protection of the Israeli athletes during the Olympic Games in Munich and for the lack of clarification afterwards; for the fact that what happened could happen.”

Israel’s President Herzog, who attended the commemoration event with the families of the victims, thanked his counterpart for his efforts to bring reconciliation, “which ultimately led to a breakthrough, based on the taking of responsibility by the German government for the security and rescue failures, an exhaustive historical inquiry, and compensation for the bereaved families.”

Herzog continued, “I appreciate and respect your efforts to bring this painful episode to a place of healing, and I hope that from now on, we shall continue to remember, invoke, and most importantly reaffirm the lessons of this tragedy, including the importance of fighting terror, for future generations.” 

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